Thursday, April 07, 2005

there is no spoon

Sony has been granted two patents for a 'Method and system for generating sensory data onto the human neural cortex', or, in other words, 'the red pill'. They are nowhere near even thinking about having a working technology, they're just staking the Patent Office high-ground while they can. It is interesting, however, that an idea that has been purely in the realm of science fiction is now something you can get a patent for. There are still people alive who remember when there weren't televisions...

The superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) is the usual technical prop for Matrix-like direct neural stimulation. The movie Strange Days and a few thousand sci-fi stories all relied on this idea in a hand-waving sort of way - it is a theoretically possible technology, but absurdly difficult to actually do. But 40 years ago that was also true of the computer I am typing this on. I doubt anyone alive now will live to see this technology realized, but I suspect that it will, to some degree, eventually become commonplace.

Non-invasive stimulation is the holy grail of virtual reality. Current research, which is mostly taking place in the field of vision, is very invasive... there are people who have had a cortical prosthesis installed to try and give them some measure of sight. The resolution is terrible - an array of 38 electrodes is but a microscopic step towards mimicking the billions of neural pathways that provide us with sight. But the fact that they can get anything at all is promising.

Imagine how this technology will change the way people interact. Once the mechanism is made non-invasive, there will be a bigger moral and ethical challenge figuring out how to deal with a technology that is invasive on the cognitive level. There are utopian dreams of what such a device could do, but the evolution of technology has been in lockstep with advertising since its inception - from junk mail to radio and television advertising to phone solicitation to spam and pop-ups, people have found a way to make every new technology annoying. It's easy to imagine a Minority Report-like future where we are assaulted with a barrage of intrusive advertising that will make us wistful for the good old days when all we had was spam email.

[via New Scientist]


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