Monday, August 5, 2013

Actual clone armies coming to an actual movie theater near us

A couple of days ago, I drafted and even posted (for just a few minutes) a piece on this theme.  My wife took one look at it and asked: "Paul, do you really want to go through what Snowden has been going through?"

"But hey," I said,"There was no classified information here. I did not even name any names, for God's sake, or give any of the technical specs."  But... well, she had a point.  Many points.

But what CAN I say?

Over the weekend, I read Dan Brown's new book, "Inferno." Maybe his best ever, by some metrics.
THIS weekend, I especially remembered the old line he kept repeating...that the worst spot in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral at a time when our fate is being decided... Is it moral for me to just stay out of it when some things start to go south, really deep south?

Well, maybe I can get away with recounting a couple of old stories.

Back in 2007, I proposed that the Engineering Directorate of NSF fund a special initiative on reverse-e ngineering the brain. When this proposal won enough votes and support to be accepted and funded, from all across the Engineering Directorate, we called it "cognitive optimization and prediction (COPN)":

Part of that funding announcement was an ETHICAL CONSTRAINT:

"No projects will be funded which include development or use of neural implants to stimulate living whole brains."

We got a whole lot of flak on that constraint. There were lots of folks who had received big money from DOD, NIH and/or the intelligence community for work aimed at exactly that -- to develop technology to control undesired thoughts or behavior. They wanted to receive more money -- and
that's the way the natural flow of Washington power politics works: ever more money for existing activities, enforced through iron triangles and such. But I stuck my feet in the ground.

One day, I received a call, which stated very clearly though in bigger words: "Hey, man!
You really don't know what you're missing by putting that fence out there.  We have this great lab, with lots of squeaky little mice in it, and wires we can put into their brains.  We folks are REAL scientists and engineers. We do experiments. We don't need a lot of high-fallutin theory about what's going on in the mind of a MOUSE, for Christ's sake.  We do really practical and exciting work. We stick wires into their brains, and we shock them 'til they stop twitching. Hey, it's lots of fun, and there are endless varieties of it. So many types of intense squeaking we can generate when we shock them! We're learning a whole lot here, about what it takes to get them to shut up and stop twitching. And we can use all of this on humans, too. Man, are you missing out on a great time..."

OK. So now the constraint is gone. Totally "forgotten." There is lots of new money, but no hint of a sign in the real world that any of the US money will go to the kind of thing we did in 2007.  That kind of thing was too hard. It's not something that could fund the much larger community of folks who like to have fun as I just described.  Not a large enough constituency. Ironically, the new work in Europe may actually include a little of the real stuff, mixed in with other stuff that is much less harmless than the wirehead stuff.

Of course, my view of the situation is biased by the work I have done to try to understand the brain
(as in my 2009 paper in Neural Networks, which essentially covers the material which won me the Hebb Award from the International Neural Network Society). Brain stimulation which gets to the higher reinforcement centers of the brain does essentially what heroin does. There is a huge market out
there for heroin, and it does not surprise me that many folks looking for more money want to exploit this market opportunity, in all of its fullest dimensions, with practiced looks of innocence on their faces.  But at the end of the day, when intervention is pursued without understanding or ethical constraint... the loss of natural intelligence could be extremely serious. Just like the Clone Armies in Star Wars. (Those armies were scary because of behavior and control, not because of DNA.)

Probably some engineers think: "Oh, let's just trust the medical profession on this."
But... that's the same medical profession that gave us frontal lobotomies when I was young,
and a bit of a budgetary mess right now. Or, more accurately, the culture of making maximum money as opposed to the culture of healing in the medical establishment is not less than it was when I was a boy, when frontal lobotomies were widespread -- a really serious loss to the soul, in my view.

Best of luck....

P.S. I suppose I shouldn't talk about the movie theater on this one. Oh, well.
"Nothing titillating for the tabloids, dear." But no, it's not as strange or as bad as you could IMAGINE... if you have imagination. 

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