THAT (that) wrote,

I Know What You're Thinking...

Speaking of science fiction, those mind-reading machines are coming right up. How about a machine that can tell—with 80% accuracy—which one of 1000 pictures you're looking at? Or one that can tell what decision you're going to make before you yourself are conscious of it?

When I was a kid, I used to imagine a machine that could record your dreams. Researchers now say that's probably possible. That may seem a long way off, but recall that before they cloned sheep, they cloned single cells. They're already talking about the mechanics of reconstructing a static visual image in your brain by reading the firing patterns of your neurons. That's a few years off and moving images are even more logistically daunting, but I have no doubt they'll work it out. That kind of work is what Thomas Kuhn called paradigm articulation, something scientists do fiendishly well.

Disturbingly, the Berkeley lab where these experiments take place is notoriously cruel to animals. I don't think all animal experiments are necessarily cruel, but I have zero tolerance for experiments that are essentially torture. If we can't figure it out without torturing animals, then we don't need to know it yet. We can wait until we find another way to learn it.

It's funny what science fiction gets right and what it gets wrong. There are always flying cars and other literal-minded extrapolations of current technology: the robot maid, making your toast. Those seemed like modest and reasonable predictions. But it turns out the guys like Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl, whose mind-reading machines and immersive artificial realities seemed like paranoid fantasies, were far more prescient.

The truth is probably that most existing technologies have been articulated pretty close to their functional limits. You can tell by ballparking the energy required. (If some new energy source comes along, all bets are off.) I doubt we'll see personal transport devices make a quantum leap. Instead, it's the fundamentally new technologies—like a worldwide network of linked computers—that change the texture of our experience. We don't need to waste huge amounts of energy zipping around the world when we can call up increasingly realistic representations of everything in the world—and increasingly of things that don't even exist—almost instantaneously. Our attention spans may soon be too short to waste time actually going anywhere physically. We may also find that we prefer these increasingly immersive constructed experiences.

But that's okay, because the machines will be able to determine what we want to experience before we ourselves are consciously aware of it. And they'll supply us with it. "Amazon recommends..." is, to say the least, only the beginning.
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