All posts by Peter Musk

Dreaming of electric sheep

It is no surprise that in our tech-saturated age, the Cyborg has become a potent theme of terror as well as a hope for transcendence. While Terminators, Cylons and Daleks provide the thrills, bionic ears, eyes and mind-operated artificial limbs hint at a coming future of extraordinary medical miracles.

Some go further — from the restorative to the enhancing. Implant a chip under your skin, and wave to open doors or pay bills. Insert a magnet into your finger-tips, and explore a new sense. UK cybernetic researcher Dr Kevin Warwick was the first person to use an implanted microelectronic array to communicate directly with another human nervous system (after convincing his wife to join him in this experiment). He was subsequently awarded several DSc’s, the Mountbatten Medal and got into the Guinness Book of Records.

A variety of animals have had the treatment, too, though they were probably not volunteers. CyberCockroaches are available (still in Beta, though), and beetle bots might provide DARPA with the ultimate spy-drone. Rumours persist that the US military is developing controllable attack dolphins sharks. Animal rights activists have raised protests, but the idea of a cockroach that you can control from your smartphone is stupidly appealing.

Humans who have made the leap from fiction to flesh, like Neil Harbisson (below),Neil_Harbisson_cyborgist (1) who has an implanted antenna that allows him to hear colours (even some that other humans can’t see) are enthusiastic about their new abilities. The Cyborg Foundation exists to promote their cause, and useful additions like eyes in the back of your head, and bat-like sonar sensors that allow you to feel how fast a speeding projectile is headed in your direction. Seems like they might be expecting some antipathy.

And there is the argument that most of are cybernetically enhanced already, though the device is often in your hand, rather than your skull. Mobile devices plug us into the information net, extend our senses and our memories. Software is more accessible than wetware, and less conspicuous.

I am not too worried as long as things remain voluntary (unlike the Daleks). Fixing a misplaced eye or two, or reviving hearing after too many loud good times seems a good idea, and a mechanical heart seems preferable to recycled pig bits. I might leave communication with my partner to more filtered channels, though.


Deus ex

 

Ghosts are in the news. In fact ghost stories are such good news that the tabloids average one a week: from being to blame for the poor performance of English cricketers, to brutally attacking intrepid journalists. Colin Wilson, vice-president of the Ghost Club Society, knows ghosts are real Capture no2because he has spoken to one. Almost half of US citizens agree, apparently. You can get an app for your phone that uses secretly inbuilt capacities to inform you when ectoplasmic organisms are around, and also lets them leave a message. And now the pesky spooks are even interrupting important rituals of caffeine worship.

Science takes a different view. The NSF blames belief in ghosts for poor decision-making, monetary loss and  the decline of the Protestant work ethic. Dr Richard Wiseman has devoted a lifetime to researching beliefs in the paranormal, and concludes that  ghostly visitations are more likely to be due to draughts, chills, sub-sonic vibrations or being half-asleep. Other researchers have found that electric or magnetic fields can affect particular parts of the brain, leading to sensations of otherworldly presences. It could be that people want to believe in ghosts as part of clinging to the hope that they too will continue after death (an even more popular idea than the existence of ghosts).

So can ghosts be real? There is no doubt that my experiences with ghosts have been all in the brain. Ghosts of friends long lost and relatives past live on in my (rapidly) fragmenting memory, and most likely the only hope for my ghost is to live on in the brains of others, too.