Monday, January 16, 2012

From Dreamcatchers to Soulcatchers

The day after Christmas, I was asked to contribute to a long paper on the past, present, and future of the social implications of technology. One of the other contributors cited an idea called the “soulcatcher chip” as something that would have profound social implications, if it ever comes to pass.

The phrase “soulcatcher” presumably derives from the word “dreamcatcher.” A dreamcatcher, at least in the original versions made by the Ojibwe and Sioux tribes of native North Americans, was a small frame or loop of willow twigs hung with feathers. Mothers would make dreamcatchers and hang them above their children’s beds to filter out nightmares and send only good dreams to their offspring. I am unaware of any scientific studies on dreamcatchers, but the idea has caught on in the commercial world and you can buy such things to hang on your rear-view mirror.

A soulcatcher chip, as envisioned by former Chief Technology Officer of British Telecomm Peter Cochrane, is a piece of silicon that you would implant in your brain. Early versions would simply be an interface between your brain and the Internet, bypassing all those old-fashioned electromechanical keyboards and eye-tiring display screens. Later versions of soulcatchers would do exactly that: the interface would be broadband enough to “capture all a human’s thoughts and feelings on a single silicon chip,” according to a 1998 posting on the website of Wired Magazine. In the same piece, Cochrane predicted that an external version of the soulcatcher would be available in about five years, that is, by 2003.

As far as I know, that prediction has fallen flat. While functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology has advanced to the point that we can observe which parts of the brain get active when a wide variety of mental events happen, this is very far from directly reading a person’s thoughts in general, or being able to get onto Wikipedia by thinking instead of moving your mouse or typing.

The soulcatcher idea is basically a communications problem, and can be broken down into the parts of transmitting (brain to the external world) and receiving (external world to brain). While fMRI technology has made a fair amount of progress on the transmitting end, the receiving end is much trickier. Implanting stuff in the brain is a risky thing, even if the object you’re implanting is only a protective cover to replace a missing part of the skull, for example. And running wires into the brain, or even silicon-chip substitutes for wires, appears to be a very crude way of conveying data to one’s mental world. While some progress has been made in brain implants as a type of therapy for conditions such as epilepsy and even depression, this is a far cry from conveying novel detailed data into the brain.

The idea of a soulcatcher chip brings up a problem that has up till now stayed within the halls of philosophy departments. When Cochrane asked his wife how many parts of himself he could replace with synthetic components before she rejected him as a machine, she said she was revolted by the idea. This is an indirect compliment to Cochrane, because I can think of some marriages in which the wife would welcome the process (“Let me at that off switch!”). Of course, such speculations will remain hypothetical for some time, perhaps forever, because there is no hard experimental or theoretical evidence that it is even possible to simulate the workings of the human mind with a computer, or to do anything close to downloading all a person’s thoughts and feelings onto a computer.

This is just personal speculation on my part, but there may even be some sort of psycho-physiological uncertainty principle out there, analogous to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum physics. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle says that you cannot measure both the momentum and position of a particle simultaneously with arbitrarily great precision. If you get the momentum exactly right, you will have no idea where the particle was at the time, and vice-versa.

The soulcatcher analogue of that may be that it is impossible to go beyond a certain point in measurement (and especially in two-way communication) with the mind by means of physical actions related to the brain, without seriously disrupting or possibly even destroying the mind you are dealing with. Given the complexity of the brain and its interactions with the mind, any such uncertainty principle will also be more complicated and less straightforward than the physics principle first enunciated by Heisenberg. But that doesn’t mean no such principle exists. It may simply work out that way experimentally before we understand the brain well enough to realize theoretically what the true limitations are.

The dreamcatcher was a physical object constructed by people who wanted to change something the mind was doing, namely, giving their children nightmares. And in the nature of a placebo, it may have well had a good effect, if the mother felt she was doing something positive and became more reassuring to the child as a result. The hopes for a soulcatcher chip are more ambitious: nothing less than the direct connection of one’s mind to external data in a way that would be hard to ignore. If I get tired of surfing the Internet, I can always just turn off the computer and walk away. But if the thing was directly piped into my brain, all sorts of dire possibilities come to mind. So far, computer viruses have stayed outside the body, but what if one got into your brain and you couldn’t get it out? The ethical challenges alone would be enough to stop me from even contemplating such a project, but ethical considerations do not always stop researchers who are fascinated by an idea.

As we’ve seen, the soulcatcher is an idea that is already delayed in transit, if indeed it ever gets here. Even if it never comes to pass, it has given us a lot of mileage in the form of science-fiction tales and movies, and that may be the place where it does as much good as dreamcatchers, if not more.

Sources: The forecast by Peter Cochrane was published at in the Nov. 1998 issue of Wired Magazine. I also referred to the Wikipedia article on dreamcatchers. If all goes well, the May 2012 issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE will carry an article entitled “Social Implications of Technology: Past, Present, and Future.”

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