Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A New Missing Link

Science fiction has always been fascinated with the merger of a human being with power generated by some form of robotic assist system. Themes like those contained in the Six Million Dollar Man, Universal Soldier, Transformers, Iron Man the infamous Borg in Star Trek, etc., etc. have permeated film and television for decades. We have witnessed the admonishment from Stephen Hawkins, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates, to name a few, warning us of the dangers of artificial intelligence, perhaps militant robot a la Terminator, but it’s all the stuff of wild imaginations and writers seeking a lucrative audience, right?
Not if the Department of Defense has anything to say about it. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – yup, that scary agency (DARPA) with designs for the future, stuff you might really be uncomfortable knowing about – seems to get too many of its ideas from the movies. What would happen, for example, if we could plant a chip in a soldier’s brain that would allow direct communications and controls from brain to machine, and perhaps back again?
You see, DARPA “launched a new project [January 18th] to develop an interface that could be implanted in the human skull for ‘unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth’ — a phrase usually reserved for Verizon Fios salespeople — between human brains and computer interfaces.
“The new program, called Neural Engineering System Design [NESD], wants to harness the electrochemical communication between neurons so that it can be translated to digital signals to control computer programs — or, perhaps, robotics and prosthetics. According to the NESD program manager, the goal is to increase the modem-like bandwidth of current neural interfaces to open up the communication between a digital interface and millions of human neurons.
“DARPA claims that such a chip would be about the size of a few small coins stacked one on top of the other.” Tech.Mic, January 20th. Feeling a bit squirmy already. We have to assume that soldiers have to volunteer for such implants. We have to wonder what happens when the chips become obsolete, so they need another surgery or will there be a trap door to allow an easy replacement.
What happens in their non-military lives? Any privacy issues? And if a soldier commits a crime or goes rogue, who’s responsible? Do we get the same kinds of bioethics opinions that justified waterboarding and extreme discomfort for long periods of time? Or is this technology just a gentle move into the world of replacing limbs and other organs from injured soldiers and combat victims with prosthetics that can be integrated with normal brain function? All of the above? Who is authorized to draw the lines? And exactly what has happened and will happen under this program?
“DARPA has been working on multiple long-term projects to bring humans and machines closer together. Following President Barack Obama's 2013 BRAIN initiative, DARPA has kickstarted a series of programs that either try to increase connectivity between computers and the human brain or further understand how the brain works to increase our understanding of artificial intelligence.
“In August DARPA began using music — specifically jazz — to help teach computers how to have natural, improvisational and useful communications with humans. And in June, at the Biology Is Technology conference, DARPA program manager Doug Weber challenged third-party labs to develop scientific ways to control soldiers' adrenal response — adjusting their fear and anxiety in high-stress situations… but the primary goal of programs like NESD is to make soldiers more efficient, safe and deadly.”Tech.Mic. Real soldiers? Is this a move away from or the next generation of “drones”? Can the soldiers’ minds be control from an extrinsic force?
Such automated weapon systems were a hot topic at Davos. The buzz: don’t worry about Terminator-like robots; they’re not the big threat. “Autonomous weapons haven’t surfaced in the mainstream but loom on the horizon as the technology behind them is young, but rapidly advancing. Based on existing technology, the weapons could be able to independently find and kill enemies, so that a country doesn’t put its humans in harm’s way. The weapons may arrive in a variety of forms, including small drones or robot soldiers.
“‘Being attacked by an army of Terminators is a piece of cake when compared to being attacked by this kind of weapon,’ said Stuart Russell, a computer science professor at the University of California-Berkeley. ‘We’re [talking] about systems that weigh less than an ounce, that can fly faster than a person can run, can blow holes in their heads with one gram of shape-charge explosive, and can be launched in the millions.’” Washington Post, January 25th. I’m really not feeling good about all this!
I’m Peter Dekom, and I wonder exactly what could go wrong… go wrong… go wrong.

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