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The trouble with telepathy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problems with telepathy. Writing about it, understanding it, using technology to develop it, and how humans would respond to it.

My recent fascination was prompted by an article in Popular Mechanics called Brain-to-Brain Communication Is Closer Than You Think. Lest you decide that Popular Mechanics has taken an unexpected new age turn, let me point out that the subtitle of the article is “Don’t call it telepathy, but call it very cool.”

The article describes a successful experiment in which a video game player wearing an electroencephalography cap (which records brain activity) decides when to shoot, and a second player in another room wearing a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil (which emits a focused electrical current) over the part of his brain that controls finger movement, does the actual shooting.

Researcher Chantel Prat at the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences and one of the designers of the experiment cautions that “This is not the X-Men version of telepathy where you hear a disembodied voice. … Whatever shape [this] takes is going to be very different than listening to someone’s thoughts in your head.”

magicYes, it may not be the classic telepathy of fiction, but we are talking about direct brain to brain communication here, aided by modern technology. The article goes on to address possible real life uses including already successful work on adapting a brain-to-machine interface to help paralyzed patients walk by using their brain signals to control prosthetic devices. This is cool, and it is really happening.

It reminded me of an article I read a while back about how neuroscientists have recreated movie clips by looking at a person’s brainwaves. It also reminded me of the waves made by Mark Zuckerberg in 2015 when he wrote “One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too.”

He was referring to an advanced form of this sort of brain-to-brain communication, using something like a VR headset to encode brain signals into bits and send them to another person for decoding and playback. You can read more about this in my post Telepathy and Technology, where I quote The Washington Post as responding with “even if Facebook isn’t leading the charge toward telepathy — a worrying concept in itself, given the site’s past indiscretions re: research consent and user privacy — the field poses tons of ethical challenges.” True. Cool things like this tend to have a ton of implications that we haven’t considered.

The second thing to set my synapses firing about mind reading was hearing about Connie Willis’s new book Crosstalk. I haven’t read it yet for a few reasons, one of which is that I’m not that big a fan of her writing based on To Say Nothing of the Dog, her one book I have read. But that was written twenty years ago and it’s time to give this science fiction great another chance.

ganzfeldThen I read an interview with her in Wired. The quote that got me was “Willis does enjoy writing about the paranormal, but as far as she’s concerned it’s pure fiction. For her new novel Crosstalk, a romantic comedy about telepathy, she did extensive research into the history of psychic claims, including the notorious Rhine experiments. ‘I found no evidence at all of actual telepathy,’ she says. ‘I don’t buy it.'”

A lot of people would agree with her. However, I was put off by her tone. How odd to write a book about an ability and yet to harbor no feel for how it could be possible, and no sense of “maybe, if ….” to help bring the magic to life. I probably will read Crosstalk eventually, but now I’m in less of a hurry to do so.

However, Ms. Willis does make an interesting observation in the interview. She says “Let’s say telepathy became the norm … the first thing that people would begin to do would be to attempt to stop that, for themselves at least. They would try to build barriers, mental barriers or physical barriers—I don’t know, tinfoil hats maybe or something—that would prevent other people from being able to read their thoughts … I don’t think most relationships could survive if you knew virtually everything that flitted through the head of your partner.” Good point, In fact, a very good point.

And this brings me to the third reason why telepathy is heavy on my mind these days. I’m finishing a book of my own, the sixth book in 46. Ascending, and it is revisiting my hero Lola and her organization of telepaths. Obviously new problems have arisen, including the discovery of non-empathic telepaths, once thought to be impossible. As my heroes and villains go to increasing lengths to keep each other out of their heads, I’m forced to confront just how difficult day-to-day life would be in a world where telepathy is common. It’s forced me to revisit my own world-building, and to better define my own fictional ideas about what telepathy is.

I’ve had to conclude that while technologically aided brain-to-brain communication is cool, is likely, and poses dangers, it is not what I am writing about. I’m also trying not to write about X-men style sentences popping unbidden into the heads of others. Rather, I’m playing with the idea of extreme empathy. I postulate emotional connections between skilled receivers that enable the exchange of ideas without words or machines, and I’m having some fun finding the charms and the limits of my particular theories.

Do I believe in them? I tell people that I’m a scientist first, and a writer of science fiction second. To me, being a scientist means believing that any thing is possible. It also means knowing that while many things are highly improbable, the universe has a way of surprising us, no matter how much we think we already know.

 

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2017 in telepathy, writing

 

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Telepathy and Technology

magic

Telepathy is direct brain-to-brain contact. In x0 it is a poorly developed human sense somewhat like touch or smell but understood far less well. It is most often an emotional feeling received from someone else which is sometimes accompanied by a mental image, or sounds or words heard in one’s head including tunes or songs. It can also involve a physical sensation such as falling, nausea, or cold, or the memory of a smell, touch, or taste.

After I writing x0 I began to occasionally search for news about telepathy, and I noticed an increasing number of stories about using technology to achieve the same effect as psychic powers. In 2013 I described a story in Science about lab rats who had their brains wired together such that what one rat learned could be transmitted by direct wire to the other. Turns out that the other rat listened better if he got a treat for doing so (big surprise) but basically they communicated pretty well with what the researchers call a BTBI (brain to brain interface).

A couple of months ago Mark Zuckerberg made news by saying that the future of communication is telepathy. In a Q&A session with site users, he wrote “One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too.”

The Washington Post responded with a well done article analyzing how this could work. They talked about the linked rats, as well as a University of California at Berkeley study in which a team of cognitive scientists managed to reconstruct clips of movies their subjects were watching, based solely on measurements of their brainwaves. They described how in another experiment involving a noninvasive technique called “transcranial magnetic stimulation” test subjects in India were able to think words to test subjects in France. The Washington Post added that “the process was painfully slow, however, and the words weren’t sent in their entirety — they had to be encoded as binary digits, uploaded to the Internet, sent, downloaded and then decoded as flashes of light.” Yes, painfully slow.

horseThe article quoted Mark Harris at the MIT Technology Review as saying “‘Telepathy’ technology remains so crude that it’s unlikely to have any practical impact.” It concluded by noting that “even if Facebook isn’t leading the charge toward telepathy — a worrying concept in itself, given the site’s past indiscretions re: research consent and user privacy — the field poses tons of ethical challenges” which, lucky for us, “is many breakthroughs and advances away.”

Yes, it is. But it is worth remembering that most big advances began very slowly, at first, and their use and their impact were poorly understood. For decades, many people laughed at the idea of a fancy machine replacing something as reliable as a horse. We all know how that one worked out.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2015 in telepathy

 

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And the object of the game is ….

india school busI’m giving some thought today to negative stereotypes associated with India, particularly those held by my fellow citizens of the USA. There are plenty, let’s face it. We paint a comic insult cartoon of every other nation on earth, although some caricatures, like the stuffy Brit, do imply a bit of fondness. I wonder if every other culture does the same. I think I am going to go with yes on this one, and guess that all caricatures of us are not that fond either.

Several years ago a good friend of mine was told his job was being outsourced to India.  The friend is an electrical engineer who spent years writing in machine code to tell your car’s more intelligent parts exactly how to behave. It was a high level skill and he was very good at it, but he was told that his company had a found a kid in India who would do the job at a fraction of the cost and, as his last assignment, my friend was to train his replacement. Yeah right. Guess I’m just not going to remember a whole lot to teach him, my friend laughed. I sympathized.

And then, he started to talk to the young man, who turned out to be smart, eager and happy beyond belief to have gotten this job.  It was going to make him one of the richest people in his village.  One of the most successful members of his family ever. He and everyone he knew were rejoicing at this incredible good fortune. So of course my friend started to remember more and more to teach him, and before he was done he had passed along every trick and shortcut he knew. The young man was so grateful and once he took over my friends job I’m told that he was very good at it.

So was my friend successful, or not? That depends on how you define success. Remember board games?  The directions always started out with “The object of the game is……” Surely I’m not the only person who has wished that real life came with such clear information. If the object of your game is to make as much money as you can, as easily as you can, then my friend failed.  And, let me add that if such is your object, you should consider something other than writing self-published novels. They are exhausting to write, they take forever, and you can probably count on a few dollars a month in return.

india mapBut what if success is having a more interesting life? Learning things you never knew you never knew? I firmly believe that the internet has brought the world together in ways we are just beginning to understand, and it has done this for anyone who gets online. But writing and self-publishing three novels has taken this to a whole new level for me. I now share ideas and information with readers and fellow writers in a global community that would have astounded my seventh grade self, a girl who could barely contain her excitement at being allowed to study world geography. Today, copies of my three books exist in over twenty countries. I’m pleased beyond belief.

And later this week, I’m going to be interviewed on a blog written by two young women in India. I’ve done a fair amount of such interviews already, but this one is different because I didn’t go to them. They found my book, read my book, liked my book, and sought me out. All the way from India. Is that cool or what?

The young woman I’ve been corresponding with works as an instrumentation engineer and she also has aspirations to write. She wondered how I manage to raise a family, have a technical career and find time to be an author. I told her that I didn’t manage all at once, rather the writing started once the kids were older and job demands lessened. I offered advice on any of the above if I could ever be of help. I suspect that she has plenty she could teach me as well.

Did I mention that my my friend the electrical engineer learned quite a bit from the young Indian man he instructed? Well he did, of course, for in the best of circumstances knowledge flows two ways. Not every outsourcing story ends so well, but in my friend’s case his employer was so impressed with the job that he did training this kid, and with the new skills he picked up while doing so, that they decided to keep him on also. He trained a few others for them and then he went back to happily writing machine code, using all he had learned to his advantage. Your car may run better because of his story.

So what’s the object of the game? Some days I think I know, other days I’m not so sure. But I am am pretty certain that my friend’s story is a success story, in more ways than one. And I do know that I gained far more than I hoped for when I picked up my laptop and started to write my first novel. If gaining more than you hope for isn’t success, what is?

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2013 in empathy, x0 elsewhere

 

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Seeing as how you’re going to have a little wire running into your brain anyway ….

One of the problems of writing speculative fiction, I suppose, is that reality has a way of getting weirder than the stuff you make up. So I’m going on about how amazing telepathy would be and how it would work ……. and then ….

glasses1. My son sends me this link to check out google glass …. a technology he describes as both fascinating and frightening.  No question he has a point.  In the end, why bother with the glasses? He may be squeamish about having an implant in his head someday, but I bet that the generation that comes after him by and large won’t be. More entertainment and information faster, brighter and better?  I think we’ve already proved as a species how we respond to that.

2. My news feed (yes I embrace all this better brighter information too, although I think in the end I do refuse the implant) just threw up a story in Science about lab rats who have successfully had their brains wired together.  What one rats learns can be transmitted by direct wire to the other.  Turns out that the other rat listens better if he gets a treat for doing so (big surprise) but basically they can communicate pretty well with what the researchers call a BTBI (brain to brain interface).

ratNot a big step to set these rats up with little wireless transmitters, is it? Then they can walk around talking to each other like all those obnoxious people in the grocery store checking in with their wives to see if they should get 1% or 2% milk.  Only there are no vocal chords involved. One rat learns something and sends it straight to the others brain  It’s like …. it’s like …. yes folks, we have telepathy.  If we’re lucky, it can use the same implant that’s giving us that wonderful feed from Google.

At least the dairy aisle in the grocery store will be a little quieter. It could be an improvement over cell phones.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2013 in telepathy

 

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Understanding compassion

At the Mind and Life XXVI Conference-Mind, Brain and Matter: Critical Conversations Between Buddhist Thought and Science

At the Mind and Life XXVI Conference-Mind, Brain and Matter: Critical Conversations Between Buddhist Thought and Science (click to visit CCARE Facebook page)

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
–– His Holiness the Dalai Lama ––

My empathic hero of xo finds that the more she understands how others feel, the more compassionate she becomes. As a young woman, she hopes that someday her empathic gifts will be studied and understood every bit as well the physical sciences that she also loves.

I was surprised to discover today that Stanford University has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and they are trying to understanding empathy. According to their webpage they are ” striving to create a community of scholars and researchers, including neuroscientists, psychologists, educators and philosophical and contemplative thinkers around the study of compassion.” They also have a facebook page filled with fascinating links, photos and art.

As Lola makes the transition from empath to telepath, she is concerned about whether she will be able to maintain her concern and compassion for others with the barrage of suffering now coming at her.  She worries that maybe a true telepath can only survive by becoming cold and isolated.

handsImagine my surprise at finding a link on the CCARE website to an interesting article by C. Daryl Cameron called How to Increase your Compassion Bandwidth.  It comes from the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and it deals with the exact issue of compassion overload, and the ways to cope with it in an age of electronic communication that sort of makes us all psudo telepaths. Also please note in the photo above the wonderful mixture of technology and humans striving for wisdom. I love to see how the two can indeed go hand in hand. 🙂

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2013 in telepathy

 

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