Characters in my Red McKenna series of novels have a special rapport with their robotic servants through a natural-language communication system. It allows them the same kind of person-to-person interaction we enjoy with other people, pets and heads talking silliness on television. It's a closer rapport than programmers have traditionally had with computers through third-and-lower-generation software. Even fourth-generation software, which allows two-way dialogs between people and machines, leaves something to be desired—as my wife's constant battles with automated telephone bill-paying systems demonstrate almost daily.
I don't have the problem because I still refuse to "talk" to an automated machine until they improve their communications skills. If I can't use the keypad, I'll just hang up.
Recently, there's been some buzz about human brain-to-brain interfacing over the Internet. Researcher Rajesh Rao sent a brain signal over the Internet to co-conspirator Andrea Stocco on the other side of the University of Washington campus, causing Stocco's finger to move on a keyboard. This was all good clean fun and a dandy proof of concept for technology that's been speculated about since God knows when.
Of course, controlling somebody else's body by any form of telepath—even one requiring a whole pile of equipment in the link—raises all kinds of ethical questions that don't come up when the receiving brain is inside a robot, which is the next logical step. The demonstration, however, brings us to the next philosophical step, which I advocate taking early in the development of any technology: testing it against Scheiber's Law.
Just because you can, doesn't mean you should!
Finally making this technology work posits all kinds of bizarre gadgets from the pages of fantasy and science fiction literature. They've all been great fun to speculate about in the abstract, but the prospect of making them real should give us very definite pause. Maybe a full stop!
The biggest problem that I see is that at least 80 percent (and probably much more) of everything that goes on between any given person's ears should never see the light of day, let alone be immediately broadcast or acted upon.
We've all seen the motor mouth syndrome where too much excitement in a social environment, or even just too much coffee, leads a person to allow every thought that crosses their brain to dribble out of their mouth. The result is a plethora of badly edited utterances that demonstrate how silly most of what we think is. What I like most about writing is that I can give free reign to this syndrome, then edit the resulting product into something that is at least not embarrassing before letting anyone else know about it. Our natural communications systems have a built-in delay that allows time for cleaning up our thoughts before making them public.
Imagine, however, if we shortcut that delay by tapping directly into our brains electronically. Douglas Adams was right when he characterized telepathy as the worst of all social diseases!
C.G. Masi has been blogging about technology and society since 2006. In a career spanning more than a quarter century, he has written more than 400 articles for scholarly and technical journals, and six novels dealing with automation's place in technically advanced society. For more information, visit www.cgmasi.com.