Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Gibson does it again with Peripherals




Transhumanism is about, among many other things, convergence.

To wit, the convergence of humans and technology for the better. Sometimes convergence can occur through pure serendipity or in other cases via gossamer prescience. When speaking about William Gibson (read: The MAN) you'd be best advised to bet on the latter.

He has quite the reputation, what with revolutionizing an entire genre with Neuromancer and not only popularizing the term "cyberspace" but accurately describing what our relationship with that ethereal domain would be like. Now he has done it again with Peripherals.

In his new book of the same title, a "peripheral" is essentially an empty "meat sack" as wonderfully described on Singularity Hub. It is a flesh and blood body but is devoid of any personality or cognition. That is provided when someone transfers their own thoughts and intentions to the peripheral via a neuro-transmitter shaped like a headband. The user, with her/his rented peripheral, then vicariously lives out whatever intended desires through the surrogate. Just crazy transhumanist talk, right?

That's where convergence comes in.

Just as Peripherals was released, researchers at the University of Washington announced that they achieved a sort of "ESP" transference between two human subjects by use of a cybernetic connection. These two subjects played a video game. One person sat connected to an EEG machine that monitors neuro-electrical impulses. These pulses are sent as electrical signals over to a second subject who wears a transcranial magnetic coil...or as the Singularity Hub article calls it, a wired "swim cap." The first person decided what moves and actions to take in the video game while the second one actually carried the actions out.

Although on a very basic level, this still sounds not unlike Gibson's peripherals. You have actual human impulses being translated into machine code and then transferred to another mind. This opens up all manner of transhuman possibilities, not simply the notion of peripherals but it would seem...at least at the very preliminary level...to bode well for uploading the entire mind one day, perhaps by the end of the 21st Century. Like anything else of this type, it comes with its share of dangers. I don't like the idea of my mind being open to someone else's control on any level. The threat of "mindhacks" have long been speculated in the transhumanist community and I must say the idea worries me. Then there are those who might decry the possibility that the human spirit (whatever the hell that is) could be degraded as we further disconnect ourselves from the "human experience." After all, people are already concerned with how much online interaction in cyberspace has taken the place of human-to-human contact. What happens when we can just have a peripheral take care of things for us?

When I met William Gibson back in 2010, just one of a mass of geeks at his feet like a clowder awaiting a bowl of milk, he gracefully eschewed any claim to being a prophet for the 21st Century. He mentioned all of things he got wrong in Neuromancer, such has a noticeable absence of smartphones. But when you have convergences such as cyberspace and the Sprawl Trilogy and then Peripherals and this latest development, it's hard not to see him as predictive of at least the big things.

That alone is an achievement.




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