Freeing Our Minds

Here’s a work in progress essay that I’ve been toying with for a while. I think it’s an important topic and hope you do, too. The basic gist is that we need laws and regulations for cyberspace that protect our rights. Now that companies are working on connecting our minds to machines, things are about to get serious really fast. Again, this is a work in progress that I just wanted to get out to the world. I wouldn’t even call this a first draft, but I thought it still conveyed my concerns and would be an interesting read. Feed back is appreciated in all forms. Let me know what you think and enjoy!

Free Wetware

Some people are fascinated by the thought that one day they may be able
to transfer their consciousness into cyberspace. Science Fiction stories and
futurists have come up with amazing concepts of what we may be able to do with
the human mind soon. Those who frequent any kind of technology news sites or
forums are well aware that the fields of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are growing rapidly. Darpa has a program now with the purpose of designing implantable chips that will allow communication with a million neurons in the human brain by connecting them to bundles of microwire. Elon Musk recentlt created a company, Neuralink, that is assembling a team with the goal of creating a brain-machine interface to allow direct control over AI. This is all happening right now, in the real world. Our minds being connected to the internet is not going to be science fiction for much longer. The singularity is coming. Siri, Alexa, and Google will soon be able to read our thoughts. Other companies will develop AIs that will read and write to our brains’ internal storage. Not long after that, humans will be able to communicate with each other via a similar interface. There are a lot of people who are afraid of these things. Musk’s reason for founding Neuralink, is to protect us from the Artificial Intelligence he aims to communicate. To prevent it from growing beyond our control. I do not believe we are ready for any of this. We don’t understand the data storage system of the brain well enough to start writing data to it. There are no laws to protect us in cyber space. Most of us still ignore more of the more complex aspects of technology we use on a daily basis. Finally, there are too many companies who grab for as much control over our communications and information as possible. With all of the conflict over basic rights like Net Neutrality, we don’t have a chance in retaining control over our own thoughts.

This is not to say that the technology isn’t world altering and infinitely
beneficial, but there are rules, guidelines, and laws that we need to put into
place to protect the general population from being attacked and taken advantage
of.

Before going any further, we should first take a quick look at their potential benefits to society. If Musk’s company is successful in connecting the human brain to the internet, we’re looking at the possibility of near instantaneous learning. This doesn’t just mean downloading Wikipedia pages into our memory. It implies that one day a slithering politician, as racist and classist as he may be, will be able to instantly understand life experiences that significantly impacted a poor person, a sick person, or a minority on a deep, emotional level. That kind of understanding of a traumatic or influential event would change the way a blubbering fool votes on laws. Changing our government in that way sounds fantastic, but doesn’t come without problems.

As I am writing this, there is an ongoing battle for Net Neutrality that is
being lost. Several major corporations that rely on a free internet are not supporting the masses. The FCC’s change could potentially change the entire internet for
the worse, taking away rights that we Americans assumed belonged to us. Social
network sites have a disturbing lack of information on how the FCC’s change
will impact people’s access to data. Out of the hundreds of connections I have
to people, only a handful seem to be alarmed by the removal of the Title II
protections. I’ve even had someone tell me “It’s just a comment period, then
another comment period. They aren’t doing anything.”, which is totally
incorrect. Granted, these examples are anecdotal, the overwhelming decision to
remain ignorant to technology that plays a massive role in our every day lives
is apparent through the success of companies whose sole product is proprietary
content. Not going into the argument of proprietary versus free software,
there are still other important insights within that information. Most folks understandably don’t care how it works, just that it works. We don’t have all the time in the world. We trust the companies that manufacture the software and
products that we rely on for business and personal use. I don’t blame anyone
for this.

In America, we write software. We power Facebook, Google, Amazon, and a
plethora of other software companies that are constantly changing the world.
What happens when the first virus is written for the human brain? How do we
prevent man in the middle attacks from altering information transmitted between
brains and artificial intelligence? In the same way that experiencing someone’s trauma has the potential to change someone’s outlook and behavior, a
false event would, as well. Those kinds of fabrications have a negative impact
now and they require time, attention, and effort to be written to memory.

A potentially more important issue with transmission of data is capacity.
If the human brain can only store so much data, then reaches that limit, the
file system has to react in some way. It could halt the transmission of
new data, purge existing data to make room for the new, or crash the entire
system completely. We can look at operating systems as an example of this. In
Linux, physical partitions can be configured to prevent catastrophic failure
in the even of a file system running out of space. Without these kinds of
protections in place, the brain could potentially stop working altogether upon
receiving too much information.

In addition to limited storage capacity, there is the much more complex
issue of file system permissions inside the human brain. Right now, we have
some control over what data is written, but that control is not complete. If
a person encounters a piece of information, it may be retained despite that
person’s deliberate effort to prevent it. Songs get stuck in your head. Useless
trivia facts stick somewhere deep down in the depths of your mind. You’ll never
forget that one line from some novel you read in high school. These
unauthorized writes to our brain’s physical storage system are massive red
flags.

Even if we figure out how to prevent legal misuse of neural interfaces,
stopping illegal action completely would be impossible.
We have laws that combat malicious use of computers to a certain extent, but
what about civil rights? Today, we are battling the United States Government
for the basic right to access all data equally. We are not going to be able
to protect the data in our
brains if we can’t even protect our right to simply access websites.
Furthermore, if the inter-connectivity between mind and AI, or mind and mind, is
provided by today’s internet service providers, we’re in for a constant battle.
The road we walk on is paved by people who want nothing more than to tell us
where to walk and how fast we can get there.

The fatal trio of willfully sacrificing rights in trade for
convenience, the deliberate lack of understanding of hardware and software
licensing, and the choice to remain inactive in relation to the extension of
human rights into cyber space leads to a horrifying future. One of the things
we should expect if proprietary software controls the interface to the brain
and communication between nodes is the continuation of business practices that
we are used to seeing now. Advertisements, viruses, bugs in code, etc. can all
be expected to implant themselves in your memory.

Before anything else, we should sit down, take a deep breath and think. It
isn’t just that there is a lot of money to be made off of connecting people
directly to the internet. The dangers previously discussed should be heavily
considered. Perhaps the most important factor to consider is societal maturity.
It takes time for people to grow and become aware of things. At the rate that
technology is advancing, the general populace can’t keep up. We’ve got a school
system that doesn’t effectively prepare people for their current lives in
relation to cyber space. This will only grow more detrimental if it isn’t
changed.

Once mankind is mentally prepared to literally make the journey into the
Matrix, we need to convince our governments to craft and enforce a Bill of
Rights needs to be put into place to protect the average person in cyber space.
Microsoft unexpectedly announced that they believe a digital Geneva Convention
is already necessary. Without a way to govern companies that provide
potentially life changing services, we’re going to be taken advantage of and no
one will pay for their mistakes or malicious actions.

Inside of the Bill of Rights for cyber space, we absolutely have to require
the use of Free Software in the interfaces, infrastructure, and all programs.
Feel free to give up your rights for better directions on your mobile device or
recommendations on where you should eat dinner. No one should be asked to
forfeit their innate human rights, including their safety, just because a
developer wants complete ownership of their code.

Author: A. M. Langston

Poet and Novelist

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