Considerations for a Space Opera Setting: Neuroscience

21:07 Sun 26 Feb 2012. Updated: 23:47 02 Mar 2012
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A clear implication of my having settled on some kind of “bioAI” in my examination of AI in the setting is that neuroscience must be quite advanced indeed, given that a strong understanding of brains and how they work would be necessary to bio-engineer them. In the gap between bio-engineering and “pure” manufacture there are clearly many mysteries, but even so, the setting’s neuroscientific understanding must be formidable.

I may pull back from the “bioAI” approach, as aspects of it make me uneasy[1], but there are plenty of other neuroscience-related questions that arise in any setting with highly advanced technology:

  • Virtual reality.

    While we tend to think of this as belonging to the realm of computer science, it’s doubtful that anything even approaching a true virtual realm[2] would be possible without some form of direct brain interface—for which we require far more advanced neuroscience than we presently possess.

    True virtual reality capabilities lead to narrative situations where the reality of everything can be questioned. While that can make for highly interesting stories, it runs counter to two aspects I want in my setting: grittiness (because it allows a form of escape) and an outward focus. A culture with virtual reality technology would be highly inward-looking, but this setting is one where the focus is on continual expansion[3].

    So, neuroscience in the setting has not been able to achieve true virtual reality.

  • Digitized consciousness.

    With sufficient understanding of the brain, it might be possible to map and decipher memory, or personality, or consciousness, or some combination of the three. If the state of consciousness could be recorded in some way, that allows:

    • The ability to “re-install” it, presumably in a new host body (cloned from the original person, perhaps), which allows for tremendous longevity and the ability to effectively cheat death into taking not the entire life but just the parts of it that have happened since the last backup.
    • With other advances, the ability to house that consciousness in a digital realm, which basically provides a backdoor route to both virtual reality and strong AI, albeit with certain constraints.

    While again fascinating to explore, those don’t belong in the setting.

  • Memory erasure.

    Wired thinks we’re already close. This is a far cruder process than the prior two, and doesn’t necessarily require some kind of digitized input to or output from the brain. Drugs inhibiting the formation of short term memory already exist, and excising certain memories is likely possible.

    Inducing short-term memory loss certainly seems like a highly useful ability, but it’s going to be something that certainly confuses people, and that will also be detectable chemically—making someone forget something and not realize that they’ve forgotten anything will be possible but require a lot of effort and ingenuity.

    Excising long-term memories will be possible, but as a messy process most often practiced by therapists on willing participants. Forced memory erasure will be fraught with danger to the person involved, and will be unreliable. It will also demand a certain amount of cooperation from the target. It will also have been misused in many ways and have a terrible and unpopular reputation, making it it more or less equivalent to torture in terms of its acceptability.

  • Memory implantation.

    A weaker version of the same issues involved in digitizing consciousness, and this is also absent in the setting.

  • Personality alteration.

    Quite related to memory erasure, in the setting this is another unreliable and dubious set of techniques. Initially embraced by many branches of society, this is now viewed similarly to lobotomization.

    Overwriting someone’s personality with a specific other personality is not possible, but less precise changes are; however, they tend to leave the subject seeming “not quite right” to others and themselves.

  • Tailored drugs.

    In some forms, these are equivalent to short-term personality alteration, which is already the case today. However, the drugs in the setting will be far more advanced, and the notion of taking drug cocktails for all kinds of specific uses will be extremely common. This is particularly true for focus and, perhaps, for “intelligence”; efforts will also have been made to eliminate the need for the drugs by genetically engineering humans to synthesize them automatically, with varying results.

    These drugs will be broadly similar to drugs available today, but customized to individuals and with fewer side effects. They will be powerful, but there will still be no “genius pill”[4].

  • An explanation for/of consciousness.

    There still won’t be a satisfactory one, and debates will still rage over what the definition of consciousness is. If the bioAIs are present, there will be arguments over whether or not they are truly conscious. As the only known sentient race, humans will still wonder whether the notion of a non-human consciousness has any real meaning[5].

Advances in neuroscience, especially the first two and the last in the above list, have the potential to change our conception of existence at a very fundamental level—and this setting depends on conceptions of existence at least broadly similar to our own, which drives the conservative choices here.

[1] Partly the technology implications, partly the introduction of characters who would be fundamentally non-human, but mainly that I don’t want the humans in this setting to have things to compare themselves against. The reasons I didn’t include aliens or traditional strong AI still apply here—I want the universe to still be one where humans are stuck with only themselves for guidance and example.

[2] That is, a virtual reality experience that people would have trouble differentiating from the real world.

[3] On some level the setting is one made for exploring certain aspect of capitalism. A story focused on capitalist colonization of virtual realities would also be extremely interesting, but it’s not this story.

[4] Although certain professions will have competition that results in people taking “intelligence drugs” more or less constantly; it will be open to debate at the time whether or not this has actually produced more “geniuses”, and, to the annoyance of the neurochemists, breakthrough insights in all fields will still occur to people who are not taking these drugs.

[5] The bioAIs, if they exist, will have been based on human brains crossed with animal brains, and so any consciousness they exhibit that humans recognize will be due to their human heritage. The debate over animal consciousness will also still go on, with adherents on both sides claiming that the bioAIs make their case.

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