Telepathic AI, Neuronal Art and Squids, Everywhere!

Pierre Huyghe Image from The guardian

Technology in the Gap

This is the first in a little series of posts about the real-life developments in technology that led to the bizarre extrapolated versions in my new book, Mind in the Gap. In this one, I share some of my research on the possibilities of creating art directly from the brain.

Squids, Everywhere

SQUID is a real device used to detect minute changes in electromagnetic fields, including those in the brain. It stands for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, and has been used in science fiction for years, most memorably in William Gibson’s novels as a way to read-out information stored in neural circuitry.

The current method for brain imaging, Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), has limitations in that it is blind to detailed and direct neuronal activity. SQUID is one of the developments being investigated as a replacement for the future.

I used this idea in my story Frankie. I wanted to show such technology becoming so canonical and safe that it was used in a socio-commercial setting as opposed to only in medicine. I created an alternate reality where people no longer carry around mobile devices to interact with the world, but instead wear headpieces that continually read and output brain signals (and actually look like a squids!).

Telepathic AI

Scientists in a Kyoto laboratory have been working on a project that uses AI to analyse data collected during fMRI scans, and to interpret them into visual representations of what the individual was imagining at the time from a database of photographs. They call it Deep Image Reconstruction. Artist Pierre Huyghe worked with this recently by asking volunteers to imagine things he described, and then getting the AI to create a visual from their brain signals.

“If I tell you to think of an apple, the apple you think of will not be the same apple I think of,” he told The Guardian. It is one subjective impression (quale) informing another, which is then interpreted by an artificial intelligence. The resulting images are far from accurate according to those involved; they look nightmarish, fleshy and deformed (see the image above). They are uncanny: somehow recognisable to us but just strange enough that we know they can’t be real. You can read the whole article here.

I like to imagine these are the kind of images AI could think up independently in the future if we tried to simulate human perception. Would these grotesque mashed up images define us as a species in the mind of a robot? And I’m not even going to get into the possibilities of AI becoming capable of spontaneously reading our minds. I’ll save that for when I come to post about the horrors of my story One…

Painting with Thoughts

For several years we have been able use a brain-computer interface to command painting software: painting pictures with our thoughts, choosing colours and placement based on the way we focus our attention. It has been used to help people who don’t have use of their motor functions, and is hoped to even become an effective communication channel for people suffering locked-in syndrome.

Some say we can also use brain painting as a meditative therapy of sorts. If we ‘map’ our thought patterns and create a visual representation of what altering that would look like. It’s a bit like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with a visual aid and creative output, and I’d be very interested to see whether this is proven effective in the future.

image

Do Androids Dream?

A type of AI called a Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) has filters capable of abstracting out aspects of images in layers. This has been used in various experiments. For example, we know that CNN can produce new images that combine the ‘content’ of one existing image and the ‘style’ of another – think of the filters you have on your phone.

Google’s DeepDream uses a CNN to find and enhance patterns in images via algorithmic Pareidolia to produce psychedelic, over-processed images (pictured above) These experiments with neural nets are already evolving at pace. Artwork created by CNN is selling for thousands of dollars, and is informing the way virtual and augmented reality develops.

Frankie

In Frankie, I combined the general ‘output’ ideas of Deep Image Reconstruction, CNN and Brain Painting with the ‘input’ of advanced brain scans at neuronal level. I imagined a little piece of worn tech taking minute signals from the brain, that could output them instantly onto the surfaces around us to create a sort of communal psychedelic wonderland. I thought about what it could be like if certain skilled individuals were able to build the output images up in layers to create hologram-like objects for as long as concentration would allow. My nameless protagonist lives in a world where this is what memes have become.

Being a lover of psychology, I then began to wonder: what, then, might happen if the headpieces could take readings from the subconscious mind to show us things we didn’t realise we were thinking? It could tell us ‘You share an exciting chemistry with that person over there,’ or ‘you are harbouring deep-set doubts about this.’ And what if those thoughts in the subconscious weren’t intermittent, but ever-present in the background, and ever-growing? You’ll have to read Frankie to find out!

* * *

If you’ve already read Mind in the Gap, have you seen the Connections and Easter Eggs page? People are starting to add their theories and findings, and I’d love you to join in. If you haven’t read it yet, you can check out the blurb or pick up a signed copy here. It’s also available as an ebook on Kindle or as a paperback from anywhere that sells books. Thank you!

The Soldier, the Hunchback, and the Master of Meditation

!?

In his humorous essay Liber CLVIII, Aleister Crowley refers to the exclamation point and the question mark as the Soldier and the Hunchback due to their shapes. The question mark is symbolic of doubt and enquiry; the exclamation point of startling revelation. As we progress along our chosen path of thinking and learning, we continuously meet doubts followed by revelations that in turn lead us to new doubts. What is this? A-ha! But then, what is this? It is the rhythm of science and the curious mind.

It is also the spirit of my stories: both Fragments of Perception and Mind in the Gap are streams of questions and revelations. Often everything is called into question for the character as the walls of their assumptions come tumbling down, but it is rare that I would leave them without an ‘a-ha’ moment, a revelation, or a point at which they begin to understand the world again in a new pattern. It is also rare for me to leave it without a further question or doubt for the reader… Continue reading “The Soldier, the Hunchback, and the Master of Meditation”

Toxic Duck Inc.

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My life was pretty peachy before I caught the virus. At least, that’s what they tell me.

My partner, Jaz, and I had managed to save up enough money to travel the world and stay comfortable. We lived in full colour then; climbing mountains, skiing down them, eating in fancy restaurants… And at night, just like everyone else, we would put those little squashy pads against our temples and plug into our phones to upload the memories of the day to the cloud. They say it not only preserves your special moments for ‘fully immersive enjoyment’ another day, but it also improves the efficiency of sleep, security, and peace of mind. Except I have no peace, not anymore.

One evening, after a few drinks in the famous old Tokyo Mixology Lab, Jaz and I got back to our hotel and plugged in. No way were we going to risk losing the memories of that day! Then an alert box appeared on my screen:

Free updates are available. Apply now for extra security?

And I hit ‘yes’. Continue reading “Toxic Duck Inc.”

Smoke Rings

fractal tangle

My office is lit by a small lantern and smells faintly of tobacco even though I haven’t smoked for years. Strange, I think, how it’s still a source of temptation. I look up from piles of paperwork to see my animus slouched in the chair opposite. Just as I expect: legs apart, elbow resting on the desk, cigarette burning continuously. He wears the white linen suit I gave him with effortless style considering his lack of respect for convention. I imagine him firing me a disapproving look for working so late, but I can’t quite bring his face into focus.

“I sent you a load of new material,” he says.

“Yes, thank you; it’s great.”

“You haven’t written it down yet.”

“I’ve been working! You know, on the day job that keeps us sheltered and fed?”

My animus does not understand the concept of ‘day job’. Nor does he understand timing, completion, suppression, or putting things in boxes. Continue reading “Smoke Rings”

The Scheme

Orchid's Lantern blog C.R. Dudley author

 “Sounds like you need to start selling your petaFLOPS, mate.”
  That is what Dave had said back in the good old days when they drunk in the Queen’s Head. At the time, Geoff had lost his job as an Accountant for one of the big 5 firms and was struggling to adjust to a life of leisure. He’d find himself staring into space for hours at a time, unsure of what to put his brain into next. Once upon a time, a GP might have prescribed him some ‘happy’ pills, but diagnosis of depression and stress was a thing of the past: the symptoms had long been recategorised as ‘misused capacity in the mind’.
 Dave’s suggestion for money-making wasn’t unusual, and the papers said the scheme could even become prevalent in years to come. With six pints swimming around his system, Geoff imagined he might be ahead of the curve; one of the trendsetters that would mark a new and enterprising use for the human brain. And, once the hangover of the next morning had subsided and he swore never to drink again, it still seemed like the only logical thing to do.

  Geoff signed up to have a tiny sub-dermal chip installed in his head that connected him to the worldwide network. It was a simple procedure, done under local anaesthetic, and had a surprisingly fast recovery time: in just two days he was ready to come online. He popped the prescribed pill under his tongue, sat back in his La-z-Boy and selected ‘join game’ on his console.
  And that is how it was, 9-5, Tuesdays through Saturdays. As per the deal, he would do one of two things: play a match-3 game or watch sitcom re-runs on TV. The former gave him enough of a dopamine hit to keep him awake and powered up; the latter allowed him to enjoy taking a passive role while still earning a healthy income. Repetitive, predictable tasks that used only a small proportion of potential brain function were essential, so that the remaining neurones could be isolated by the drug and fired over the network to perform a range of data-crunching tasks.
  Any number of corporations could bid for the use of human processors, which were sold in petaFLOPS. For them, the efficiency in terms of energy usage, space and cost was unparalleled. For Geoff, it was a dream form of employment. He bought Dave’s drinks all night whenever his generous pay packet came in, to thank him for his valuable suggestion.
  “Honestly mate, you can’t tell anything’s going on back there,” he told him one day. “You just sit making rows of colourful sweets all day without a care in the world, and you get paid for it. And another thing: you feel like you’ve done a day’s work. I feel as fulfilled as I ever did being a bean-counter.”
  Dave swigged his drink and wiped away froth from his beard. “Aren’t you ever tempted to – you know, take a peek behind the curtain as it were?”
  “Ah it’s against the rules.”
  “Not even once?”
 “To tell the truth, I wouldn’t even know how. Besides, I’m onto a good thing here, why would I risk throwing it away?”

  But a seed had been planted, and come the next Tuesday morning, Geoff was wondering. What exactly are they using my brain for? By Friday, he had decided to try and find out. He split one of the little pills in two, and put just half under his tongue. He spent the morning building up his puzzle game score as usual, but after lunch during Only Fools and Horses, columns of moving numbers began to overlay his vision. They made no sense at first; they were just vaguely hypnotic. He was elated that his brain could be used for feats he did not understand. To be a cog in a machine that would better the world was enough for him, and he swore to go back to taking the full pill straight away. But then he began to notice patterns in the numbers: it was a code, and it was recording transactions. Geoff grabbed a pen and paper and started scribbling down what he could see.

  On Saturday, his access to the game was prohibited: the agency had locked him out. A message appeared on the screen: Security violation detected. Await instructions. Geoff’s mind worked overtime thinking about what that could mean. It had to be something to do with what happened the day before. Did they think he knew something?
  “I swear,” he said aloud, “I saw nothing but a series of random numbers.”
  “Tut tut Mr O’Brien,” said a voice from behind him. “We can’t have our operators breaking the rules. Our confidentiality has been breached. You must be disconnected now.”
  A big hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. Another pushed his head back against the chair, and a third sliced into him with a scalpel, removing the chip amidst Geoff’s screams.
  “I swear!” He cried out in desperation,”I swear I know nothing!”
One of the hands held up the notebook he had used to scribble down the transactions.
  “But I don’t know what it means, it’s just a load of numbers!”
  “It’s all up here,” the man tapped his temple. “And now we have to remove it.”

*****

For more dark imaginings of our future with tech, and fictional explorations of ontology, check out my collection of very short stories: Fragments of Perception.

In Conversation With Trees

Orchid's Lantern blog C.R. Dudley author

As I wander through the woods, a mysterious shadow passes over me.
Something bad is here, I think, stopping to stare at the bark of a Scots Pine. There is evil in this tree.
But then the tree says back to me: “there is neither good nor evil in trees.”
And the next adds: “besides, whether something is good or bad rather depends on what you are trying to do.”

The conversation continues from tree to tree as I walk on. I can’t be sure the words are not merely imagined, but I am willing to hear them out all the same.
You mean what’s good for me could be bad for you, right?
“If you like.”
“You pull up a colossal energy wave with your willpower; I stand the ground with mine. Neither choice is good or bad for the thing we are together.”
The thing we are together?
“We are integrated. Underneath it all there is no you, and there is no I.”
Is that is why I can hear you in my head?
“Precisely. The thing we are together is at your root whenever you care to listen.”
“Some call it the wind of consciousness.”
“And we are simply differently shaped instruments through which it blows. It plays upon us all at once: we are part of the same song.”
“And our forms are moulded from one and the same.”
Moulded from song? Remarkable…

I begin to wonder what will come of me being in conversation with the trees, out here on my own. I feel as though I am fading; as though I am becoming a tree. It is probably time to leave.
“You cannot know what it is to be a tree, only what it is to hear the consciousness we share.”
“Humanity is for when consciousness wants to experience a particular kind of culture; to sound a particular note. Trees are for when it wants to form a different kind of relationship with other parts of itself.”
And I suppose, when we die, we all become one with it?
“Death means only that consciousness has stopped whistling through that instance of an instrument.”
“The illusion of the human breaks down – and with it, that thing you call ‘I’ – that’s when you become free. But, in being free, you will never again be human.”

I become aware that I am trembling and my head is spinning, but I make efforts to appear outwardly calm. Who for?
Thank you for your wisdom, brothers. I have to get out of here now.

“Goodbye traveller.”
“Goodbye traveller.”
“Goodbye traveller.”

I leave the woods immediately to scribble down these bizarre interactions, and to contemplate whether the trees have really spoken or whether I experienced spontaneous hallucination. Perhaps, for all intents and purposes, there really is no distinction.

*****

My collection of short, quirky stories to make you contemplate is out now in paperback and ebook. Visit my books page for the full blurb and list of stockists.

Phantom Pain

“Here we go, is this it? Are we starting? Are you sure, because it doesn’t feel like my spine is straight. And my shoulder itches. And I need to swallow. Is swallowing allowed or does that count as moving the body?”

“…”

“My eyes are closed, but they don’t seem closed closed. I mean, I can see my eyelids I think. Is that ok? How do you close your eyes when they’re already closed?”

“…”

“Oh damn, I forgot to check the volume of the alarm. I could just go and do it now? It’ll undo all the good work if it startles me too much.”

“…”

“OK, point taken. Dum dum de dum dum de dum de dum de dum. Hey, what’s that song that goes ‘sometimes I feel like despair is my only friend…’? You know the one. It’s by The Mission, I think. Let’s go and look it up. It’ll take, like, two seconds and then I’ll be satisfied and you can have your peace, OK?”

“…”

Continue reading “Phantom Pain”