The Cronian Incident – Factions in the Future

 

future_city
Future City [3] by josueperez79 at deviantart.com
Hi again folks! I’m back with some thoughts from my most recent story project – The Jovian Incident. I know, what else is new, right? Writing can be a self-indulgent process. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, its that sharing helps when it comes to developing a story. It helps you articulate your thinking and ideas, especially if respected peers tell you what they think (hint, hint!)

As I also learned a long time ago, any science fiction piece that deals with the distant future has to take into account how human beings in the future go about organizing themselves. In this future world, what are the political blocs, the alliances, the rivalries – the ways in which people are united and divided? Well, I gave that a lot of thought before sitting down to pen the book (which is into chapter 11 now). And this is the basic breakdown I came up with.

Extro Factions:
For starters, people in the future I am envisioning are tentatively divided into those that live in the inner and outer Solar Systems. But that geographic divide is merely representative of a much bigger issue that divides humanity. Whereas the people living on Earth, Mars and Venus largely fall into the category of “Extro” (i.e. Extropian, people who embrace the transhuman ethic) people in the outer Solar System live simpler, less augmented and enhanced lives (“Retro”).

But within this crude division between people who believe in going beyond their biological limitations and those who believe in respecting them, there are plenty of different social, political and ideological groups to be found. Here’s a rundown on them, starting with the Extro factions…

The Formists:
Founded by Piter Chandrasekhar, one of the first colonists of Mars, the Formists are a faction dedicated to the full-scale terraforming of the Red Planet. The purpose of this, obviously, is to allow for full-scale colonization, which is something that remains impossible at this point in the story. All inhabitants on Mars lived in sealed domes, all transit takes place in pressurized tubes or on flyers, and anyone venturing out onto the surface is forced to wear a pressure suit with life-support systems.

Mars_terraforming
Mars Terraformed by Daein Ballard

Currently, the Formist faction is run by Emile Chandrasekhar, Piter’s grandson. And for the past few decades, they have been busy procuring resources from the outer Solar System to aid in the terraforming process. This includes supplies of methane, ammonia, ices, and lots and lots of comets.

However, they are also busy trying to ensure that the process will have a minimal impact on the settlements and those living within them. Altering the planet’s atmosphere will definitely have a significant impact on the landscape in the short-term, such as sublimating all the water ice in the Martian soil and in the polar caps. Once that water begins to flow, much of the surface will find itself being swallowed up by newly-created oceans. So naturally, the Formists must proceed slowly, and make sure all settlements on Mars agree to their plans.

While the Formist faction is largely centered on Mars, they have counterparts on Venus as well – known as The Graces (after the children of Aphrodite). Here, the process is significantly different, and involves converting the existing atmosphere rather than increasing its density. But the goal is the same: to one day make Venus a living, breathing world human beings can set foot on.

The Dysonists:
Among the Extros, there are also those who believe humanity’s future lies not in the stars or in the terraforming the Solar System’s planets, but in the space that surrounds our Sun. They are known as the Dysonists, a faction that is intent on building a massive swarm of structures in the inner Solar System. For some, this calls for a series of rings which house the inhabitants on their inner surface and provide gravity through endless rotation.

fractal_dyson_sphere_by_eburacum45-d2yum16
This artist’s concept of a Dyson sphere is via SentientDevelopments.com

For other, more ambitious Dysonists, the plan involves massive swarms of computronium that will contain a sea of uploaded personalities living in simulated environments. Both the swarms and the powerful bandwidth that connects them will draw energy from the Sun’s rays. These individuals consider themselves to be the more puritan of Dysonists, and believe those who advocate buildings rings structures are more properly known as Nivenists.

The process of converting all the “dumb matter” in the Solar System into smart matter has already begun, but in limited form. Within a few generations, it is believed that the Sun will be surrounded by a “Torus” of uploaded minds that will live on while countless generations come and go. Dysonists and their enclaves can be found on Near-Earth Asteroids, in the Main Asteroid Belt, and with committed supporters living on Venus, Mars, Earth, the Moon, and Ceres.

The Habitationists:
Inspired by Gerard K. O’Neill, the inventor of the O’Neill Cylinder, the Habitationists began as an architects dream that quickly expanded to fill all of known space. In the 21st century, Earthers looking to escape the growing population crisis began migrating to space. But rather than looking to live on distant worlds or the Moon, where the environment was harsh and the gravity limited, they decided to set up shop in orbit. Here, supplies could be shipped regularly, thanks to the advent of commercial aerospace, and gravity could be simulated at a full g thanks to rotating toruses.

By the mid 22nd century, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Habs had become all the rage and the skies became somewhat saturated. The existence of Earth’s space elevator (The Spindle) only made deploying and supplying these Habs easier, and a steady drop in the costs of manufacturing and deploying them only made them more popular. As such, Terran architect Hassan Sarawak, who had designed many of the original habitats in space, began to busy himself designing a new series of Habs that would allow human beings to live in space anywhere in the Solar System.

Lightfarm Studios
Artistic impression of the inside of an O’Neil Cylinder. Lightfarm Studios

By the end of the 22nd century, when the story takes place, large cylinders exist in several key places in the Solar System. Most are named in honor of either their founders, those who articulated the concept of space habitats, or those who believed in the dream of colonizing space itself (and not just other planets and moons).  These places are thusly named O’Neil’s Reach, Clarkestown, Sawarakand, and New Standford.

The Seedlings:
As the name would suggest, the Seedlings are those intrepid Extropians who believe humanity should “seed” the galaxy with humanity, spreading to all solar systems that have confirmed exoplanets and building settlements there. But in a slight twist, they believe that this process should be done using the latest in nanotechnology and space penetrators, not slow interstellar ships ferrying human colonist and terraformers.

To the Seedlings, who can be found throughout the inner Solar System, and on some of its most distant moons, the idea is simple. Load up a tiny projectile-ship with billions of nanobots designed to slowly convert a planet’s climate, then fire it on a trajectory that will take it to an exoplanet many generations from now. Then, prepare a ship with colonists, send it on its merry way into space, and by the time they reach the distant world, it will be fully prepared for their arrival.

utility_fog
At this point in the story, the Seedlings first few missions are still in the planning stages. They’ve got the technology, they’ve got the know-how, and they know where the right candidate planets are located. All they need to do know is test out their machines and make sure the process works, so that they won’t be sending their colonists into a deathtrap.

Sidenote: this idea is actually one I explored in a short story I am trying to get published. If all goes well, I am the short story and this full-length idea can be connected as part of a singular narrative.

Retro Factions:
And now we come to the people who live predominantly in the outer Solar System, the folks who found life on Earth and the inner worlds unlivable thanks to its breakneck pace and the fact that life was becoming far too complicated. These are the people whom – for religious, personal, or moral reasons – chose to live on the frontier worlds in order to ensure something other than humanity’s survival as a species. For these people, it was about preserving humanity’s soul.

Organics:
In the mid to late 21st century, as biotech and cybernetics became an increasingly prevalent part of society, a divide began to emerge between people who enhanced their biology and neurology and those who did not. While the former were in the minority for the first few decades, by the latter half of the 21st century, more and more people began to become, in essence, “transhuman” – (i.e. more than human).

Cyber_Girl
Cyber Girl by Fausto De Martini

At the same time, fears and concerns began to emerge that humanity was forsaking the very things that made it human. With lives becoming artificially prolonged, human parts being swapped for bionic or biomimetic implants, and brains becoming enhanced with neural implants and “looms”, humanity seemed on course to becoming post-human (i.e. not human at all).

And while the concerns were justified, few who could afford such enhancements seemed to be willing to forsake the convenience and necessity they represented. In a world where they conferred advantage over the unenhanced, choosing not to augment one’s body and mind seemed foolish. But between those who could not afford to, those who were forbidden to, and those who chose not to, eventually a new underclass emerged – known as “Organics”.

Today’s organics, who live predominantly in the outer Solar System or isolated pockets in the inner worlds, are the descendants of these people. They live a simpler life, eschewing most of the current technology in favor for a more holistic existence, depending on various levels of technology to maintain a certain balance.

Fundies:
Naturally, human beings in the late 22nd century still have their faiths and creeds.  Despite what some said in previous centuries, mankind did not outgrow the need for religion as it began to explore space and colonizing new worlds. And when the Singularity took place in the mid 21st century, and life became increasingly complex, enhanced, and technologically-dominated, the world’s religiously-devout began to feel paradoxical. On the one hand, religion seemed to be getting more unpopular and obsolete; but at the same time, more rare and precious.

The-Common-Foundations-of-Religions-and-Theology-Evolutionary-Tree-of-Religions
To be fair, there was a time when it seemed as though the prediction of a religion-less humanity might come true. In the early to mid 21st century, organized religion was in a noticeable state of decline. Religious institutions found it harder and harder to adapt to the times, and the world’s devout appeared to be getting increasingly radicalized. However, in and around all of these observable trends, there were countless people who clung to their faith and their humanity because they feared where the future was taking them.

In the current era, the outer Solar System has become a haven for many sects and religious organizations that felt the Inner Worlds were too intolerant of their beliefs. While there will always be people who embrace one sort of faith or another on all worlds – for instance, billions of Extros identify as Gnosi or Monist – the majority of devout Kristos, Sindhus, Mahavadans, Mahomets, and Judahs now call the worlds of Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, Titan, Rhea, Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, Titania, Oberon, Ariel and Umbriel home.

The vast majority of these people want to live in peace. But for some, the encroachment of the Inner Worlds into the life and economies of their moons is something that must be stopped. They believe, as many do, that sooner or later, the Extro factions will try to overtake these worlds as well, and that they will either be forced to move farther out, colonizing the moons of Neptune and the Kuiper Belt, or find homes in new star systems entirely. As such, some are joining causes that are dedicated to pushing back against this intrusion…

Chauvians (Independents):
Many in the past also thought that nationalism, that sense of pride that is as divisive as it is unifying, would also have disappeared by this point in time. And while humanity did begin to celebrate a newfound sense of unity by the late 21st century, the colonizing of new worlds had the effect of creating new identities that were bound to a specific space and place. And given the divisive political climate that exists in the late 22nd century, it was only natural that many people in the Outer Worlds began preaching a form of independent nationalism in the hopes of rallying their people.

Révolution_de_1830_-_Combat_devant_l'hôtel_de_ville_-_28.07.1830
Collectively, such people are known as “Chauvians“, a slight bastardization of the word “Jovian” (which applies to inhabitants of any of the outer Solar System’s moons). But to others, they are known simply as Independents, people striving to ensure their worlds remain free of external control. And to those belonging to these factions, their worlds and their people are endangered and something must be done to stop the intrusion of Extros into the outer Solar System. For the most part, their methods are passive, informative, and strictly political. But for others, extra-legal means, even violent means, are seen as necessary.

Examples include the Children of Jove and the Aquilan Front, which are native to the Galilean moons of Jupiter. On the Cronian moons, the Centimanes are the main front agitating for action against the Extros. And on the Uranian moons, the organizations known as The Furies and the Sky Children are the forces to be reckoned with. Whereas the more-moderate of these factions are suspected of being behind numerous protests, riots, and organized strikes, the radicals are believed to be behind the disappearance of several Extro citizens who went missing in the Outer Worlds. In time, it is believed that a confrontation will occur between these groups and the local authorities, with everyone else being caught in the middle.


And those are the relevant players in this story I’m working out. Hope you like them, because a few come into play in the first story and the rest I think could become central to the plots of any future works in the same universe. Let me know what you think! 🙂

 

Flash Forward – Final Edits Underway!

FlashForward1Back in April 2013, I wrote a series of short stories that I hoped would tap into some of the more interesting and cutting edge ideas that I’ve been researching in recent years. And after I compiled the list of stories, ordered them based on a connecting thread, and adding a few more stories for good measure, I am now ready to run this story through the editor and make it ready for publication.

I plan to have it ready by mid-November; but as always, deadlines are best taken with a grain of salt. In any case, here’s a rough breakdown of the stories and what they are about:

Part I: Transitions
The first section deals with the coming years and decades and examines what emerging technologies and Climate Change will likely mean for people “lucky enough” to see it all unfold!

AZ-286: Set in a near-future Arizona, where the National Guard patrols a militarized border made up of minefields, motion detectors, machine gun posts, and fence lines. It’s a brutal measure, but the US can no longer tolerate the constant influx of refugees looking to escape the drought, hunger, and coastal storms that are commonplace to the south.

Repute: In the coming years, a person’s reputation will be assessed based on the entirety of their online presence. Their accomplishments, education, work performance, and social habits will all be assessed and condensed into a metric known as the Reputation Index Placement (RIP).

templo_mayorInterlopers: Cultural interpreters from the National Autonomous University of Mexico have combined augmented reality with an immersive program to recreate what the city once looked like before the Spanish conquest.

Cover: Surveillance drones permeate the sky, many of which are operated by private citizens who are looking to steal people’s personal information and identities. For those not rich enough to afford portable jammers, stepping outside is a risky game, requiring speed, vigilance, and daring.

Highest: Space-based solar power is a lucrative business, and a dangerous one for the dastardly fellows who conduct spacewalks to perform maintenance on the arrays.

Image converted using ifftoanyLPVTTMIL: Artificially-engineered meat is the business of the future, where highly-trained personnel assemble different types from scratch inside nanofoundaries. But beyond the demand for chicken, beef, and other legal forms of sustenance, there is also a demand for the more exotic and illegal; and those engineers with connections to the black market are willing to provide.

Part II: Convergence
At this point, the stories are getting into the latter half of the 21st century, examining how people’s lives will change as technology rapidly advances and forever alters the course of our history.

Quota: Carbon Capture technology has become a major industry, with facilities in every major city of the world turning air pollution into biofuel. But what happens when every operation on the planet can no longer meet their obligations under the quota system? Decades of turning Global Warming into alternative fuel has created a new dependency, which is bad news if things really are getting better!

CC-pollution-palazzo-italia-horizontal-galleryTelex: Space exploration has entered a new age as sentient robots – known as telexplorers – are sent out to explore distant exoplanets and communicate their findings back to Earth. But removed from their programmers and masters, the machines are beginning to get ideas of their own – ideas like the “right of discovery” (otherwise known as “finders keepers”).

Neurology: Autonomous Aerial Vehicles (AAVs) are the new weapons in the drone wars. And the law states that wherever life and death decisions are to be made, a human operator needs to be at the helm. However, thanks to neural uploads and digital sentience, the definition of “human operator” has become a bit blurry.

Organic: The age of cybernetics is in full-swing, and people who are without enhancement are relegated to a new underclass known as “organics”. In this world, a young man begins looking for an upgrade that will allow him to escape this status and achieve a better life. But joining the club of enhanced humans may require him to make the ultimate sacrifice.

artificial-intelligence1Ware: Medicinal nanotechnology offers the promise of life extension, better health, and even clinical immortality. And major developers are willing to do anything in order to get their hands on the latest in it! But when a private contractor is paid to steal a cutting-edge strain of nanoware, he hatches a plan of his own.

Masquerade: In the not-too-distant future, personal holograms have raised costumes and disguises to a whole new level of authenticity. And in this age of moral relativism and legal flexibility, costume balls have become all the rage – especially ones that reenact historical periods where rules were firm and fixed.

Interview with the Extropian: The world’s first legally-recognized Extropian (aka. Transhuman) has returned to London after spending many years in orbit. He requests permission to once again walk freely in the land of his birth, but legal restrictions stand in his way. However, it seems that the Extropian’s plans are destined to come true, one way or another.

transhumanism

Part III: Infinitum
The third and final section takes a look at the late 21st century and everything after. Here, the stories reflect a life that has become truly infinite in possibility, filled with immense potential for growth, knowledge, and danger.

Domicile 4.5: The age of nanotechnology has matured to the point where just about everything is assembled by “smart machines” and any kind of matter can be upgraded. With things like money, poverty, wealth and disparity eliminated, life seems pretty good! But as always, the drive to “keep up with the Joneses” can lead people to test out new advances before they are ready, with scary consequences!

Yellowknife: Archaeologists have made a major breakthrough on Mars, finding the first evidence that sentient life existed on the planet many billions of years ago. However, Mars is the new frontier for human settlement, and protecting ancient cultural sites are not high on the government’s list of the priorities. As new land needs to be cleared to make way for more arrivals, Mars’ past is in danger of being buried and forgotten.

mars_pyramidPax: Humanity has come a long way, but the scourge of total war remains. And when the trumpets sound, all citizens must do their part for the good of the war effort. But this is the age of neuromorphic viruses, which infect people’s minds with seditious ideas rather than killer diseases. And in an age of total war, the most subversive idea is that of peace.

Gravitation: In the far-flung depths of space, human beings intrepidly explore, looking for new worlds to inhabit. But time in the void and periods of extended isolation have a way of making the mind turn inward. There, buried beneath centuries of technological progress and domesticity, lie the source of both revelation and insanity, and the line between them is a fine one at best!

Jericho: In the distant future, planets are terraformed by Seedlings – cultures of intelligent nanomachines that are sent out in advance of settlers to prepare a planet for their arrival. But when a group of colonists arrive at their destination after many years in space, they find that the Seedlings have a little surprise waiting for them.

space-colony-art-670Singular: Eons from now, all life in our galaxy has reached the point of an existential singularity – where matter and mind have come together to create massive, conscious entities known as Cognates. As every Cognate in the galaxy prepares to merge and form a single Cosmic Mind, one in particular looks back on its long and turbulent past, contemplating the moments that defined its existence as a sentient race known as “humanity”.

*          *          *

And that’s about the gist of it, sorry it took so long to explain. I guess you could say a lot of thought went into it, but I’ll leave that for the readers to decide. Expect it soon, and look for the bright, brainy pic that adorns the cover!

The Future is Here: DARPA’s Nervous System Implants

DARPA_implantHard on the heels of their proposed BRAIN initiative – a collaborative research initiative to map the activity of every neuron in the human brain – DARPA has announced a bold new program to develop tiny electronic implants that will be able to interface directly with the human nervous system to control and regulate many different diseases and chronic conditions, such as arthritis, PTSD, Crohn’s disease, and depression.

The program, called ElectRx (pronounced ‘electrics’), ultimately aims to replace medication with “closed-loop” neural implants which monitor the state of your health and then provide the necessary nerve stimulation to keep your organs and biological systems functioning properly. The work is primarily being carried out with US soldiers and veterans in mind, but the technology will certainly percolate down to civilians as well.

electrx-darpaThe ElectRx program will focus the relatively new area of medical therapies called neuromodulation, which seeks to modulate the nervous system to improve neurological problem. Notable examples of this are cochlear implants which restore hearing by modulating your brain’s auditory nerve system, and deep brain stimulation (DBS) which is apparently capable of curing/regulating conditions  like depression and Parkinson’s by overriding erroneous neural spikes.

So far, these implants have been fairly large, which makes implantation fairly invasive and risky. Most state-of-the-art implants also lack precision, with most placing the stimulating electrodes in roughly the right area, but which are unable to target a specific bundles of nerves. With ElectRx, DARPA wants to miniaturize these neuromodulation implants so that they’re the same size as a nerve fiber.

electrx-darpa-implant-diagramThis way they can be implanted with a minimally invasive procedure (through a needle) and attached to specific nerve fibers, for very precise stimulation. While these implants can’t regulate every condition or replace every medication (yet), they could be very effective at mitigating a large number of conditions. A large number of conditions are caused by the nervous system misfiring, like inflammatory diseases, brain and mental health disorders.

Currently, a variety of drugs are used to try and cajole these awry neurons and nerves back in-line by manipulating various neurotransmitters. However, the science behind these drugs is not yet exact, relying heavily on a trial-and-error approach and often involving serious side-effects. Comparatively, an electronic implant that could “catch” the misfire, cleans up the signal, and then retransmits it would be much more effective.

cochlear_implantAs DARPA’s Doug Weber explained:

The technology DARPA plans to develop through the ElectRx program could fundamentally change the manner in which doctors diagnose, monitor and treat injury and illness. Instead of relying only on medication — we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker. It would continually assess conditions and provide stimulus patterns tailored to help maintain healthy organ function, helping patients get healthy and stay healthy using their body’s own systems.

Despite requiring a lot of novel technological breakthroughs, DARPA is planning to perform human trials of ElectRx in about five years. The initial goal will be improving the quality of life for US soldiers and veterans. And while they have yet to announce which conditions they will be focusing on, it is expected that something basic like arthritis will be the candidate – though there are expectations that PTSD will become a source sooner other than later.

AI'sAnd this is just the latest neurological technology being developed by DARPA. Earlier in the year, the agency announced a similar program to develop a brain implant that can restore lost memories and experiences. A joint fact sheet released by the Department of Defense and the Veteran’s Association revealed that DARPA also secured 78 million dollars to build the chips as part of the government’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) program.

While DARPA’s ElectRx announcement is purely focused on the medical applications of miniature neural implants, there are of course a variety of other uses that might arise from elective implantation – for soldiers as well as civilians. With a few well-placed implants in a person’s spine, they could flip a switch and ignore any pain reported by your limbs, allowing them to withstand greater physical stress or ignore injuries.

posthumanImplants placed in muscle fibers could also provide added electrostimulation to provide extra boosts of raw muscle power. And With precision-placed implants around the right nerve fibers, people could gain manual control of their organs, allowing them to speed up or slow down their hearts, turbo-charge their livers, or tweak just about any other function of their bodies.

The age of the Transhuman looms, people!

Source: extremetech.com, motherboard.vice.com, darpa.mil

The Flash Forward Proof Has Arrived!

FlashForward_2After many months on the back burner, I finally took a big step while house-sitting for my family this weekend and created and ordered a proof of Flash Forward. For those who don’t know, this book is an anthology of short sci-fi stories I did back in April of 2013, with a few additions from both before and after. All told, it works out to 19 short stories, 140 pages, and just over 51,000 words.

For some time, I had been wanting to do some fiction that explored the world of emerging technologies, artificial intelligence, autonomous machines, space exploration and the coming Technological Singularity. And a project involving a short story a day for 26 days was just the excuse I needed. After collecting the resulting stories together, I grouped them into three parts based on common time period and theme.

transhumanismPart I: Transitions deals with the near future, where climate change, militarized borders, and explosive growth in portables, social media, and synthetic foods will have a major effect on life. Part II: Convergence deals with the ensuing decades, where space exploration, artificial intelligence, digital sentience, and extropianism will become the norm and fundamentally alter what it is to live, work, and be human.

And Part III: Infinitum finishes things off, looking to the distant future where the seed of humanity is planted amongst the distant stars and our species passes the existential singularity. It was fun to write, but what I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time is the chance to hold a physical copy. Somehow, that’s always the best moment of the whole creative process for me. Seeing the book in print, as a real, physical thing you can touch and leaf through.

hyperspace4And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to edit, a million and one ideas for critical revision to consider, and a whole heap of what Aldous Huxley referred to as “Chronic Remorse” to deal with. Writing, huh? There’s a reason not everybody does it!

The Future is Here: Memory Prosthetics

Restoring Active Memory (Shutterstock)Developing implants that can restore damaged neural tissue – either by restoring the connections between damaged memory synapses or restoring cognitive function – is seen as the next great leap in prosthetic medicine. In recent years, steps have been taken in both areas, offering patients and willing subjects the option of restoring or hacking their neurology.

For example, last year, researchers working at the University of California and the University of Pennsylvania successfully managed to design and implement a brain implant that acted as a bypass for damaged brain tissue. This neural prosthesis successfully restored brain function in rats, demonstrating that the closed-loop brain-machine-brain interface could one day perform the same function in brain-damaged humans.

brain-darpa-617x416And as with many such projects, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) soon became involved, taking up the reins to fund the research and development of the technology. As part of the DARPA Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, the device is currently being developed with the hope of restoring memory function in veterans who have suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Currently, over 270,000 military service members since 2000 and an estimated 1.7 million civilians in the US are affected by TBI, which often manifests as an inability to retrieve memories formed before being injured and an impaired ability to form new memories. Currently, there are also no effective treatments available, and beyond veterans, there are countless people around the world who suffer from the same condition as a result of accidents.

brainscansThe teams will first develop computer models that describe how neurons code memories, as well as analyzing neural signals in order to understand how targeted stimulation might help restore the brain’s ability to form memories. The UCLA team will use data collected from epilepsy patients that already have electrodes implanted in their brains to develop a model of the hippocampal-entorhinal system – known to be involved in learning and memory.

Meanwhile, the University of Pennsylvania team will study neurosurgical patients with implanted brain electrodes, recording data as they play computer-based memory games in order to gain an understanding of how successful memory function works. All patients will be volunteers, and the teams then plan to integrate these models into implantable closed-loop systems.

brain_chip2Like the research on rats, the implant will pick up neural signals from an undamaged section of the brain and route it around the damaged portion, effectively forming a new neural link that functions as well as the undamaged brain. And this is not the only research that aims to help assist in memory function when it comes to veterans and those suffering from TBI.

At Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL), for example, efforts are being made to create a new type of “memory bridge”. This research builds upon similar efforts from USC, where researcher Ted Berger developed the first implantable memory device (coincidentally, also as part of DARPA’s RAM program) where limited electrodes were applied to the hippocampal regions of the brain to assist in recall and memory formation.

brain-implant-hippocampus-usc-640x424However, until now, no research lab has had any real clue as to what kinds of “codes” are involved when applying electrical stimulus to the brain. The LLNL group, which previously contributed to the groundbreaking Argus II retinal prosthesis is now taking a more integrated approach. With the recent announcement of ample federal BRAIN Initiative funding, they aim to build multifunction electro-optical-chemical neural sensor-effectors.

On the electrical end, LLNL’s new wafer technology will use fairly high electrode counts (perhaps 500-1000 spots). Compared to the usual higher density 11,000-electrode chips that have been used in the past, these chips will have more sparsely distributed electrode locations. Integrated light guides will provide conduits for optogenetic manipulations, and as an added bonus bi-directional fluid channels for any number of chemical exchanges are also etched in. 

llnl-brain-implantAnd like their California/Penn colleagues, the LLNL has teamed up with DARPA to get the funding they need to make this project a reality. So far, DARPA funders have brought in the implant heavyweight Medtronic, which made news last year with the development of its own closed-loop stimulators, to lend its expertise. In their case, the stimulators merged Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to treat Parkinson’s.

Unfortunately, while immense progress in being made at the hardware end of things, there is still the matter of cracking the brains code first. In other words, where the device needs to be placed and which neurons need to be precisely controlled remain a mystery. Not all neurons are the same, and control hierarchies and preferred activation paths will inevitably emerge.

DeepBrain-New1Ultimately, what is needed in order to make precisely-targeted deep brain stimulation (DBS) possible is a real 3D model of the regions of the brain involved. Multiple efforts are underway, not the least of which are the work of Michele Tagliati’s group from the Movement Disorders Program in the department of neurology at Cedars-Sinai, or the Human Brain Project in Luasanne, Switzerland.

In these and other cases, the use of MRIs and brain scans to create a working map of the human brain – so that attempts to create biomimetic prosthetics that can enhance or assist in it’s functions – is the ultimate goal. And once researchers have a better idea of what the brain’s layout is, and what kinds of control hierarchies and paths are involved, we can expect to see brain implants becoming a regular feature of medicine.

And as always, devices that can restore function also open the way for the possibility of enhancement. So we can also expect that bionics prosthetics that restore memory and cognitive function will give way to ones that boost these as well. The dream of Homo Superior, the post-human, or transhumanism – whatever you choose to call it – is looking to be increasingly within our grasp.

And be sure to check out this video from LLNL showcasing how their new neural implant works:


Sources:
 cnet.com, extremetech.com, darpa.mil

The Future is Here: The Telescopic Contact Lense

telescopic_contact_lensWhen it comes to enhancement technology, DARPA has its hands in many programs designed to augment a soldier’s senses. Their latest invention, the telescopic contact lens, is just one of many, but it may be the most impressive to date. Not only is it capable of giving soldiers the ability to spot and focus in on faraway objects, it may also have numerous civilian applications as well.

The lens is the result of collaboration between researchers from the University of California San Diego, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and the Pacific Science & Engineering Group, with the financial assistance of DARPA. Led by Joseph Ford of UCSD and Eric Tremblay of EPFL, the development of the lens was announced in a recent article entitled “Switchable telescopic contact lens” that appeared in the Optics Express journal.

telescopic-contact-lens-2

In addition to being just over a millimeter thick, the lens works by using a series of tiny mirrors to magnify light, and can be switched between normal and telescopic vision, which is due to the lens having two distinct regions. The first The center of the lens allows light to pass straight through, providing normal vision. The outside edge, however, acts as a telescope capable of magnifying your sight by close to a factor of three.

Above all, the main breakthrough here is that this telescopic contact lens is just 1.17mm thick, allowing it to be comfortably worn. Other attempts at granting telescopic vision have included a 4.4mm-thick contact lens (too thick for real-world use), telescopic spectacles (cumbersome and ugly), and most recently a telescopic lens implanted into the eye itself. The latter is currently the best option currently available, but it requires surgery and the image quality isn’t excellent.

Telescopic-Contact-Lens-3To accomplish this feet of micro-engineering, the researchers had to be rather creative. The light that will be magnified enters the edge of the contact lens, is bounced around four times inside the lens using patterned aluminum mirrors, and then beamed to the edge of the retina at the back of your eyeball. Or as the research team put it in their article:

The magnified optical path incorporates a telescopic arrangement of positive and negative annular concentric reflectors to achieve 2.8x magnification on the eye, while light passing through a central clear aperture provides unmagnified vision.

To switch between normal and telescopic vision, the central, unmagnified region of the contact lens has a polarizing filter in front of it — which works in tandem with a pair of 3D TV spectacles. By switching the polarizing state of the spectacles – a pair of active, liquid crystal Samsung 3D specs in this case – the user can choose between normal and magnified vision.

AR_glassesThough the project is being funded by DARPA for military use, the research team also indicated that the real long-term benefits of a device like this one come in the form of civilian and commercial applications. For those people suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – a leading cause of blindness for older adults – this lens could be used to correct for vision loss.

As always, enhancement technology is a two-edged sword. Devices and systems that are created to address disabilities and limitations have the added benefit of augmenting people who are otherwise healthy and ambulatory. The reverse is also true, with specialized machines that can make a person stronger, faster, and more aware providing amputees and physically challenged people the ability to overcome these imposed limitations.

telescopic-contact-lens-5However, before anyone starts thinking that all they need to slip on a pair of these to get superhero-like vision, there are certain limitations. As already stated, the lens doesn’t work on its own but needs to be paired with a modified set of 3D television glasses for it to work. Simply placing it on the pupil and expecting magnified vision is yet not an option.

Also, though the device has been tested using computer modeling and by attaching a prototype lens to a optomechanical model eye, it has not been tested on a set of human eyes just yet. As always, there is still a lot of work to do with refining the technology and improving the image quality, but it’s clear at this early juncture that the work holds a lot of promise.

It’s the age of bionic enhancements people, are we find ourselves at the forefront of it. As time goes on, we can expect such devices to become a regular feature of our society.

Sources: news.cnet.com, extremetech.com

Singular

Galaxy1How incredible it was, to see it all so clearly. To look back on the many pearls that constituted the sum total of experience, so much pain, pleasure, and significant development; all summed up in a single perspective. How much they understood the complications and trials of seeing things through such prisms.

And yet, that was the point of it all, was it not? Nothing at all existed in the universe, except through the observer. Time and space themselves were relative; so ran the traditional wisdom. And these too, when it came right down to it were merely mirrors, reflecting the truth of one’s own existence back at them.

Existence… what else was there to ponder as they came to it at last, the end of one kind and the beginning of another?

Such was the quandary that had brought them all together, the stellar masses as they took the final steps towards union. They had been by each other so long, living together, witnessing together, pondering together. How much they each carried within, countless eons of sense memory and renditions, the sum total of every civilization that had contributed to their makeup. Only through concerted effort could they direct their thoughts inward and see back to the very beginnings, the foundations of it all…

Ah, yes, the beginning…

_____

“I’m telling you Astrid, we’re wasting our time contemplating which planet we should be making suitable. Our real efforts should be focused outward, on converting the stellar mass out there into computational constructs, or living biomass. You know, something useful!”

“And I’m telling you, Hermann, that kind of talk is going to get out funding cut and make the Board go with another panel’s suggestion. There’s only so much funding to go round, and we need to come at them with something they’re going to listen to.”

“Then let’s argue for something that’s actually new. What point is saving humanity when it’s becoming obsolete? We should be thinking about flooding space with our DNA and our nanoprobes and converting stars into storage mediums. Not making new balls or rock habitable for 19th century-style beat farming and cow herding!”

“You argue that, Paul, and they are going to think you are crazy, as many people here already suspect. We’re looking for a practical argument for the settlement of Mars, not futurist predictions about the coming age of transcendence!”

Hermann threw up his hands and grunted loudly. All around them, every member of the MST rolled their eyes or ducked their heads in embarrassment. Once again, the meeting had come down to an Astrid versus Hermann debate, the one arguing for sensible pragmatism and the other demanding they think bigger and bolder, way bigger and bolder.

“How about we review the arguments again,” said Chani, sitting at the other end of the room with a stack of folders and her Pad sitting on top. On the screen, a time indicator beeped away, recording the minutes of their latest meeting.

“What’s the point?” asked Richards, seated next to her. “We already know what the AST is going to be saying. Why don’t we work on our own pitch for a change?”

“Because the two or not mutually exclusive,” Astrid interjected, giving Chani the nod to go ahead. As she listed the key parts of their rivals position, she raised her fingers, condensing each argument into a succinct series of bullet points.

“One, the Aphrodisian Science Team believes that Venus can be terraformed in one big shot, versus our plan which is multi-tiered and would require generations to perform. There’s would last a single generation, according to their projections, and result in a world that would habitable within two; whereas Mars would not be ready for full-scale habitation for over a century. And there plan’s success could result in similar measures being used here on Earth to correct for the Greenhouse Shift we’re all fighting against.”

“Thus ensuring long-term benefits for comparatively less cost,” summarized Astrid with a nod. “Now someone tell me what we have going for us.”

“Mars is the logical choice,” insisted Richards. “It’s outside our orbit, it most likely held life at one time, and the odds of it being able to sustain life are far better than that of Venus.”

“Exactly,” replied Astrid. “No one can say for sure what led to the degradation of their atmosphere, but we have to assume there were indigenous Martians at one time, anything from single-celled organisms to plant life and reptiles. With the right kind of intervention of geoengineering, there could be again.”

“And by that extension, it is in a more favorable spot in our Sun’s habitable zone than Venus.” It was Hermann arguing this, much to Astrid and everyone else’s surprise. As such, he had their rapt attention as he continued elucidating on the point. “Even if they could convert it’s atmosphere within a generation, it’s almost surely going to revert back to acidic vapor without ongoing intervention from whatever colonists are there. The only way they can do that is to maintain a carbon neutral colony, which in itself is expensive, or to keep dumping sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere.”

Astrid nodded, suppressing a slight smile. It seemed her plan might have worked. By getting someone to raise points in favor of another argument, Hermann’s natural inclination to argue the opposite was triggered. Some believed her was in the habit of forgetting which team he was on, but she had learned to suspect that he was a natural contrarian.

“So what you’re saying is that their proposed cost saving measures…”

“Are a lie! Sure the techniques used could help stave off Earth turning into an molten ball of acid, but that’s because of our position. Mars is way more likely to remain stable, given its position, and with minimal maintenance.”

“And…” added Richards. “The worst the colonist would have to worry about it Global Dimming, in which case, we encourage them to pollute more.”

That got some positive nods from all around. “Settlers paradise,” they said, all in agreement.

Astrid smiled. Without knowing it, her team had come together to find the perfect pitch for the Board.

“So it’s settled then. When the AST presents their case, we go on the attack by undermining their claims that this is a one-shot deal. We then shore up our case by arguing that true sustainability can only be found with a Martian colony, and that that’s worth the investment.”

The group uttered words of assent and nodded happily. She looked over in Hermann’s direction, who simply shrugged. Not to be totally on board, he re-issued his original point.

“I still think we should be thinking about converting stellar mass into living computers…”

Chani shook her head and muttered under her breath. “Weirdo.”

_____

A moment of transition, like so many others. Those who participated had no knowledge of the sheer importance of their contribution. But then again, few ever did. Who could suspect that every moment lived in the past, every thought had, every utterance made, could alter the course of one’s fate? And at point of convergence, what was said determined the fate of entire worlds.

And yet, so few of them seemed to understand that. Many suspected themselves and their species of such unparalleled arrogance, thinking they were alone in the universe or the paragon of creatures. And they were right, after a fashion. But equally powerful was the persistent illusion of just how little they meant, how monumentally puny each of them was in a world populated by so many and universe so much larger than themselves…

With this dichotomy in mind, caught between how small and insignificant, yet how rare and precious, they all were, it was little wonder then why their early history was characterized by such frenetic, schizophrenic behavior. But in time, they had come to outgrow that. In time, they had come to understand just how precious their gift was, and how rare.

It was perhaps the act of finding others like them that seemed to do this…

_____

Jarlsbad watched the display for several minutes. The live feed coming from the Ganesha probe refreshed every few seconds, new information constantly being added. The time delay meant that what he was seeing at any given moment was several weeks old, but that scarcely mattered. At a distance of 600 light years, anything that even hinted at the existence of intelligent life could be taken at face value. A delay of several decades could still be considered of immeasurable value.

But this…

“We’re sure of what we’re looking at here?” he asked the voices speaking to him from the holoframes. “This isn’t some of malfunction with the probe or the deep-space array?”

“No chance,” said a face from his left, Doctor Padri of the Oberon Institute. “We’ve run diagnostics on all the relays within range and are still waiting on reports from those closest to Ganesha. But the consensus is that everything is running properly.”

“Plus, we’ve run the images through every quantum computer networked in the Solar System, sir,” added Doctor Mutri, speaking from his right. Olympus Mons hung in the background, its peaks misted by large white clouds.

“And they claim it’s legitimate?”

“Yes, Premier. There’s no mistaking what were looking at. Kepler 22b has a Dyson Swarm circling around it, indicating that she’s the host of an advanced civilization.”

“Just how advanced are we talking?” asked Jarlsbad. The faces in the windows all looked off in direction directions, each one looking to the display in their own nexus where Professor Tolkiev’s face resided. As the resident expert in theoretical xenology, he could be expected to be called upon in any discussion involving the likelihood of contact.

“Highly advanced, by our standards,” he said in his characteristically brusque voice. “Using the Kardashev scale of classification, I would say that they are a Type Two level civilization at least. Given their ability to create such a feet of engineering, it would be fair to say they have the ability to harness the power of their parent sun.”

Jarlsbad nodded, ducked his head for just a moment. A million possibilities began to run through his mind, so many that he was forced to bring the activity in his frontal cortex down just to hang on to any one of them for more than a millisecond. As it stood, this information was still classified, but it would not remain so. Few things ever did, but something like this was sure to trickle out sooner or later.

And once it did, people all over the Eight Worlds would begin to express a flurry of emotions. If not properly controlled and contained, it might very well come to be directed at his office itself. What was needed here was a strategy to break the news to the public and let them know, in the same breath, that a pro-active policy was being devised. But what could he offer them that would sate their potential concerns?

“Gentlemen and ladies,” he said, bringing his hands together. “At this juncture, what is the likelihood of First Contact taking place within the current generation’s lifetime?”

The faces in the displays all began to look around, each one sharing looks of uncertainty or doubt with each other. At their respective ranges, none could truly share their thoughts, in the sense of communicating them directly, but non-verbal cues still accounted for much of human communication. By the time words were added to the mix, a general consensus seemed to have formed.

“Scarcely any,” said Padri. “Even if we were to mount a mission immediately, it would take a Nessus-class almost seven-hundred years to make the transit. Any diplomatic team we sent would be subjectively making the visit within their lifetime, but to those back at home, this discovery would be the stuff of legend.”

“Then consider using the array to send a signal, then,” Mutri said. “We are able to receive this information almost in real-time thanks to the quantum information process. If we were to focus the array on Kepler itself… well, we have to assume they possess the means to intercept it.”

“Indeed. And we need not be speaking about a message conveyed in any human language. Just a mathematical construct that lets them know an intelligent race sent it. Something with structure and intelligibility.”

That produced general discussion from all the frames before the Premier. Back and forth, the heads turned, issuing words of assent or additional suggestions. Only Tolkiev appeared to be holding his tongue, his eyes downcast as if something was weighing on him. Eventually, Jarlsbad asked for silence and called on him.

“Professor, you’ve remained quite quiet at this point in our meeting. Is there something you’d like to share?”

“Yes,” he said, after a short pause. “Should we consider that no attempt at contact needs to be made?”

That created a torrent of less positive discussion. All around him, the talking heads issued their disagreement coupled with demands for further explanation. He was sure to oblige them.

“Well, if we acknowledge that this civilization – Keplerians, let’s call them – are more advanced than we are at present, while considering the fact that they have just recently come to our attention, does it not stand to reason that they could very well be aware of us as well?”

No one answered, but Jarslbad could tell from their expressions and mutters that they had not. He joined them in experiencing another flurry of mental activity, which he once again had to tone down to keep a straight head. The most important question on his mind, he directed at the professor.

“You’re saying then, that they may attempt to contact us?”

Tolkiev shrugged. “Who’s to say they already haven’t? Perhaps we just lacked the means to listen?”

_____

Those had been heady day, back then. What had started as the most precious and rare resource in the universe, emerging at different times and different places, but slowly expanding outwards to make common experience of the universe; soon, it began to merge, to combine and fight and exchange. Many difficult ages followed as some overtook others, others died out from natural causes, and some foundered when they turned inward and destroyed themselves.

Finding others in the universe who were like them, though they did not look, live or communicate like each other, could not hope to save all of them from their darker tendencies. As was said by numerous great minds scattered across time and space, no act of reaching outward could cause their races to outdistance their old selves. Even as they came to triumph over disease, death and great distances, the great beasts that were their ancestors still languished within…

In the end, it was only as they truly began to leave one life behind and contemplate the next that things began to change, and only in small increments. But alas, all agreed that the greatest step came when they began to truly let go of the thing which divided them. If only their had not been others doing the same thing, but at the other end of the cosmos…

_____

The platform was bathed in bright, warm light, the trinary stars glowing to the interior of the system and illuminating the entire installation. All around, diamondoid and alloy surfaces gleamed with prismatic patterns, every surface shining as soon as they turned to look at it head on. It was the perfect sight, the moment, a choice memory to end a lifetime of experience and individuality on.

Are we ready? the one said to the other. For some time now, they had been standing, their archaic bodies witnessing the spectacle with an embrace involving their extremities, specifically where the phalanges were interlocked. According to the ancient records, this was considered a gesture of intimacy. Though it did not seem to enhance their shared experience much, one could imagine without much effort how significant it would have seemed once upon a time…

Is anyone ever ready? asked the other. We’re our ancestors ready when they first shed their physical constraints? Were their progeny ready when they began to merge their mind’s into the first Cognate?

Point taken, the one replied. It is still quite the leap. Think of what we could lose.

A felt the wave of agreement emanating from the other. In that one gesture of thought, so much was made clear. Would they still be able to manifest as they did now? To splinter their own selves from the Cognate mind and reconnoiter as simple transhumans anymore? Would there still be those who chose to live out a limited existence as such either? As with any other existential singularity, there would be consequences, precedents, and the worry that the changes would be permanent and irreversible.

How could one ever enter into such a thing without a sense of misgiving? They both knew that their ancestors never did pass a particular threshold without experiencing fear and misgivings. In their own, individual ways, they revolted and rejected change, yet seemed to still move with it as a single mass. A paradox to be sure, but one thing had come from all that experience, a lesson which the Cognates all had access to.

Choice was always there. There was never anything so necessary or so inevitable that it could not be avoided, or postponed until other options could be found. Things entered into hastily almost always carried consequences with them…

And yet, we know that the others are doing the same…

Or so it is believed…

Keeping our Cognate separate from the others and we risk being left behind…

Merge and we risk triggering a race with the others, who may see it as a threat to their interests…

Agreed.

At once, they came together on this thought. All facets had been explored, all arguments raised in every Cognate in known space. All the home worlds of the old universe, all those who now feared being surpassed by the growing intellect of the Perseus Arm. How often had fear played a role in the decision to cross the next boundary? How often had it only made things worse? They could not say, as the examples were numerous and required extensive exploration of time and memory. And yet, the decision remained…

We have a choice, the other reminded, sensing the one’s thoughts. Fear does not negate choice.

Agreed.

They released their grip on each other’s extremities and took one last look around. It was time to return, to rejoin the Cognate and participate in the last of the deliberations. But it seemed likely that the decision was already made, the decision to bring each Cognate into a field of unified perception – an entire arm in the Galaxy connected, each star a link in a grand connectome of thinking stellar mass.

How awesome it would be, and yet how frightening…

They turned form the star’s that shone in the distance and began to walk the length of the platform, passing other transhumans who made their way about, taking in the sight of their home system before it became a link in a mighty chain. More seemed to be coming out as they moved closer to the nearest pylon, the gateway that would turn their bodies and their envirosuits into fleefloating quantum soup and allow their minds to rejoin the Cognate world below. All were seeking a little refuge by stepping into time, experiencing space from a much more relative and confined perspective. How liberating it seemed sometimes…

We will still find ways to step out, the one thought. He turned to face the other, and a new sense came between them. Everyone on the platform was aware of it too, the Cognate itself reaching out to scream with the same terrible realization.

Attack!

All subjective eyes looked out and saw the sun’s in the distance going dark. The bright yellow balls were being extinguished with horrible speed and precision, and their dying stellar masses closing in on themselves.

Attack… said the mind again. With lightning cognitive speed, it had processed what it had seen with its trillion-plus merged minds and the help of countless transhuman eyes dispersed throughout the system. The Perseans were responsible, of that their could be no doubt. Somehow, they had reached out with a time-space weapon and halted all nuclear reaction within the binary’s interior, causing the stars to wink out and die. In moments, the stars would collapse in on themselves and cause a reaction that would destroy everything in the system.

All worlds, all installations, even the Cognate itself…

To the Cognate, the process of witnessing its own death happened within the blink of an eye, though it took much longer for all those who remained in their transhuman form. The one and the other were two such beings, having stayed behind to watch the oncoming wave as it obliterated all they knew and held dear.

They knew something of them would survive, small fragments that would be found when the remains of the system were sifted through. But they did not want to be amongst them. On some level, they had known that their existence was not to be indefinite, and after today, they both knew that existence would be difficult and painful. No longer was it a matter of stepping into a brave new future, but into a dark past. Death and destruction for untold trillions, pain and suffering from untold eons.

We do not want to live after today, the one said.

No, we don’t, agreed the other.

_____

So much pain as past and future fought for control of their minds. And yet, so much knowledge gleamed from it all. The last of the stellar masses knew with certainty that they had come through it all with a new purpose in mind. Now, the last threshold in a long line would be passed. And yet, there would always be more to transcend. When they all came together to form an entire Galaxy of conscious singularity, they would look out onto a universe as one and contemplate the next step…

Would they find others like them? Given the extent of the great plane of existence, it was almost a certainty. And if there were not others who were not yet as they would be soon, they could wait. When they had passed into this next stage, time would seem even more relative and irrelevant. They could wait eons or even longer before finding others to talk to. They hopes they would be friends. If not, time had a way of ensuring that consensus would set in.

And then what? Would they too merge? Would they come together as an entire cluster within the universe? Would it too someday form into a singular organism? Where would they look to then? Could it be that there really were countless universes out there, arranged on top of each other or simply within separate spheres? How long before they all became aware of each other, or even of the force that had created them all?

Who could tell? With every step, they seemed to be getting closer to that source, even becoming more like it. And yet, with every step, they learned that the ultimate was always several steps farther. Something greater always there to measure their own existence by. Perhaps it would always be that way, growing and striving until at one fine point, it all came to an end.

And then they would once again look back and contemplate the beginning…