Neural Lace, Meshnet, and What Is the Future of the Mind?
Where does thinking come from? How does it work? Science fiction has some ideas. Like no other genre, science fiction is able to question the human condition while imagining new potential for human growth. Such changes might be beneficial or destructive. One of these core science fiction questions is “What is the nature of the human mind?”
The Mind is What the Brain Does
Neuroscience and neurology today include in-depth studies, guesses, and solid conclusions that the mind is what the brain does (Marvin Minsky made the phrase ‘the mind is what the brain does’ famous).
As such we are physical beings, rich with complex biology governed by physical and chemical interactions of all types. This scientific context places many of science fiction’s explorations in a naturalistic context, even a mechanical one full of thinking computers and robots. The most typical context for questioning the mind in science fiction relates to the rise of artificial intelligence. Within that is a special form of artificial or augmented intelligence that I love, called neural lace, a superthin network of wires that wrap through neurons in the brain. It’s a great metaphor in fiction, and, it’s also becoming a viable reality.
Neural lace was perhaps first coined by author Iain Banks, in his The Culture series (http://www.iain-banks.net/books/ ) For example, in his novel ‘Surface Detail’ the character Y’breq was implanted with a neural lace.
Borne out of existing technologies, neural lace isn’t as far-fetched an idea as it at first seems. Researchers at Harvard and the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in China have created a neural lace variation — a kind of array of sensors that can be injected into the brain. My main source for their studies was “Syringe-injectable electronics” (Nature Nanotechnology 10, 629–636 (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.115 ) Authors are Jia Liu, Tian-Ming Fu, Zengguang Cheng, Guosong Hong, Tao Zhou, Lihua Jin, Madhavi Duvvuri, Zhe Jiang, Peter Kruskal, Chong Xie, Zhigang Suo, Ying Fang & Charles M. Lieber. Consider this, from the authors’ abstract:
Seamless and minimally invasive three-dimensional interpenetration of electronics within artificial or natural structures could allow for continuous monitoring and manipulation of their properties. Flexible electronics provide a means for conforming electronics to non-planar surfaces, yet targeted delivery of flexible electronics to internal regions remains difficult. Here, we overcome this challenge by demonstrating the syringe injection (and subsequent unfolding) of sub-micrometre-thick, centimetre-scale macroporous mesh electronics through needles with a diameter as small as 100 μm. Our results show that electronic components can be injected into man-made and biological cavities, as well as dense gels and tissue, with >90% device yield. (link: http://www.nature.com/nnano/journal/v10/n7/full/nnano.2015.115.html#author-information )
Translation: we are able to inject tiny electronic webs into the brain, and control them electronically.
Even bold innovators like Elon Musk are in on neural lace: http://www.recode.net/2016/6/2/11837544/elon-musk-neural-lace
Would Neural Lace Help You Be Able to Change Your Mind?
Beyond that neural lace is beginning to exist, we already know from modern neuroscience that the brain consists of multiple modules that cooperate, that feedback and constrain each other, and that work simultaneously ‘in parallel.’ The ways that it can constrain itself can lock-in thoughts, and make it difficult to create new habits and new thinking. Would neural lace be able to get us out of this lockmind, a kind of viral lockjaw of thinking?
I think it might. Years and years ago (in high school biology actually… 1984?) I read studies of brain science related to preventing seizures in epileptic patients. These were Gazzaniga and Sperry’s initial studies and invention of the corpus calloscotomy, splitting the brain of severe epileptics to prevent surges of electricity moving from one hemisphere to the other. The procedure prevented certain types of siezures. It also became some of the early all-too fashionable notion of a distinct ‘right brain’ versus ‘left brain’ description in too many fields, such as my home turf of the arts. (As if artists can’t be analytic!)
But neuroscience has shown that our brains are much more complex than mere right-left divisions. So when we are discussing optics, visual processing and their relationships to visual art, I tell my students today that creativity is an inside-outside, top-down, front-back, modular and whole brain affair. So if neural lace targeted a specific module or sequence of patterns, they could be reorganized.
New studies by Doron, Bassett and Gazzaniga also suggest that the brain is much more plastic than the early calloscotomy studies, and coordination across modules of the brain is both transient and dynamic. (See: “Dynamic network structure of interhemispheric coordination” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 109 no. 46, Karl W. Doron, 18661–18668, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1216402109)
Thus is you could put a working neural lace into the brain, you would engage a dynamic, living, plastic, and complex series of systems. Today this could help monitor the brain’s actions. Tomorrow it might affect them.
The Difference Between Neural Lace and Meshnet
But what if neural lace might have a rudimentary or a true synthetic intelligence? Now imagine that it can interact with, talk to, and collaborate with the brain: that’s the ‘meshnet’ idea in some of my science fiction stories. In a way it is a technological metaphor for a brain within the brain — for being able to talk to yourself.
One of the first stories I wrote with this theme is now published in as “A Persistence of Ghosts” which appears in the new “Speculative Story Bites” anthology from World Weaver Press. (available on Amazon at link (http://www.amazon.com/Speculative-Story-Bites-E-Decker-ebook/dp/B01HTSVHU2 ) In this story a neuroscientist gets confused about what thoughts and memories are real and what aren’t, while recovering from having a neural lace installed in his brain. In the story it isn’t working very well, and the character suffers from a bad case of glossolalia.
Nectar for the Butterfly and Confusing Thought for Reality for Dream
There’s a quite famous story from the philosopher Chuang Tzu, about dreaming he was a butterfly, who on awakening wasn’t sure he was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming he is a man. This type of overlap between thought and existence will, I think, become more and more prominent if computers (and all their virtual worlds) are able to be nested within the brain (and all of its virtual worlds). Such intersections and overlaps could lead to a kind of doubling and mirroring of types and kinds of realities. And maybe that dual state of observation could be a good thing? Or maybe it would be an even more insidious augmented reality than Pokemon Go.
In another one of my recent science fiction stories, “Nectar for the Butterfly” (recently submitted for publication, wish me luck!) the plot involved two main characters, an artist and a scientist, whose lives intersect with each other through a futuristic bathroom mirror that links directly with the main character’s mind, relying on a new modern technology which I’ve called the ‘meshnet.’ It’s a variation of the neural lace idea. In my story, the meshnet acts as a secondary mind, specifically used for medical and diagnostic purposes to help the main character deal with her chronic migraines.
Setting this artist-character into a near future scenario means that debilitating illnesses like migraine might be in the middle of being healed or prevented, rather than what we might expect in the distant future that most or all maladies are resolved. When she suffers from hallucinations, which are a very common side effect of the fatigue that migraines can cause, the main character blames the meshnet. But it claims nothing is wrong with its functions. It turns out the something much weirder is going on, including characters who have meshnets installed within their meshnets, forming a new network of networks within networks.
In a way, the meshnet acts as a filter for the main character beginning to talk herself out of her main problems. It also begins to be a metaphor for how people disagree with themselves, and sometimes have conflicted inner drives.
Meanwhile today there’s more than a few fascinating attempts to conjoin mind and technology, such as DARPA’s so-called ‘cortical modem.’ See entertaining overview at http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/darpa-cortical-modem-connects-brain-directly-computer-electronic-telepathy-telekinesis-1488476
And then there’s the rise of intensive biological applications of nanotechnology related to the brain, such as Sakhret Khizroev’s astonishing work at Florida International University. His team injected 20 billion nanoparticles into mouse brains, such that with a magnetic field they were able to create small electrical fields within the brain at extremely precise locations. This technology could have immense therapeutic effects, drug effects (carrying nanotech drugs to kill a brain tumor, for example). The technology might also eventually lead to new ways to control computers, if the effect can be reversed, so that the nanoparticles could transmit information to a computer.
Add to that the general understanding of quantum physics involved in warm, wet biological processes, such as photosynthesis and smell, and we can suspect that quantum physics might also be involved in the root operations of neurons.
Therein is a much larger technological idea of my “Nectar for the Butterfly” story, that using quantum mechanical ideas such as photon entanglement, one might be able to develop faster-than-light communications in very subtle ways. This is like Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous ‘ansible,’ but in my story, the scientists are in the middle of developing the tech, making some mistakes, and incorporating it through the quantum worlds inside their own cranial meshnets.
It’s not that different than reading this blog post filtered through dozens of computer networks to reach your computer’s or phone’s screen, except that as science fiction, the networks are all in your head.
Jargon for Meshnet World-Building for Science Fiction
At some point I figured maybe the story’s scientists would have a complex new culture involving many different types of meshnet technologies, some that worked well and some that didn’t (all engineering is a process of refinement and invention, after all). What kind of cultures make effective neural lace? How would that play out in the story? Writing that backstory down and how it would work gave me a lot of fuel for expanding the Nectar story. Along the way I realized that to accommodate such ideas, the culture would need to have radical new language to describe the sheer oddities of their lives and interactions with quantum ideas, which would surely in the future evolve beyond what we know today. So I invented the following terms related to the idea of quantum entanglement, so that the story’s future scientists could have a language of description and we as readers would learn just how strange and alien their ideas really are:
Twinned-time = Twime (communication across two regions of spacetime, at different time indices)
Submirror (you can see how that relates to the idea of mirroring in the story)
Waveterstices (peaks of attractions, locations among them, interstices between waves)
Gravisink (point of attraction)
Quallapse (the end of a function)
Decoherence (rise of static in the system, end of function)
Posiparallel (position-parallels for entanglement across spacetime)
Threed (use 3-dimensional thinking across layering needed to carry information)
Twunnel / twunneling (use of micro wormholes to carry information)
Fuzz-jump (because quantum states are fuzzy, often indeterminate, probablistic)
Wave-hop (surfing the wave functions from peak to peak)
tele-twime / teletwimed (communications across entangled parallel pairs through spacetime)
qwash-reset (to cause a series of wave functions to collapse to zero for a full reset)
I don’t mean to say those are realistic or viable ideas that would actually work. The point for the story is metaphor to aim at emotional consequences for the characters’ conflicts … whatever each of those ideas means, the overall gist is that future scientists have learned so much that they cannot explain and describe what they know to people who like the main character, the artist, who haven’t even learned basic quantum physics.
Interestingly, all of this, for the purpose of command and control of various quantum entanglement systems, would require at least femtosecond and nanopositioning lasers. Such lasers are available today, which means the radical language here may not be quite so futuristic after all.
The bigger process would be that the microtubules throughout neurons might carry electrons into various actions and reactions that might (and this is a huge ‘if’…) lead to the emergent properties of consciousness. If that’s true, then similar processes might happen in a meshnet technology made of nanofibers, which could arrange in tiny tubules too, and might contain optical or other means for command and control of the meshnet systems.
Together as metaphors within the story, these terms and ideas are meant to add a sense of plausibility to the twin dynamic happening in the story, where the problems that the main character has of reinvigorating her career as an artist are paralleled by the mistakes and successes that the scientist has while developing a working communications system through the meshnets, that is, of being of more than one mind on any given topic.
A Bit of Personal Experience Wrapping Computer Livingry Around My Brains
That basic notion, of being an artist suffering migraines and hallucinations caused by fatigue is also a personal idea to me, mirroring my own troubles when I was a graduate student in art in New York City. At the time I suffered undiagnosed sleep apnea, and as a result endured many intense headaches and fatigue that sometimes produced hallucinations. Also mental illness runs in my family, so I was very worried. Today I’m much better, and every night I connect myself to a CPAP-machine to breathe correctly and sleep. The CPAP-mask wraps around and over my head, and is controlled and governed by a tiny computer and well-engineered tech… in a sense helping produce good sleep it really does help me think more clearly. So for me it’s not a huge stretch to think of adding a device to your head and realizing that it can help you think more clearly. And I do kind of wish the cpap could be built right in so that it’d function well without the cumbersome take on/off process.
The theme of cognitive change occurs in a lot of my work as a result of this kind of worry and experience overcoming fatigue. The meshnet is a good iteration of this theme.
The Best Meshnet is Education
I also think that neural lace, and the meshnet idea, might also serve well as a metaphor for education, that as you gain expertise in a new field, in a way you gain a new set of tunings, a new network for your brain. Some of them stem from your own innovations and adaptations, of course, but others come distinctly from the outside. A lot of language and culture is not your own ideas, but rather, is vast nets of associations that we each absorb from the world, and then remix.
Here’s my all time favorite meshnet for add-ons to your brain: level-up with Carl Sagan’s book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” (1995, Random House / Ballantine Books).
But watch out world. If meshnets and neural lace come true, and if they could filter and provide digital information directly to the brain, then you could read Sagan’s words in the blink of an eye.
*** *** ***
Thank you for reading.
If you enjoyed this post, please check my books online, such as Water Taxi in a River of Vampire Fish
Or sign-up for my mailing list to get your free copy of Moon Dust Infinity
*** *** ***