Neural interfaces, mind-reading AI, and gene-editing. Sci-fi becomes reality

Neural interfaces, mind-reading AI that can decode our brainwaves and extract depictions out of them, and editing our genes are progresses that once sounded pretty sci-fi, but are on the verge of becoming reality. What can we learn from it? An analysis.

When I was about 6 years old, I asked my mom if it would be possible to have a „computer“ read your thoughts, and project them onto a screen, therefore creating the next type of telepathic Hollywood movie. I loved movies, and although this kind of films would have rid every cameraman in Hollywood of their job, I already loved the idea of being able to steer everything with your thoughts.

It was still 1900-something, and there weren’t any iPhones, Bluetooth devices, or Siris, yet. Don’t ask me why I would, as a child, have wanted to cause every cameraman to lose their job. I don’t have any problem with camera guys, really. 

I finished „Aquatropolis“ in 2016. The progress in AI and things such as CRISPR-Cas is fast-paced, and there has been already a lot of progress between 2016 and now.

In the book, which is about a futuristic city („Aquatropolis“) in another solar system, I thought about what a futuristic society could look like, and what kind of devices they would use.

Below, I have collected some predictions and ideas, to compare them to the progress that we are actually working on.

1. Neural interfaces and mind-reading AI

First, I love the thought of having AI reading your mind, not only because it would make it possible to create movies where there are literally no boundaries anymore for effects, but because it would make everything so much easier. In the city of „Aquatropolis“, people are implanted some kind of nano-sized device into their heads just below their temple, which then works like some sort of hard drive and OS. This interface allows people to physically store data IN their heads instead of „only“ on their devices, and allows them to think of something (say, the new report that your boss wants you to write), and it will be recorded and projected onto a screen. So, I would not have to write this article using my hands, but could only think of it, and an AI would compile the article for me. Given that mind-reading AIs are already a thing, this one seems pretty realistic.

2. Metos („short-mind-messages“)

In „Aquatropolis“, metos are „short-mind-messages“, the equivalent of a WhatsApp or Telegram message that can be written using your thoughts, and then sent in real time to any recipient (who has the neural interface installed in their head). People can write, send, and read (or listen to) these messages without ever having to even open a device. An AI records their thoughts, compiles them into a message, sends it, and will display messages so that you can read them either from a device or from the screen that is placed on the lenses that you’re wearing in your eyes.

3. AI becomes alive

One of my favourite civilizations in the book are the „Scaleskins“, an artificially created species that once were engineered as an AI, but then merged with biological bodies, to allow them to become actual beings. The thought here was that if you can create fully functional artificial brains, then why not use them to put them into biological bodies? These Scaleskins are intelligent, enduring, and analytical. They make the best guards, fighters, and, in the book, also servants, and they have HD capable eyes that cause everybody to be afraid of them. But then, it’s not easy to forge an entirely artificial species, and in the story, those AI sometimes suffer from short-circuits, causing them to become violent and wreak havoc, at one point even attempting to seize control of the government. But that doesn’t mean that this is what would actually happen, right? Otherwise, be nice to your AI.

4. Gene-editing

Something easy and superficial, after we’ve all had those horrifying pictures of an ultra-intelligent, violent AI destroying our cities on our minds. Gene-editing! I have described in „Aquatropolis“ how people can’t become infected by bacteria or viruses anymore because they edited their bodies and caused their blood to become poisonous. Perhaps that is a little far-fetched. But other things, such as editing your genes to prevent your hair from turning grey, or to change your appearance, could actually be realistic, even though the hair colour market would really need to look for other business models, then. Although CRISPR-Cas is still debatable, the progress that we could edit our genes so that we could eventually not be affected by infections anymore, would push our healthcare system forward.

5. AI is watching

I’ve received a couple of comments from people, and yes, the world in „Aquatropolis“ does actually include hints of a Totalitarian government. But as I’ve said in previous articles, I had never intended to write about a world that is Utopian, and where everything is nice. That would just not be realistic.

In that world, citizens are wearing an implant that allows them to send and read messages, and to store data in their head. But that device that is implanted actually also works as a locating service. This allows the government in the story to always know exactly what people in their cities are up to, and where they are.

6. Swimming and floating cities

It already looks as though several cities could disappear once climate change erodes coastlines and floods make it more and more tiresome to leave in cities near the ocean. This may cause our cities having to evolve.

The hypothetical city of Aquatropolis is actually a city that partly floats on platforms on the water, and partly was built beneath the sea surface. Once, it had been erected on an island, and then crawled towards the coast as it grew. After thousands of years, the city has grown to the size of a billion citizens.

Statistics already predict that in the near future, most people will live in cities. This will demand more space in cities that are already about to burst. But a growing population doesn’t have to mean that cities will collapse. It can give cities the chance to evolve. If cities were to stretch out their antlers towards the oceans, and to expand into the water by swimming platforms and by erecting entire districts under water, cities could grow despite limited space ashore. Certainly, this would mean that there would have to be measurements in place so that this would not further pollute the ocean.

Perhaps we may have to accept that one day, AI will demand independence, such as the Scaleskins. Perhaps, we will have to start to learn how to erect cities below the sea surface. Perhaps, we will have to get used to us having to be watched. Only the future will tell.

- Ámaris Wen

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