Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Take control of the input, and you shall become master of the output"

A popular gambit among my friends in games of Apples to Apples is to go for broke on "Pond Scum". That card has a track record of victories that would have made Napoleon green with envy. Turns out that pond scum is actually more fantastic than we had previously imagined. You see, a gene first isolated in a certain variety of pond scum is a key component of the emerging field of Optogenetics.  What's optogenetics? Why, it is all about controlling genetically-modified cellular matter...

...with LASERS.
(Well, most any light source of the correct wavelength[s] will do.)

 "What's so exciting about that - besides the lasers, of course?" you ask?
How 'bout super-precise mind-machine interfacing? It turns out that direct electrical stimulation of the brain tends to excite more neurons than you actually want to activate. Optogeneticists have added markers to their inserted genes for light-sensitivity such that they will only be active in the desired type of neuron, and can infect relatively small areas of brain tissue with the retrovirii that deliver the genes. The upshot? It is now possible to activate very specific groups of neurons in the brain. It gets better: toss in a gene that makes neurons glow (green, it turns out) when they're active, and you have an equally-precise mind-reading technology. Two-way communication between the brain and external machinery is a huge milestone in cybernetics, and it is within our reach now.

In a recent discussion about the feasability and desireability of cybernetic enhancement, a friend of mine argued that the major disadvantage of cybernetics (as opposed to external enhancements, ie. powered exoskeletons) is obsolesence. Who wants to have a set of electrodes implanted in their brain if they'll need replacement with the next model in three weeks' time? What strikes me about this new technology is that adding this send/receive technology to the brain is done by retroviral engineering. I'm a little fuzzy about the particulars, but I think it's conceivable that should an enhanced version of these genes be developed, it could be as simple as just another few injections. Ok, so they're injections RIGHT INTO YOUR BRAIN...but I think I'd take that over really really really invasive surgery to stick metal permanently in there. I hope that's how it'll work, anyhow.

I'm getting ahead of myself, of course. The early applications for this breakthrough are mostly therapeutic. Still, it's good to know that the inventors do have their priorities straight.

Now, I suppose the only question is : how long will it be until Nintendo and Microsoft start building this tech into gimmicky, over-hyped game control systems?


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