Friday, May 26, 2017

A human-machine cortical interface (in fiction)

The BIAC is the Bio-Inter-Active-Computer.
"For the first couple of days after his arrival in Baltimore, Clifford sat through a series of lectures and tutorials aimed at imparting some essential concepts of BIAC operation and at giving the class some preliminary benefits from the techniques that others had developed.

"The BIAC becomes an efficient tool when you've learned to forget that it's there," one of the instructors told them. "Treat it as if you were learning to play the piano -concentrate on accuracy and let speed come in its own time. Once you can play a piano well, you let your hands do all the work and just sit back and enjoy the music. The same thing happens with a BIAC."

Eventually Clifford found himself sitting before the operator's console in one of the cubicles adjacent to the machine room while an instructor adjusted the lightweight skull-harness around his head for the first time. For about a half-hour they went through the routine of calibrating the machine to Clifford's brain patterns, and then the instructor keyed in a command string and sat back in his chair.

"Okay," the instructor pronounced. "It's live now. All yours, Brad."

An eerie sensation instantly seemed to take possession of his mind, as if a bottomless chasm had suddenly opened up beside it to leave it perched precariously on the brink. He had once stood in the center of the parabolic dish of a large radio telescope and had never forgotten the experience of being able to shout at the top of his voice and hear only a whisper as the sound was reflected away. Now he was experiencing the same kind of feeling, but this time it was his thoughts that were being snatched away.

And then chaos came tumbling back in the opposite direction  - numbers, shapes, patterns, colors ... twisting, bending, whirling, merging ... growing, shrinking ... lines, curves ... .

His mind plunged the whirlpool of thought kaleidoscoping inside his head. And suddenly it was gone.

He looked around and blinked. Bob, the Navy instructor, was watching him and grinning.

"It's okay; I just switched it off," he said. "That blow your mind?"

"You knew that would happen," Clifford said after he had collected himself again. "What was it all about?"

"Everybody gets that the first time," Bob told him, "It was only a couple of seconds ... gives you an idea of the way it works, though. See, the BIAC acts like a gigantic feedback system for mental processes, only it amplifies them round the loop. It will pick up vague ideas that are flickering around in your head, extrapolate them into precisely defined and quantitative interpretations, and throw them straight back at you.

"If you're not ready for it and you give it some junk, you get back superjunk; before you know it, the BIAC's picked that up out of your head too, processed it the same way, and come back with super-superjunk. You get a huge positive feedback effect that builds up in no time at all. BIAC people call it a 'garbage loop.' "

"That's all very well," Clifford said. "But what the hell do I do about it?"

"Learn to concentrate and to continue concentrating," Bob told him. "It's the stray, undisciplined thoughts that trigger it ... the kinds of thing that run around in your head when you've got nothing in particular to focus on. Those are the things you have to learn to suppress."

"That's easy to say," Clifford muttered, then shrugged helplessly. "But how do I start?"

Bob grinned good-humoredly.

"Okay," he said. "Let's start by giving you some exercises for practice. Try ordinary simple arithmetic. Visualize the numbers you want to operate on, concentrate hard on them and also on the operation you want to perform, and exclude everything else. Get it fixed in your mind before I switch you in again. Okay?"

"Just anything?" Clifford shrugged. "Okay."

He mentally selected the digits 4 and 5 and elected to multiply them together, just to see what happened. The torrent of chaos hit him again before he realized Bob had hit the key.

"That was a bit sneaky of me," Bob confessed. "The best time to slot in is often when the problem is clear in your mind. Try again?"


After three more excursions round the garbage loop, Clifford sensed something different. Just for a split-second it was there; the concept of the number 20 seemed to explode in his brain, impressing itself with a clarity and a forcefulness that excluded everyything else from his perceptions. Never before in his life had he experienced anything so vividly as that one simple number for that one brief moment. Then the garbage came at him again and swallowed it up. For a while he just sat there dumbstruck.

"Got it that time, huh?" Bob's voice brought him back to reality.

"I think so, at least for a second."

"That's good," Bob stated, encouraging his pupil. "You'll find for a while that the shock of realizing it's working distracts you enough to blow it. You'll get over that though. Don't try and fight it, just ride it easy. Try again?"

An hour later Bob posed the problem, "Two hundred seventy-three point five six multiplied by one hundred ninety-eight point seven one?"

Clifford gazed hard at the console, visualized the numbers, and almost immediately recited, "Fifty four thousand, three hundred and fifty nine point one zero seven six."

"Great stuff, Brad. I reckon that'll do for a first session. Let's break off for lunch and go have a beer."

 A week later Clifford was learning to-cope with problems in elementary mechanics - situations involving concepts of shape, space, and motion as well as numerical relationships. He found, as his skills improved, that he could create a dynamic conceptual model of a multibody collision and instantly evaluate any of the variables involved.

Not only that, he could, by simply willing it, replay the abstract experiment as many times as he liked from any perspective and in any variation that he pleased. He could "feel" the changing stress pattern in a mechanical structure subjected to moving loads, "see" the flow of currents in an electrical circuit as plainly as that of liquid in a network of glass tubes.

By the end of the fourth week he could guide himself through to the solution of a tensor analysis as unerringly as he could guide his finger out of a maze in a child's coloring book.

The BIAC's adaptive learning system grew steadily more attuned to his particular methods of working and automatically remembered the routines that it had flagged as yielding desired results. As time went on it proceeded to string these routines together into complete procedures that could be invoked instantly, without their having to be assembled all over again.

In this way the machine automated progressively more of the mundane mechanics of solving a whole variety of problems, leaving him ever more free to concentrate on the more creative activity of evolving the problem-solving strategy. It therefore built up its own programs as it went along; and it was all the time expanding and refining its collection.

Programming in the classical sense, even with respect to the parallel programming used in the distributed computing systems of the 1980s and '90s, no longer meant very much.

Clifford imagined a single cube. He imagined that he was looking at from the direction of one of the corners and down on to it. Having fixed the picture in his mind, he opened his eyes and found a fair representation of it staring back at him from the BIAC graphic screen. It was not bad - a bit ragged at one of the corners and the lines were a little wavy here and there, but ... not bad.

Even as he thought about it, the subconscious part of his mind took its cue from his visual perceptions and the imperfections in the displayed image subtly dissolved away.

"Try adding some color," Aggie suggested. ..."

The Genesis Machine was published in 1978 and I read it as an artificial intelligence researcher at STL in the 1980s.

Amazon link

I still struggle to think of a better description of the subjective experience of learning to use a cortical-interface to a computer.

The second facet of the novel is a quantum-gravity theory the author calls "k-space" discovered by the scientist-protagonist Brad Clifford. It's a six-dimensional Kaluza-Klein theory-variant with some overtones of String Theory.

Today I have limited patience for pages data-dumping faux-science, but back then it all seemed pretty exotic.

The final component is the plot. Brad and his experimentalist-sidekick Aubrey Philipsz ('with a z') are hounded by powerful bureaucrats who don't understand the significance of Brad's theory, won't let him publish and deny him funds to test and exploit it. The Military-Industrial Complex is the bad guy and the story tells how idealistic, pacifistic Brad and his like-minded chums manage to defeat the warmongers using the eponymous machine they eventually fund against them.

The researchers against the management theme had a powerful resonance at STL in the 1980s!

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