Dream Job Versus Reality (Why)
Growing up, I didn’t have the usual aspirations a young boy would normally have. I didn’t want to go to outer space, I didn’t want to fight fires, I didn’t want to wrangle cattle. All I knew is that I had a terribly strong appreciation for anything scientific, whether it was chemistry, physics, biology, technology or anything related to nature. Instead of showing interest in toys like GI Joes or cowboy and Indian sets, I can classify all of my toys into two categories: scientific or outdoor fun. Heck, I was still a young boy so of course I had balls, bikes, water guns and all of that shit. The other side of the coin is the one of interest.
My parents basement was my personal laboratory, containing the requisite lab sets and experiments. I’m sure many of them are still in that same basement, but you’ll need to know that they are all probably replacements for kits I worked through earlier. Chemistry sets ran out of chemicals and physics sets ran out of wires or I’d lose pieces. There were only two types that I never actually used. One would be the do-it-yourself kits for building something like a small clock. Those never interested me, simply because you were working within a bounded space. The mind wasn’t given the ability to run wild with possibilities, trying new things to see what happened just for the hell of it. Those kits were nothing more than following basic directions and I would never attain a sense of accomplishment in just putting tab A into slot B twenty times. The second set I never used? For whatever reason, my parents had a dissection kit with a microscope, slides of slices of animal matter and even a whole bee in a preservation jar. This little kit came in a solid wood case and even my immature mind knew this was no toy.
Even though I was given full access to that set and was told I could do anything and everything, I never even used the microscope. Of course I already had one (dorky kid, remember?) and I would just check out some of the slides in awe. I didn’t want to waste anything from that kit. I knew it was meant to be used and used up but it was just too special. I can still picture that bee in the jar.
I never showed a predilection to a specific scientific field until I was about 10 years old. My interest in biology, anatomy specifically, grew as I was exposed to more in school. I’m not giving credit to any specific teacher I had in elementary school (heck, I can’t even remember all of their names! Let’s see, Hipschen for 6th, Kendall for 4th, Peterson for 1st… that’s all I remember!), but I do know what little science I had in school was absolutely lapped up. By my 11th birthday, my parents bought me Gray’s Anatomy and while I didn’t understand or really need a 600 page book on human anatomy, it was the one item that pushed me toward medicine. When I had digested enough of that book, I knew I was interested in medicine and I would eventually be a doctor.
The interest in technology started to rear back up though and my interests slid away from the natural sciences and toward tech. My parents stopped buying me watches because I would always take them apart. Never did I put one back together in a working fashion, a limitation I keep to this day. I love technology, I love anything mechanical but if you followed how long it took me to install my new car horns, you know I do not have the mechanical touch (Ordered the horns on 11Oct2004 and didn’t get them installed until 24Mar2005). So anyway, I was suddenly interested in computers, gadgets and fun electronic baubles. I must have built twenty different computers in the span of a few years and if you think about it, how is that different from putting tab A into slot B over and over? Yet oddly, I was getting a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes things would work perfectly from the get go and that was fine but I actually enjoyed it when things didn’t work at first. I had to use problem solving and technical knowledge to overcome a problem. This started to apply to more than just computer hardware. I was designing websites, running my own servers, networking computers and more. It was hard to get enough, so much so that I started building computers for friends, running their websites, creating mail servers for no real reason and more.
When I started college, I went with biology. It was the passion that I had held the longest, even if it wasn’t the strongest at that current point in time. I loved computers, but I didn’t enjoy writing code which I thought was the only thing that computer scientists did. Soon after starting school, I was able to see the myriad of topics that could be covered in a CS degree and while I couldn’t fit it in my second semester, I was taking CS classes by my second year. Getting a solid A in that first CS class, a total weeder course, and I was hooked. After some serious deliberation, discussion with my parents and friends, I decided to dual major in both biology and computer science. I was still thinking med school, but I had to have more computer experience, it was intoxicating.
Here is where the career choice starts to fall of track. Taking biology classes and computer science classes at the same time, how could I not think of the integration of the two? The application of computer science on biology is fairly mundane: analysis of genetic code, protein chain unraveling, et cetera. The application of biology on computer science? There we go. It’s almost more electrical engineering than computer science, but that messes up my story. Artistic license, thanks. So at this point, I’m thinking about integration of computers, circuitry and electronics into humans in general but I keep thinking specifically of the man-machine interface (usually referenced MMI).
MMI is not a single concept but a lush area of possibilities. Examples include the mundane (the keyboard you are using now is technically MMI) to the frightening (jacking into the Matrix, anyone?). Oddly enough, when I was doodling, just postulating about how to create an all-encompassing MMI, my thought was also of a port within the neck. Of course we don’t see exactly how it works in the Matrix, but it could be similar to my design. Basically, the spinal cord is the central location for both sensory input and muscle control. The concept is basically a shim, a plate that is inserted in a specific area of the spinal cord. I have no idea if it is technically possible today, but this plate would allow for the uninterrupted passing of sensory input across the plate. If installed, a user wouldn’t feel a single difference (again, I make no claims of technical ability) and would continue to have complete control over sensation and motor control. The shim would have an IO jack, presumably at the neck for ease of use. I always pictured a flat ribbon type jack, not quite the elongated headphone jack as seen in the Matrix. This could be used for the passive collection of data that crosses the spinal cord shim. The information could be used to track sensation and motor control, something that could be extremely useful for combat situations. And that’s just the passive aspect!
If the plate was sophisticated enough to detect the transmission of single neuronal pulses, of course it would be sophisticated enough to either change the transmission or to provide it’s own transmission. Here is where it gets scary. There is no way to design an interface that couldn’t potentially be used to create a human puppet. I’d rather not discuss that concept as it’s simply unsolvable at this time. Rather, imagine that the interface could be used such that you could send and receive transmissions to properly control your behavior. What if you could send down a signal, the plate intercepts it, then sends a specific neuronal coding for a specific series of muscle action? Again, it seems like puppetry, but it could be used to improve a range of skills, basically anything involving motion. I leave potential uses to the reader.
If we have an IO port, who needs any sort of interface to a computer? Let’s ignore the fact that we haven’t covered the senses, but just touch and motor ability. The computer experience could still have a monitor but all input would be straight from the shim. I believe that our computer experience is still in a 2d fashion not because of the usage of a 2d screen or the lack of hardware but because the keyboard and mouse do not lend itself to the easy manipulation of such a state. A 3d interface obviously allows for an extra dimension and its usage in applications and operating systems could be dramatic. My immediate thought is the usage of peripheral vision for non-active tasks, quickly and easily brought to the foreground as needed.
The extension to this is a way for the shim to interface with the brain and head-based senses. I never did design a mechanism for this to work properly, but it’s bound to be nanotechnology based. If the fidelity could be increased, electrical field induction was the only idea I could come up with. I don’t think injecting electrodes into brain matter itself will be the final solution. Regardless, if the shim had access to both input to and output from the brain, the possibilities just opened up hundredfold. True VR is an absolutely terrifying proposition as I can see a large amount of humanity simply disappearing into its clutches. Beyond that, with proper knowledge of how the brain works, we now have access to thoughts, abilities, emotions, belief, truths and more. This is how the world will end.
So, for a while I thought about switching gears from the combined biology and computer science angle toward biomechanical engineering, the closest field to true cybernetics. Of course there are schools that offer programs in cybernetics, but the field is simply too new for me to take such a risk with my life. Instead, I continued on with my love of computers and problem solving and that has brought me to project management within software engineering. I still problem solve, I still get to design, I’m just not going to change the world.