Monday, March 7, 2011

The Science Behind GLITCH

All good sci-fi starts with the imagined possibilities of what could be based on what is. Some writers like Margaret Atwood prefer to call their work 'speculative fiction' rather than 'science fiction', because she says that all tech in her dystopian futures have seeds in realities and research that exist today. While I'm not quite as hard-core (there's certainly a large place for FICTION in my science fiction) most good sci-fi stories have to be believable, and, like The Terminator, demonstrate both the fears and hopes about the interaction of the human race with technology. (and yes, I watched this movie hundreds of times as a kid!)

When I started planning my dystopian sci-fi trilogy, my husband had just read this article in Popular Science about computer chips that mimicked brain function and could be used as brain implants to help memory loss in Alzheimer's patients and a variety of other illnesses. My interest was immediately sparked. Sure, brain implants might start out as hopeful solutions for medical problems, but what if widespread brain implants became the norm in society, to be used as a means of social control??? I immediately recognized this as the basis of a good sci-fi story.

There were also some articles I read at the time about the equivalent of Blackberry/Iphone implants, and this too made sense to me. Our cell phones are already our constant companions, attached to our hip or even our ear, like BlueTooth headsets. How far a stretch is it to imagine the advertising of the cell phone you never misplace, never lose, that is always as close as your own forearm? I'm on my computer probably an average of 8 hours a day, constantly glancing at my Twitter and Facebook status updates, multi-tasking with six or more windows open simultaneously, always wired in and connected. What if that wiring was moved from my fingertips, however, to inside my head?

Take for example, Michael Chorost's book World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet. I found this book after I'd already written Glitch, but it perfectly demonstrates the possibility of things that are now only fiction. He's a hearing-impaired writer who has computer chips implanted in his ears that feed information his brain has learned to interpret as the English language. Chorost writes, "A surgeon drilled an inch and a half into my skull, countersunk a ceramic-encased microchip behind my left ear, and threaded sixteen electrodes into my inner ear... it took me months to learn how to interpret the software's representations of vowels and consonants as English" (6).

His book is pretty much an optimistic thought experiment, grounded in current science and research, about how such "human machine integration" might increase exponentially (7). He likens the interaction of the human body and implanted chips to the hardware/software interaction on PCs, envisioning how "the systems [might] become increasingly mutually dependent on each other" (7). When talking about humans and the internet, he asks the question that is the stuff of sci-fi: "What if we built an electronic corpus callosum to bind us together? What if we eliminated the interface problem--the slow keyboards, the sore fingers, the tiny screens, the clumsiness of point-and-click--by directly linking the Internet to the human brain? It would become seamlessly part of us, as natural and simple to use as our own hands" (9-10). This is not simply a flight of fancy. While we might not have the present technology to make all of this a reality, it has foundations in things that already exist.

Tracking devices implanted in humans are already a reality (again, starting with people such as those with dementia) as a means of locating them if they wander off. It started with pets, it's moved to people. The idea of implanted computer chips in the human body doesn't seem that far-fetched anymore. While full cyborg transformations might be a little further off, what do these baby steps toward such a future mean?

Now, I don't actually think all of this is horrific or implicitly a doomsday scenario. I think some of this hardware-in-our-bodies stuff makes sense. I'm a realist. I see the benefits, I see how intertwined our lives have already become with technology, and I don't think it's actually bad. How could I? I love the internet, I can't imagine life without it anymore! In the end, technology is as good or evil as the use we put it to. The biggest example is, of course, nuclear technology. We have the technology to destroy our world a hundred times over. But we haven't used it. At some point, morality and the value of human life (or at least the value of self-preservation) prevents catastrophe.

That said, in my sci-fi trilogy GLITCH, I get to explore what would happen if we DID go too far, what shocking adaptations of the complex human organism might occur, and how the future of the entire earth might depend on humankind's ability to navigate such technology, for better or for worse.


  1. You've pinpointed what I love about sci fi. We get to take today and extrapolate it into a whole lot of problems for tomorrow. I love using and expanding current technology into future technology, and exploring what can go wrong with it. Thanks for this post!

  2. Thanks Shalleee! I know, too much fun imagining tech gone deliciously wrong :)

  3. Sounds really interesting! I can't wait to read Glitch! :D