Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hardware / Meatware Problem

Derek Finkle has written about a young man who may have been wrongly convicted of murder. The Crown Prosecutors are asking the courts to force him to turn over his research notes and recordings. There are of course many points to be made about freedom of the press and expression but I want to pursue a technological question.

They are not asking him to reveal the contents of his brain, only the contents of his external recording and storage devices. We seem to make a natural distinction between memory stored in our brains and memory stored externally on devices like notepads or digital recorders. I suppose if this reporter had an eidetic memory and didn't require notes or recordings, then he would not be in this situation. What if he had a handicap and relied on external memory devices to remember most things? Would there be some line drawn between what he would be asked to hand over to the Crown?

There is no basis to punish anyone for thought crimes in our social or legal system but there are precedents in which written or otherwise recorded thoughts are employed as linchpins in court cases. It seems that you are allowed to think what you want internally as long as you don't make any record of it that could be externally accessible. This has worked so far but upcoming technological developments will likely bring us to question this approach.

External devices have always been used to augment our mental faculties. But the line between internal and external may soon be blurred. Those handicapped by brain injuries are beginning to make use of devices that interface with the brain in a much more immediate way than the interface between your brain and your notepad, laptop or digital recording device. These hardware devices are being more frequently attached to the physical human hardware (meatware?) and achieving what can only be called cyborg technologies.

The current trend is towards the even further externalization of memory storage and this is exemplified by the services offered by some internet companies to augment your computer's data storage on their servers. So we might see something like Google Personal Memory Storage Service. This will successfully connect you wirelessly to a vast external memory augmentation for your brain but who wants to suddenly forget what they were thinking about when they enter a subway station? Sooner or later you will undoubtedly be able to buy a plug-and-play device that will augment your own mental faculties. When this becomes common there will be some interesting discussion about what then becomes considered the private realm of thoughts versus the more legally accessible externalized recordings of those thoughts. Where is the distinction to be made?

Are Finkle's notes and recordings different from his memories because they are externally stored? Well cyborg technologies will internalize these. Are they different because they reside in a device and not in meatware? These implanted devices may use distributed storage processes that will make it impossible to say in which matrix of neurons these recordings are stored. Parts of your thoughts and memories will be stored in your meatware and parts in the hardware. Without the constituent parts working together there will be no thought or memory to display.

Even if you could somehow distinguish between memories in the hardware and memories in the meatware, these internalized devices will cease to be made of metal and plastic at all. They will eventually come to be made of biological material custom built by being grown inside your own body. This will be a welcome development since it will make it more difficult for spammers to hack into our thoughts and compel us to buy advanced versions of erectile dysfunction pills.

It's probably too soon for legislation but maybe it's time we started thinking more about these things.

1 comment:

JakeJakob said...

Update:
It's already begun.

http://www.newscientist.com/channel/tech/dn10997