Of Mice, and Men, and Magneto.

So lookee here (or here, for popsci coverage). Researchers out of the University of Virginia have successfully controlled behavior in mice— possibly instilled True Happiness, although it’s impossible to be sure about another being’s inner emotional state— using controlled magnetic fields. By hacking into the reward centers of the rodent brain they induced the little guys to assemble on command, drew them to any spot where critical lines of force brought down the rapture. (It’s a little like the “wirehead” tech that Louis Wu became addicted to in Larry Niven’s Ringworld books. Only wireless.) Faster than drugs, deeper than optogenetics, more precise than that run-of-the-mill transcranial magnetic stimulation that induces night terrors and “sensed presence”, the new technique represents “the first demonstration of bona fide magnetic control of the nervous system.”

A new view of mice and men.

Meet Magneto2.0

Wheeler et al rhapsodize about the benefits such methods will ultimately confer. A real boon to research, they say. A way to “better understand neural development, function and pathology.”

Meanwhile the US government is doing its damnedest to force the whole tech industry to break its own encryption. (Don’t breathe easy just because the spooks have backed off on the Apple case; they’ve already got their legal judgment and their cracked iPhone. Remember those heartfelt, wide-eyed assurances that we only want to look inside this one, tewwowist phone, how could anyone object to weakening the security on this single, solitary tewwowist phone? Just kidding! The DOJ have served notice that henceforth the entire tech industry is their bitch and can be commanded to unlock anything at any time, with or without cooperation from “the relevant parties”.)

I don’t know if anyone has drawn a line between these two developments, between happy mice and gloating spooks. To me, that line is drawn in neon.

It’s probably too early to worry about the Magneto tech just yet. It doesn’t work on any old field mouse; the critters have to be genetically tweaked beforehand, their very brain cells reshaped for increased sensitivity to magnetic fields. They had to retcon a whole new set of switches to control ion channels in the brain. The same invasive molecular reconstruction would have to be performed on people before evil government agencies could take over our nervous systems. Relieved sigh, right?

Then again, why wouldn’t evil government agencies just go right ahead and mandate such measures in the name of Security?

*

Our watchers employ a wonderful sort of doublethink to extend their reach: they pretend that nothing has changed, then grab more power by arguing that everything has. Why, we’ve always been able to tap people’s phones, or tail them, or bug their apartments: how is sifting through email and using face-recognition algos any different?

The fallacy, of course, is the ease with which one can indiscriminately surveil millions today, versus yesterday’s difficulty in targeting high-value suspects and following them around town in a van with fake FTD logos on the side. Governments and spooks want you to believe that a fishing rod equals a drift net, and they’re hoping you won’t notice that 99% of their haul is by-catch.

Trust him.

Trust him.

Of course, they’re just as ready to exploit the opposite rationale: OMG terrorists and child molesters are everywhere exploiting webcams and end-to-end encryption in ways that have never been done before! We need more power to combat this unprecedented and existential threat! The problem with that being— as I’ve argued before— that the moment you accept mass online surveillance because horrible things happen to innocent children on the Internet, you pretty much have to let Big Brother install cameras in private bathrooms and bedrooms because horrible things happen to innocent children there, too. I’d be tempted to call it “Mission Creep”, were it not for the fact that mission creep is something that happens inadvertently and this whole panopticon project is so damn deliberate.

We can already see it happening with the ambulatory computers we drive around in. A Rand report from last year— on a workshop  exploring the use of future tech by law enforcement— stirred up a blizzard of online commentary thanks to a scenario about Law Enforcement remotely commandeering driverless vehicles. Workshop participants apparently regarded such interfaces as “low” priority”. Still. We’re talking about people who reserve the right to Stingray your cell phone conversations and read your emails without a warrant. We’re talking about people who can prevent you, without explanation or recourse, from getting on an airplane to go visit your mum. People who seem curiously immune to indictment no matter how many unarmed black people they kill. It’s difficult to imagine such folks walking away from the power to remote-control your car from the comfort of their dashboards. Hell, thanks to OnStar, they’ve been remotely shutting down drivered vehicles since 2009. And how can we stop suspected terrorists from flying, yet draw the line at ground-based travel? Does anyone honestly think that evildoers never drive to the scene of their evil deeds?

Of course, evildoers sometimes walk, too.

*

Come on in. If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear.

Come on in. If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.

You can see where I’m going with this.

One line in particular jumped out at me while reading Wheeler et al: their description of Magneto2.0 as “a prototype for a class of magnetogenetic remote controlled actuators.” They targeted the striatum— a central element of the brain’s reward system— but they could have just as easily gone after the motor strip, provoked a case of alien-paw syndrome instead of a dopamine high. A few years down the road, they might be able to run the motor systems of those mice as easily as the LAPD runs other people’s self-driving 2022 Teslas.

Of course, if you were going to scale up to humans you’d need to tweak our genes first. That’s not as big a barrier as you might think, it’s not like you have to raise the new flesh from embryos or anything.  Wheeler and his buddies used adult mice, injected their customized genes directly into the brain using a virus as a carrier.

And if we can’t handle the inoculation of a few million North Americans, what the hell is all that vaccination infrastructure for?

Evildoers fly to their targets, so we keep them from flying. If they ride overland to their targets we take control of their vehicles, keep them from riding; it’s the same thing. If they walk to their targets— if they disobey a lawful command, try to run— well, how can we stop suspected terrorists from driving, yet draw the line at arms and legs?

Police have always had the right to immobilize suspects, tackle them physically, restrain them. For the good of society.

It’s the same thing, right?

William Gibson was right. The street finds its own uses for things.

Of course, so does the state.

It would not behoove us to forget that.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday March 30 2016at 12:03 pm , filed under just putting it out there..., neuro, The State . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

28 Responses to “Of Mice, and Men, and Magneto.”

  1. (It’s a little like the “wirehead” tech that Louis Wu became addicted to in Larry Niven’s Ringworld books. Only wireless.

    So… a tasp.

  2. How easy would it be to wear a faraday cage as a hat (or unisex burka)? And how quickly would they be willing and able to sell a ban on headgear to the general public.

  3. @Peter Watts:
    I don’t know if anyone has drawn a line between these two developments,
    between happy mice and gloating spooks. To me, that line is drawn in neon.

    Well, not exactly that same line, but fairly close. I was feeling all pseudo-Lovecraftian and attributed it to either implacable entities from beyond time and space, or maybe to people inappropriately influenced by such. Not entirely sure if the latter still qualifies as “spooks”.

    Not wanting to over-quote, here’s one paragraph:

    Feeling the eyes of the tiger on your back is good,
    though it may not be enough to save you from the
    teeth and claws. Yet how much better off you are
    to have some warning than to have no warning at all!
    But when the tiger is thinking very hard at you, “do not see me,”
    it’s not going to help you at all if you obey. It will help you
    even less if you obey its command, given as it springs,
    “sit still while I kill you, prey”. So, if you are lucky,
    you know that the tiger is thinking of you, but
    you don’t know exactly what it thinks, and
    you can’t perceive it well enough for it to paralyze you
    through pure loudness, but you can perceive it
    well enough to take warning.

    Our Gracious Host continues: It’s probably too early to worry about the Magneto tech just yet. It doesn’t work on any old field mouse; the critters have to be genetically tweaked beforehand, their very brain cells reshaped for increased sensitivity to magnetic fields. They had to retcon a whole new set of switches to control ion channels in the brain. The same invasive molecular reconstruction would have to be performed on people before evil government agencies could take over our nervous systems. Relieved sigh, right?

    Then again, why wouldn’t evil government agencies just go right ahead and mandate such measures in the name of Security?

    Well, the way I was writing it, it wasn’t government, per-se, as much as it was government contractors that got a bit deep in with those aforementioned implacable entities from beyond time and space. And my apologies are of longstanding record in that blog fiction, to both you and Charles Stross. Then again, these days, governments, their contractors, breakaway agencies, implacable entities from beyond etc yadda yadda, hard to differentiate, is it not.

    For what it’s worth, I go on a bit about how we might see some evolution ongoing about what you’re calling that Magneto thing, and point out variability and distribution of such capability/susceptibility and the bell-curve, with some people being perfect grist for the mill of a specialized attack that at the very least would make them more likely to try to perfect “that Magneto thing” and implement it wherever possible. And as to Gibson’s remarks about “the street finds its own uses for such things”… how do you think that the LE Subculture gets people accustomed to the idea?

    They hand it out to college students, notably frat boys and sorority gals, and tell them that probably almost anything they do with it will be somehow overlooked, so long as they make full reports later as soon as they have their post-graduation government jobs. Not requiring genetic modifications or such, induced “sensed presence” might allow staff to encourage non-purchasing customers to shop elsewhere or stop wasting time of shop staffers, etc. Almost certainly in use in some places, just as is ultrasonic anti-skate-rat tech in shopping malls.

  4. Thinking is a privilege, not a right?

  5. On the upside, I now have a plausible explanation for those large, unsolicited donations I’ve been making to the CPC for the last year and a half.

  6. Geoffrey Dow:
    How easy would it be to wear a faraday cage as a hat (or unisex burka)? And how quickly would they be willing and able to sell a ban on headgear to the general public.

    But you won’t *want* to buy those things.

    Love the Corp. Love the Board. Love their products, baby, yeah!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNlwoTbkk5M

  7. Can you say “spooky”? I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Orynx and Cracke. Then I read this. I feel that, as a species, we are rushing to annihilate ourselves. Are books that describe dystopias just our prescient dreams?

  8. With stories like “Review: In ‘Switched On,’ John Elder Robison’s Asperger’s Brain Is Changed” or all the stories about tdcs or stories about trying deep brain stimulation as a treatment for severe depression or dystonia &tc…

    The other side of this is a noninvasive reversible way to treat illnesses and chronic conditions. Sometimes I wish I was dead, so I take medication. It triggered a mania, so I take other medication. Maybe someday there will be a better alternative.

  9. Geoffrey Dow,

    Geoffrey Dow:
    How easy would it be to wear a faraday cage as a hat (or unisex burka)? And how quickly would they be willing and able to sell a ban on headgear to the general public.

    Sorry, but that’s no way out. MIT studies have shown that tinfoil hats AKA open faced Faraday Cages actually amplify signals on frequencies bands reserved for government and transnational corporations.

    By promoting their use as a preventative measure you are clearly a government agent.

  10. Forgot to include the link:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20100708230258/http://people.csail.mit.edu/rahimi/helmet/

  11. Greggles,

    I read this with growing horror until it occurred to me: MIT receives government funding, does it not?

  12. Tar,

    Tar:
    Greggles,

    I read this with growing horror until it occurred to me: MIT receives government funding, does it not?

    As an electrical engineer familiar electromagnetic affects and who has never benefitted from government funding I can attest that their experimental results are in agreement with theory.

    It’s a well documented fact that the Illuminati regularly publish truthful and accurate information in such a way as not to be believed in order to mock us.

  13. Hi Mr. Watts, Blindsight was one of the best fiction books I’ve ever read, but I was wondering about something and I couldn’t find a forum so I was hoping you might answer here. Sorry if this has already been asked (and spoiler warning for Blindsight):

    Stretch or Clench once indicated that they were conscious of 3 out of 4 items on a display (the 4th being themself) – precise nature of the fourth item aside, wouldn’t the ability to answer questions about what they’re conscious of require them to have a stream of consciousness, and a consciousness of this consciousness? Doesn’t that conflict with the “nonconscious aliens” idea, or am I misreading it?

    Thanks,
    Frank

  14. Greggles,

    This is terrifying, then. I’ve been working against the forces of control believing I was cloaked, and now I’m wondering if the joy I felt attacking their initiatives was actually synthesized to guide me in their service.

    If you are what you say you are.

  15. Tar,

    All Hail Discordia!

  16. Greggles, Tar, I have it on firm authority that King Ubu, that royal inventor of the great philosophical study ‘pataphysics, had a dog which was initially named after himself, but so much confusion resulted that he had to rename it. He was thereafter commonly heard to shout “good PSYOP, SIT!” but as the dog still thought it was named “Ubu”, all of that shouting had little useful effect, other than to make it easy to find the baffled monarch who never did quite understand why he was so soundly ignored by his very own dog. Furthermore, nobody dared to give the dog orders in a way that the dog would obey, lest the king have them beheaded for presumption and disrespect.

    Now, thanks to Magneto2.0, there is hope for order being once again brought to the kingdom, or at least to its mice.

  17. Funnily enough the magnetic fields affecting certain people is part of the plot of my first novel Bad Dog. Ah well, the burden of being a science fiction author is trying to stay ahead of the game.

  18. Ashley R Pollard:
    Ah well, the burden of being a science fiction author is trying to stay ahead of the game.

    I’d imagine it to be a joy, only becoming a burden when you’re not able to. But then I’m no writer.

  19. Mr Non-Entity,

    The possibilities of Magneto2.0 are truly wondrous.

    When the illuminati move into this area of control it will be interesting to see how they shape our world. Currently world events seem to have the randomness of quantum particles. We have conflicts of various kinds that do not actually seem to enhance the power or financial standing of the groups promoting those conflicts. Yet, as Einstein believed regarding quantum particles, it’s possible there is some governing logic behind the veil. Perhaps there’s a reason why this radioactive particle decays and not that one, why this photon penetrates my window and not that one. We simply are not privy to this information and have no way to access it.

    When the viruses included with our flu vaccinations have rewritten our neural paths to render us susceptible to remote emotive control, we may more clearly see the true shape of the illuminati’s vision undistorted by the noise of conflicts currently necessary under individual autonomy. This would be an exciting development were we still there to observe it.

  20. Tar:
    Mr Non-Entity,

    Currently world events seem to have the randomness of quantum particles. We have conflicts of various kinds that do not actually seem to enhance the power or financial standing of the groups promoting those conflicts.

    They have us fighting amongst ourselves, blaming the wrong people for the world’s ills, handing over–sometimes demanding they take away–our rights, laying down for “austerity” measures while megacorps make record profits. Nothing random about it. 😉

  21. Maybe this is how they’ll build the emotions-dialer-thing from do androids dream of electric sheep?

    I don’t for a second believe the apple thing wasn’t about getting the legal foot in the door for signed custom “updates” to be pushed to suspects.

    One have to remember that the us government already done almost that in the case of the lavabit mail provider. The us government demanded his ssl key but Ladar Levison shut his service down, making the key mostly useless. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavabit).

    The only difference I can seen between demanding lavabits ssl keys and apples firmware-signing keys is that apple has a big legal department. This time they wanted apple to write the code and sign it, that is much less dangerous for apple, but still a very large foot.

  22. Frank: Stretch or Clench once indicated that they were conscious of 3 out of 4 items on a display (the 4th being themself) – precise nature of the fourth item aside, wouldn’t the ability to answer questions about what they’re conscious of require them to have a stream of consciousness, and a consciousness of this consciousness? Doesn’t that conflict with the “nonconscious aliens” idea, or am I misreading it?

    Hey Frank,

    Glad you liked Blindsight. You can rephrase the question by asking whether any computer with image-recognition capabilities is “conscious”. Certainly such devices acquire relevant input, process it through various algos, and conclude with some form of identification— but not many would conclude from this that the algos were “conscious” in any real sense. Same with Stretch and Clench.

    Your question does, however, land close to at least one flaw in the book’s reasoning that I’m aware of. I’m talking about the precise nature of the fourth item, the self-recognition thing. Because you could also argue that all sorts of nonconscious machines are capable of “recognizing” themselves— in the sense that they contain state variables that model themselves in relationship to their working environments— and that doesn’t necessarily imply consciousness either. Those same image-recognition algos could be turned back on the thing doing the alging, the same processes could look at that image and compare it to referential databases and conclude, when asked what X was, that “X is a scrambler”— and all that could be done without the merest flicker of subjective self-awareness. So the fact that S&C failed that particular test was a bit of a cheat.

    FWIW, I was aware of that flaw even as I wrote it. But I was looking for some kind of conceptual equivalent to the Mirror Test (a tests which has always struck me as flawed, for obvious reasons), and I couldn’t come up with any kind of “identify yourself” protocol that couldn’t be used by a p-Zombie as well as a sapient being. So finally I just clenched my teeth and figured what the hell, people accept the mirror test with all it’s flaws, and all I’m really doing here is trying to build a steppingstone to my real argument anyway. Maybe if I do it fast enough, no one will notice.

  23. Peter,

    Oh yeah, that makes sense, thanks.

    To pester you some more, though – in reference to a response on your reddit AMA:

    >”It’s nesting Russian dolls all the way out. Any internally-consistent definition of “individual” recedes toward the horizon until you basically have to call the whole biosphere a single entity (not that I buy into that Gaia Earth-mother bullshit, mind you).”

    My totally-non-biologist view of self-interest vs other-interest had been that we humans mostly have concentric gradients of concern rippling outward from ourselves through our immediate families, then tribes, then nations, all humanity, etc. It starts with “me first” then expands out, to varying distances. But I got the impression there was no “centre” for the aliens at any level – which I thought was the point of your showing some Scramblers get ripped apart as a means of sharing memories. My question is – isn’t clueless unselfishness on this scale even less fit than altruism? Shouldn’t some mutant scrambler have decided to look out for itself at some point, and started coming up with focused plans to conquer, and beaten the “dumb as sticks” regular Scramblers? Am I missing your point, I bet I am.

  24. Police have always had the right to immobilize suspects, tackle them physically, restrain them. For the good of society.

    You’re late to the party I think. Alastair Reynolds has the benevolent world-state in his latest series possessing not just that capability – but the capability of preventing a crime from actually occurring. Nanomachines in everyone’s brains, if they twig to your actual intent to use your muscles to hurt someone,you get zapped and fall to the ground.

    Also – I wouldn’t worry about the US. It’s on a high-speed national decline, and looks dead set to elect Trump which would likely throw the entire deep state into turmoil. And Canada would get flooded with political refugees then. If Trump’s mere name sends millenial college-goers into vapors, what’d his presidency mean? Either they’d have to grow a spine or GTFO.

    Or they elect corrupt little Ms. Utter Failure (hello Libya, hello hacked private email server, hello FBI investigation).

    Then again, why wouldn’t evil government agencies just go right ahead and mandate such measures in the name of Security?

    Airstrip one might go for that. They outlawed guns and are still surprised there are loads of violent thugs and now, gasp, ‘knife crime’. The Airstrip is less safe to live in than 100 years ago, when you could probably buy machineguns by mail-order.

    This seems exactly like something UK cops would mandate to the yoofs. After all, they did put security cameras into lower-class dwellings(for the good of the kiddies ofc), and loudspeakers on certain public CCTV.

  25. The us government demanded his ssl key but Ladar Levison shut his service down, making the key mostly useless. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavabit).

    Lavabit did not make use of cryptosystems with forward secrecy, which meant that even though the service was shut down release of the SSL key would still expose anyone whose encrypted traffic to lavabit had been logged in the past.

  26. I thought I’d already posted this reply but it seems to have vanished into the ether. Take two…

    Markus2: One have to remember that the us government already done almost that in the case of the lavabit mail provider. The us government demanded his ssl key but Ladar Levison shut his service down, making the key mostly useless. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavabit).

    Lavabit’s cryptosystem wasn’t nearly as good as their marketing copy implied as it didn’t have any sort of forward secrecy. As a result, release of the SSL key meant that any past user sessions that had been logged could then be decrypted.

  27. Ru:
    I thought I’d already posted this reply but it seems to have vanished into the ether. Take two…

    Lavabit’s cryptosystem wasn’t nearly as good as their marketing copy implied as it didn’t have any sort of forward secrecy. As a result, release of the SSL key meant that any past user sessions that had been logged could then be decrypted.

    It looks like you’re right. I recalled (or assumed?) that lavabit supported tls with ephemeral diffie-hellman, but a bit of googling sugest that it did not (which is very strange, why would you not for that usage?).

  28. I keep wondering if there could be a way to engineer this such that you could target different regions of the brain at different times.