Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Neuroscience Advancements & Lessons We Should Learn from the TV series “Dollhouse”

Neuroscience has come a long way in the past few years. Scientists are making many new discoveries which could lead to developing new technologies and methods for approaching life, enabling us to truly embrace the full power of our brains. It could also lead to technology that allows scientists to link up our brains to weapons and technology, increasing our mental capacity while diminishing that of our enemies: curious and potentially dangerous tech.

self-portrait in spin

Neuroscientists work to help make the world better. They are working for good and not evil.  The developments in neuroscience also could be used to enhance brain capacity for learning, memory, or attention. It could potentially be used to prevent or cure Alzheimer’s. There are indeed several positive potentials for this type of research and the technologies that could come out of it. However this sci-fi geek can’t help thinking about all the many ways in which new neuroscience discoveries such as those listed in this article could result in more bad than good for humanity.

Is it time that we began to take heed of the warnings of sci-fi writers? Nothing is certain and surely not all sci-fi writers are inadvertently prophetic but as real life tries to catch itself up with science fiction, should we not pay more attention to the lessons learned in sci-fi stories?
One such sci-fi story and lesson can be found in a series that was sadly short-lived and ran briefly from 2009-2010 with two seasons. The series involved technology, developed through advanced neuroscience among other things, which could erase a person’s brain and replace it with a new personality for military and pleasure purposes alike.

Dollhouse, created by Joss Whedon, may have not been extensively popular according to the networks, but its fans were devoted (count me in there!) and its willingness to delve into issues of technological and societal moral grey areas and outright deception made it a work of staggering television genius. Those who stuck with it were rewarded with a twisted and emotional tale that demonstrated the fragility and strength of the human mind, will power, and identity. It also showed clearly how technology and associated money and power can corrupt and destroy humanity.
Neuroscience in itself is a wonderful, powerful discipline but as our discoveries run feverishly toward the realm of science fiction let’s pause for a moment to consider how this could go wrong.
Here are a few lessons we could learn from Dollhouse:
  1. Technology that can enhance our brains could also destroy them. In Dollhouse, a technology was developed which could copy and store memories thus enabling healing from mental deterioration and other positives. However this same technology enabled elite, privately funded organisations to erase and replace personalities and sell people with fabricated personalities to the highest bidder. Sound far-fetched? Maybe it is, but when you consider that slavery and prostitution rings still exist, then tie this in with neuroscience tech gone array (very possible), you’ve then got a very sinister future where even your own personality could be at risk.

  2. Money is the ultimate decision maker. In Dollhouse, money doesn't buy happiness, it buys fake people! Surely our current economic climate should give sway to this concept that historically money influences people's decisions more than almost anything else. Money is powerful. Maybe capitalism will fall in our lifetime. Maybe cash will cease to be the mighty sword that it is, turning good man bad, turning businesses to corruption. But I have little to convince me any of this will happen in my life time. Despite protests, cash is still the ultimate playing card. Humanity is so easily swayed and influenced by money. We know this. We see evidence of this every day. Despite neuroscientists seeking to create good out of technology and research that could turn bad – the fact is if it can be used for weapons or negative purposes, it will be. Especially if the tech can make certain people rich.
  3. Humanity as a whole if left solely to its own devices will destroy itself with its own technology. I don’t say this to be pessimistic, but human history has taught us that humanity needs order to exist in some semblance of harmony. If a technology becomes available that can upset the order of things, chaos will inevitably ensue. Humanity on its own is chaotic. All of us, en masse, are a little bit crazy. There’s a reason societies have evolved with structures and systems to create order. They may be flawed systems but at the moment they work (mostly) if only to keep us, or certain members of us, from losing too much control. If you insert technology, especially mind-altering technology into this equation we’re pretty much doomed. Especially in a survival situation. Survival of the fittest then becomes survival of the sanest or the smartest, where we struggle to maintain ourselves in a society where you can have your self removed and replaced in the blink of an eye.
Dollhouse is of course fiction. The technology discussed in that innovative television series is complex and unlikely to exist in the real world. Still, as neuroscience, robotics, and other technology advances at lightning speed it would be smart for humanity to stop and take stock of how quickly we have come to this point.
It very well could be that we stumble upon a future we thought only possible in fiction (and not a good one!). The only way to prevent that from happening is to think through and estimate all possibilities and slow down neuroscience and technological progress long enough to get a sense of the potential results, both positive and negative. If we don't do this, the Dollhouse scenario or other sci-fi scenarios really could become reality!

Author Bio: @kimberleynewey is a writer of fiction and non-fiction both scripted and prosaic. She hopes technology doesn’t destroy us and indeed finds some encouragement from companies like Global Integration who use technology to help bring people together through cultural diversity training.

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