The article this week is a little different. The following is a short story. This is a rough draft, and it’s probably not that great at this point. I hope someday it will be.
This story is just one possibility of exploring the world that would be created by “the Mind’s Eye.”
First of all, there was Randall. Everybody calls him Randy. I’ll stick with Randall. The strangest thing is that Randall shouldn’t even be a part of this story. What did he contribute? What did he give? I have sometimes wondered how things would have been different if Randall had been born on some island in the middle of the Pacific. I had picked out one of the Marshall Islands for a time. What if Randall had been born there? I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have even mattered. Randall would have found a way to get here and take all the credit no matter where he was born.
Well, there was no escaping it. Randall was a part of this whole thing, and he made darn sure that everyone knew it. The worst part is that his determination and personality made him so darn likable. I considered Randall to be one of my best friends.
And still, there I was racing down the hall toward the Human Research Lab like a mad man. I burst through the door just in time to see the look of frightening determination on Randall’s face turning to a look of disappointment. At the same time, the look of fright on the subjects face was turning to a look of relief.
“Who is this?” I shouted. Well, I don’t really shout, but I’m certain my voice sounded quite stern.
“It doesn’t matter.” He was still looking toward the display, but his mind was somewhere else.
“He’s right,” said the subject, “I’m nobody.”
“Nobody is nobody,” I replied, brushing away his comments like he really was nobody. “Do you know what you’ve signed up for? Do you understand what he’s trying to do to you.”
I was pointing at Randall in the impolite, accusatory way that I’ve learned often leads to altercations. But Randall was too absorbed in his defeat.
Four and a half months earlier, Randall and I were sitting side by side in the projects room working on the most amazing, potentially world-changing project we had ever worked on. We stayed late every night, and got in early (or sort of early) every morning. There was no rush and there was no deadline. The Mind’s Eye project was well-funded and on schedule. We had been assured that we would be able to take our time and do it right. We worked incessantly because we were driven to. We had to. When I would finally go home each night, I would think about the Mind’s Eye until I finally got to sleep, and most nights I would dream of it, or the world it would create.
I liked working with Randall. Unlike the other researchers, he seemed to agree with most of my ideas, however crazy, and he usually did so emphatically. Looking back I can see that he didn’t come up with many original ideas. He didn’t really contribute to moving the work forward in any meaningful way. Still, he seemed to be an excellent companion. Randall would listen as I talked through my ideas and problems. He would nod at the right times, look quizzical at the right times, and he would almost always end with, “I think you’re right.” Though he didn’t contribute to the work, he did understand what it meant. I recognized a genius in him then, despite what he lacked.
After nearly 3 years working with psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, linguists, and so many others we were finally ready to begin what I was certain would be the greatest achievement of my career. I was bold enough to believe it would be the greatest achievement of our generation. We were going to digitally encode human thought.
The Mind’s Eye—a network-enabled computer connected directly to the human brain—was still mostly conceptual at that point. While the world seemed content to rush towards a proliferation of screens, our group was moving to almost entirely eliminate screens, along with most other gadgets. The possibilities of such an enhancement of the human mind were exhilarating, but the challenges were significant.
Early, externally connected prototypes of the Mind’s Eye were capable of sending and receiving words and images to and from the brain, but not pure thoughts. The difference between thoughts expressed in words and pure thoughts did not even occur to us until we realized that the experiments were much slower than we expected. Words have to be parsed and interpreted, and there is room for ambiguity and mistakes, so extra work must be done to ensure that the correct interpretation has been reached, both on the part of the computer and the human. If we could transfer pure thoughts instead of words, all of these problems would be solved.
Near the end of our 3 years of studying the brain, I started to notice some changes in Randall. He was becoming more and more involved in his own thoughts and less involved with mine. Perhaps, I thought, he is finally becoming an independent researcher. Finally he is catching the vision of what this project could become. I was right about that, but I was wrong to feel relieved. We could both see powerful implications of digitized thought. I saw a world with increased understanding, where barriers of language and poor communication were removed. Randall saw something different.
With my finger still pointing like a judge’s gavel, I turned to the subject, who had started to look frightened again.
“He’s trying to put ideas in your head,” I said.
“I know that,” still frightened. Maybe more frightened. “He explained that to me before we started.”
“It’s not like me suggesting an idea to you, where you get to think about it and decide whether you accept it. He’s trying to write them directly into your brain, like they were yours to begin with. He’s trying to control your mind.”
Randall had recovered by this point, and let out a pathetic sigh. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing can write directly to the brain but the brain itself.” And he walked away dejected.
I watched him go, then looked at the subject. “Well, looks like your mind is still yours. Use it well.”
I walked away, leaving a very confused young man in the lab.