If you’ve kept up with this blog series, first of all, bless you, but also you might’ve noticed I have this super cool habit of starting these little “series,” where I set up a new format for talking about a specific issue, promise to revisit it, and then never use it again. I swear I have updates to previous examples of this coming soon™ but in the meantime I’m just gonna start a new one because I do what I want, fuck you. Now, without further ado, welcome to the Official Definitely Recurring at Regular Intervals and Not Just a One Off Morning Wood Science Roundup! Hold for applause.
Science is one of my favourite things to cover as a journalist because developments on the frontier of human research and technology often translate to major shifts in social and economic behaviour — something we in the biz usually call News. Think of the impact of Facebook, Google, the telephone, the Model T, or the steam engine. Huge right? Covering science gives you a sneak peak at concepts that have the potential to influence all of daily life in a couple decades, and that’s pretty exciting stuff. Of course, as anyone who has taken more than one high school science class can tell you, a lot of it turns out to have been completely fucking wrong the next time you look into it, but still, not everything.
The thing is, that comparatively glacial pace means that early advancements in cool new technologies are often overshadowed by current affairs and politics. Which, to be fair, makes sense; the latest new AI is still at least 20 years off from killing me or anyone I know, but the latest new war could be brewing in my backyard, so given the choice of hearing about either, I’m gonna go with the more immediate threat. On the other hand, science’ll sneak up on you too.
In the computing industry, which basically runs the whole economy at this point, let’s be honest, there’s this principle known as Moore’s Law. The law, which, similar to most Canadian financial crime laws, is really more of a suggestion, contends that computing power has effectively doubled every two years since the mid 70s, give or take some technicalities that I couldn’t care less about. This basically means that, since computing power is integral to like every industry that exists, it’s generally fair to say that our technology advances at a near exponential rate.
That may be an aggressively oversimplified and overbroad statement, but Moore’s Law accounts for some very real problems that have begun to plague our fledgling technocratic society. Chief among these are intensified specialization of labour, meaning that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the average citizen to actually understand the world around them; sluggish regulators, meaning that governments are unable to keep up with the pace at which new industries emerge; and more opportunities for exploitation, meaning that in the vacuums left by decreased public scrutiny and regulation, bad behaviour is thriving. Moore’s law would also suggest that it’s only getting worse
And that is the point of the Morning Wood Science Review — to highlight science stories that you might have missed, but also to try and figure out how science is gonna fuck up our lives even more in the future. Because first of all, it would be boring as fuck if all I did was actually try and teach you science, and second of all, it wouldn’t be a Jacques Rockhard blog if I didn’t get to yell at politicians and corporations for all the problems (and theorized future problems) in the world. I also needed to include this long-ass intro so that you wouldn’t notice that the rest of this piece amounts to a glorified listicle. Enjoy!
Pager the monkey plays Pong with his mind
The first story in today’s review has to do with Elon Musk, because of course it fucking does. It concerns a successful test of Brain Machine Interface (BMI) technology, which Musk’s company, Neuralink, is developing to allow paralyzed people to use smartphones, and possibly regain mobility. The Neuralink test, which took place in April, 2021, allowed a monkey to play Pong with his mind. This is a real thing that happened by the way, and I’m not exactly sure why we aren’t all freaking out more, but basically a monkey with a chip implanted into his brain (still real life) was taught to play Pong via a banana smoothie reward system. The Neuralink chip was able to map the brain activity of the monkey when he was playing pong with a joystick, and then when the joystick was removed, wirelessly translate the brain activity into gameplay. The monkey played Pong with his mind.
Apparently monkeys controlling shit with their brains isn’t that impressive (news to me), according to a neuroscientist the BBC cited in its article on the test, but the fact that the results were achieved wirelessly is a pretty big deal. As is the case with most of these stories, the technology still has a ways to go before it can start helping humans, but come on, you know that’s not gonna stop me from thinking of all the ways it can go wrong. The immediate freak out inducing factor for me is the way the Neuralink chip maps brain activity. I don’t even want to think about what hackers could do with a more sophisticated version of a chip like that, and I wouldn’t understand what I was thinking about if I did, so I’m not gonna go there. I’m more concerned with the endgame.
As someone who neither is or knows a neuroscientist, I can confidently say that the Holy Grail of the discipline is something called a connectome. A connectome is a complete map of the neurons in a brain, and making one for a human would very likely blow the lid off of our understanding of consciousness — it would be able to answer the question that, in the style of a suicidal cat, everyone wants an answer to: Are we more than our brains? If your connectome was uploaded onto a computer, and your brain was simulated, is that simulation just a copy of you? Hope you weren’t high when you started reading this.
Listen, all I’m saying about this Neuralink shit is that if I know guys like Elon, there’s no shot this guy doesn’t want his consciousness uploaded to the cloud or whatever. He might say that this is all about helping paralyzed people, but I know that it’s all a path toward achieving some man-machine singularity and becoming God of the internet or something. Freaky.
I couldn't think of a visual for this but I think there's a false memory scene in the Blacklist right?
So anyway, moving from one existential horror to another, some German psychologists have figured out how to plant and reverse false memories. Apparently, accidentally implanting memories of events that straight up didn’t happen into people’s minds is easier than you might think, and this isn’t even a crazy technology story.
According to an interview on Inverse.com with one of the authors of a January study, false memories can be implanted by accident when someone is pressured to remember an event that never occurred, as in a shitty police interview or shitty therapy session. The way to reverse those memories is equally as low-tech — just tell someone that they might have false memories, and ask them when they first remember remembering those memories.
Okay, so maybe not as glamorous as brain chips, but apparently this has serious legal ramifications — It basically means that police have a responsibility not to put shit in people’s heads, now that we know that’s literally what happens sometimes, and that they should really be double checking that the people they interview aren’t real-life brainwashed. Apparently it took these scientists only a few sessions of working with subjects to convince them that completely fictitious events had in fact occurred, and over half of them developed memories of the events.
Just fucking made them up. My question is, now that we know this works, how long until somebody starts doing this shit maliciously (they probably are but nobody remembers it tbh) and how long until somebody starts offering this as a service. Like if you just want to forget something really badly, could you go to an anti-therapist who will convince you nothing happened and that you were just at the bar with your buddies the whole time. It would be great for alibis. And gaslighting. I think I should stop talking about this before I give away too many good ideas, but the bottom line is, what the fuck? How do I know the past is real? This shit sucks.
Bad movie, good TV show
It’s funny how much science fiction drives research in real life because I seriously can’t think of a single practical reason for wanting to take dead things from thousands of years ago and bring them back to life. Humans really can’t deal with loss, I guess. Figures. Anyway, recently I read this story about how Russian archeologists found organic remains of a 3000-year-old nomadic warrior race frozen in permafrost in Siberia. How’s that for a movie premise. Still better than, uhh, Cats? Is that movie still topical? Do they still make movies?
Whatever, the important thing is that the Russian defence minister was very excited about it, and even threw out a reference to Dolly the sheep, you know, the one that is a clone? Like Star Wars prequels style? As a good Western boy, a Russian military officer hinting at potentially raising a new generation of ancient clone warriors sends fucking chills down my spine, even if the idea is the most ridiculous shit I’ve ever heard.
In case this story has already given you enough nightmares, you don’t need to worry about the Clone Wars just yet, because, say it with me, we don’t have the technology yet. But it got me thinking, how far along are we with cloning? Turns out, much further than I thought. Scientists were able to clone an extinct species of ferret back from the dead, and it sort of seems like the only real reason we don’t clone humans right now is because we all decided that it would be a super fucked up thing to do — fair enough. But like, we could probably still do it if we tried.
There’s even a way to farm stem cells through cloning. In case you were wondering, it’s done by removing the nucleus of a cell from not the sex parts, also called a somatic cell, and placing it an egg cell that’s had its nucleus removed. Cell division is then triggered with electricity and stopped at the blastocyst stage, which is very early on in the formation of the embryo. Then you can just take stem cells from the blastocyst, which can be edited to produce any type of human cell you want, and if you’re missing an organ or something, voila! Now you’re not!
This process is illegal in Canada, and a lot of other countries, but isn’t it nice to know that we could do that if we wanted? If COVID needed stem cells to cure it, you’d best believe we’d be setting up blastocyst farms the same way we set up vaccine factories, and they’d be real life cloning facilities. We’re right on the fucking brink with this technology and, as far as I can tell, all it takes is someone batshit crazy enough to start their own facility in like international waters or something and it’s Episode 2, Earth edition.
Okay, that’s all the science I have time for right now, but basically the idea behind this post is that I will have somewhere to write about this stuff when the stories I find interesting inevitably don’t make it into a full blog because some other part of the world is on fire or either Doug Ford or Justin Trudeau are acting like fucking morons again. Follow @jacquesrockhard on IG and I’ll post on my story when I update this blog and DM with suggestions too, if you like the idea. That’s it, hope you sleep well and don’t stay up worrying about the future for hours! Bye!
MORE TO COME