What if sharing thought and conscious experience between individuals was possible?
You are one of the first subjects that volunteered. Your motivations were largely selfish. Your marriage falling apart, both of you wanting to understand each other but simply weren’t. It was a last desperate shot at a failing collaboration. But as most people do, you both simply talked past one another, neither one ever truly listening, and over time the image of the person you once married didn’t match reality, and the illusion was broken. You could have divorced if you were younger, but age had caught up with both of you. You didn’t have children, and now all you had separating you from loneliness, was each other. A tenuous bond that both of you clutched onto, mostly for the fear of avoiding pain. A last ditch hope.
You don’t remember when you first saw the advertisement looking for volunteers for the study. But the idea slowly incubated until one day you suggested it, and to your surprise, she agreed.
The initial cohort were a small group of about ten subjects. All either eccentric or pushed by dire circumstances. It did take a certain kind of person to subject yourself to millions of micro cathodes being inserted into the soft spongy centre of your consciousness, with several thousand holes being drilled into your skull. Some were there for science, others for financial incentives, others for a shot at fame. The animal trials had shown promise, but this was completely novel. Never done before in the history of humanity.
On the day, the procedure itself was actually underwhelming. You were awake for it. It involved injection of local anaesthetic, and the fitting of a silicone cap that fixed itself to a large machine. They had topographically mapped the contours of the brain using MRI and modelled that into the computer which was used to target the probes. The insertion of the probes was done within a span of a few minutes, as several micro-drills tunnelled through the rigid bony exterior that had once hidden the ‘seat of the self’. Now it was being exposed, its once hidden secrets laid bare.
You didn’t feel any different really. Once the probes were inserted, the electrochemical signals were wirelessly transmitted to a portable computer and the raw data was processed by algorithms into a comprehensible form and relayed to the researchers. The brilliant ability was that the probes were both ‘read’ and ‘write’. They could fire current into various parts of the brain and induce changes, of which they could then build a database mapping neural locations to changes in thought and behaviour.
Initially not much had changed. The probes had to gather data, you had to input it into the computer, and the researchers had to parse through it to make sense.
But over time, as more data was gathered, the functions increased.
Probes inserted into the language centres of the brain : Wernicke and Brocas, could allow researchers to translate the electrochemical pulses into actual words and sentences. Your internal monologue, once safe behind closed doors, was being decrypted.
It was then just a matter of time before they then just transmitted these impulses between individuals.
The first time you experienced this was strange. You had the thought that “the ceiling light in the corner of the room just keeps on flickering, how annoying” , when a response came through. ‘That is pretty annoying’. Did you think this? “No, its me” “Who?” “Me”
Both streams of conscious experience seemed to appear in one place. You project a thought, and almost instantly you receive a response. “Your wife”.
Data transfer had initially been done via sound vibrations being converted into electrochemical energy. Human speech. No one can pin point exactly when this happened, but it was a factor that distinguished us apart from our fellow animals. Eventually one realised that we could transfer information down generations symbolically. Initially through pictograms, and then though ink. It was a revolution when humanity began transferring memetic information down generations via written word. Suddenly, a civilisational intellect could be built by generations sequentially accumulating knowledge about a topic. Several centuries later, we used 0’s and 1’s to transmit information and built vast networks of information available to the majority of humanity. But now there was another leap forward cognitively. Data transfer was being done via the medium of neurones. The electrochemical signals between individuals were beginning to coalesce.
You realise that the experiment was not without complication. Another pair were testing the transfer of thought. Initially it looked promising. They could exchange information, speech, mental imagery and intentions via thought. Yet for some reason or another, they started to lose the sense of their own identity, neither one remembering who they were. The thinker and the thought were separated. Who thought the thought in the first place was lost. They couldn’t separate themselves and couldn’t function in the world. In the end they were diagnosed with depersonalisation by the psychiatrists, and ended up in a mental hospital. You don’t remember whether they ever truly recovered.
The benefits of this were also however immediately apparent. By sharing thought, the transfer of information was much faster. You started to understand the intentions and actions of your spouse, because now you could directly experience them. The concept of ‘empathy’ and stepping into another persons experience was suddenly becoming physically possible.
Once they linked the visual centres and sensory input coming from the other senses, touch, taste, smell, proprioception. They could also transfer those between individuals too. You could experience conscious reality through the eyes of another. Literally. One could step into the shoes of another individual.
“Remember the first time we got married?” Your wife asks. You dimly recall the events, but the ceaseless march of time had eroded the images and sounds that composed the memory. It was like a muted song, or a fading painting. The vitality and energy of the moment diminishing with each passing breath. You had been diagnosed with early stage dementia, and the signs were clearly showing. “Let me show you”
A panoply of colour and sound floods your consciousness, as you see an image of the face that was being lost to time. Both so young. Naive but in a good way. You share the memory of your wedding day, surrounded by friends and family. The nights of passion. The honeymoon to Tokyo. It is said that we often look at the past through rose tinted glasses, through an optimism bias. But isn’t this a beautiful human experience?
The project continued for many years, with more and more volunteers. The safety and efficacy being tweaked and established. As with most technological leaps, it began to be used in the military. The instant connection allowed squads of soldiers to coordinate to a level never before seen. They moved less like individuals, and more like a colony of ants or a hive of bees. A pattern provided by boundless connection. We couldn’t ‘program’ in skills like in the Matrix since we need an environment and interaction to learn, however the aptitude to learn certain skills could be manipulated. A new generation of super learners was developed. The technology soon penetrated the political sphere. This was where real change started. The problem with politics was that real empathy was not present. Figureheads would simply talk past each other, about the same issues. Both wanted solutions, but neither refused to compromise. The missing key was understanding. The leading politicians were mandated to meld, and suddenly the problems and solutions became as clear as day. Action was prioritised over words, and the problems of climate change, technological disruption and nuclear war were prioritised. True global cooperation was established for the first time in history.
Understanding was painful. You had always wanted children. The first visit to the doctor, they found that it was your biology that hindered the process. You recall the events dimly, the wounds and tragedy of the moment. Much like the happy memories, the sting of these had also faded with time. But at some deep level, there were words left unsaid about guilt and regret. Both of you laconic to the point of causing unseen harm. You never expressed how you felt, she never expressed how she felt. Two strangers living a life side by side.
You see this. It is projected into your conscious experience. The raw honesty almost tears you apart. The emotions, the beliefs and the memory seen without any filter. The manipulative nature of language was bypassed as you both established a direct experiential connection. As the poet Rumi remarked, the barriers preventing love were being broken down through radical transparency. You began to understand each other.
Soon more and more people joined the ‘connectome’ as it became called. It was a vast repository of connections between minds that spanned globally. Technologists are the time were likening it to the ‘internet’ of previous generations. Memetic transfer of information became instant and education took on a different meaning entirely. There were teething troubles of course. Hacking of minds was common in the early stages. This was used to perform barbarous acts. But with most technology, the way out was through better technology. This time, man powered. A network of ‘protectors’ was established who would devote a small percentage of their brain power to the ‘firewall’. The firewall acted to block any attempts at accessing of altering the mind of another without permission. A stream of thought generated by a billion minds drowned out any attempts to wrestle access into a mind. Moreover at an individual level, attentional training methods became common, through the timeless techniques of meditation. These allowed some individual protection and autonomy of thought. Human benevolence and wisdom triumphed in the end and the contributors to the firewall far outweighed those who would exploit the system. One mind trying to hack another was simply blocked by the firewall of billions of humans protecting freedom.
Many had tried to bypass death with this technology. Discussions about uploading a consciousness were had, but in the end it was simply unfeasible. ‘Who’ is being uploaded. Who are you? Do the collection of memories compose you? Is it the ‘story of your life’ that you tell yourself? What about when you change the stories composing the self?
We came to realise that the self as we thought of it as permanent, was simply an illusion. Reality instead seemed to be more a river of impermanent sensory data simply arising and passing away, moment by moment. There really was no stable ‘self’ to save and upload. We couldn’t be ‘conscious’ without contents being projected, and those contents were largely determined by previous experience imprinted in the brain. That data simply could not be uploaded. The complexity of the brain could not be replicated as we were more than simply our brain. We were a brain and sensory system interacting with an environment interacting with other countless brains, all linked by an almost infinite number of invisible interdependent threads. As hard to see as air.
Some say at the end, we began to resemble something inhuman. But what did being ‘human’ really mean? That we would be kind, empathetic but also be prone to bouts of unspeakable violence and cruelty? Was it inhuman to move the needle of conscious experience more towards flourishing than suffering? Life is lived alone, in a black box, and the need to connect has been there from the beginning. Should we not seek deeper connection?
Humanity had struggled for generations with problems of war, famine, mental health, physical health, disease. Our paleolithic instincts mismatched to the modern day problems, our psychological biases preventing us from efficiently tackling long term dilemmas. In your life, you see war eradicated. Famine eradicated. The formation of a world government. Mental health crises solved. Meaninglessness solved. Jobs began to be automated as advances in science and technology allowed true automation to be feasible. A nature of caring and empathy blossomed. We lived in true communities of understanding.
You are grateful on your deathbed. Your wife had passed before you, but as you shared life, you also shared death. Experientially, you felt the strange mix of gratitude, regret, sadness, joy, remorse and regret that is expected in the ending of a life. But rather than going through it alone, you were both present to witness. You still recall the ending of her conscious experience. It simply ceased. The projection of thoughts, emotions and internal images vanished. A part of you was gone and there was an initial emptiness. But this was how all of humanity before connecting was. All your thoughts, emotions and experiences were really alone. Only the thin inefficient medium of words could be used to connect with another. Now it is your turn to cease. But this time you have humanity with you. You are grateful for this. Words cannot express it.