Documenting the Coming Singularity

Sunday, June 24, 2007

That Moth Might Be Watching You

I don't like insects of any kind, but now there is reason to dislike them even more. They may be watching me.

I'm just kidding, of course. I am of insufficient interest to anyone to be spied on. But the moths may soon be watching someone. Before you start to worry about my sanity, let me fill you in on developments.

You've heard of DARPA, haven't you? They are the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an organization that is part of the U.S. Department of Defense. Their mandate is to manage and direct "selected basic and applied research and development projects for DoD, and pursue research and technology where risk and payoff are both very high and where success may provide dramatic advances for traditional military roles and missions."

One of DARPA's projects is HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems). HI-MEMS "is aimed at developing tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis." Yes, what they do is inject a chip into a moth at the larval stage, allowing the generation of new tissues to "form a reliable and stable tissue-machine interface." But to what end?

DARPA sees this as a possible low-cost means to create robot moths that will go wherever they are directed and presumably send audio and video back to their controllers. This will allow its developers to effectively co-opt millions of years of evolution rather than trying to make mechanical flying entities.

You may have seen video demonstrations of remote controlled rats that can be steered from a wirelessly actuated signal to its brain. So we (humans) are clearly working on developing the means to control the minds of lower forms of life to suit our needs. This fact raises some frightening possibilities.

If the brains of moths and rats can be controlled, so can the brains of humans. The Manchurian Candidate scenario doesn't seem as far fetched as it once did. It woudn't be difficult to install a controller chip without the host's knowledge. Consider that nature has already divised the means to do this, as exemplified in the brain-controlling fungus.
The spores of the fungus attach themselves to the external surface of the ant, where they germinate. They then enter the ant’s body through the tracheae (the tubes through which insects breathe), via holes in the exoskeleton called spiracles. Fine fungal filaments called mycelia then start to grow inside the ant’s body cavity, absorbing the host’s soft tissues but avoiding its vital organs.

When the fungus is ready to sporulate, the mycelia grow into the ant’s brain. The fungus then produces chemicals which act on the host’s brain and alter its perception of pheromones. This causes the ant to climb a plant and, upon reaching the top, to clamp its mandibles around a leaf or leaf stem, thus securing it firmly to what will be its final resting place.

The fungus then devours the ant’s brain, killing the host. The fruiting bodies of the fungus sprout from the ant’s head, through gaps in the joints of the exoskeleton. Once mature, the fruiting bodies burst, releasing clusters of capsules into the air. These in turn explode on their descent, spreading airborne spores over the surrounding area. These spores then infect other ants, completing the life cycle of the fungus. Depending on the type of fungus and the number of infecting spores, death of an infected insect takes between 4-10 days.
Any entity that is co-opted to act according to the wishes of an external controller would not be aware of that fact. It would believe that it is acting rationally and according to its own wishes. This has already been demonstrated in experiments on humans. For example, when the part of their brains that control their sense of humor was electrically stimulated so that they would find anything funny, they would always rationalize a reason for their irrational reaction. The bottom line: you would be controlled without being aware of it.

So how should we respond to these developments? I believe that they cannot be stopped, so we should pursue the development of safeguards and defenses at the same time that we are developing the capabilities. Someone will achieve these things. It should be we, as responsible people, who get there first and have safeguards and defenses alongside the technology itself.

The idea for this post was inspired by Think Artificial

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Spaceman Spiff said...

I wonder if that test with the laughter stimulation has limits. Like, if they showed a horribly gruesome and violent scene, and triggered the laughter, might a person at least question the fact that they were laughing? Of course I doubt they could control the laughter, but they might at least be horrified at it and realize something was amiss.

If I'm right that past a certain limit thoughtful people might realize what was up and remain convinced that what they were seeing was terrible rather than funny even if they were forced to laugh at it, I'd say this isn't "mind control" in the fullest sense, but rather a sophisticated form of reflex manipulation.