This time of year, when winter has closed around us like an icy tunnel and the only prick of light is the certainty that February will get worse so March can get better, I find myself prone to dark thoughts. Some people overeat, others over-drink and I, for my sins, have a tendency to over-think – mostly about the Apocalypse. Not in a depressing way you understand – I’m actually quite cheerful on the subject (it was a silly old world anyway and hey, it’s time for a change!) – but in a closet-sci-fi-geek-meets-Seventh-day-Adventist way. By which I mean, I start looking for signs.
And here’s a doozy: Earlier this week, Google co-founder Sergey Brin was photographed on the New York subway wearing a warm-up suit, a tuque and carrying a yellow plastic shopping bag. This, in itself, is somewhat remarkable given that Brin is one of the richest and most powerful human beings in the world and as such has access to enough money and technology he could teleport across town if he wanted to. But that’s not what sent a chill down my spine. Brin, it turned out, was on the subway testing out Google’s newest product prototype, the Google Project Glass – a pair of spectacles with a computer screen in the top of the right-hand lens that mediates the world as you see it. For instance, if you want to take a picture of a snow-covered tree to send to your sister Hepzibah, you just say, “Take a picture,” as you are looking at said snow-covered tree, then say, “Send to Hepzibah.” Or if you want to know where you are, you say, “Where am I?” And up pops a map in your field of vision.
When I saw the photo, I knew it was official. Computers have invaded our bodies and become part of us. The whole brain-implant artificial-intelligence thing that philosophers and science-fiction writers have been warning us about for decades – centuries even – from Descartes and Hilary Putnam (with his famous argument about the “brain in a vat” notion) to the great William Gibson with his novel Neuromancer (which spawned the cyberpunk literary genre and, later, the movie Johnny Mnemonic) is finally manifest. Not only that, it’s going to be next Christmas’s iPad – the gizmo that every self-respecting gizmo-consumer must have.
Obviously neuro-implants will not be far behind. As Brin’s partner Larry Page told Newsweek back in 2004, “Soon ‘search’ will be included in people’s brains. When you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information.” And given the omniscience of Google’s other new product, Knowledge Graph – a radically expanded search engine currently being perfected that puts a search through 570 million references and 18 billion factual connections at last count (comparison: English-language Wikipedia currently has about four million pages), it’s safe to assume that pretty soon we will all have the entirety of recorded human knowledge implanted in our mind’s eye – a mind’s eye that will be essentially owned by Google.
Science-fiction writers and filmmakers have had lots to say about this digital-age inevitability over the years and most of it has been decidedly scary. Even if you don’t happen to think, as I do, that the Google guys are a bit like the Taelons in Earth: Final Conflict (an alien race of beings who come to our planet and implant us all with their glorious technology, which turns out to be a bloody nightmare), most voluntary neuro-implanters or cyborgs throughout science fiction tend to be grumpy goats at best – and in most cases downright evil. Think of Agent Smith in The Matrix, Darth Vader in Star Wars, Dr. Octopus from Spider-Man 2 or the Borg Queen in Star Trek, just to name a few.
But will these fictional harbingers of doom prevent us from running out to the Apple store to get a shiny new 3G iBrain in the future? Of course not! And the irony is, the people first in line will be those most immersed science fiction – that is to say, the geeks. These are the kind of thoughts that keeps me up at night. Thoughts that make me want to run down the street shouting, “Come on people, have we learned nothing from the Tron series? Nothing at all?”
But perhaps it’s just January, and I’m being a bit alarmist. It is, after all, quite strange when a bizarre fictional concept suddenly pings itself in the real world. Staring at the Twitpic of Brin in his computer specs, I felt a bit like a Victorian lady who is shocked speechless as she watches one of those horseless carriages everyone’s been talking about rumble by. So there it is, I thought, refastening my bonnet. The wearable computer. The screen you never have to look away from. The way that my family will choose to ignore me in the future. I suddenly had a terrible vision of myself holding a chicken pot pie and shouting, “Could everyone please take OFF their Google Glasses at the table!” Before I pushed it from my brain. A brain that is mine alone – for now. But not for long.