The future in about 900 words

April 2013

History will record that the cellphone and later mobile, but still external devices were above all precursors for an electronic device that was implanted under the skin, from where it sent signals to the brain and other parts of the body. For example, instead of an alarm clock it was possible to program this device—by sending signals, say, from an office or hotel computer network—to produce a slight, agreeable vibration feeling in the brain at the set time. Other signals could, at set times or randomly over the course of a day, recall pleasant memories—of youth, vacation spots, beloved friends, the office or hotel, favorite tunes. It became no longer necessary to consult lists, be they hand-written or stored in an out-of-body electronic device. The new device, which might be implanted in the forearm and look quite like a tattoo, could be programmed to access the essential thought—pick up dry cleaning, call pediatrician. Such thoughts could be brought to the device wearer’s attention subconsciously, so that the device wearer would feel that s/he her/himself had recalled the task at the appropriate time. Rather easier than this proved programming the device to discourage or encourage behaviors or lifestyles: not smoking or writing essays, limiting oneself to one cookie, dressing in the latest fashions or buying certain brands, saying please and thank you.

People who felt they had a problem with anger, or who were felt to have such a problem, could have the device programmed to maintain their brain chemistry and waves within a range that did not include anger, or, say, anxiety, critical thinking, risk-taking or pessimism. Controlling children with “attention deficit disorder” also proved quite easy, as did facilitating orgasms for women who had previously found it difficult to achieve orgasm during sexual intercourse, and generating erections for men previously using pills to cope with erectile dysfunctions. One particularly money-making feature allowed masturbating users to enjoy the exact same sensations they would have felt while making love with another human being, and another popular feature gave the sensation that there was another warm human body sleeping beside yours, and this while you enjoyed the peace and quiet of sleeping alone.

Via microwave communication it was possible to be connected to the implanted devices of friends and family simply by thinking of such people. By use of an access-control system it was possible to give friends and family more or less direct access to one’s own thoughts and feelings, and even, in the more highly sought (and more expensive) models, to your dreams. Instead of having to get involved in time-consuming speed-dialing, texting, talking and so forth, the simple fact of thinking of another person could connect your thoughts to theirs, and their thoughts to you, and this while they and you might be connected to any number of other people around the world either on a group channel or in a series of 1-to-1 hookups.

I believe readers can appreciate the highly sophisticated technology that was involved in the development of such devices. It is fair to say that it took the whole vast orbit of human progress to reach the moment during which even the most primitive early versions of these devices could be implanted. And of course in the beginning they were quite expensive, and it was considered a sign of great status to be able to afford the device as well as the necessary repeated visits to the technicians and medical professionals who prepared the device for each individual and adjusted it based on the user’s experiences with it. Within a few years, however, the device was being mass produced and sold for no more than the cost of an old cellphone, and instead of the expensive and time-consuming customization procedures, a system of codes was developed—colors for one gender, shapes for a second, patterns for a third and so forth. Advice columnists and indeed psychiatrists came to recommend certain matches—e.g., an “orange” looking to raise a family would do best with a “pentagon” and should avoid stripes.

I trust it can be appreciated that the problem of unhappiness—which had been so pronounced up until the invention of this device—was almost immediately solved, as were related problems such as fear of death or loneliness. It remained possible for ostensibly bad things to happen to individuals—a child or parent could die, someone else could get the promotion, an old friend or lover could lower your “access status” so that you no longer shared his dreams or warmer feelings, or even knew his precise geographical location. But if the device then noted that the chemistry and electrical activity of your brain was tending toward a state that you or your physicians had identified as unwanted for you, various currents would be sent into your nervous system and any bad feelings related to these ostensibly bad events would cease and might also be erased from your memory. (And, of course, the physician, too, would be appropriately implanted and stimulated, with the programming of her/his device overseen by both a professional board and a regulatory agency, with the stated aim of preventing physicians from engaging in any inappropriate or otherwise harmful programming of others.)

There were of course those who for this reason or that bemoaned or decried the new technology, claiming that it was turning people into robots or having or going to have this or that pernicious effect or catastrophic consequence. But these protests were easily drowned out not only by the testimonials of enthusiastic users, but also by the fact that the scientists, manufacturers, retailers and programmers involved in the development and sale of the device became a major industry group, accounting for a larger share of the national economy than the automobile industry had accounted for back in its mid-twentieth-century heyday, or the computer industry in the decades after that. It was not long before people looked back with wonder on the millennia of human history before the invention of this device. It became hard to imagine how human beings could have lived, or lived in any reasonable fashion, without it.



I wrote this history of the future some years ago and had forgotten about it until the 11 April 2013 issue of Nature appeared in my mailbox. This issue contained two articles which seemed to confirm my prescience (not that I had doubted it or even thought it remarkable). One was an article about “smart fabrics.” I quote from Genevieve Dion, who works on textile engineering at Drexel University:

Haute-couture designers such as Hussein Chalayan along with some crafty do-it-yourself designers have incorporated electronic components into their clothes, turning them into expressive wearables that transmit, emit and communicate.

A longer article discussed “electroceuticals”: “medicines that use electrical impulses to modulate the body’s neural circuits.” From my perspective this is an expansion of the use of the word “medicine,” insofar as, rather than liquids and pills, electroceuticals involve implants and electrical stimulation. There are, however, already many known “medicines” of this latter type: acupuncture needles, Relaxacisors, pacemakers, defibrillators, deep-brain stimulators for people with Parkinson’s disease or depression, sacral-nerve stimulators to help restore bladder control, the little electro-stim device I have at home for addressing some problem in my arm. But all these devices are considered primitive compared to the more precise, focused devices now being developed. For example: “[I]n mice, stimulation of cells in the neural circuit for hunger with a simple 20-Hertz waveform causes voracious eating within minutes, and ablation of these cells causes anorexia.” (The sadism of medical research never ceases to amaze me.)

The article goes on:

To develop treatment devices, bioengineers designing biocompatible interfaces will need to collaborate with electrical engineers to develop microchips for real-time signal processing; with nanotechnologists to create energy sources; and with neurosurgeons to ensure that these designs can be implanted and connected.

I repeat: History will record that the cellphone and later mobile devices were above all precursors for an electronic device implanted under the skin.



Note: I am not sure how these links will work for those who are not Nature subscribers.

Q&A: The digital knitter (Jascha Hoffman interviewing Genevieve Dion), Nature 496, 168 (11 April 2013)

Drug discovery: A jump-start for electroceuticals, by Kristoffer Famm, Brian Litt, Kevin J. Tracey, Edward S. Boyden and Moncef Slaoui, Nature 496, 159–61 (11 April 2013)

The image comes from an advertisement for a doctor offering “Alpha-Stim microcurrent technology.” The caption reads: “The Alpha-Stim 100 can be used to treat pain, anxiety, depression, insomnia and related disorders.”

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