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Relentless Transformation – From Primitive Pixels to Biodigital Brains
We are in the throes of a civilizational transition. This is not a game
Last week, gamers across the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of Pong. On November 29, 1972, Atari plugged a few trodes into the global brain with their classic quarter-sucking arcade game. To its maker’s surprise, people loved playing simulated table tennis with two featureless paddles and a square ball bouncing back and forth.
Pong was primitive, for sure, but hypnotic nonetheless. Quite literally, it was a beta test for two-way digital mind control.
The player controls a virtual world onscreen with his mind, while in turn, the pixels control the contents of his consciousness. Offering little more than a coin-slot and a scoreboard—not unlike a brothel, really—Pong managed to capture the soul of a generation, evolving game-by-game into the sophisticated mental technium that has ensnared the modern world.
You can think of Pong as a seed technology, planted fifty years ago in the fertile bed of a bygone America, where rabbit-eared TV sets flickered in every home. Over the years, thousands of subsequent video games—produced by hundreds of new companies—grew into clanging arcades, increasingly advanced home consoles, a $200 billion gaming industry, and a billion young men whose virility is expended on virtual adventures that amount to little more than GAME OVER.
Sprouting up amid kids gathered in soda shops, the original format produced increasingly freakish branches. The gameplay evolved into a quadriplegic man playing Pong using an implanted brain-computer interface, a monkey trained to play Pong with a Neuralink trode, and most recently, a brain organoid that can slap Pong balls in its Petri dish.
The latter project, known as DishBrain, saw scientists at Cortical Labs blend human brain cells with counterparts derived from mouse embryos. After coaxing this goo to become chimeric brain blobs, they grew the resulting organoids on an electrode array, hooked that up to a game of Pong, and sure enough, DishBrain could hit the ball like a pro.
“This new capacity to teach cell cultures to perform a task in which they exhibit sentience, by controlling the paddle to return the ball via sensing,” one lab director exclaimed, “opens up new discovery possibilities which will have far reaching consequences for technology, health, and society.”
What comes next? We can only imagine.
I bet it involves hardwired human-monkey hybrids playing with themselves while immersed in violent VR banana porn. If not, we now have a decent metaphor for teenagers glued to their screens.
Every kudzu infestation begins with a few seed pods. This a good way to imagine all the new technologies hitting us at once right now.
It’s as if our planet is being bombarded with meteors, each one loaded with extraterrestrial seeds that rapidly evolve into new creatures upon impact. As they multiply and mutate, these inventions crawl across the Interwebs and slide into various corporate boardrooms and government labs, where they develop into more advanced tech organisms before invading the wider culture.
Genetic engineering, for example, started with isolated experiments the year after Pong made its debut. Today, GMO foods are so commonplace, most Americans are unfazed by the idea of munching on an augmented tomato. Some salivate at the thought of lab-grown meat, approved by the FDA this year.
With the discovery of the CRISPR molecule in 2011, coupled with dramatic advances in artificial intelligence tools, direct gene-editing is poised to change the direction of human evolution. The technology is readily available, and any jerk can buy a bacteria-grade home CRISPR kit for a few hundred bucks.
Gene-based treatments were once reserved for desperate medical conditions. Today, in the wake of the Great Germ Panic of 2020, most Americans have had at least one dose of mRNA jabbed into them, with a good portion begging for more.
I’m no gypsy fortune-teller, but as I gaze into my crystal ball, I foresee commercial gene-therapies, designer babies, and the genetic equivalents of filler-puckered duck lips just over the horizon. There will be benefits, no doubt, but the costs will be enormous. And I don’t mean money.
The same pattern is evident in brain-machine interfaces, advanced robotics, and artificial intelligence. These extraterrestrial seeds are hitting all over the world, then rapidly evolving and diversifying into new biological, mechanical, and cognitive tools. As futurists have pointed out, its as if alien lifeforms are growing alongside the ancient plant and animal kingdoms—a digital Life 3.0.
It’s important to remember, though, that these technologies won’t change the whole world all at once. Each one starts as a seed and grows gradually. Beginning with IBM’s Simon in 1993, the smartphone took over a decade to become ubiquitous, and that adoption rate is exceptional. Televisions (aka, one-way mind control devices) and automobiles (aka, cyborg exoskeletons) are two other notable examples.
You won’t walk out your door tomorrow and see cybotrons hovering past wearing jetpacks and AR goggles, with intelligent drone swarms trailing behind. The reality is more like those annoying EV rental scooters, or those mosquito-like drones buzzing overhead.
Oftentimes, it’s hard to tell which seeds will grow and which will fall by the wayside. Tech history is littered with failed inventions, like “spray-on hair” or Betamax videotapes. On the other hand, a handful of innovations, after sufficient improvement, will change everything—whether you like it or not.
Most major transformations are synchronous with previous, more stable arrangements. That means new technologies tend to coexist beside older forms. As the sci-fi novelist William Gibson once quipped, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Pong blew up in the 70’s, but actual table tennis didn’t go away. Not entirely. At present, many people still ride bicycles, tend gardens, and watch TV, even though they also drive to the grocery store while reflexively swiping their smartphone screens. It’s obvious that legacy humans are being shoved aside by the app-addicted Borg, but species displacement rarely happens all at once.
That said, the transformation is relentless. Bizarre mutations are accumulating by the day. Culturally and biologically, we are becoming transhuman.
The day after Pong’s fiftieth anniversary, Neuralink held a “Show and Tell” to update the public on their progress. For anyone not paying attention, it was a stunning revelation. The company’s owner Elon Musk explained, “The overarching goal of Neuralink is to create, ultimately, a whole brain interface—a generalized input/output device that, in the long-term, literally can interface with every aspect of your brain.”
This is two-way mind control that taps each neuron, all-consuming and potentially inescapable.
The event included a familiar video, originally released last spring, where a macaque plays MindPong using nothing but two neural devices implanted in his left and right motor cortices. The monkey stares at the screen, slurping banana smoothie through a metal tube, and controls the virtual paddle with ease.
There was also new footage of a different macaque, Sake, moving a cursor over a keyboard “telepathically.” At first glance, the demo appears to show the monkey typing requests for a snack. This set up is somewhat misleading—the blinking keys prompt the monkey’s behavior—but it’s impressive either way.
The current Neuralink device is a quarter-sized processor, installed flush with the skull, with 1,024 hair-thin wires extending into the tissue below. The electrodes read brain signals, which are then translated into sense-impressions and intentions. While the functional chip is currently “read-only,” scientists are working hard to “write” onto the brain as well. They’re also developing newer models with thousands more wires, providing far higher resolution of neural activity.
FDA approval for human trials is expected in six months. The initial rollout will be for healing—the blind shall see, the lame shall walk, the paralytic shall play Pong with his brain. But that’s just the beginning.
The “prime motivation” is human enhancement in the age of AI. If the Neuralink project succeeds—if this sprouting seed comes to full fruition—Musk will have a commercial brain implant, available to normal people, that functions like a smartphone stuck inside your head. In turn, the resulting neurological models will be used to design increasingly sophisticated AI systems.
“If we have digital superintelligence that’s just much smarter than any human,” Musk speculated, “at a species level, how do we mitigate that risk? And then even in a benign scenario, where the AI is very benevolent, then how do we even go along for the ride?”
His answer is simple. You take the trode. You merge your mind with the Machine.
Musk is an easy scapegoat for the outraged mob—or he’s an exalted voodoo idol, depending on the news cycle—but in reality, the guy’s a single figurehead for a vast global movement. He’s just doing his job as an everyman antichrist.
Honestly, I respect Musk far more than his flaccid fanboys, who bark about “evil transhumanists” one day, then fall to their knees when their cyborg savior throws ‘em a bone.
“Hackable animals” indeed.
People have to face the unsettling reality that we are in the throes of a worldwide civilizational transition. The first seeds were planted centuries ago with the dawn of modern science. Those sprouted in the industrial revolution, flowered in the post-war period, and today a new generation of mutated shoots have sprung up all over the globe, growing far faster than their predecessors.
The gardeners are tech oligarchs and their government partners. We legacy humans are the fertilizer.
First and foremost, this is a transformation of mind and spirit. It’s overhauling the grand vision of what a civilization and the humans therein are meant to be. Every sacred mythos, if not discarded entirely, is being grafted onto the technological value system of The Future™.
Technocracy. Soft eugenics. Biodigital convergence. Man-machine merger. AI deification. Space colonization. The universe as a computer simulation. You know the story.
Closing in on this fevered anticipation and naive normalization are the actual technical advances. Typically, these lag far behind the propaganda—but not far enough for my comfort levels.
Neuralink actually works. Twitter works. When not bursting into flames, Teslas and Falcon 9 rockets work.
The smartphone in your hand works. Gain-of-function works. Brain organoids work. To the extent that toxic proteins are a “success,” mRNA jabs work. And most ominously, nuclear missiles work.
The real question is—when the benefits are tallied up, who do these technologies work for?
And what happens if we say no?
The day before Neuralink’s “Show and Tell,” the Oxford philosopher Anders Sandberg published a provocative essay at The Conversation entitled “Cyborgs v ‘holdout humans’: what the world might be like if our species survives for a million years.”
Echoing other frank transhumanists, Sandberg describes the rise of cyborgs and post-human emulations in terms of branching lineages and subsequent species dominance. “At some point,” he writes, “we are likely to have a planet where humans have largely been replaced by software intelligence or AI—or some combination of the two.”
To put it more bluntly, biological life and cultural life are giving birth to a ravenous swarm of digital life. Tech adoption is necessary to stay competitive.
So what happens to good ol’ legacy humans? At best, we can expect to be preserved like beasts in a zoo:
“Natural” humans may remain in traditional societies very unlike those of software people. This is not unlike the Amish people today, whose humble lifestyle is made possible (and protected) by the surrounding United States. It is not given that surrounding societies have to squash small and primitive societies: we have established human rights and legal protections, and something similar could continue for normal humans. …
If biological humans go extinct, the most likely reason...is a lack of respect, tolerance, and binding contracts with other post-human species. Maybe a reason for us to start treating our own minorities better.
The unspoken threat is that up-and-coming “minorities” include biohackers and techno trannies. Alongside these protected classes are hordes of chatbots who, according to certain techno-extremists, also qualify as “persons.”
If you don’t want your civilization transformed, you’d better keep it to yourself—for your own good, and the safety of your fellow zoo animals.
In the mid-80’s, my grandfather was a Magnavox quality control manager. Being a proto-cyborg himself, he had an Odyssey 2 console in his basement, with pretty much every game they ever developed. Many were released in 1978 and had splendid black velvet paintings on their cases.
As a boy, my favorites were Monkey Shines and Freedom Fighters, but there was one cover that really bugged me—The Quest for the Rings. Its box and instruction booklet featured wild artwork, but the actual game was just a generic stickman who wielded a stick sword, and another dude who shot pixel balls from his disjointed stick arm.
Being a stupid kid, I held out hope that the graphics would improve once you reached a certain level. Then one day, I realized the exploding volcanoes in the booklet art were actually those dull squares blinking from blue-to-orange onscreen. It was so disappointing, I never played the game again.
Back then, I’d have done anything for a video game as vivid as the dreamworlds depicted on those Odyssey cases. Be careful what you wish for.
Civilization won’t change all at once. Yet certain things are changing so fast, the shifts are instantly obscured by the memetic tornado. Exotic trends become familiar before we know they’ve arrived.
As you stand on your front step, taking in the crisp winter air, you still find trees firmly rooted in the earth. Cheerful pedestrians are ambling past, enjoying themselves as always.
But if you pay close attention, remembering our species’ deep history, you’ll notice the alien invaders creeping in. One-way mind control devices in living room windows. Cyborg exoskeletons in every driveway. Two-way mind control devices in every hand.
The celestial spheres are eternal—except for that growing procession of new satellites gliding overhead.
These machines are evolving fast—as are the bipedal primates connected to them. The hardest pill to swallow is that we are all responsible for the direction of human evolution. Most people prefer to live for the moment—or lose themselves to empty fantasies—delegating their God-given decisions to some predatory priesthood, or just ignoring the long-term arc altogether.
As a result, elite “experts” and “influencers” are steering our trajectory. If we don’t imagine alternative paths toward the future—tangible realities, beyond their Machine—our betters will dream them up for us.
While they use the planet as their country club, we’ll will be tucked away in zoo cages, playing at mind control in virtual worlds. Never let that door slam behind you.
Cut out the seed before it grows.
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