back to article Making MACH 1: Can we build a cranial computer today?

is an occasional column written at the crossroads where the arts, popular culture and technology intersect. Here, we look back at 2000AD's MACH 1 - the first secret agent with his own, in-body computer. In 1977, Pat Mills, the first Editor of 2000AD comic, created MACH 1, a strip telling the story of John Probe, a super-powered …

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Wow, I was only just reading MACH1 yesterday as I was on a nostalgia fest.

As soon as Google have this perfected I will have one, as long as it includes an ad-blocker

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ad-blocker? I'd want a 100% perfect anti-virus first, and we know how likely that is :)

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Whitelist.

Really it's not that hard...

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Whitelist doesn't work if the entities on it are 'turned' by the enemy. Just sayin'. If Mission Impossible has taught me anything etc etc

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Boffin

Star trek's communicator?

If you want the genesis of the fondleslab, read Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye

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Re: Star trek's communicator?

Read it anyway, even if you don't.

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DJO
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FAIL

Re: Star trek's communicator?

Fobleslab from "The Mote in God's Eye", first published in 1974, however 2001 A Space Oddessy was released in 1968 and clearly showed tablet like devices being used on the space station. (and it had rounded corners)

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Re: Star trek's communicator?

>(and it had rounded corners)

Not in Bob McCall's concept art it didn't. In the film it is hard if the top corners were rounded (they sit against a desk of the same colour) but the lower corners, under what look like hard buttons, weren't rounded. Tch, silly Kubrick not knowing IBM would sell their consumer division to Lenovo, and that Pan Am would go belly-up...

In one of Iain M Bank's Culture novels, the habitat's AI requests that a message be passed on: "Sorry to trouble you, but you're closest... would you kindly inform the ambassador that he is speaking into his broach?". A gentle dig at the Star Trek: NG communicator, perhaps?

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Terminator

Re: Star trek's communicator?

> If you want the genesis of the fondleslab, read Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye

..and hope that we have better luck than the Moties in leaving our home star system :-/

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Re: Star trek's communicator?

If you want the genesis of the fondleslab, read Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye

Oh, please. While TMiGE is a good read (like most of N&P's efforts), it's hardly the first SF to feature handheld computers. Even the Stratemeyer Syndicate's Tom Swift Jr series of children's SF had them; Tom Swift and his Phantom Satellite (1954) includes the invention of a handheld computer called the "Little Idiot". The LI's capabilities are a bit vague (like most of the "science" and technology in the books), but it features voice recognition, among other things, so you could claim it anticipates Siri if you want to indulge in that sort of silliness.[1]

For that matter, Niven's own 1967 short story "The Soft Weapon" features a handheld computer; it's not a slab, but that's because it does other things. It's sort of a Swiss Army Everything.

My point is that the general idea of handheld computing has long been floating around in SF, in many forms. Crediting one novel - particularly one from as late as the mid-70s - with it is purely arbitrary.

[1] My favorite example of computer speech input in pop culture, though, has to be the Batcomputer from the 1960s Batman TV series. It used speech input, but for output it would spit out a punchcard, which Batman would read. In SF, often speech recognition is easy but speech synthesis hard.

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Anonymous Coward

Heinlen had mobile phones in space patrol :)

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FAIL

I remember reading the 'I put it at the bottom of the backpack so I could pretend I couldn't hear it' laughing at how absurd a portable phone was.

Of course, the fail is all mine.

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"Heinlen had mobile phones in space patrol :) "

The neat bit is he does not make a point of it being a mobile.

It's no big thing, so nothing to notice unless you're looking for it (its the future), unless you understand (as he did) just how big a thing it would be to make it work. This is an era when computers are running on valves and only on enormously important (or secret) projects, not running a telephone system.

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Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm (1932) featured video phones. The 1995 adaptation omitted them, but it did feature Kate Beckinsale in a tweed skirt instead.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_Comfort_Farm#Futurism

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Alert

I doubt I'll be first to mention this, but...

Fahrenheit 451 is probably the most predictive bit of SF I've read (although the author claims the majority of his work to be fantasy).

Take for example how hard it was for Guy to get his wife to communicate with him while she had 3 screens on the go - a mixture of friends and family shouting at her (facebook et al), redundant semi-interactive tv shows (take your pick of x-factor or WoW farming I suppose) plus an inability to go more than a few feet without some sort of tech stimulus (in ear radio in the story, but concept of people having withdrawal symptoms when offline is definatley there).

Of course he misses flat out in other respects - such as the extremely elongated advertising boards to be easier to read while high speed driving and so on. I'll leave it up to you to decide if the idea of over simplified, dumbed down, governing a country by lies, half truthes and hoping the warm fluff will make the populace doscile ever came to be...

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Big Brother

Re: I doubt I'll be first to mention this, but...

That reminded me of this:

http://harlina.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/huxley-orwell.gif

Depressing, especially when you consider that the creator was probably unjustified in not sharing Orwell's worries too.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I doubt I'll be first to mention this, but...

I re-read Fahrenheit 451 about six months back... like you, I was struck by the video walls. The other thing that struck me was that in the novel bored teenagers would go to theme parks to smash glass, or else harm pedestrians just for shits and giggles (akin to 'happy slapping'). At the time I had custody of disused factory in which were storing old junk and furniture... kids broke in and smashed every piece of glass and mirror they found.

MARTIN: We could use the money to build a library of sci-fi, Asimov, Baxter, Clarke

BART SIMPSON: Hey, what about Bradbury?

MARTIN: I am aware of his work.

Obviously Bart was an aficionado of fiction in which youth run amok... he has been known to dress as droog for Halloween.

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Megaphone

Re: I doubt I'll be first to mention this, but...

My favourite is another of Ray Bradbury's, the circa-1950 short story "The Murderer". It's set in a near future where everyone is constantly in touch and constantly bothering each other with the minutiae of their lives. The story itself is an interview with a man in custody who's finally flipped and smashed up the talking technology so he can have some piece and quiet. Replace "wristwatch radio" with "phone" and it's a remarkably prescient piece of work.

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Childcatcher

Memory is the second thing to go

Intel, back in the 1960s when the first microprocessors were being created, thought its future lay in memory chips.

This might point the way forward for an aging population beset with memory problems. While upping brain-power is a fantasy for many folks, treatment or mitigation of afflictions that are currently intractable would seem to be an obvious direction for more immediate research. Intel might have been right, just ahead of the curve.

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Re: Memory is the second thing to go

It's a fascinating idea. Using hardware to store memories that can't be held by human memory due to conditions like Alzheimer's...the next step would be using processors to replaced damaged neural tissue but we're hundreds of years away from trying something that complicated.

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Go

Re: Memory is the second thing to go

Hundreds of years? I think decades is far more likely. Hundreds of years back from today, the fastest anyone had ever travelled was the top speed of a horse, and the most complicated device of the day was probably a clock - which was rarer and more expensive than a spacecraft is today.

When you think of the enormous strides in science and technology we've made in just the last 50 years, I think it's quite reasonable to say that in another fifty years we will be able to create and implant artificial nerves and memory.

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Re: Memory is the second thing to go

" Hundreds of years back from today, the fastest anyone had ever travelled was the top speed of a horse"

Well, I suppose various defenestratees (?) might have gone faster. Briefly.

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Re: Memory is the second thing to go

My grandfather was born before powered flight had been demonstrated, and died after we walked on (er, not me *personally*, you understand) on the moon. The change of pace doesn't look like slowing down, unless it's swamped by spam...

p.s. I'd guess the cost of a clock was perhaps closer to that of a current car, not a spaceship - depending on complexity, of course - there will always be people who have to have the latest and best...

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Re: Memory is the second thing to go

" The change of pace doesn't look like slowing down, unless it's swamped by spam..."

Sorry, but you can't go measuring progress as a linear, one horse race: In about half a century years we've gone from the Wright brothers to moon landings. But in the following half century, what new frontiers has aviation technology broken through? The race is more of an unknown number of horses, some appearing and disappearing at random, all heading at varying speed, (sometimes backwards) in various directions.

The challenge is not in predicting when we'll have our own flying cars, but if they'll just be bypassed by some other technology that removes the need altogether.

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Happy

Re: Memory is the second thing to go

@Petr0lhead

Good analogy, but if you look at the front of this row of horses, it IS advancing - ie, as a whole, progress is being made, even if the flight/spaceflight horse is ambling along and the miniature computing horse is going like the clappers.

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Unhappy

Re: Memory is the second thing to go

"It's a fascinating idea. Using hardware to store memories that can't be held by human memory due to conditions like Alzheimer's...the next step would be using processors to replaced damaged neural tissue but we're hundreds of years away from trying something that complicated."

1 word.

Interface.

Human brains neither store nor transmit information the way computers, microphones, cameras or speakers do. Despite decades of work on implantable electronics (including the ethical issues. See Creighton's "Terminal Man" for some of the problems) it appears they only started trying to read the output of the optic nerve last year.

The idea has great potential for both good and bad outcomes. But it's a long way from here (although perhaps not as far away as people might think).

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Re: Memory is the second thing to go

There has been some progress in the interface:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochlear_implant

But it is very true that our brains store information in a very non-linear way.

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Trollface

Re: Memory is the second thing to go

Hundreds of years back from today, the fastest anyone had ever travelled was the top speed of a horse

I think you'll find that a few humans had traveled several times as fast as the fastest horse, at least for a few seconds. Terminal velocity, to be precise.

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Re: Memory is the second thing to go

Remember you can train the brain ... so the interface may not be as tricky as you think, the wetware is much more flexible than the hardware. For instance, with the brainport, a 2D array of electrodes is placed in the mouth. It doesn't take too long before blind people wearing one of these devices report a phenomenon very much like seeing.

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Go

Re: Memory is the second thing to go

I was just wondering if perhaps people had reached faster speeds on boats rather than horses, but no.

Horses can reach approximately 50mph, and while a modern sailing vessel can reach higher speeds than this, nothing more than a hundred years old would have been able to reach the same speeds as a fast horse.

Interestingly this person has worked out the speeds of various ancient voyages (mainly around the med):

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/TAPA/82/Speed_under_Sail_of_Ancient_Ships*.html

Can anyone think of a non-lethal way of moving faster than a horse using technology older than (say) a century?

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MJI
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Re: Memory is the second thing to go

Err 1904 100mph from a steam loco.

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Coat

Re: Memory is the second thing to go

I forget, what's the first thing to go?

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Meh

Re: Memory is the second thing to go

New Scientist had an article on rates of technological change about 2 years ago. Rate of technological change has slowed. Last great change in physics ? Einstein. Biggest transport change ? railways. Biggest communications change ? Telegraph. Everything else is improvement and convenience, not major change. ie going from a life travel radius of 20 miles, baring the occasional war and army travel to peasant affordable 300 miles in same time. Comms going from weeks to cross continents to minutes. Radio merely improved bandwidth. In summary, greatest technological change window was around 1845 to 1880.

As for MACH1, never seen it, but it is years later than first story I read. In a 1936 Boys Own Annual ITIRC. No school, just installation of an embedded computer into the characters brain so no need for voice. It read and fed directly into brain.

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Mobile phones are nothing new

My favorite book when I was a child was Tom Corbett Stand by for Mars. I must of read that book 30 times before I was 10. Despite being wrong on many aspects(Canals and breathable atmosphere on mars) two things I do remember were at the start when he has to give up his mobile phone before entering the space academy and complaining he couldn't use a shave mask to shave with.

Of course we are still waiting for shave masks, but they sound like a great idea, but the concept of a mobile phone was a good one for 1952. This may of had something to do with the great science writer Willy Ley providing the technical direction. Of course mobile video phones were foreseen in Dick Tracey before then.

One more thing. Despite Star Trek's good science predictions they constantly failed to foresee the advances in computers. Even their best computers seem slightly old fashioned compared to what w have today. For example I can never work out why the photon torpedoes are so dumb, often missing the target the size of a starship

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Trollface

Re: Mobile phones are nothing new

"For example I can never work out why the photon torpedoes are so dumb, often missing the target the size of a starship"

Because it is in the script, of course...

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Holmes

Re: Mobile phones are nothing new

" For example I can never work out why the photon torpedoes are so dumb, often missing the target the size of a starship"

Well, first of all, space is big. Really, really big. Compared to space, a starship is the equivalent to that speck of sand in your shoe. Sure it feels like a boulder, but when you actually dig it out, it's tiny.

Second, starships are fast. Really, really fast. The clue's in the name: star - ship. Because of point 1, stars have a lot of space to move around in, and they're not really social to begin with, so they've drifted quite far apart. So a ship that travels between stars in any reasonable amount of time has to be able to really move.

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Re: Mobile phones are nothing new

I always put it down to the fact that the other ship had shields and probably proton torpedo counter measures that could be deployed during the battle

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Re: Mobile phones are nothing new

'For example I can never work out why the photon torpedoes are so dumb, often missing the target the size of a starship'

Well they don't travel at c, so if your scanners can pick one up, it's not going to be too hard to avoid being hit by one unless the ships are right next to each other - which they always are, since ST combat as with most telly & movie SF is always done at human speed and at naval-style close quarters. Look at the BSG reboot - everything is up close & personal since even the use of unguided relativistic weapons over large distances renders them pretty easy to dodge.

For an idea of the issues involved in near-relativistic combat, there's a superb sequence in Alastair Reyolds 'Redemption Ark' where two ships travelling near-c engage in pursuit combat (i.e. one flinging out stuff from the back for the other to crash into).

If you want some properly mental space weaponry, read 'Debatable Space' Philip Palmer.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Mobile phones are nothing new

To whoever downvoted Steve Knox, go away and come back after you have read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Mobile phones are nothing new

"For example I can never work out why the photon torpedoes are so dumb, often missing the target the size of a starship"

Because Gene Rodenberry was modeling Star Trek after naval warfare circa WW1, with battleships firing broadsides at each other, and maybe lobbing stupid and slow torpedoes at each other.

It took the first Battlestar Galactica series to "modernize" space warfare to WWII, with carriers harassing each other via their fighters. (I'd put Star Wars at early WWII, before the importance of the carrier was really known.)

Nobody that I'm aware of has done a movie with "modern" battle styles.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Mobile phones are nothing new

Never mind the photon torpedo guidance, the Star Trek computer's removable storage was crap too: According to an episode I watched not long ago, a perspex slab about the size of a pack of playing cards only held a couple of kb of info, judging by the way Spock was swapping them in and out of the computer, every time he wanted look up a different piece of info.

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Black Helicopters

Internal vs External

The one benefit of having the computer internally, as opposed to in a phone, is that it's a bit more difficult to lose or to otherwise take from the agent.

They'd also make ideal Black Box Recorders when the technology improves, potentially making a recording of sights, sounds and even thoughts, and even have the system respond to those.

There's a nasty thought, give it another couple of decades and you could have a breed of suicide bomber wired to explode on a signal they don't even know about with explosives inside them, not sure how they'd get around the explosion being muffled by the body itself, but if there is one thing mankind is good at, it's figuring out how to blow things up effectively.

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Re: Internal vs External

An al-Qaeda suicide bomber was sent against the Saudi interior minister a few years ago. The bomb was ... rectally implanted. In the event the bulk of the body did muffle the blast, as you say, but if it was surgically implanted at the front with just a layer of skin it might work better. The Reg just recently had an article about a female cocaine smuggler with fresh wounds in her breasts holding packets of cocaine. I suppose we can only hope that the salafists' revulsion towards women prevents them from using the bomb breast implant.

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Meh

Re: Internal vs External

The one benefit of having the computer internally, as opposed to in a phone, is that it's a bit more difficult to lose or to otherwise take from the agent.

Yeah, but upgrading is a pain in the ... well, the cranium, to be specific.

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Re: Internal vs External vs ExtraTerrestrial

It is in IT though, a simply complex mind game adjustment for capture of SMARTR Quantum Networking Rail Roaders for Refreshing New Moves with Enlightening Ideas Confirmed Up and Running in this Virtual Reality in Space.

Where do all words we want to follow with fabulous deeds, come from? What is their ravenous attraction targetting?:-)

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Re: Internal vs External vs ExtraTerrestrial

Marvin Minsky (made the first head-mounted display, neural net and confocal microscope, is name-checked in 2001: Space Odyssey, lauded by Asimov as well) co-wrote a novel with Harry Harrison (The Stainless Steel Rat, nuff said) about integrating a neural net with someone's brain, called The Turing Option. It is framed as a thriller, but the AI integrates itself with the protagonist's brain because he has suffered a traumatic bullet-related head injury.

It's alright. Might seem a tad dated now. There again, who am I to judge?

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Re: Internal vs External vs ExtraTerrestrial

You know, a black box recorder for humans would be an extremely useful thing, from both a medical and crime investigation point of view.

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Facepalm

Re: Internal vs External vs ExtraTerrestrial

And the outtakes on Youtube would be hilarious!!!

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Re: Internal vs External vs ExtraTerrestrial

You know, a black box recorder for humans would be an extremely useful thing, from both a medical and crime investigation point of view.

Yes, and these aspects have been explored in any number of SF stories. See for example Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, where brain recording is part of the "cure for death" that his future society enjoys. Criminal forensics come into play as well.

It'd be really handy for a totalitarian government, too.

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" ...converting kinetic energy ..."

Piezo-electric mesh, incorporated into all the major muscles, with conductive plastic 'wires' feeding to an energy storage device. I read that years ago in a sci-fi story that I can't remember much else about. I think the 'hero' had a small but powerful laser device in his middle finger, intended for one-off emergency use, since he had to have surgical repair to the tip of his finger after he used it.

Whatever you can think of, it's probably in a sci-fi story somewhere.

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