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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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Re: " ...converting kinetic energy ..."

Why not just use a glucose battery cell? Suck the excess glucose directly from the host just like they did with those snails?

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Re: " ...converting kinetic energy ..."

Isle of the Dead - Roger Zelazny :-)

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Holmes

Anyone who has read Greg Egan's "Quarantine" knows what's what. Here is the start, and I suppose one has to read it in a "hardboiled" voice

Only the most paranoid clients phone me in my sleep.

Of course, nobody wants a sensitive call electronically decoded and flashed up on the screen of an ordinary videophone; even if the room isn't bugged, radio-frequency spillage from the unscrambled signal can be picked up a block away. Most people, though, are content with the usual solution: a neural modification enabling the brain to perform the decoding itself, passing the results directly to the visual and auditory centres. The mod I use, CypherClerk (NeuroComm, $5,999), also provides a virtual larynx option, for complete two-way security.

However. Even the brain leaks faint electric and magnetic fields. A superconducting detector planted on the scalp, no bigger than a flake of dandruff, can eavesdrop on the neural data flow involved in an act of ersatz perception, and translate it almost instantaneously into the corresponding images and sounds.

Hence The Night Switchboard (Axon, $17,999). The nano-machines which carry out this modification can take up to six weeks to map the user's idiosyncratic schemata — the rules by which meanings are encoded in neural connections — but once that's done, the intermediary language of the senses can be bypassed completely. What the caller wants you to know, you know, without any need to hallucinate a talking head spelling it out, and the electromagnetic signature at skull level is, for all practical purposes, inscrutable. The only catch is, in the conscious state, most people find it disorienting — and at worst traumatic — to have information crystallizing in their heads without the conventional preliminaries. So, you have to be asleep to take the call.

No dreams; I simply wake, knowing:

Yet another job to spy on the someone's wife...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "Quarantine"

Thanks for the recommendation. I've just been reading Shimon Edelman's "Computing the mind". It sounds like Greg Egan writes proper sci-fi and not just fantasy.

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Re: "Quarantine"

Don't go looking for characterisation when reading GE books...

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endorsed

Greg Egan writes some of the most interesting sci fi there is. A few are poor, most are excellent. Odd how little known he is.

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Interesting...

... primarily in that such piss-poor prose can qualify as great sci-fi, even if the content is startlingly interesting. Almost makes Harry Potter look like part of the Western literary canon by comparison. Of course, I may be reading it wrong ...

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Permutation City

Quite a creepy short (in modern terms) novel of the old-school sci-fi.

Doesn't have much beyond what we have now except neuron-perfect digital copies of human brains, and some mucking around with philosophical concept of what data (and consciousness) actually IS.

Recommended. Creepy as all heck, but definitely recommended.

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Re: Interesting... @John H Woods

You're not reading it wrong but then again to compare it unfavourably to Rowling's sewer dredgings isn't reasonable I contend. JKR's writing is childishly poor.

But if you set a very high bar, prepare to be disappointed by almost anything.

Just a suggestion, try Vurt by Jeff Noon.

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Anonymous Coward

Painful...

Fanbois would have to undergo painful upgrade surgery every six months just to keep up with the latest and greatest.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Painful...

"Fanbois would have to undergo painful upgrade surgery"

I fail to see the downside...

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Coat

M.A.C.H.1

was not the 1st - M.A.C.H.0 was an earlier failed experiment by the same team (that our hero had to deal with)

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Predictions

Sci-fi has also been amazingly prescient.

Imagine a small handheld book that contained a vast amount of, usually inaccurate or unhelpful, information about every subject known to man (or Vogon).

There you go, The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy was only Wikipedia on a Tablet.

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Can't be.

Wikispurgia doesn't have 'Don't Panic!' in big friendly letters on the cover...

(In the spirit of homage, the first book I put on an e-reader was Stephenson's Diamond Age...

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Re: Can't be.

Good choice.

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Re: Can't be.

"(In the spirit of homage, the first book I put on an e-reader was Stephenson's Diamond Age..."

Followed by "Snow Crash"?

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Re: Can't be.

Now that would surely be unwise, perhaps even dan!"£$%^&(*&%^ +++ NO CARRIER

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Re: Can't be.

My Kindle does, especially as it's the use-anywhere 3G model.

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Try Peter F Hamilton

Like most good SF writers he uses current knowledge and possible future directions for the basis of his technology and he has covered a good few of the suggestions here including:

Crystal memory stores to aid the brain's natural memory storage

In build communications tech in the brain

Virtual reality interfaces activated by closing the eyes and seeing "ghost" images which provide functionality.

His books are OK but sometimes the ending of the stories leave a bit to be desired. But his approach to the science is pretty good and I do have an old memory that suggests I read an article about tests looking at how technology can be used to enhance/improve memory capture in the brain.

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Re: Try Peter F Hamilton

No mention of the wormhole railways or always-up-for-multiple-partner-sex female characters?

Bless him.

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Rob
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Re: Try Peter F Hamilton

Funnily enough I was thinking of his Greg Mandel stories and how his predictions for chunks of England being submerged might be more prophetic.

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Pint

Re: Try Peter F Hamilton

I love the ideas in his books, but his female characters give cardboard cutouts a bad name *cough* Ione Saldana *cough*, and his endings tend to be non sequiturs; massive lumps of deus ex machina or 'if-it-wasn't-for-you-meddling-earthmen-we-would-have-got-away-with-it'.

Wormhole railways are totally bonkers and the occasional highly detailed descriptions of locomotives make me wonder if the young Peter was a trainspotter, or still is.

I'm happy I discovered Iain M. Banks after Hamilton; the Culture series utterly nails the sheer power a post-singularity civilization could wield, and the utterly decadent lifestyle one could have within such a society.

Beer, because in the Culture you could wake up one morning and decide to spend 200 years becoming a master brewer, simply because you could.

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Anonymous Coward

Predicitive?

How about:

"A Logic Named Joe" - The Internet, in all its glory, in 1946.

The CommLocks in Space: 1999? A great deal closer to the smartphone (in function if not form)

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Re: Predicitive?

Ah, I've thanked you for recommended 'A Logic Named Joe' before... it pre-dates Clarke's Dial F for Frankenstein by a fair few years.

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Two words

Cochlear implant.

My daughter was as good as deaf when she was born in 2000 . Being implanted when she was a toddler means that she functions as a completely hearing human. She has a skull-mounted interface under her scalp which connects to an externally-worn RISC-powered device. She can listen to an MP3 player via wireless, transmitting straight to her inner ear.

This is now.

If I had been born with the same disability, I would be deaf.

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Re: Two words

Do they work better if implanted before the brain is fully mature?

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Re: Two words

I work with a profoundly deaf colleague who had cochlear implants a year or so ago. She has improved, but hearing is still hard work for her - as far as she can explain, she is severely limited in both frequency and volume discrimination. Which means that sometimes small sounds can drive her mad (as a bonus, because she has only one implant, she has little or no direction finding ability) and leaves us in the rather odd position of having to be quiet because a colleague is deaf...

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Re: Two words

>...and leaves us in the rather odd position of having to be quiet because a colleague is deaf...

I've heard that this is not uncommon. A retired doctor with hearing aids drinks in our beer garden, and he is more put off by background noise than us who are lucky enough to still have reasonable hearing. He is probably one of those who complain to Radio 4 about placing background music behind spoken-word content (screw DAB: Roll on 'radio' over IP, and the BBC can easily output the raw spoken-word output without music for those who want it)

I did read in New Scientist that Charles Babbage started to loose his hearing, and became overly sensitive to street musicians and buskers.... he campaigned against them, so in return they made a point of parading up and down outside his house.

I'm dyspraxic, and with it comes sensitivity to noise... I do appear to have a lower tolerance to sodcasting than my more mellow peers. FFS kiddies, either buy some headphones or get a ghettoblaster so we can all hear it. The landlord who made our local legendary sadly passed away a few years back... he was the sort to dunk phones in peoples pints, and "tell all the lager drinkers to f^&k-off and we'll all have ourselves a lovely little lock-in".

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Re: Two words

Well, sort of. It's not the brain per se but the ability to learn language that's crucial. Every child will learn to speak between the ages of one and five. During that window they learn (by imitation and emulation) the sounds and words that make up their language. This is an involuntary process and it's on a timer - if the process has not been kicked off by five or six years old, then it becomes harder and harder. This is why many deaf people who have been taught to speak sound odd to us. It's also where accents come from, because the sounds that you learn to use to make language become unconscious. This is why many continentals have such trouble with the English "th". They have to work to learn it as older children and most of them can't or won't. (Disclaimer: I speak four languages, have a German wife and live in the Netherlands, so this is not Euro-bashing - it's experience).

Cochlear implants have a huge advantage over hearing aids because they are more sensitive; they have a huge disadvantage because the "sounds" that they generate in the wearer's head are not sounds that we would readily recognise. If they are the first sounds that children hear then yes, they can form the basis of learning to speak. My daughter grew up in an environment where German, Dutch and English were spoken interchangeably, and so she speaks all three without accent, as does her (hearing) younger sister.

With adults who have never heard, results of implantation are almost always disappointing. Hearing adults deafened by age or misfortune are better at adapting because they know what to expect and they can adapt to it.

The fact is, this is a game-changer for the human race. When we were still in the diagnostic phase a German doctor said to me "From now on, no German child will ever need to learn sign language". The doctor who implanted my daughter describes the CI as "die einzige Sinnesprothese"- the only sensory prosthesis. During the last ten years I have seen serious effort being put in by the deaf community to <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_and_Fury_(film)">turn back the tide</a>, and I have seen with my own eyes children who could have learned to speak being crippled by withholding implantation until they were five years old. The difficulty the child then has learning to speak is held up as an example by defenders of sign language that "these things don't work, see? Sign language is better".

My daughter attends a normal secondary school, although she is a year younger than the rest of her class. That's not attributable to the CI, but the opportunity that she has to complete a regular education is. As is the fact that she has a clear speaking voice even when she's not "plugged in". A relatively small investment by my medical insurer (40k Euros) has made the difference between a future taxpayer and a charity case. It's a no-brainer.

tl;dr: yes.

BTW sorry about the trumpet-blowing but I'm proud of my daughter and I'm not ashamed of that.

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Re: Two words

hamsterjam said: "During the last ten years I have seen serious effort being put in by the deaf community to turn back the tide, and I have seen with my own eyes children who could have learned to speak being crippled by withholding implantation until they were five years old."

It is beyond belief that the deaf parents who do this should be allowed to do so. Some deaf parents even use Pre-Implantattion Genetic Diagnosis to ensure they have deaf children because it is their "culture". Whilst I have somewhat lower than average hearing which is getting worse, and think that it is probably a very useful characteristic in the modern world (just like not having a good sense of smell), I think that the parents that would deliberately handicap a child for their own selfish reasons should be prevented from doing so by whatever legal means exist.

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Coat

Coat in advance

"Of course, this being a lithium battery, our hero’s bosses in the SIS would need to ensure the power pack can be eventually removed and replace"

Unless it was created by Apple, in which case it would be welded to your skull...

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Coat

Re: Coat in advance

"Unless it was created by Apple, in which case it would be welded to your skull..."

There is also the "self destruct" function to guard against agent capture and interrogation*.

*Some call it a feature, some call it a flaw.

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Re: Coat in advance

And you would prefer something to screwed into your skull, as opposed to glued to it, why?

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Re: Coat in advance

and you wouldn't be able to see the colour red or turn left between 15th March and 9th July.

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Terminator

Much as I adore the early 2000AD stuff ..

The kudos of first secret agent with own in-body (electronic) computer goes to Colonel Steve Austin from the novel "Cyborg" circa 1972. If you cannot get an old copy then the "Cobra" trilogy by Timothy Zahn (1985-88) is an excellent Mil-Spec reboot of the concept.

Could we do something similar with today's technology? probably... The human brain is an adaptive and resilient organ with several volunteers already sporting basic implants into their audio & visual areas without serious side-effects. Micro-surgery has also come a long way with repairing peripheral nerve bundles so no great leap of faith or technology is required to augment the relatively slow chemical reflexes of the human nervous system with a layer of electronic communication.

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Re: Much as I adore the early 2000AD stuff ..

Well, it seems that a lot of recent progress in prosthetics is due to war... not for preparing soldiers to enter it, but rather to help them get on with their lives afterwards.

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If not Probe, then who...

was the guy who crashed his police Lagonda and ended up with the car's computer part of him because it couldn't be removed?

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Coat

You can.......

"You can put the dinner on, I'll be home in 20 minutes"

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One thing ST:TNG got right

The complete ubiquity of tablets.

They even called them PADDs. According to the STTNG tech manual, you could fly a starship with one, which sounds a whole lot like Remote Desktop. The description of the 'Tricorder' is also very similar to a modern tablet, as it was communications device, sensor, camera and frequently a small bomb if you shorted out it's battery.

The memory sticks were also just that - memory sticks, though I think their storage capacity which was considered large in the late 80's (Petabytes I think) will be normal for a USB5 thumbdrive of 2019.

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Remember Robotech?

What struck me as strange when I first saw it back in 1988 (yes, it was aired first time in 1985, but then I didn't have access to sattelite) was the total absence of 'personal wireless comms'.

No cell-phones of any sort, no walkie-talkies...

They used ship-wide PA to page people and had phone booths at different places around the ship.

Back then my father used a NMT-450 mobile(more like luggable), and I walked around with a Motorola walkie-talkie/cell-phone cross of some sort.

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Trollface

Shoot the Hostage!

Err, certainly I can't be the first to reference that?

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Happy

Nothing really to add except...

... my wife got me a first edition 2000AD for my last birthday.

I'm a very lucky man. :-)

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Re: Nothing really to add except...

I've got a whole stack of them still at my mum's - probably the first three or four years' copies. Are they worth much?

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