As I See It: The Rats Are Coming
August 26, 2013 Victor Rozek
There are many good reasons why a pack of rats is also referred to as a mischief. They are opportunistic, breed like Kardashians, can chew through just about anything including steel, and host some nasty pathogens including Yersinia pestis, a micro-organism found in fleas responsible for the Bubonic Plague.
Rats jump, climb, swim, and can hold their breath for up to four minutes. They’re tough enough to have survived 10 years of atomic testing on Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific. And if that’s not enough, they’re quick learners. They can learn to navigate a maze, solve problems, and free fellow rats from their cages. You’d think that would be enough of a natural advantage to discourage humans from helping them. But recently rats received an evolutionary assist that is bound to have mischievous consequences.
The little bastards can use the Internet.
Bizarre as it may sound, earlier this year, an American rat communicated with a Brazilian rat over the Internet using nothing more than their ratty little minds. OK, they did have a little help. According to Nick Bilton, writing for the New York Times, Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke, connected the brain of a rat in North Carolina with the brain of a rat in Natal, Brazil. The North Carolina rat probably wanted an invite to Carnival. But initial results were more modest. “. . . when one rat pressed a lever,” said Bilton, “the other one did the same.” What’s the big deal, you ask? Well, just remember what Archimedes said about levers.
But Archimedes’ observation hasn’t deterred Nicolelis, who seems intent on giving rodents superpowers. In another experiment, he “connected the brains of four mice in what he calls a ‘brain net’ which allows them to share information over the Internet.” Oh, great. Networked rodents, what could possibly go wrong? What next, rodent hackers? Well, not exactly.
Not content with brain-to-brain interfaces between animals of the same species, Harvard Medical School reportedly linked humans to rats. Scientists enabled a human being “to move a rat’s tail by just thinking about it.” Stepping on it will achieve the same result at a fraction of the cost, but nothing comes cheaply at Harvard. Can’t wait until the rat catches on to see what it can make the human do.
Mind-machine interfaces (MMIs), as well as brain-to-brain interfaces, are the latest playground for neuroscientists. And the brain is their sandbox.
The manipulation of the mind has long been a staple of science fiction and Hollywood. Whether it’s the groping governor playing a guy with implanted memories in Total Recall, or Jim Carrey trying to degauss disturbing recollections of his ex in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the ability to control thought and memory has been the wet dream of everyone from clerics to dictators. For that matter, all the women Arnold groped would probably like to forget being the object of steroidal privilege.
But what was previously achieved through fear and manipulation or, in case of Arnold’s women, years of therapy, can now be accomplished by computer instruction. At least in mice. Bilton reports that researchers from the Riken-M.I.T. Center for Neural Circuit Genetics “were able to create a false memory in a mouse.” Basically, they shocked the unfortunate creature a number of times while it stood in one location, but then made it believe that the shocks took place in another location, thus erasing its fear of the original site. Researchers weren’t able–as yet–to implant new memories but, in Bilton’s words, “they applied good or bad feelings to memories that already existed.” That could be useful. I know the mouse that I caught in the garage last week would have appreciated a final comforting thought just before the trap crushed its little skull.
The potential for mind manipulation is full of dramatic as well as draconian implications. The prospect of softening or perhaps even erasing traumatic experiences would be a great gift to scores of sufferers. The ability to heal and liberate people from their past has undeniable therapeutic attraction. But given the dark side of human nature, altering memory can also serve as a get-out-of-jail-free card for committing a host of horrors the burdens of which need not be borne by the perpetrator. One can easily imagine the military administering such a treatment. Don’t worry soldier, you won’t remember a thing.
And once memories can be altered, it won’t be long before they can be replaced. One of the many plausible consequences is that successful dissent will all but disappear. Whistleblowers, conspiracy nuts, social justice advocates, environmentalists, anti-corporatists, and “extremists” of every ilk will all be brought in line. Speak out too forcefully, threaten the established order, and the kind men in lab coats will help you get your mind right.
Happily, retraining will be a painless process. Researchers in Boston and Japan have been able to “alter a person’s brain activity pattern” using a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. They predict that, in due course, they will be able to upload new skills (and beliefs?) directly to the brains of sleeping people. Learn to “play a musical instrument. . . speak a new language, or master a sport,” all from the comfort of your bed. Teenagers will love this innovation. Can’t you hear parents yelling at their early-rising progeny: “Go back to bed, it’s time for school.”
Theoretically, in the not-too-distant future we’ll all be interacting with our friends, computers and, let’s not forget, rats, just by thought alone. The aforementioned Nicolelis believes “it is possible that humans will be able to communicate wirelessly without words or sound,” by transmitting brain waves over the Internet. Fortunately, for most of us, that would only require a modest slice of bandwidth.
Already a great deal of progress has been made in the field of mind-controlled robotics, allowing the disabled to interact with computers and control artificial limbs. Neural prosthetics and robotic implants will follow. For now, scientists are working to map the brain, much as the genome was mapped, and although the project will take many years to complete, new generations of brain-computer interfaces are expected along the way. Bilton reports that someday soon you may be able to “change your television channel by thinking about it.” Which will set off a battle of wills in every living room across the nation.
Controlling devices with the mind is one thing, but brain nets are quite another. I don’t think I want people rummaging around my brain. What if they find nothing? But what really keeps me up nights is the thought of millions of organized, Internet-empowered rats. Remember what the mere threat of rats did to Winston Smith’s resolve in Orwell’s 1984? Edmund Burke also understood the danger: “By gnawing through a dike even a rat may drown a nation,” he said. But drowning would be preferable to rats getting control of the cheese supply and compromising our ability to make pizza.
It’s them or us. Humanity’s hope may hinge on the continued veracity of a little known fact that rats have yet to discover: The leading cause of death in laboratory animals is . . . research.