Making MACH 1: Can we build a cranial computer today?
How SF gets it right by getting it (mostly) wrong
Monitor 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 cross between James Bond and the Six Million Dollar Man. These days, most fans of the strip remember the Man Activated by Compu-puncture Hyperpower for his enhanced, bionic-level strength, but Probe had another McGuffin: a computer grafted onto his skull.
Probe’s up-close-and-personal computer - known affectionately as ‘Computer’ - could hear the secret agent ask it questions and was programmed to respond with mission-relevant information.
Back in the late 1970s, this was pure sci-fi. There were desktop computers in the States, and they were starting to appear over here, but the idea that any of 2000AD’s readers would have one of their own, let along one small enough to fit inside the human body, was fanciful in the extreme.
And yet four of five years later, thanks to Sinclair, Acorn, Commodore, Dragon and co., many Earthlets did indeed own a computer at home. Now, almost 36 years on, as gadgets from the smartphones we all have in our pockets to the likes of the Raspberry Pi demonstrate, computing power can now be placed in a very small space indeed.
So could we create a MACH man’s cranial computer today?
It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility. Probe’s computer could speak and hear. Speech synthesis is a doddle to do, and if the output is fed through a tiny speaker tuned to a frequency that will make the user’s earbones resonate - a technique that’s been applied to audio output since the late 1970s - our modern day MACH man would be the only one able to hear it. Fit a tiny microphone into his voicebox and he’d be able to answer back, speech recognition software doing the hard work.
The circuits of Probe’s computer were applied directly to his skull. In at a time before World+Dog knew what a silicon chip was, 2000AD’s artists envisioned the computer as being comprised of electrical lines and bulk components. Laying down layers of flat copper circuitry onto the curved surface of the skull would be tricky, but not impossible. CAT scans would allow a precise model of the subject’s head to be prepared. The circuitry could be fitted to that before being placed on the real skull.
Getting the chips in place would be harder, not to mention leave a series of bumps and lumps under the skin. But it’s not hard to envisage removing an area of bone during surgery and replacing it with a 3D-printed unit containing circuitry, memory, solid-state storage, processor and I/O. Hook it up to the aforementioned mic and Bonefone-style resonator, and you’re away.
Well, almost. We still need power. How about a wee - and well-sealed - thin lithium polymer battery kept topped up by a gadget for converting kinetic energy from our MACH man’s movements into electricity? You know, the kind of rig that keeps watch springs tightened. Such a system was proposed for phones and music players a couple of years back.
Of course, this being a lithium battery, our hero’s bosses in the SIS - modern day equivalent of the slimy, xenophobic Dennis Sharpe - would need to ensure the power pack can be eventually removed and replaced. That said, given the kind of scrapes the original MACH 1 got into, perhaps his non-hyperpowered successor wouldn’t last long enough to need a new battery. Assorted off-the-shelf bio-sensors would allow the computer to track the state of MACH 2013’s physiology.
Next page: The Modern MACH Man
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.
BTW sorry about the trumpet-blowing but I'm proud of my daughter and I'm not ashamed of that.
"Fanbois would have to undergo painful upgrade surgery"
I fail to see the downside...
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.
Re: Star trek's communicator?
Read it anyway, even if you don't.
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.