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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

January 26, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Are we our new robot overlords? A conversation with Seattle sci-fi author Ramez Naam

The characters in “Nexus,” Ramez Naam’s science fiction novel, swallow a silvery vial with a drug that links their minds. (Photo by Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

What if you could operate your brain like a smartphone and download apps to help it do cool things? It would would be more powerful and more connectable. And possibly more vulnerable.

Seattle’s Ramez Naam spent 13 years developing programs at Microsoft. Now, after documenting the progress of cyborg-like augmentations in “More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement,” he’s written his first science fiction novel, a near-future account of a drug packed with nanotechnology that supercharges your brain — and shakes up society.

I know what I think of “Nexus.” It’s fun, fast-paced, smart. But what to make of the technology?

I sat down with Naam last week to hack into his own brain — in the primitive ways that I could — and hear when we might expect the “transhuman” technology of “Nexus” to launch — and whether we can handle it.

So here you are, a sci-fi novelist. And you’ve chosen to focus on the brain. Why?

We all live in our brains, right? What matters to us ultimately is what happens inside these few pounds. There’s a famous quote, “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” A lot of sci-fi is about outer space. But the real progress in society is in inner space.

To what extent did you mean to predict what will happen in 27 years, when “Nexus” is set?

I did my best knowing that I’m going to be wrong. I’m an optimist, but nobody wants to read a story where only good things happen. And I think that the technology I described with Nexus is more than 27 years out.

How much more?

Maybe a century. We always go slow when messing with human beings. Apple ships Apple Maps and there’s a huge uproar. But you know what? Nobody died. How long is an average software program in testing before it ships out? Somewhere between one day and a year? For the FDA, the average testing of a new drug is something like 7 years.

So where do you think will be in 2040 on this? Just three FDA cycles along?

Something like that. Right now the number of people with a brain implant is about a quarter of a million. In 2020 we’ll have 1 million people with brain implants on the planet. By 2040 it could be 10 or 15 million.

The implants we’re working on treat problems like deafness or blindness. In your book, technology makes the brain stronger than it could be on its own. What’s going to turn the switch?

Most technologies that fix problems can in some cases be used to enhance you. Provigil is a drug for narcoleptics, but is probably most used by college students and other people to boost their performance. That’ll be the case with brain implants.

It feels like there are people who think that would be obscene somehow, to improve the human body with technology.

There absolutely are. Under President (George W.) Bush there was a President’s Council on Bioethics. They had hearings about brain-computer interfaces, smart drugs, gene therapy, life extension technologies. They put out a report saying, “Hey, we should consider using the power of the state to restrict the ability of people to use these technologies.”

Those restrictions take effect in your book.

Yes. But consumers won’t let them.

Why not?

Because humans are really hungry for augmentation. Just like you’re wearing your bracelet [Nike FuelBand] because you want a little more control of your life. Why do you have a smartphone? Because you want more information and you want to be able to communicate.

So you don’t differentiate holding the phone from having the phone’s technology inside me?

It really just comes down to what’s the value, how safe is it, what’s the price, and does it seem really weird to everyone. The typical man has his cellphone in his pocket. The typical woman has her cellphone in her purse. Why not have it built into your hand?

In the book there’s this enhanced neuroscientist who sees herself as “posthuman,” above everyone else — the theory being humans will not accept people who can be better than nature.

That’s right. In the world of 2040, governments have said, “Hey, we’re just not going to allow the creation of anything smarter than human,” for a variety of fears. Will this new entity dominate us in some way? Will it kill us off? I think most of these fears are a little far-fetched.

It sounds like your philosophy is, as long as a technology is accessible to everybody, you can’t really go wrong. 

That’s the question with technology. How fast does it disseminate, who has control, who has access. If there’s sufficient demand for something, it’s going to get out. So it’s better to regulate than prohibit.

Improving our brains to improve ourselves. You’re fairly confident we’ll do it. Why? 

Humans have a deep desire to be able to impact themselves. We also have a deep desire to communicate. I’m imagining this technology where the power of a smartphone-type platform is integrated into your brain, giving you more intimate access to it. You can think things at someone. You can run apps in your brain that track and influence exactly what you’re doing.

Wow.

I think the most fun question is, if this technology existed — it’s a drug called Nexus — would you take it? A lot of my friends love the book, but their question to me is, when can I get some?

You do make it sound amazing. There’s so many times I think, if this person could only peek into my head for a second, they’d understand where I’m coming from. And what would that do to arguments? Debates?

World peace? Democracy? Human history is the story of our increasing collective intelligence.

Isn’t there anything that’s too sacred to mess with? My brain isn’t vulnerable to hacks. Give me Nexus, and it might be.

I think the brain is where people hesitate most. They’ll really want evidence that it’s safe, that the software won’t crash, that someone can’t spy on them. But we have this ability to incorporate parts of technology into our self-image. And having a smartphone makes you vulnerable. Having a Facebook account makes you vulnerable.

But like you said, nobody’s died.

And that very justifiable fear is what will slow things down much more than technology development. We don’t really have a model yet for licensing augmentations or enhancements. We have to get there.

We have to get there?

Well, it’s doing society a disservice to not get there. If I had a drug that could boost your IQ by 10 points, but didn’t help anyone with Alzheimer’s, the FDA wouldn’t approve it. If the FDA had a model for approving the drug, you might see more development.

What enhancement would you get? 

Gosh. The list is so long. We can create genetically tweaked mice that learn new things at about five times the rate as ordinary mice. So what if you could learn to play the piano in a quarter of the time? I’d take a pill for that.

We can do this in mice, but there’s no mob going, “Give it to us. We’re hungry for it!” Why not?

The people who are clamoring for it are the people who have the most to gain. There’s a blind guy who got vision that’s 16 by 16 pixels. That’s tremendous, but you wouldn’t get it. The technology has to crawl before it can walk before it can run. And you already run. But helping a lot of people like that will make the technology good enough to help you.

What’s the thing in your novel that you’re most scared to see happen?

I worry most about centralization and control. One of the backgrounds for why Nexus is illegal is someone invented a virus that makes people subjective to domination by other personalities. I do worry about those negative uses. And I worry about society’s reaction to the negative uses.

One more. Do you welcome our new robot overlords?

I think we will be our robot overlords.

I hoped you might say that.

Naam has already written the sequel to “Nexus.” “Crux” is due out in the fall and takes place a few months after the events of the first book. His second nonfiction book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, is due out in March.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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