BrainGate, Science Fiction, and the Uncanny
In 1974 science fiction author Joe Haldeman proposed a fanciful vision of genetic engineering in his book The Forever War, where machines are controlled by mere human thought. The characters in his book can shoot guns, drive cars, operate bionic limbs, interstellar tanks, and space suits with nothing but their minds. As a matter of speculative tinkering, the world that Haldeman envisions is a world which in 1974 was exactly that—something speculative. Exploratory. Highly chimerical. The kind of stuff extant only in fictions and dime novels. Yet, in 2008 paraplegics Scott Mackler and Cathy Hutchinson were the first successful human beings to have their brains connected to a computer technology referred to as “brain computer interface,” or “BCI.” This new bioengineering device, as strange as it may sound, is a skull-cap grid of electrodes full of hundreds of tiny sensors, each which have the capacity to listen to different brain cells and record what a person thinks (Harnessing Article). Andy Schwartz, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that if “a paralyzed patient thinks to move his or her left arm…the brain fires those neurons, even though the arm doesn’t move” (Harnessing Article). Such a device essentially allows for mentally sharp but corporeally paralyzed persons to control anything a computer is connected to. And indeed, as remarkable as this is, BCI has already enabled Scott and Cathy to operate computers, write emails, and drive wheelchairs with nothing but their thoughts.
The fact that Haldeman’s unlikely sci-fi vision of 1974 materializes so strongly in today’s sudden leap in scientific evolution brings to mind Paul Feyerabend’s philosophy that “the most laughable myth may eventually turn into the most solid piece of science” (52). Similar fiction-to-fact paradigm shifts are evident in the sci-fi writings of Michael Crichton, especially in The Terminal Man (1972) where doctors insert computer chips into the brains of paralysis patients to restore their motor functions. At the time it was written, Crichton, like Haldeman, was merely toying with the possibility of helping paralyzed people walk again and amputees move bionic limbs. Yet, these things were not yet manifest as tangible realities. It would take several more decades for technology to sufficiently advance before BrainGate, a special version of BCI, would allow “severely disabled individuals—including those with traumatic spinal cord injury and loss of limbs—to communicate and control common every-day functions literally through thought” (“BrainGate”).
This convergence of humans and machines, animate beings and inanimate objects, represents an enchanting sphere for human identity with respects to a person’s creative powers. By today’s digitized standards, it seems that people can endow lifeless objects, things like silicon chips, “with the internal purposiveness, symbolic significance, and full presence of a living thing—that is to say, with a “spirit” or “soul” (Rutsky 24). The animation of technology, more specially, the bringing to life of something once considered dead, or secret, or magical, or fictitious, is frequently a source of what Freud calls “the uncanny” (unheimlich).
Freud bases his analysis of the uncanny on the German counter notion of heimlich, i.e. what is familiar or intimate, but which is also strange or concealed. He defines the uncanny as that frightening moment of when we are estranged from the familiar, or, brought face to face with the unfamiliar, “as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality” (Freud 244). Indeed, those instances that evoke the feeling of the uncanny—like when the primal fantasy elements of sci-fi novels become scientifically established—represent not only a push away from a rational, household sense of realism; they cause us to enlarge our narcissistic definitions of reality and thus return to a magical “animistic conception of the universe” that, for us, is either haunted or divined by living spirits (240). Thus, a feeling of the uncanny as provoked by the birth of the machine, or when technology is brought to life, can be seen as a threat that effaces the distinction between what we believe is real and unreal, heimlich and unheimlich.