Countless other words . . . had simply ceased to exist

“As we have already seen in the case of the word free, words which had once borne a heretical meaning were sometimes retained for the sake of convenience, but only with the undesirable meanings purged out of them. Countless other words such as honour, justice, morality, internationalism, democracy, science, and religion had simply ceased to exist. A few blanket words covered them, and, in covering them, abolished them. All words grouping themselves round the concepts of liberty and equality, for instance, were contained in the single word crimethink, while all words grouping themselves round the concepts of objectivity and rationalism were contained in the single word oldthink. Greater precision would have been dangerous.”

George Orwell, 1984

Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity

Despite its length and hard-to-pin-down clunkiness, I always liked Until the End of the World, Wim Wenders’ rambling near-term sci-fi film about (among other things) the psychological impact of a technology that enables the recording and playing back of one’s dreams. In the film, the characters become addicted to the technology, recording their dreams every night and spending more and more of their waking hours reviewing the recordings until their lives are consumed by reflection.

Other movies, like Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, explore the unsettling social implications of a technology that enables people to digitally capture and play back what their brain sees and hears and feels. More recently, Charlie Brooker’s brilliant Black Mirror (episode 3, “The Entire History of You“) presents a plausible vision of how such a technology could become ubiquitous, and the devastating effects it will have on privacy, intimate relationships, and the way we remember our lives.

And so it was somewhat disconcerting to come across this research conducted at Berkeley’s Gallant Lab. The researchers describe the project as follows:

As you move through the world or you watch a movie, a dynamic, ever-changing pattern of activity is evoked in the brain. The goal of movie reconstruction is to use the evoked activity to recreate the movie you observed. To do this, we create encoding models that describe how movies are transformed into brain activity, and then we use those models to decode brain activity and reconstruct the stimulus. (UCB Gallant Lab)

Right now, to capture these recordings, the subject needs to be positioned inside a giant fMRI machine, so we’re a little way off from the dystopias described by the narratives of Strange Days and Black Mirror. But as the researchers at the Gallant Lab write, “both the technology for measuring brain activity and the computational models are improving continuously. It is possible that decoding brain activity could have serious ethical and privacy implications downstream in, say, the 30-year time frame.”

Strange days, indeed.

Incredible archive of 19th century scientific illustrations from the Challenger expedition

The Challenger expedition was an ambitious scientific mission that sought to catalogue the geology and biology of the world’s oceans. Among other achievements, the expedition managed to scoop up bizarre life forms from the deepest parts of the ocean, including from a spot now known as the Challenger Deep, some 35,000 feet underwater (the expedition brought along over 250 kilometers of Italian hemp rope for just this purpose).

The scientists working aboard the Challenger produced voluminous reports, replete with beautiful illustrations and meticulous charts. Browsing through these documents powerfully evokes the sense of adventure and discovery that made the late 19th century so cool. High quality scans of the entirety of this stunning archive can be viewed here.


Why Nick Bostrom hopes SETI finds nothing

From Technology Review:

The next decade might see a Mars Sample Return mission, which would use robotic systems to collect samples of Martian rocks, soils, and atmosphere and return them to Earth. We could then analyze the samples to see if they contain any traces of life, whether extinct or still active.

Such a discovery would be of tremendous scientific significance. What could be more fascinating than discovering life that had evolved entirely independently of life here on Earth? Many people would also find it heartening to learn that we are not entirely alone in this vast, cold cosmos.

But I hope that our Mars probes discover nothing. It would be good news if we find Mars to be sterile. Dead rocks and lifeless sands would lift my spirit.

Conversely, if we discovered traces of some simple, extinct life-form–some bacteria, some algae–it would be bad news. If we found fossils of something more advanced, perhaps something that looked like the remnants of a trilobite or even the skeleton of a small mammal, it would be very bad news. The more complex the life-form we found, the more depressing the news would be. I would find it interesting, certainly–but a bad omen for the future of the human race. (Technology Review)

Powers of Ten (1977)

Powers of Ten is a 1977 short documentary film written and directed by Charles Eames and his wife, Ray. The film depicts the relative scale of the Universe in factors of ten (see also logarithmic scale and order of magnitude). The idea for the film appears to have come from the 1957 book Cosmic View by Kees Boeke. (Powers of Ten – Wikipedia)