Imagine a time when every neurological ailment can be cured, people paralyzed by accident, injury or stroke can walk once more, electronic devices are driven by our minds, and every wish can be manifested simply by thinking. With the emergence of brain-computer interfaces, people will be able to perform well beyond the limits of their physical bodies and enjoy experiences that extend to the heights of human imagination. It may sound like science fiction but the neuroprosthetic revolution is almost here. The next great technological shift is already being reflected in our popular entertainment—television shows “Almost Human,” “Person of Interest,” and “Intelligence,” which features a former Special Forces operative who has a microchip implanted in his brain. No one knows better how close we are to making this a reality than neurosurgeon and biomedical engineer Eric C. Leuthardt, author of the futuristic thriller REDDEVIL 4 (Forge Books; February 4, 2014; Hardcover, 368 pages).
I am beyond thrilled to have Dr. Leuthardt on the blog for an interview and a giveaway, graciously offered by the publicist to one lucky follower of this blog (US resident). Please, leave a comment and include your email address for a chance to win one copy of RED DEVIL 4.
Q. Eric it seems you do a lot of different things, could you tell me about them?
A. I guess that is true. First and foremost, I am a neurosurgeon. Additionally, I lead a center that delves into how the brain encodes information and develops advanced neuro-technologies. All these efforts have led me to starting several companies and being recognized as a prolific inventor. My newest hat is now a fictional author of the novel RedDevil 4 - a story that incorporates all those experiences into a futurist vision of where those efforts may end up.
Q. With all these things that you are doing in medicine, science, and business, is there a unifying theme that links them all together?
A. Absolutely- it’s about creating the future. I think being a futurist is not simply about prognostication - trying to see what’s coming. It’s about seeing what the world can be and making that happen. Fundamentally it’s about having a vision and a plan. All the things that I am doing are in various ways fitting into that plan. When I started working on creating neuroprosthetics I looked at it strategically. I had to think about the science, the economics, and the social implications of unlocking the mind with brain computer interfaces. If I was going to make that happen I had to create the technology then I had to convince the scientific and medical community that this was meaningful - hence the lab and research. Beyond that, I also had to convince the market that neuroprosthetic approaches also made sense. That led to my first company, Neurolutions. Finally, I wanted the world at large to really think about what a world with neuroprosthetics looks like, which was the founding notion for my novel, RedDevil 4.
Q. Tell me more on how the idea for how RedDevil 4 originated?
A. As a neurosurgeon, scientist, engineer, and inventor who has dedicated a lot of his time researching, developing, and testing brain computer interfaces, I wanted to imagine what the world would look like if we were successful; if brain computer interfaces became as common as cell phones in the human population. I wanted to imagine the impact that it would have on modern society ranging from pop culture to the constitutional amendments. Fundamentally I believe human nature won’t change. People will still be complex, selfish, sometimes noble, and often conflicted. Our fundamental needs and drives for self-preservation, esteem, recognition, socialization, and companionship will be largely the same. What will change will be the technological manifestations of those human drivers. There will be new capabilities that will lead to different, sometimes fascinating and sometimes horrifying, actualizations of our fundamental neurobiology. I wanted to explore the new strengths, weakness, and unforeseen dangers in this new future.
Q. RedDevil 4 is intense, at times it really scared the hell out of me. What are some of the themes in the book and how do they mesh with your vision for the future?
A. First and foremost, the book has to be a good story – a really good story. Beyond the philosophic foundations, I wanted to have something that people found viscerally interesting, something that held them and captivated them both intellectually and emotionally. Also, some of the scenes that are jolting are intended to never let you forget some of the cautions that I have about neuroprosthetics. I think the notion of losing one’s autonomy is something that we as humans fundamentally fear. So in the scene when one of my characters has his body taken over and he watches his hand prepare the scissors that are about to mutilate his lover – that is a scene that will stick with you. The fear of “possession” has been with us since the dawn of time. RedDevil 4 takes that concept to a new level in a modern technological context. The other theme that moves through my book is how we deal with our creations. Whether it be father and sons, our technical inventions, or the things that we make by accident, that relationship has always been fraught with peril. Where Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, highlighted the danger of human arrogance, my approach was to highlight the danger of complexity. What happens when the technology we create becomes so advanced we cannot foresee, not what we will create, but what it will create?
As far as how this meshes with my vision for the future, My hope is that in the context of a hold-on-tight thriller people cannot help but explore these questions in their own terms. Something that can be talked about by everyone. It’s a story that some people will see as fantastic – what if in the blink of an eye you can truly experience any world that you want (just plug in). It’s also a world that some will see as dystopic – what if a piece of technology could take over your body. My hope is that it will start a debate. It will also inform us of a coming world where we can decide what are the limits, what are the boundaries of what is OK and not OK.
Q. Are there some important influences that shaped your thinking behind the book?
A. There were several writers that strongly influenced my style and vision for the book. Growing up I read everything by Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. Their ability to mix psychology, cultural motifs, and technology forever changed my perception of the world. They created utterly realistic worlds that had such deep insights into our own human condition. Similarly, I wanted create a world in RedDevil 4 that was vivid, that you can feel and taste, yet something that a person today can relate to. Later in life, when I read Michael Crichton's works, I wanted to create something that could talk about complex scientific ideas, but have it be widely accessible. Just as Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park captured the public’s imagination and fear of the impact of genomics, I wanted RedDevil 4 to tap into a similar fundamental fascination and anxiety about science’s dawning capability to penetrate the most core aspect of being human – one’s thoughts.
Q. So what’s next? Where does the technology and fiction go from here?
A. In a certain sense, the fiction precedes the technology. What I mean by this is that fiction, if successful, influences the society’s imagination. It channels resources and efforts of the entrepreneurs and young scientists and engineers to see if that fantasy is possible. Most often it is. To draw on several historical examples, the notion of a ray gun far preceded the discovery of a laser, and people fantasized about flying to the moon as far back as 400 years (Johannes Kepler’s Somnium,1634). The point here is that science fiction invariably focuses our scientific and technical efforts, because society - as channeled and expressed by the artist - have determined that it is something interesting and worth pursuing.
I am fortunate in that I get to play in both camps. From the futurist standpoint, RedDevil 4 was my first foray into what the world looks like when neuroprosthetics becomes ubiquitous and how it sets the stage for artificial intelligence. In my next work, I am also interested in the promise and peril of pervasive artificial intelligence. What does the world look like when synthetic intellects are as common as laptops. How does that change things? Even now with IBM’s push to make it’s AI, Watson, a utility service we see that that world is on the horizon.
In the here and now as a scientist and entrepreneur, I am working to invent the technologies that demonstrate the value of brain-linked technologies to society. My company Neurolutions is creating a brain computer interface for patients who have suffered a stroke and lost the function of their hand. By putting on a simple head cap and donning an exoskeleton for their paralyzed limb, they can regain simple control of their hand after a few days of training. Not only will this be game changing for the management of stroke, but it will fundamentally prove that brain computer interfaces are moving into reality as a mainstream technology. Beyond that, I think the next steps are to contemplate how these approaches can be used to enhance and augment the lives of normal people. In the short term, using signals directly from your brain to control devices like a smart phone - the ultimate hands free set. In the long term how can we amplify things like attention and memory to improve human performance -- I guess making the ultimate electronic version of an espresso.
Q. Do you think that people will really want to alter their brains? Is that a realistic consideration for the future?
A. I remember as a child how people with tattoos were considered fringe and plastic surgery was something done for women with mastectomies or done secretly. The idea that a person could change their body was considered strange. In the past twenty to thirty years there has been a large shift in the notion of our bodies and their malleability. Rather than accepting what you have been given, people are coming to a different conclusion – I can change myself.
The way people change themselves thus far is mainly cosmetic. People embroider their personal styles on their skin. Sometimes hidden, sometime visible, approximately 15 to 25% of young adults now have tattoos. Over 50% of the population has a body piercing of some sort. Beyond either personal or social statements on their skin, people are having almost every part of their body surgically altered for aesthetic reasons. The growth of plastic surgery is projected to quadruple by 2015 to 55 million cases in the US.
Beyond this being an interesting bit of trivia, it’s telling us something fundamental - that people (the younger generation especially) will change themselves to suit their interest. The idea that people will alter their bodies will not be constrained to cosmetics. If there is a potential benefit of some sort in a self-modification, whether real or perceived, people will try it. Today we already see people alter their eyes to get better than perfect vision. And why not? It’s easy, low risk, and it improves the convenience of your life. Simple, right? As technology continues to evolve and makes functional modification of our capacities a low surgical risk with clear benefits, people will adopt the changes. So what could we modify? One could imagine that if brain computer interfaces become small, negligible in terms of surgical risk (like getting one’s ear pierced), and gave you the ability to manipulate your environment with your thoughts alone, then widespread adoption would become inevitable. RedDevil 4 imagines all sorts of scenarios of what people could enhance or alter; ranging from the ability to have tattoos that change with your mood, to hyperconnectivity to your motorcycle, to enhanced cognitive abilities.
Making it personal, one has to ask themselves - If you could have small implant that could allow you to access the web with your thoughts alone - would you? If you’re a lawyer and other lawyers have the ability to access any legal file with the speed of their thoughts, would you feel pressured to also get one? If you are an investment banker, and the current gain of having a ten millisecond time advantage over another trader is a million dollars (per millisecond), any interest in getting an implant? With technology moving at an exponential pace these are possibilities that are no longer fancies of the imagination. They are likely realistic considerations. Once realized, just like Lasik today, the question will not be a grand consideration, it will simply be “and why not?” The world of RedDevil 4 shows that. Imagine after some low key surgeries you could then communicate with other people’s minds, share thoughts, have virtual experiences of any type as if they are really happening, and download memories – quite literally your imagination is the only limit. With that type of upside, people would overwhelmingly be interested.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Like the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, Leuthardt creates a fully imagined world in this adrenaline-pumping thriller. In Leuthardt’s world, electronic devices are vestiges of the past and brain-computer interfaces, implanted in the doctor’s office, rule the day. For aging detective Edwin Krantz they are a necessary annoyance, until he and his partner, former navy SEAL Tara Dezner realize that a series of horrifying murders committed by leading citizens for no apparent reason might have a connection. They turn to renowned neurosurgeon Hagan Maerici for answers.
Maerici is nearing a breakthrough in artificial intelligence and realizes that someone may be tampering with the computer systems implanted in the brains of prominent people. Dezner and Krantz need his help to solve the riddle behind this rash of killings but soon find the neurosurgeon is a riddle himself. Could he be somehow responsible? As the detectives dig they discover a long-buried mistake made by Maerici, a mistake that could have devastating consequences to millions of people. With time ticking away, can they overcome the spiraling dangers from a dream of artificial intelligence that has gone horribly wrong and avert disaster by learning the devastating secret behind REDDEVIL 4?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ERIC C. LEUTHARDT M.D. is a neurosurgeon and biomedical engineer as well as a recognized pioneer in neuroprosthetics. He is widely published in scientific journals and has received a number of scholarly awards in recognition of his contributions Dr. Leuthardt is the director of the Center of or Innovation in Neuroscience and Technology at Washington University School of Medicine, where he researches brain-computer interfaces. He is ranked as one of the most prolific inventors in the world, with more than 800 patents either granted of pending. REDDEVIL 4 is his first novel.