11A036 Brain Fever by Jim Davies, 2/5/2011    

This week I happened to watch a "Nova Science Now" presentation about the human brain. Often that series is well done; this edition just about matched the value of my time, but was not among its best. Scrappy, often trivial, it should have focused more tightly on a smaller range of ideas. Example: one participant was Mo Rocca. Mo is an amusing satirist but is not a neuroscientist and, in this setting, was not even funny - and the program did not even use him to explore what humor is all about, inside the head.

One interesting segment reported that IBM has developed parallel computers, w/software, to compete in mid-February editions of the game show "Jeopardy" with some of its best performers. That promises to be an amazing achievement, well worth watching. The task of trying to emulate the human brain must be formidable, yet this machine, called "Watson" after the Company's founder, will still address only parts of its capability range; I heard nothing said for example about emotion. (Hardware, with feelings? Hmmm.)

Another interesting part gave a brief mention that one part of our brains concerns the sense of right and wrong, and that - like other parts - it can be modified, by the application of strong electromagnetic pulses. The program failed to compare this with the infamous 1963 Milgram experiment at Yale, in which ordinary nice people consented to torture other ordinary nice people, just because authority figures told them it was okay. I would have thought such a link useful, for it opens up the subject of how, typically, a brain can be so mis-wired as to do horrid things.

The (unstated) implication is that humans are mere machines, at the mercy of electrical impulses over which we have no control; that the power of decision and choice is an illusion, that therefore we need wise benevolent people to supervise society for the greater good. I imagine control freaks are salivating over that prospect as liberally as Pavlov's dog (even though the gene pool from which such benevolent controllers might be derived would be identical to that which produced those being controlled) but assuming such a capability is indeed perfected, I wonder what part it might play in a zero government society.

As we noted here on January 7th, its justice system would recompense rather than punish. However in a very few cases confinement would still be needed, as in the case of serial, apparently compulsive aggressors; since they would clearly be unable to work to compensate many victims, insurance companies would seek a court order to confine him so as to save themselves future expenses. Such a prospect would serve nobody well (like today's prison system serves nobody well) but would be the least damaging solution; except one. Assuming brain manipulation techniques had been developed sufficiently, the aggressor could be offered the alternative of undergoing such treatment. If found effective, he could be cautiously released; he would live a normal life, untroubled by the impulses that had hitherto produced his ruin. I imagine the option would often be preferred.

Once liberated from the straitjacket of monopolistic government control, this and all manner of ways to smooth out the exceptional, harsh edges of society will be invented - to everybody's benefit.

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