A Chip for My Old Block
By Jim Castagnera
Attorney at Large
Last summer, my son married a German girl. They live in Hamburg, her hometown. When my family and I were at the wedding, and I was in my cups, I boasted about learning to speak German. Marc, who majored in German at Temple and studied for a year at Hamburg’s university, encouraged me. The new German in-laws applauded me. Then I came back home to Havertown.
Now it’s November. I’ve been averaging about one German word per month. Don’t ask what the four words are… it doesn’t matter. Everyone else in my family probably knew what I should have known: a record of a “C” and two “Ds” in college French doesn’t bode well for my mastering a new foreign language 40 years later.
My wife, who didn’t do any boasting at the wedding — but who bought a $300 computer program called “Rosetta Stone,” which the U.S. State Department uses — has been progressing nicely through her German lessons. My best bet is that her next course will be in ventriloquism.
A more remote hope is that 21st century reality will catch up with science fiction real fast. I’m referring to a sci-fi novel I read a while ago in which the heroine slipped a computer chip into a surgically-implanted slot behind her left ear. “Click.” Chip in place, she started speaking Chinese like a native. Now that’s what I need.
If anybody is going to deliver on that wish, it might be the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Never heard of it? Darpa, as the cognoscenti call it, is the federal agency that pushes all the technology envelopes in the name of national security. I’ve been reading up on Darpa lately.
Darpa, I’ve learned, is particularly interested in what goes on inside our heads. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is one of the big Darpa initiatives. According to Jonathan Moreno, a professor of biomedical ethnics (yes, there’s a living in doing that, it seems), some studies “focus on replacing old-fashioned lie detectors with systems based on neuroscience. The hope is that the new techniques would not only be more reliable, but that they could replace torture and other physically aggressive means of interrogating terror suspects and enemy operatives.” If I get what he’s talking about, the interrogator asks a question and the MRI registers changes inside the subject’s skull. Color changes and the like indicate truths and lies.
Some Euro-scientists are even farther ahead than Darpa. Writer Ker Than of www.livescience.com reported earlier this year, “The line between living organisms and machines has just become a whole lot blurrier. European researchers have developed ‘neuro-chips’ in which living brain cells and silicon circuits are coupled together.” Than explained, “To create the neuro-chip, researchers squeezed more than 16,000 electronic transistors and hundreds of capacitors onto a silicon chip just 1 millimeter square in size.”
The scientists’ goal, concluded Than, is to “one day enable the creation of sophisticated neural prostheses to treat neurological disorders or the development of organic computers that crunch numbers using living neurons.” Forget the number-crunching, folks. Cram 16,000 German vocabulary words and hundreds of Teutonic grammar rules on one of those chips and you can have yourself a guinea pig right here in Havertown.
In fact, why should I stop at German? Wow, would the students in my classes be impressed if I laid a little bit of ancient Sanskrit on them now and then!
Of course, every silver cloud has its dark lining. These chips could put me out of a job. I mean, why spend four long, hard years in college, when you can buy a complete college education on a chip? Want to change majors? Just trade in your civil engineering chip for an elementary education chip. Well, maybe not elementary education, since all the little kids will be getting their own inserts. No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.
Pricing these chips could pose a problem. Should a chip cost as much as an actual college education? If, so, from which college? If your kid couldn’t get into Harvard to save her life, should she be allowed to buy an Ivy League-level chip? Personally, I don’t see why not. But I strongly suspect that somehow, someway, a “Chip Elite” will emerge… unless a chip to change human nature is on the Darpa drawing boards.
A Chip for My Old Block