Sixto Ortiz Jr. newsfactor.com
The idea of controlling people by manipulating brain activity long has
been a staple of science fiction and dystopian fantasy. Hypnotism,
implanted devices, brainwashing, even the Jedi mind trick -- all are
methods that have appeared in fictional works as effective ways to
subvert the will of human beings.
Today, however, the possibility of being controlled by an outside
force is more science than fiction, thanks to researchers at Nippon
Telegraph and Telephone in Japan.
A team at NTT's Communication Science Laboratories has invented a
headset that can, when linked to a remote control equipped with a pair
of joysticks, force the wearer to move against his or her will.
The device originally was designed to add realism to video games and
other virtual environments. But while technically impressive, the
invention is viewed by some as ethically troubling -- viewed, quite
literally, as a new form of mind control. The apparatus has raised
questions about the possibilities and perils of a world in which
humans can be moved around like chess pieces.
NTT is using a technology called galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS)
to influence the delicate machinery in the inner ear that controls
balance and movement in humans. Subjects slip on the headset, which
looks like a pair of bulky headphones, and researchers zap electrical
impulses into their ears to control their movements remotely.
"At low currents, GVS selectively activates nerve cells in the
peripheral vestibular system (the balance receptors in the inner ear)
and such activation results in sensations and movements of the eyes
and limbs, just as natural stimulation of balance receptors results in
such movements," said Dr. Ian Curthoys, professor of vestibular
function at the University of Sydney's Vestibular Research Laboratory.
In other words, GVS artificially induces the same natural sensations
caused whenever the inner ear's balancing mechanism is stimulated with
real movement. For example, Curthoys said, a subject undergoing this
type of stimulation could feel like she is turning even though she is
sitting still. The technology could be used both to trick a person
into "feeling" motion and to move in a predetermined direction.
The possibilities are endless, from fully immersive virtual-reality
environments that faithfully reproduce real motion to, perhaps, a way
to control unruly crowds without tear gas, rubber bullets, and riot
Playing with Your Head
Dr. J.J. Collins, professor of biomedical engineering at Boston
University and codirector of its Center for BioDynamics, said GVS does
indeed hold massive potential appeal for gamers. "[Its] great chance
for success is as a component of virtual-reality games, one for
enhancing the total immersion experience by creating motion
In fact, one of the NTT research team's experiments, presented last
year in Los Angeles at the SIGGRAPH conference -- a gathering focused
on computer graphics and interactive techniques -- used GVS to enhance
a racing game by simulating the sharp movement of the vehicle without
the usual mechanical props.
The GVS procedure itself is not inherently dangerous as long as it's
done by people who know what they're doing, Curthoys said. "If people
give their informed consent for such a procedure and it is applied
carefully by people who are familiar with its use, then there is not
much issue," he said. If the electrodes are placed incorrectly,
however, the application of large currents can burn the skin, Curthoys
Warned Collins: "GVS involves applying currents to the nerves in an
individual's head, and if this is not done properly, it could lead to
Buyers of commercial GVS kits -- if the technology ever is
commercialized -- probably should refrain from entrusting the remote
control to those who enjoy inflicting pain on others.
Is It Ethical?
Giving someone the ability to do something that has been compared to
mind control inevitably raises the question of whether or not it ought
to be done at all. Critics of the GVS technology have raised concerns
over the ethical implications associated with pumping electricity into
the brain and providing others with a means of physical control.
Dr. Jonathan D. Moreno, a professor of biomedical ethics at the
University of Virginia and author of the upcoming book Mind Wars:
Brain Research and National Defense, said it was important to draw a
line between medical and entertainment research when talking about
GVS. He pointed out that medical research has built-in safeguards,
such as informed consent and risk-analysis protocols, that are
designed to protect experimental subjects.
"The gaming situation makes me uncomfortable," Moreno said,
"especially in an uncontrolled situation where volunteers simply sign
a blanket waiver that provides no legal protection to the experimenter
in case of negligence."
Moreno said that any company hoping to commercialize GVS for
entertainment purposes potentially would face a tremendous liability
burden due to possible injury claims, especially with products
designed for children, teens, and young adults. "Would you want your
kid to be zapping his or her brain for entertainment after school?" he
GVS and World Domination
Beyond fun and games, several potentially sinister applications come
to mind when talking about GVS technology. Could it be used to put a
human being in harm's way? Could a prison equip all inmates with GVS
devices so guards could move them easily from place to place, even
when they don't want to be moved? Could housewives eventually use GVS
to force recalcitrant husbands to go shopping on game day?
"The prison question is intriguing because prisoners have surrendered
much of their autonomy," said Dr. Margaret McLean, director of
biotechnology and medical ethics at Santa Clara University's Markkula
Center for Applied Ethics. The question to ask, according to McLean,
is whether or not an internal control such as GVS could be compared
realistically to other traditional means of prisoner control -- such
as bars, cells, dogs, or guards.
The truth is that GVS in its current stage is far from the control
freak's ultimate weapon. Boston University's Collins dismissed the
possibility of using the technology to move humans completely against
their will because, he said, "Our central nervous system, through
volitional commands, could largely override the effects produced by
GVS." Score one for good, old-fashioned willpower. Collins noted that
"this is much like using hypnotic suggestions: You can suggest to the
subject that they 'jump off a roof' or engage in some sort of activity
which (under ordinary conditions) the suject believes is immoral. The
subject will often-times struggle against obeying such a command and
will sometimes come out of the hypnotic trance entirely in the process."
Another researcher active in GVS agreed. "At present, we can induce
small changes in body stance and posture, but are nowhere near remote
controlling humans." The researcher did not wish to be identified by
Some people have pointed out that GVS has tangible theraputic
applications. Besides its possible uses as a tool for creating
immersive virtual-reality environments, GVS also can be used, said
Collins, for treating patients who suffer from balance disorders and
other types of neurological diseases that attack the vestibular
system. Curthoys and McLean agreed that the technique has potential
for patients with balance problems.
"Our aging population faces a number of health challenges, one of
which is the loss of balance," said McLean. If GVS could be used to
treat balance disorders, she added, the technology would a boon to
keeping people on their feet, preventing falls and fractures, and --
somewhat ironically, given its potential to influence the brain --
allowing continuing independence.
A New Reality
The best commercial promise for GVS still appears to be its use for
enhancing video games. Next-generation gaming consoles such as the
Xbox 360 and ever-evolving PC graphics cards are setting the bar for
visual realism higher and higher. If developers can someday enhance
stunning visuals with equally stunning sensations, ultrarealistic
games that take advantage of GVS might shake up the industry.
But even the use of GVS in gaming raises an interesting ethical
dilemma, McLean said. Could the technology, she asked, enhance gamers'
experience of violence to the degree that it blurs or even completely
evaporates the line between fantasy and reality? If that's the case,
McLean added, GVS could be seen as a tool that ultimately promotes
violent behavior. McLean said, however, "we are a long way from the
point -- if we ever reach it -- of deliberate, willful behavior which
goes against a person's strongly held convictions."
It also could be a tool that provides a virtual experience unlike any
other. If GVS delivers on its game-enhancement potential, developers
and marketers might hold the remote in their hands, easily holding a
captive audience of enthralled gamers in their sway.
But rest assured that any steps toward mainstream adoption of GVS will
attract the attention of many others who will insist on thrashing out
the ethical implications of the technology -- and those people most
likely will not be silenced by a mute button.
Copyright 2006 NewsFactor Network, Inc.
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