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Neuralink Event: Updates, Insights, And (Big) Implications

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It’s been a while since I’ve talked about Neuralink. There’s a good reason for that. Even though Elon Musk announced the formation of the company back in 2017, there hasn’t been much news, aside from a few cryptic teases. That didn’t stop me from proclaiming it be one of the most important venture of all time and I still stand by that proclamation.

Finally, on July 16, 2019, we got some news from Neuralink that attracted major press coverage. Musk, in an event that was live-streamed, offered some tantalizing details on the state of the company’s research into advanced brain implants. He didn’t announce that they’d perfected it. However, he did make clear that this is not some crazy idea he just scribbled on a cocktail napkin.

The presentation was lengthy and I encourage everyone to check it out. I’m nowhere near as smart, articulate, or successful as Elon Musk. Very few individuals on this planet are. If for no other reason, watch this event to affirm that he’s serious about merging human brains and machines.

If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, here a few key points:

  • The first use of this technology will be to treat brain disorders
  • The company has over $150 million and almost 100 employees
  • It has made significant strides in crafting advanced electrodes that can be implanted in a human brain
  • The current prototype utilizes chips that can process brain signals
  • The prototypes have proven functional with rats and monkeys

These insights are intriguing, but they’re not going to change the world overnight. It’s not like we’ll be able to order our own brain implants from Amazon by the end of the year. This technology is still in its infancy. We’ve only recently developed computer hardware that can communicate with brain cells. We’re a long way off from functioning on the level of the Borg.

What Musk laid out wasn’t just a vision. He offered specifics, citing where we are with the technology and who will initially benefit. It makes sense for those with brain disorders to act as the first beneficiaries. Aside from the difficulty of convincing most people to have something put into their brains, these implants could be invaluable at helping quadriplegics improve their lives.

It’s not an impossible feat, having brains interact directly with machines. It has been successfully done with monkeys. It’s just a matter of testing, refinement, and improvement. Like cell phones and Lasik surgery, which I’ve had done, the technology will improve once it has a foundation to build on.

Now, we got a glimpse of that foundation and there’s plenty of reasons for excitement. While nobody can predict the future, especially not as well as someone like Elon Musk, there are some major implications for the near and distant future.

Just controlling a computer with your brain is not the endgame of this technology. Musk stated clearly in the event that the ultimate goal is to create an intimate, symbiotic relationship between humans and advanced artificial intelligence. He sees it as a necessary relationship if we’re to minimize the existential threat posed by AI.

Before we get to that goal, though, it’s almost a given that this technology will find other uses and markets. One market that wasn’t mentioned in the presentation, but could prove very lucrative, is gaming.

As much as video game technology has advanced since the early days of Nintendo, the controls haven’t evolved much. We still need a keyboard or a controller to interact with the system. As someone whose reflexes were rarely fast enough while playing Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, I can appreciate those limitations more than most.

Imagine an interface where moving a character or a cursor required only your thoughts. Suddenly, you’re no longer restricted to button sequences and analog sticks. The controls only limited by your brain’s ability to give the necessary commands. Whether you’re playing an old Mario game or Grand Theft Auto V, you guide everything along with your thoughts.

Considering the gaming industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, the incentives for innovation are strong. If a brain interface offers novelty or advantages for gaming, then Neuralink is in a position to reap the benefits.

Those same benefits extend beyond the gaming industry. While it may take a while for an implant to process the complex controls of a video game, it might not take as long to create one with the ability to give wielders more direct control of their smartphone. Some may recoil at the thought of being that connected with their smartphone, but the benefits may be too good to pass up.

I can easily imagine an interface that not only helps people type messages faster, but provides better security than passwords, fingerprints, or facial recognition. Hackers might be able to crack a password, but brain signals would pose a far more daunting challenge.

This kind of interface also opens the door to a more intimate forms of communication. It’s one thing to just send texts and emails with our phones. What if we could send codes through brain implants that actually convey feelings and emotions? Instead of emojis, we could just send a coded message from one implant to another that conveys anything from happiness to shock to sarcasm.

That level of communication wouldn’t just be groundbreaking. It would change the way human beings interact. Again, it would be somewhat rudimentary at first, but with refinement, it could open entirely new channels for those who take advantage of this technology.

These are just some of the possibilities. The implications for the distant future are big, but the possibilities for the near future are just as tantalizing. Right now, the near-term goal revolves around helping brains interact with computers. At the moment, those computers are not advanced AIs. When that time comes, though, we’ll at least have a channel for that interaction.

These are exciting times, indeed. This is not just some eccentric billionaire’s crazy vision. This is really happening. There have been many technological advances that have changed our lives, but this technology may ultimately change much more than that.

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Jack Fisher’s Weekly Quick Pick Comic: DCeased #1

It’s Wednesday and for comic book fans, it’s basically a holiday that doesn’t require decorations, greeting cards, or annoying commercials. Every week brings something new and with many people still recovering from the impact of “Avengers Endgame,” myself included, the world needs something to help us move forward.

With that in mind, this week’s quick pick offers something that is the dramatic antithesis of a bittersweet ending to an 11-year movie franchise. “DCeased #1” is not the kind of story that will lift your spirits or trigger tears of joy. It’s a different kind of story that seeks a different impact and, much like “Avengers Endgame,” it succeeds.

The story does not build heavily on recent events in the world of DC Comics so if you haven’t kept up, you won’t be too lost. It’s very much a self-contained story that takes a particular concept that’s unique to the DC Universe and twists it in ways it has never been twisted. The results are brutal, terrifying, and a sight to behold, albeit a morbid one.

Writer, Tom Taylor, has a rich history of taking certain concepts within the superhero genre and re-imagining them in new, compelling ways. He did it with his criminally underrated run on “Superior Iron Man” and “DCeased #1” definitely has traces of those themes.

It starts with something familiar. The Justice League has once again defeated Darkseid. In terms of standard operating procedures in the DC Universe, that’s akin to paying your taxes or getting your driver’s license renewed. However, this typical triumph isn’t the end of the story. It’s just the beginning and it gets very dark, very fast.

At first, it has all the makings of another elaborate plot by Darkseid. He’s always had plenty of that. Being a god-like bringer of death and destruction, he always seems to have something going on and never lets defeat by the Justice League hold him back for long.

Then, his plan goes horribly and shockingly wrong. I won’t spoil the details, but what happens to Darkseid, and later everyone on Earth, strikes at the foundation the DC Universe. Like many other superhero comics, there are a special brand of physics in play, many of which would make Einstein’s head explode. However, when those physics are defied or subverted, bad things tend to happen and this might be the worst.

This isn’t the kind of impact that gives an all-powerful, obscenely-evil character like Darkseid an insane power boost. This is something that torments even the most villainous beings as much as its most virtuous heroes. Gods, demigods, aliens, Amazons, billionaire playboys, and even average people on the street are all equally vulnerable.

For once, there’s no evil figure to fight. There’s no devious villain to outwit or overpower. This is a force of nature that hits anyone and everyone. It’s akin to gravity, light, or taxes. Nobody can escape and nobody is immune.

While the concept of “DCeased #1” may seem like apocalyptic disaster porn, its dramatic structure keeps it from getting too gratuitous. Taylor demonstrates a refined understanding of how certain concepts work in the DC Universe and artwork by James Harren and Tervor Hairsine give rich details to some bleak undertones. Taken together, it creates a dark story that has just the right impact.

Whether you follow the comics or only watch big budget superhero movies, it’s easy to get caught up in the standard tropes of superheros. We expect them to fly in, save the day, or even undo the damage if things get too bad. There are any number of stories like that, especially in the DC Universe. That’s why a story like “DCeased #1” can be so refreshing, even when it deals in such dark themes.

This isn’t a case where we can expect the mightiest heroes in DC to save the day, smile for the cameras, and go back to their lives as mild-mannered reporters. This is a devastating cataclysm for which there is no going back. There’s a uniquely surreal impact to watching this world of mighty superheroes succumb. It’s not just different for the sake of being different. It shows us a different aspect of these characters and this world.

We all know what happens when superheroes save the day. Most people have seen that story in some form or another at some point in their lives. “DCeased #1” dares to ask what happens when superheroes can’t save the world. It’s not that they fail. Technically, they’re not even defeated in the mold of Darkseid beating up Superman. Things just go horribly wrong due to forces beyond their control.

In a world full of god-like super-beings from various planets and universes, this level of destruction has quite an impact. Beyond being the antithesis of the classic hero-saves-the-day narrative, “DCeased #1” presents a story that requires these heroes to reveal a different side of themselves. We know how they are when they’re at their most triumphant. Now, we get to see who they are when all hope is truly lost.

It’s a story worth telling and, if your heart and soul can handle it, “DCeased #1” takes the first step in this utter deconstruction of the DC Universe. It’s a dark, grim sight to behold, but one that brings some welcome novelty to superhero comics.

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Memory Enhancement: The First Killer App For Neuralink?

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Every new technological innovation promises to change the world, but few end up delivering. I still remember the overblown hype in the early 2000s when the Segway Personal Transporter was supposed to revolutionize the world. It was such a big deal that “South Park made an episode about it.

The concept was intriguing, improving mobility for people in a way that was less bulky than a car and less taxing than a bicycle. I think its inventor, Dean Kamen, envisioned a world where the entire urban landscape changed as a result of his invention. I don’t doubt for a second that he believed in that vision.

However, like so many other ambitious inventions, it never came to pass. These days, the only place you’ll see Segways is malls and stadiums. It didn’t revolutionize mobility or transportation. Its use and appeal was just too limited.

Kevin James would argue otherwise.

Compare that to enormous impact of other inventions like smart phones. From the BlackBerry to the first iPhone, these devices have literally changed the world. How they brought about that change varies, but the key factor that set them apart from the Segway was the idea of a “killer app.”

You could argue that smartphones invented the term, but the idea is much older. A killer app isn’t as much an innovation as it is a use that goes onto be so popular that it further advances the technology behind it. Smartphones had many, from cameras to translation applications. As a result, they’re both a multi-billion dollar industry and an integral part of our lives.

Given the current pace of technological change, it’s only a matter of time before another innovation comes along that has a similar impact. That technology might actually exist now, but lack the killer app that will make it both a valuable market and a major part of our lives. One such technology is brain implants this technology has the potential to be even bigger than smartphones.

I’ve mentioned brain implants before. I’m even guilty of hyping it up a little. I’ve gone so far as to call it the most important technological advance in history, citing companies like Neuralink as the arbiters of this monumental change. Since I’m not a scientist and I’m not Elon Musk, it’s very likely I’m overstating many aspects of this technology.

Hype or no hype, brain implant technology is an emerging field. This isn’t a warp drive. This technology actually exists. Like the old brick-sized cell phones of the 1980s, they’re basically prototypes in need of both refinement and a killer application. The refinement is ongoing, but that one application to really further this technology isn’t as clear.

Now, and I apologize if this sounds like more overdone hype, there may be one use that could prove even more useful than a smartphone. That use is memory enhancement. If you don’t think people are willing to risk putting something in their brains to boost their memory, then you’ve clearly never crammed for a Spanish exam for three hours trying to memorize conjugations.

Think back to any situation where you wish your memory didn’t suck. Even if you’re not in school or college, how often do you forget something that no reasonable person should forget? Let’s face it. Most brains aren’t wired with a photographic memory. It’s not that it isn’t useful. There’s just little survival benefit to having one unless you’re a world class scientist or mathematician.

Since photographic memories are so uncommon, and some doubt they even exist to the extent people believe, a specialized brain implant could change all that. Modern neuroscience has a solid understanding of how memories are formed in the brain. In theory, an implant would just augment or expand those functions.

It’s not even entirely a theory. In early 2018, the New York Times reported that a study utilizing brain implants in human test subjects showed a significant improvement in memory function. It was a simple study, but the effect is real.

In the study, the research team determined the precise patterns for each person’s high-functioning state, when memory storage worked well in the brain, and low-functioning mode, when it did not.

The scientists then asked the patients to memorize lists of words and later, after a distraction, to recall as many as they could.

Each participant carried out a variety of tests repeatedly, recalling different words during each test. Some lists were memorized with the brain stimulation system turned on; others were done with it turned off, for comparison.

On average, people did about 15 percent better when the implant was switched on.

While 15 percent may not sound like much, it’s still important because it proves the concept. Like that first bulky cell phone in the 1980s that could barely make a call out of New York City, it shows that this idea does work and can be done with our current tools. It’s just a matter of refining those tools and improving the process.

Those refinements will find a market that is already ripe with people anxious to improve their memory and overall cognitive function. In recent years, the use and abuse of mind-enhancing drugs like Adderall is growing. I can personally attest that this happens.

When I was in college, I knew more than a few students who would do double doses before exams. If you think putting something in your brain is dangerous, then take a moment to appreciate the fact that drugs like Adderall are very similar to methamphetamine. One is available by prescription. The other is the basis of a hit TV show about drug dealing.

There is both a demand and a market for enhancing memory. Unfortunately, that market is dominated by supplements that don’t work and study programs run by convicted fraudsters. Unlike these costly and potentially harmful methods, a brain implant could actually work. It could enhance our memories to a point where we could read a dictionary in Swahili and remember every word.

This doesn’t just mean lost car keys are a thing of the past. This means our entire approach to learning, education, and training completely changes. A lot our modern education system, as well as training for doctors, lawyers, and scientists, relies heavily on memorizing large chunks of information. It takes years of constant and careful study to understand all that information. What happens when that is no longer the case?

Imagine a world where people can learn a new language in the span of a week.

Imagine a world where people can learn complex legal and medical procedures in only months.

Imagine a world where people can learn new software coding in just a few days.

If you’re a sports fan, imagine a world where football players can memorize an entire playbook in just a couple days. What will that do to the NFL Draft?

With a memory enhancing brain implant, it’s not just possible. It’s a potential game-changer. There are so many uses to having a good memory, just as there are so many uses for a smartphone. We had no idea that smartphones would lead to applications like Snapchat or Tinder. I doubt anyone has an idea on the impact that memory-enhancing brain implants will incur.

It won’t happen all at once. It took years for smartphones to become prevalent and unlike smartphones, this advance involves putting something in your brain. Then again, people are perfectly willing to put dangerous chemicals in their bodies to enhance their bodies so I don’t think that’s too great a barrier to overcome.

There are, of course, far greater applications for brain implants beyond acing final exams. I’ve mentioned a few of them, but those applications won’t be possible until the technology becomes a thriving market. For an advance like brain implants, it only takes one app to get the engines of innovation going. Memory enhancement may very well be that app.

It’s just a shame it came too late to help me with my Spanish exam.

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The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters for Justice League #1. Enjoy!

Justice in Its Totality: Justice League #1

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June 12, 2018 · 9:43 pm

My Justice League Review (And Why The Criticisms Are Unwarranted)

When I did my review for the “Wonder Woman” movie earlier this year, I did so under fairly favorable circumstances. The movie was already getting a lot of positive buzz from critics and general word-of-mouth. I was excited to see it in any case, but that buzz certainly set a positive tone when assessing the merits of that movie.

With “Justice League,” I face the polar opposite of those circumstances. While I generally try not to give much weight to critics or Rotten Tomatoes scores, it was hard to avoid this time. Unlike “Wonder Woman,” the buzz for this movie was entirely negative and it showed in the box office returns, also known as the only real measure that studios care about.

For a movie that was set to be a major milestone, finally putting DC’s most iconic heroes into one movie, it has since become an outright scandal. How can a movie with so much superhero star power do this poorly? That’s a question I am not equipped to answer, especially since people much smarter and more well-connected than me already have.

Instead, I’m going to walk right into this ongoing firestorm of whining and anger to give my spoiler-free review of this movie. I wanted to do it sooner, but I decided to let that firestorm die down just a bit before I offered my take. That might have been a mistake on my part. There’s a lot of noise surrounding “Justice League,” but not much insight.

With that in mind, I’m going to keep my review simple. I’m not going to try and extrapolate a bigger picture, like I did with “Wonder Woman.” I’m just going to focus my review on one simple question.

Is “Justice League” a good movie?

Before I go into detail and try to talk over all the noise, I want to answer this question with my honest and sincere sentiment. Given how much I’ve talked about comic books, superheroes, and superhero movies, including the sexy parts, I like to think my answer has at least some weight. However much stock you put into my opinion, here’s my ultimate conclusion on “Justice League.”

It is a good movie.

Yes, I realize that sentiment doesn’t reflect its Tomatometer score. Keep in mind, though, that score reflects the opinions of critics who are paid to see and/or overthink movies. It doesn’t reflect how actual fans feel about it, which actually shows in the response for this movie.

Even critics can’t deny that this movie went out of its way to please fans, especially those who were dissatisfied with “Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice.” It directly dealt with the aftermath of that movie, as well as the characters’ reaction to it. It even dealt with the aftermath of “Wonder Woman,” building upon a foundation and creating connections, exactly like a real movie universe should.

Those connections weren’t too critical to appreciate the movie as a whole. It also works very well on its own, creating a simple, concise plot that really ramps up the scale. Again, it’s entirely consistent with the effort to make a large, inter-connected movie universe, just as Marvel has done with so much acclaim.

However, that’s not my primary reason for me saying that “Justice League” is a good movie. In simplest terms, this movie is good because it sticks to the basics and does them very well. It doesn’t try to be overly elaborate. It doesn’t attempt to reinvent the characters to an excessive degree. Yes, those characters have some variations, compared to their comic counterparts, but it’s nothing that warrants confusion or outrage.

Superman is still Superman. Wonder Woman is still Wonder Woman. Batman is still Batman, even if it is through the brooding demeanor of Ben Affleck. Getting those three right is critical to the success of any “Justice League” movie and this one makes it a point to do that early on.

It doesn’t stop there, though. It puts time and energy into developing the rest of the league, namely Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. These three characters had only brief cameos in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice,” but they achieved much greater depth here.

These supporting members weren’t just there to fill out the ranks. They each had their own personal story to follow. Through that story, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg gain a personal stake in “Justice League.” It’s not just about saving the world for them. They’re struggling for something greater and, through the story, they achieve it.

At times, there are a lot of plots unfolding simultaneously. The personal stories of all those involved tend to mix. While it does get somewhat messy, it never gets chaotic. The story never goes off-track and it never becomes too confusing, which was a common criticism levied against “Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice.”

A major reason why the story remained so concise was because of the main villain, Steppenwolf. While he’s not as iconic a villain as Lex Luthor, Loki, or Darkseid, who is mentioned multiple times, he does plenty to establish himself as a powerful threat and a highly motivated villain.

Like the other members of the league, his role in the plot has a personal component. He doesn’t just show up, wanting to destroy the world for shits and giggles. There’s an actual reason behind his actions and those reasons never become excuses, something that should carry weight for any character.

On top of those reasons, Steppenwolf’s story helps build the bigger picture of the DC Extended Universe. Through it, we learn that there are much larger conflicts in this universe that go beyond the Justice League. It helps establish a larger role for the Amazons, who showed their strength in “Wonder Woman.” It also establishes the Atlanteans and Green Lantern Corp, who are set to show theirs in future movies.

If the secondary goal of “Justice League” was to build a world and expand the possibilities, it certainly succeeded. If its primary goal was to bring each hero together in a way that was entertaining, flashy, and dramatic, then it succeeded as well.

There were plenty of powerful moments. There were plenty of dramatic moments. There were even some funny moments, most of which involved Ezra Miller’s Flash. Few of the moments felt forced or contrived. None felt empty either. There was purpose in every moment, decision, and action. By those most basic of standards, “Justice League” works.

I would even argue that this movie works better than a lot of Marvel movies. I would certainly put it above titles like “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and “Iron Man 3,” movies that I think get more praise than they deserve. “Justice League” even makes the effort to improve on the mistakes of its predecessor, something few franchises even try, as “Amazing Spider-Man” can attest.

None of this is to say that “Justice League” is without flaws. It certainly has a few. The effects aren’t as flashy or colorful as other movies. Even “Man Of Steel” had better effects, by comparison. It’s also worth belaboring that Ben Affleck is no Christian Bale and Steppenwolf is no Darkseid. It really did feel as though the movie held back, at times.

If that’s the biggest shortcoming of “Justice League,” though, then I still say it qualifies as a good movie. It tells a story. It fleshes out characters. It tells a big, flashy story, full of big battles and satisfying conclusions. There’s a sense of emotional catharsis at the end that is much more uplifting than what we got in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice.” When put in the context of the greater DCEU, it acts like frosting on the cake.

Why, then, does it receive such hate and scorn from critics? If this movie does have a major crime, it’s that it isn’t crafted in the same mold as Marvel with their cinematic universe. I don’t deny that Marvel sets a very high bar. However, this movie cannot and should not operate by those same standards. If it did, then those same critics would just whine that it’s ripping off Marvel too much.

There are other criticisms of “Justice League,” but when so many of them revolve around Henry Cavill’s digitally-removed mustache, those criticisms are downright petty. It is possible to hate and criticize this movie by focusing on those petty issues, but that’s hardly a fair way to judge the actual substance of the movie.

In terms of actual substance, “Justice League” has it and plenty more. It Superman being Superman, Batman being Batman, and Wonder Woman being Wonder Woman, just in case her movie didn’t give you enough of that. For that reason, “Justice League” deserves far more praise than it has gotten and far less petty criticism.

In the end, it still gives us a satisfying, live-action Justice League movie. That, in and of itself, makes it inherently awesome

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