Remote Control Humans

Sixto Ortiz Jr.

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.

Shock Value

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 police.

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 illusions."

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 said.

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 injury."

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 asked.

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 name.

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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Scott Ortis, Jr.
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