Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Weaving Ethical Dilemmas

Imagine, for a moment, that a device existed that could recreate just about any experience a person could have. Not like a television, video game or movie. Not even like a virtual reality simulator. Instead, it interfaces directly with the brain, stimulating specific regions to fire so that the user is, at least temporarily, completely convinced that they experienced whatever event was played. Every sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, even the very emotions evoked, all created by the device in the user's brain. Want to climb Mt. Everest from the comfort of your own home? Just run the right program and when it's done, you'll feel like you have. Want to sit on a tropical beach, lounging with a cool drink in your hand and just admire the majestic ocean, waves rolling in to murmur on the sandy shore? Run a different program, feeling completely relaxed when it's over.

That's the premise of a novella I just finished reading, called The Dream Weaver, by Aaron Simmons, who wrote the story as part of the annual National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo). The central character is Eric Bram, a fellow who kicked off the technology and producer of some of the best "weaves" on the market. Bram, however, is wracked with guilt as he learns about the growing issue of addiction associated with the Dream Weaver device, wondering what role he may have played in the spread of the problem. Simmons weaves (excuse the pun) an intriguing tale that hints at far more considerations than could fit in the brief tale. So, I thought I'd explore some of the things that came to mind as I read it. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments. If you don't want the book spoiled, I suggest giving it a read before continuing on below.

First, we have to suspend disbelief, of course. Every person's brain is wired differently, so something like the Dream Weaver system would be next to impossible to actually develop. What the weaver records and encodes might, by chance alone, result in some other user experiencing something coherent, but most likely the end result would be a jumble of neural noise for all but the weaver. For our purposes, let's just assume that it could be done.


Opium den in San Francisco, CA, ca 1885-1895
Source: Library of Congress.
Credit: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. [BANC PIC 1999.055:05--fALB]
A major theme of the book is the problem of addiction. Think about the people spend watching television. It's a cheap form of entertainment. Most homes in the U.S. have at least one TV set, if not more, and it provides a wide range of viewing options. In 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans watched an average of 2.8 hours of TV per day, creeping up to 3-4 hours on weekdays. That constituted the largest use of leisure time out of all activities. Now, imagine a weave. In the book, most weaves on the market took as much time to "watch" as it takes to actually do the activity in real life. The main character, however, has just developed a technique to compress days of experience into just moments. Even so, figure at least 1-2 hours at minimum to enjoy a weave, with more intense ones potentially lasting 5-6 hours or even longer. During that time, you are essentially asleep. While using the device, your brain secretes the same chemicals responsible for sleep paralysis to prevent your body acting out the events of the weave. More immersive than any current television or any other technology we have, it's the perfect escape from the humdrum of daily life. And the more stressful, demanding or downright oppressive your real life happens to be, the greater the escape offered by the Dream Weaver. With the right weaves on hand, why not simply plug in and forget about life? Live a virtual one that is just as real (at least to your brain) as the physical world around you, only more rewarding. But it's empty and once it's over, you realize it's ephemeral and fleeting. So you go back in for more. Like a bad drug, it's easy to get sucked in and forget about basic necessities, like food and drink or personal hygiene. Go from one fix to the next. In the book, the addicts are little more than wasted husks, lying about in a stupor like opium users.

Is addiction certain? No. Well, maybe not. It would depend on the individual, their circumstances, the weaves they choose, certainly, but there's no guarantee of it being addictive in the same way that something like heroin is. Any addiction would probably be, in large part, psychological, rather than physical. On the other hand, it does cause stimulation of various areas of the brain. It's plausible that, as with anything that stimulates our neurons, the device could create a physical dependency. The more a person uses it, especially for weaves that give them intense feelings of pleasure, the more they need to use it to get the same level of "high".

So does the device get regulated like a drug? I think that would depend in large part on just how much of a problem addiction became, while also taking into consideration the clout of the industry producing the machines and the weaves. In the book, addiction seems to be a phenomenon only recently creeping into public awareness, so there are no laws governing the devices. Compounding the issue is that the device has been made, from the beginning, to be as affordable as possible, so that every person could own one, and the main producer hopes to have one of their devices in every library, school and home in the country.

Viruses and False Memories

The Dream Weaver causes very specific stimulation of the brain, essentially creating the patterns that would occur were the user to actually experience what is in the weave. What if the programmer inserted some insidious bit into the weave? Could they change someone's behavior? Make them do something they wouldn't normally do? The world of the story allows for this to happen, in a somewhat benign manner. Users of a particular weave are drawn to seek out the weaver as soon as possible for the answers to their questions. Being a good villain, of course, he extorts money from his victims. Simmons hints at a more sinister possibility: making someone commit a crime.

But there is something else that doesn't even require a virus to accomplish. If the experience of a weave is so real to the user, it's not much of a stretch to think that they could, given enough time, recall a weave as if it were their own experience and not some virtual creation. When we remember an event, it's not like looking at a snapshot, a static image in time. Instead, we piece together bits of information to recreate the memory. Every time we do that, there's room for error. We might lose some bits of detail and insert others that were never there. In fact, we have evidence that it is possible to implant false memories. As Dr. Steven Novella notes:
This is precisely why when subjects, sometimes under hypnosis, are invited by a therapist or investigator to imagine themselves experiencing a standard alien abduction scenario, or an episode of childhood physical abuse, or a past life – the experience is not revealing hidden memories, it’s manufacturing false memories.
Imagine, then, how much more of a problem this could be when given the sort of stimulation produced by the Dream Weaver. More than mere imagination can accomplish, the weaves trick the regions responsible for processing input from your sensory organs into thinking they actually are getting a signal. Would we see an uptick in claims of alien abduction or physical or sexual abuse? What about people viewing a weave in which they invent some popular and very lucrative item that actually exists? Would they possibly try to collect royalties? Think of the frustration as they pursue, and exhaust, their legal options. The money and time wasted. The emotional drain. Could these problems lead to strict regulation of content? In the U.S., such regulation would butt up against the Constitutional freedom of the press.


Why go there when you can "go" there?
Credit: PYONKO/ www.flickr.com.
License: Creative Commons License (BY ND2.0)
If the Dream Weaver can perfectly recreate any experience for the user, at a very low cost, any business tied to the tourism and hospitality industry would take a huge hit. You don't need to take time off from work, book a flight and hotel or rent a car to experience a particular resort or vacation destination. No need to pay for a ticket to get into a museum or amusement park. Whatever money you pay for the weave goes to the producer of the weave, not to the airline, hotel, resort, museum or park. While actually going to a destination would have more options and variety of experience available to you, a robust library of weaves could come very close to achieving the same thing, but at much greater convenience and significantly lower cost.

Almost certainly, any industry that makes money from people physically being there would lobby for legislation to restrict the use of their services in a weave. Perhaps a resort would allow limited use of their facilities to a weaver by license, with a significant cut of the royalties going to the resort, of course. The moment any such laws are put into practice, however, there will be those who will do their best to get around it. I'm not certain how one would design such laws, though. How can one "steal" an experience? I can't begin to imagine the legal morass this would involve. And even if the problem of piracy were solved to a reasonable degree, what of all those ancillary services around tourist spots? So the resort or hotel gets their money, but what of the restaurants and souvenir shops? Taxis and car rentals? Airlines? It's not too much of a stretch to think that there could be a significant negative impact on these industries, leading to loss of employment for a lot of people. Maybe they'd find jobs as actors for a weave?

Medical Device or Entertainment?

Another theme that Simmons mentions in passing is the use of the Dream Weaver to help people become better at something or to treat some problem they have (e.g., to help the user quit smoking). That brings up the question of whether to define the Dream Weaver as an entertainment system or a medical device. In the United States, 21 USC 321(h) defines a medical device as:
(h) The term "device" (except when used in paragraph (n) of this section and in sections 301(i), 403(f), 502(c), and 602(c)) means an instrument, apparatus, implement, machine, contrivance, implant, in vitro reagent, or other similar or related article, including any component, part, or accessory, which is--
(1) recognized in the official National Formulary, or the United States Pharmacopeia, or any supplement to them,
(2) intended for use in the diagnosis of disease or other conditions, or in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, in man or other animals, or
(3) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals, and which does not achieve its primary intended purposes through chemical action within or on the body of man or other animals and which is not dependent upon being metabolized for the achievement of its primary intended purposes.
Would the Dream Weaver itself be classified as a device? Just the particular weave programs? The Dream Weaver would be a medical device in those situations where it is being used to treat some condition and as an entertainment device where it isn't. This is kind of how saline can be either a drug or a device, depending on how it is used. The individual weaves would probably also be considered devices themselves, in line with the way programs for current medical devices are classified. The level of regulatory requirements depends on the condition being treated. As an active device (Class II), the first use of the Dream Weaver to treat a medical condition would require FDA approval, after clinical trials demonstrating safety and efficacy. After that, the device or specific weaves might be exempt from 510(k) requirements, meaning the makers would just need to notify FDA about their product before marketing, without the rigor of going through clinical trials.

An obvious consideration here is the potential for pseudoscientific claims. Would people like Joe Mercola be able to make wild claims for their weaves with nothing more than the Quack Miranda Warning (i.e., "This/these statement(s) have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.")? Barring any changes in the law, I don't see anything that would bar the unscrupulous from doing with the Dream Weaver what they do with all manner of other nonsensical products already.


Although a machine like the Dream Weaver is unlikely to ever become a reality, I had a lot of fun thinking about the different ethical and legal issues that would crop up if it were possible. At least, it's unlikely in my lifetime. Perhaps as we develop a greater understanding of the brain and how it works, maybe one day we'll need to actually confront these dilemmas. Science fiction has often been a driver of technology, so who knows?

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Todd, nicely done! It's a lot of fun reading another person's take on the ethical issues brought up in The Dream Weaver. Thanks for sharing!


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