Cybernetics in SF Writing

My first-ever guest blog post is up at the Science in Science Fiction, Fact in Fantasy series on Dan Koboldt’s blog! If you want to learn some inside tips on how cybernetics really work — both modern and future-tech — you should follow that link and check it out!

Not only was it a lot of fun to work with Dan, we came to an amazing discovery together as we finalized the post. Once I move to St. Louis at the end of June, we will be working in the same building.

Go follow that link above to read my guest post, if you haven’t already! Because once you’ve read it, you’ll have enough context to understand these bonus bits of cyborg info. Consider this a reward for reading through from Dan Koboldt’s blog to mine!

  • Proprioception is what we call the sense of your body position in space. If your cyber-arm doesn’t have some way to deliver sensation (item #5 in my guest post), this is what you’ll lack. Life without proprioception is not impossible, but it is very hard. If you want to learn more about that life, there’s a 1997 BBC documentary about Ian Waterman, who lost all proprioception after an infection in 1971.
  • “Motor-control part of your brain” is a big but useful simplification. Your entire brain is involved in motor control, as implied by the last item in my guest post. There is one part of the brain that plays the biggest role in direct movement output: primary motor cortex, which controls movement kinematics and some kinds of skill learning, whereas other areas are more involved in motor plans, sequencing, preparation, etc.  However, primary motor cortex isn’t the only area that sends outputs down your spinal cord to your muscles. It’s the biggest source, but it still accounts for only ~40% of those outputs.
  • In the final part of my guest post, I boldly claimed that “cognitive” things like decision uncertainty end up reflected in “motor” things like hand trajectories. This also reveals a theory about the fundamental operation of the brain: we are always developing multiple plans for possible actions, and those plans exist in competition with each other until we select between them. Here is a scientific paper that reviews all these findings in lots more detail.
  • At the very end, I wrote, “Maybe controlling that second pair of arms is more like learning a second language.” Your brain handles things very differently when learned young, and language is just the most obvious example. (All child-learned languages involve a different part of your brain from adult-learned languages.) I’ve also just published a paper illustrating this in the motor system, but that would be a post of its own, if anyone’s interested.
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