Stephen Rainey

Scrabbling for Augmentation

By Stephen Rainey

 

Around a decade ago, Facebook users were widely playing a game called ‘Scrabulous’ with one another. It was pretty close to Scrabble, effectively, leading to a few legal issues.

Alongside Scrabulous, the popularity of Scrabble-assistance websites grew. Looking over the shoulders of work colleagues, you could often spy a Scrabulous window, as well as one for scrabblesolver.co.uk too. The strange phenomenon of easy, online Scrabulous cheating seemed pervasive for a time.

The strangeness of this can hardly be overstated. Friends would be routinely trying to pretend to one another that they were superior wordsmiths, by each deploying algorithmic anagram solvers. The ‘players’ themselves would do nothing but input data to the automatic solvers. As Charlie Brooker reported back in 2007,

“We’d rendered ourselves obsolete. It was 100% uncensored computer-on-computer action, with two meat puppets pulling the levers, fooling no one but themselves.”

Back to the present, and online Scrabble appears to have lost its sheen (or lustre, patina, or polish). But in a possible near future, I wonder if some similar issues could arise. Continue reading

Neuroblame?

Written by Stephen Rainey

Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), or brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), are technologies controlled directly by the brain. They are increasingly well known in terms of therapeutic contexts. We have probably all seen the remarkable advances in prosthetic limbs that can be controlled directly by the brain. Brain-controlled legs, arms, and hands allow natural-like mobility to be restored where limbs had been lost. Neuroprosthetic devices connected directly to the brain allow communication to be restored in cases where linguistic ability is impaired or missing.

It is often said that such devices are controlled ‘by thoughts’. This isn’t strictly true, as it is the brain that the devices read, not the mind. In a sense, unnatural patterns of neural activity must be realised to trigger and control devices. Producing the patterns is a learned behaviour – the brain is put to use by the device owner in order to operate it. This distinction between thought-reading and brain-reading might have important consequences for some conceivable scenarios. To think these through, we’ll indulge in a little bit of ‘science fiction prototyping’.

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Talking Back to Science?

By Stephen Rainey

In June 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that it was legal for a French citizen to sue a drug company for damages following a vaccination, and an illness. The ruling caused some consternation as it seemed a legal vindication of anecdote over scientific rigour.

This is a dramatic case, not least owing to the position in which vaccines find themselves, post Andrew Wakefield and the rise of the anti-vaxxer movement. Nevertheless, it forms a part of a wider narrative in which scientific activity is not always very open to questions from outside science. This broader theme is worth some scrutiny. Continue reading

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