Source Code, a sci-fi thriller released last week, is based on the premise that science will let people really get into each other’s heads. The eponymous technology, the trailer tells us, is a computer program that “enables you to cross over into another man’s identity.” What results is a scenario that’s part Matrix, part Groundhog Day: lugged into the Source Code program, Jake Gyllenhaal—er, Captain Colter Stevens—lives through the last eight minutes of another man’s consciousness, just before the man’s train was blown up in a terrorist attack, in an effort to identify the bomber. (Stevens’s body, like Neo’s, stays in one place while his mind is elsewhere.) When the first run-through fails to turn up a culprit, Stevens relives those eight minutes again and again, having a different experience—new conversations, new sensations—each time.
Could something like that ever happen? While much of the technology in Source Code will remain purely fiction, says University of Arizona neuroscientist and electrical engineer Charles Higgins, modern science may eventually let us take a peek at, and even play around with, someone else’s consciousness. Among the movie’s technological inventions, Higgins says, “the idea of monitoring and influencing consciousness with a physical neural interface is the most plausible.”
After last week’s focus on Battlestar Galactica‘s series finale, we turn to some items from other shows, that fell through the cracks. First up is a recent episode of Dollhouse, in which Echo, (played by Eliza Dushku) is imprinted so that she can infiltrate a cult’s compound that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives happens to be very interested in. So that the ATF can keep tabs on what is going on, Echo has a device surgically implanted in her brain that allows the ATF to tap into what her eyes are seeing (for dramatic purposes, the implant’s diversion of her optic signal renders Echo blind.)
This is a technology that has already seen a proof-of-concept demonstration. In 1999, researchers from Berkley and Harvard inserted electrodes into the brains of anesthetized cats that monitored the activity of 177 neurons located in the lateral geniculate nucleus, a key visual processing center. Using a computer to process the signals from the brain, the researchers were able to reconstruct different test images places in front of the cat’s eyes, albeit at a low resolution. While some people see this work as a possible pathway to give sight to the blind, by feeding images into the lateral geniculate nucleus instead of extracting them, it would require (as demonstrated on Dollhouse invasive brain surgery that would carry commensurate risk.