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DNIs: Basic Components, Features and Risks

Direct Neural Interface equipment and operation details

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Image from Bernd Helfert

For such a fundamental technology Direct Neural Interfaces come in a huge variety of designs. Differences can be easily found between cultures and individuals, particularly in terms of those who specialise their mental aids (physically and digitally) for specific tasks. In addition virtuals and vecs may lack the physical components common to bionts, instead having similar functionality built into their mental systems or added as firmware. Nethertheless commonalities do exist and a sophont looking to acquire a DNI can expect to find the following with a standard set of implants:


Physical components of DNIs


Neural link: The physical and digital backbone of a direct neural interface; connecting its disparate components to each other and the sophont's brain. A neural link is comprised of a branching network of micro- and nanosized fibers that spread throughout the central nervous system (CNS). It can monitor and affect the CNS through a variety of means depending on the sophont's requirements and biology; large areas can be influenced with magnetic fields and gasotransmitters whilst smaller targets (down to individual neurons) are commonly manipulated with nanofilament, artificial synapses. Like a biological brain a link can grow, shrink and otherwise adapt depending on its environment. This ensures that no matter how the user changes over time (naturally or with bodymods) the DNI is capable of changing with them.

Computronium nodes: Spread throughout the brain these components can both store data and run software; net-browsers, messengers, encyclopedias, speed-teachers, games, physics simulators, product designers, document processors are just a few of the common types of DNI programs. This merging of machine and mind was the driving force behind the development of neurotechnology. However most DNIs are very limited in their processing power compared to other Terragen artefacts. Availability of space in the central nervous system, energy demands and waste heat all hugely limit the power of an individual DNI. Indeed the DNI for a typical human baseline may only occupy 0.1-1% of the volume of the central nervous system allowing for mere cubic centimeters of computronium. Thus for anything beyond the simplest of programs DNIs must outsource their processing needs to external hardware. For most Terragens this is not a problem as their local environment and personal items (including clothes) will be embedded with plentiful computational resources for their exoself to run on. Many sophonts carry specialised processor blocks on their person for such reasons. If they find themselves without access to external computronium the features listed below will all run at a severely reduced capacity, if at all.

Communication Array: Commonly using EM radiation an array threads through the user's nervous system allowing a DNI to communicate with the outside world. Extra bodymods can be installed for high-bandwidth data transmission, these include: NFC tattoos, Infra-Red comm freckles, olfactory chemical messengers and a wide array of physical sockets for wired data transfer.

DNIs use their arrays for net-access, equipment operation and a plethora of peer-to-peer communication formats, from simple text/audio all the way to technotelepathic streams of qualia (some augmentation to the brain may be required for more advanced forms of communication to make sense). A less common, although by no means unheard of, use of an array is to modify it to provide the user with extra senses. DNIs capable of communicating via radio, ultrasound, neoSQuID modulation or any other communication method can allow the user to sense these phenomena as easily as they can see and hear.

Power cells: Given their small size DNIs do not require much power to run, at least at average activity. They do need some power however and a storage mechanism for times of intense activity. Power cells of a DNI can charge in four ways: kinetic, thermal and biofuel harvesting of the host and wireless energy transfer from an external source (via ultrasound, induction or physical contact with epidermal nanowires). Due to the efficiency of DNI computation and energy harvesting (as well as the practice of outsourcing processing needs) most users never need to be concerned with their energy usage. In the rare case a DNI is in danger of depleting its reserves simply consuming high energy foods or resting upon wireless charging furniture is more than enough to offset the energy demand.


Common features of DNIs


Adaptive User Interface: The means by which users receive information from, and give instructions to, their DNI. The range of I/O styles is huge and most sophonts use hybrid systems (e.g. augmented reality for entertainment but knowsense for navigation). Common examples include:

- Augmented reality; the user experiencing images, sounds and other senses projected over their natural sensorium.

- Synesthetic; artificial perceptions are produced to grant information e.g. "feeling" the market reputation of a brand/individual when meeting them.

- Knowsense; mimicking the natural phenomenon of psychological incubation where information appears fully formed in the conscious mind as though from the subconscious.

Beyond handling those simple tasks, AUIs provide the foundation of DNI and exoself function. Refined over millennia by software and neuropsychological experts these types of interface have a huge capacity to not only customise themselves to their user but act as a near-perfect assistant, anticipating the user's needs and wants and acting accordingly. The more responsibilities granted to an AUI the more of a sophont's life they don't have to consciously manage. For example; if delegated nutritional management an AUI can order up food to match the user's tastes, timed to arrive just as user becomes aware of their hunger. Delegating tasks need not be a conscious decision, unless otherwise instructed an AUI will predict which responsibilities its user would like it to take on (and to what to degree) as well as those it should leave alone. When activating a DNI for the first time it is commonly advised to provide a preloaded personality simm of oneself for the AUI. Acting as a psychological model the simm is integrated as the AUI "core", allowing it to simulate any action to determine those best in keeping with their user's wishes (without a preload the AUI instead must learn from observation, a task that can take several months or longer).

Sensory augmentation: DNIs monitor, and can modify, all sensory information coming into the central nervous system. At the low end this function is used for presenting information or entertainment to the user through augmented reality. More sophisticated uses can edit the user's perception of their environment, for instance; Babel programs automatically translate foreign languages (written, spoken and signed) into one the user is familiar with. A common medical use of this feature is to block pain and discomfort, though caution must be taken to prevent further damage to one's self. At the highest capability sensory augmentation can be used to access a fully virtual environment, providing that suitable external computronium is available.

Exokinesia: Alongside sensory information a DNI is capable of intercepting and stimulating motor signals in the body. This ability has two broad functions; the first is to allow the user to hand over partial or full control of their body to another sophont or program. This "autopilot" feature can be used to run skill modules, transport the body whilst lynking or ensure healthy resting positions are adopted whilst the user is accessing a virch. Many Babel programs employ exokinesia in conjunction with sensory augmentation to allow the user to speak foreign languages (to the best of their physiological capability). The second function operates in reverse by allowing the user to physically control external sophonts and machinery as though they were extensions of their own body. Common examples are controlling domestic appliances, piloting vehicles and operating rental bodies. The more "alien" the machine in question is compared to the user's clade the more processing power is required so as to safely mesh the control software with the user's mind.

In some cases, the link between a sophont and a device can be so immersive that the user begins to view the machine as their natural body. User's are advised to keep the psychology-protection protocols of their medisystem at a high level to prevent undesirable shifts in self-perception. Operating multiple complex machines often requires additional modifications, notably intelligence amplification, lest the user's mind be overwhelmed.

Cognitive and Behavioural Control: This feature psychometrically measures a user's personality and mental state, as well as offering the ability to manually override or otherwise alter either. Specific emotions and feelings can be suppressed, induced or varied in intensity in spite of almost any context. A popular use of this functionality is to conjure up enthusiasm, determination and confidence so as to effortlessly gain focus for the task at hand (a skill Homo superiors possess naturally). Minor tweaks to positive and negative reinforcement can subtly change one's response to certain stimuli, essentially eliminating depressive mental health disorders. More advanced uses of the technology allow one to set complex rules of responses in order to significantly change one's personality. Beliefs, values and behaviour can all be radically shifted, for example; stressful situations could be made to induce confidence over anxiety, aesthetic and sexual preferences can be swapped to suit the occasion, a constant bedrock of faith that things will be OK could underlie one's view of the world etc. CBC rulesets are generally known as "Persona scripts" and prolonged use can cause lasting changes in personality. Though this is often the desired goal users should be aware that poorly programmed personas can lead to a decline in cognitive health (see Risks below). Consultation with expert software, installation of psych-protection protocols and third party oversight is advised.

Recreational uses of this capability are common; feelings of ecstasy, joy, peacefulness and even psychosis can be experienced upon demand. The use of narcotic programs (narcograms) is regulated to varying degrees in different cultures. Most permit them with little restriction beyond the requirement that 3rd party override is granted to one's medisystem, the angelnet or an autodoc. Combined with counter-dependency software these measures limit the risk of long term addiction and mental breakdown.

Memory augmentation: In most clades memories alter and fade over time as a healthy part of their neuropsychology. DNIs offer a way to sidestep this with a degree of safety by transcribing copies of the user's memories into internal or external storage. Sufficiently advanced DNIs can go so far as to create mindstate copies for uploading, scion creation and external backups. With enough internal hardware memory modules (e.g. compubone) can even store compressed exoself backups. This can allow sophonts travelling in areas with limited available computronium to restore their external mental capacity when possible.

Software to access stored memories can vary in its implementation; some mimic natural recall granting a sense of eidetic memory on the part of the user. These approaches require sophisticated safety routines to avoid mental stress, for example: perfectly recalling a traumatic event down to the minutia of physical and emotional pain. Other approaches organise stored memories in encyclopaedic formats, presenting the user with summaries of the events they can no longer naturally recollect. These summaries can take a variety of formats from simple text to dramatic recreations (if Media Generator software is available for use in conjunction). If sensory data has also been stored from the user, or from any recording devices present at the time, AR or fully virtual recreations are possible.

Intelligence amplification: Arguably more than any other technology DNIs are a gateway for intelligence amplification, from minor mental improvements to ascension. With even a general IA package an average baseline human can become a minor polymath, more advanced and specific programs can rival the natural abilities of Homo Superiors. Using a DNI a sophont can interface their minds with neuromod software; this usually comes in the form of simulated neural networks running in the exoself. These mods can expand natural functions of the mind granting the user greater capacity to model complex situations, read another person via empathy, speed-learn topics (via tachydidaxy) and generate ideas based on the situation and need. Beyond this neuromods can add functionality to a user's mind that is qualitatively distinct from their natural capabilities, such as; instinctively thinking in terms of advanced mathematics (including extra spatial dimensions), being able to recognise patterns in noisy data and being able to mentally multitask by delegating cognitive tasks to auxiliary thought routines.

To some extent nearly every sophont in the Terragen sphere uses their DNIs for intelligence amplification, even if it is for tasks as minor as calculating orbital transfers in their head. Generally there is a ceiling on how much IA a DNI can grant before it runs into the limits of its own sophistication and size as well as the peak capacity of the brain it is connected to. IA enthusiasts commonly adopt other body modifications (particularly those related to neural efficiency and physiological waste heat management). More than any other DNI features IA requires a constant, good connection to external computronium to run. Sophonts suddenly cut of from sufficient processing power to run their intelligence amplifying exoself can experience traumatic drops in mental capability. The severity of the trauma can be mitigated through physical means (ensuring one is carrying enough computronium or augmenting oneself with implants like compubone) or mental organisation and training (arranging neuromods in a hierarchy of importance and frequently practicing deactivating lower levels).

For those who follow the path of DNI mediated IA the rewards can be great; even as they must shed aspects of their past, be they physical or social, under proper guidance they can achieve transapience, and even godhood.

Assisted brain death: As a sophont right most modern DNIs offer the user the ability to painlessly commit suicide (the ease and availability of this feature differ by polity with some requiring consultation with a psych-evaluation program to unlock the option). Process differ but in bionts often involve total dysregulation of the brainstem through a combination of magnetic fields, direct electrical stimulation and targeted neurotransmitter release in order to shut down autonomic functions including breathing and cardiac activity. This can be accompanied by a massive endorphin release to make the experience quite pleasurable (in addition to causing further damage via severe serotonin syndrome). Acute brain damage can be caused after death (such as tissue overheating, acute abnormal neural oscillation and release of synaptic degradation agents) in order to quickly destroy the connectome in a matter of minutes. This option defends against nonconsensual mindstate upload and is often used in conjunction with backup deletion and projection of interfering magnetic fields by the DNI to inhibit any scan.


Risks of DNI use


Malware infection: The most common and frightening of all DNI risks across the galaxy. History is littered with tragedies great and small involving the malicious infection of DNIs with software and a-life. The least harmful examples may just result in data theft, software corruption or ad-monitors. The worst cases include insanity neuromods, bodyjacking, brain death with backup corruption, bindings, malicious persona scripts (commercial or ideological) and whole scale assimilation by a hive mind. Consequently cyberimmunity programs are some of the most invested in software throughout history. Uncounted trillions of vot-hours have gone into rational design and directed evolution of adaptive programs that can identify, block and delete malware. In much of the civilised galaxy cyberimmunity is backed by transapient-run angelnets and thus infection is a vanishingly small risk outside of ultratech attack. However both beyond the bounds of these civilisations, within "free" zones and states with questionable practices (such as mandatory personality mods for social compliance) many sophonts can find themselves at risk, even with the latest updates. Caution is advised when travelling to a known hazardous location.

Narcogram dependency: Despite built-in limiters and medical-program supervision outside of the most regulated of environments it is possible for a user of narcograms to become dependant, either physically or psychologically. The risk generally increases proportionally to deregulation (with a minority of notable exceptions) as it becomes easier to acquire poorly made, hacked or otherwise dangerous narcograms. Some argue that the best experiences can be gained in these places and that heavy regulation limits the wonder, fun and mind-expansion that narcograms can grant. Others point to the increased risks and question the subjective nature of these improvements. In any case narcogram dependency is a serious problem given the ultra-ease of availability. Even the most sensible of narcogram users must take care not to trap themselves in a never-ending cycle of mental pleasure and impairment as they become incapable of switching off their guided experiences. Hard narcograms can even cause long-term brain damage if used frequently enough that medisystems are not given time to perform neurological maintenance. At the extreme sophonts may die if they neglect to eat or otherwise take care of themselves. In some societies the prevailing attitude is that this is acceptable, even desirable, as deceased sophonts restored from backup are returned to sobriety, free to make their own choices again. In others the potential for social and personal abuse makes the "benefits" not worth the risk.

Persona script syndrome: Also known as an "unreality trap", this syndrome is the result of activating a poorly parameterised or malicious persona script. Generally a persona is considered to have given rise to the syndrome if it fulfills two criteria: Firstly the persona results in significant, objective harm to the user (medically, socially or financially). This may be because it makes the user irrationally confident, overly submissive or prone to bouts of paranoid anger, to name just a few. Secondly the persona acts in some way as to prevent or drastically inhibit the user's ability/willingness to deactivate it. PSS is most commonly caused by personal accident, users may attempt to customise a persona or use a combination of persona and through ignorance debilitate themselves. Even relying on automated systems can be dangerous (at least without sophisticated angelnet oversight) if the software is given insufficient or vague requirements.

Thankfully PSS is very rare as the technology has been refined throughout history to the point that standardised software packages are capable of protecting the user. However in many parts of the Terragen sphere illicit use is common, both legally and otherwise. In the early days of the NoCoZo viral-ads existed that would infiltrate a potential customer's DNI and alter their personality to favour the commercial interests of the ad-maker. Despite being phased out due to security firms/charities (operating under market influence) millions were ruined financially and psychologically by the practice, especially when two viral-ads waged psychological war inside a sophont's mind. In the modern era rarely does a decade go by without reports from periphery worlds of "Persona Cults" taking over a system by infecting colonists with doctrinal persona scripts that enforce conformity and ideological belief. In some cases by the time aid swarms have arrived the system has been devastated by internecine conflict as different denominations of cultists (each interpreting doctrine slightly differently within the bounds of the persona) have arisen and gone to war.

Neuromod Induced Cognitive Disorder: Commonly known by the Anglic slang term "Brainburn" NICD is a disorder brought about by the use of multiple neuromods that are incompatible with each other and/or the user's mentality. Whilst any DNI user can suffer from NICD the highest risk factors are extreme cognitive-amplification enthusiasts. For the vast majority of people the quality of the neuromods they install into their minds (physically or within their exoself) is standardised and the number of individual mods is low. Even high-level users of neuromods will generally use a large generalist package supported by an assortment of personalised, specialist abilities. But there are always those who seek to be at the bleeding edge, to expand their mentality across the toposophic landscape (both laterally and across singularities). Their minds are heavily engineered, supported by thousands of specialised (and often experimental) mods.

Whilst ideally such practices would give rise to superturing, transavant and (eventually) transapient status in many cases they lead to crashes in ability, wild swings in personality and a host of mental disorders. NICD is a broad category of conditions that can manifest in a multitude of symptoms. In almost all cases however it is best to catch it early, late-stage NICD is often characterised by the user falling into a metastable yet undesirable (even insane) toposophic state. However outside of societies with benevolent transapient supervision it can be extremely difficult to diagnose early NICD. The reason for this is that by pushing their minds so far and in such unique, specialised configurations many victims border on the edge of transavantism. Without medical ultratech one can never be sure if aberrant mental and physical behaviour is a result of a disorder or a legitimate route to ascension. In most cases NICD is mild, manifesting in behavioural ticks and psychological quirks. A small price to pay for such enhanced mental capabilities. However in extreme cases it can result in death of oneself, others and even failed ascensions that give rise to perversions and blights.

The risks of DNIs are akin to many other risks of the modern age: it is often argued whether or not the major empires are too controlling of modosophonts, both overtly and secretly. But by most measures the more involvement archai and transapients have in modosophont lives the less those sophonts have to worry. The price may be less personal and social freedom, but there are plenty of places outside (and within) these empires where there is little-to-no interaction. In these locales one will find the extreme users, the entrepreneurs and the avant garde of modosophont minds. But one will also find risk in disease, impairment and perversion. Ultimately the choice is one's own.

 
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Development Notes
Text by Ryan B
Initially published on 15 October 2011.

 
 
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