Your Very Own Cultured Neural Network

When I started writing Remembrancer I was intrigued by cyberpunk, post-modernism and transhumanism. I still am, and I know that the future will be nothing like we imagine, but I still keep postulating.

One of the reasons I started reading the Neurophilosopher’s Blog is I was interested in how our brain capacity might evolve and how we might push that along. I was also conducting research for Remembrancer, a story where a small group of people have brain implants. The purpose of these implants is not to make them uber-soldiers or to interface with AIs, but to store other people’s memories. Think about how different we might view historical events if we could see them through Thomas Jefferson’s actual memories, or Einstein’s or Mother Theresa’s?

While I find that compelling, I’m a science geek at heart. I wanted the mechanism to be as organic as possible, not just a chunk of hardware shoved into brain tissue, and I came up with an idea for a cultured neural network using cells from the person’s own tissue. Now I read that scientists are indeed creating neural networks very similar to what I describe:

Cultured neurons seem like ants away from their colony: removed from their parent organ, dissociated from their fellow workers and placed into an unnatural environment. But neurons plated onto a culture dish connect to each other, forming simple neural networks that give rise to spontaneous electrical activity. And, in recent years, researchers have developed culture dishes containing arrays of microelectrodes embedded within them, such that the electrical activity of the cultured neurons can be recorded. These new techniques have revealed the remarkable functional properties of neurons in culture – the cultured networks of dissociated cells can “learn”. In other words, they can modify their initially spontaneous activity into something purposeful, such as controlling a flight simulator or controlling the movements of artificial animals in a virtual environment.

While some value Remembrancers, others fear them and in some cultures in this universe they’re considered Untouchable. A Remembrancer doesn’t copy a person’s memories, she takes them. The transfer is conducted at death, which is the outcome regardless of whether a person’s body is actually failing beforehand. The implant is organic; there’s very little outward indication that a person is a Remembrancer, a particular problem on worlds that consider them to be Untouchable. Also, an unexpected facet of the download is a witness to a person’s last moments when they depart for their own version of the afterlife.

As so often happens, scientific developments enable me to explore all sorts of inter- and intra-personal conflict. What happens to a shaman figure who witnesses death, and a kind of rebirth, over and over again? What happens if that power is abused? What kind of person would become a Remembrancer? Who are her friends and enemies and why?

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