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Can the Singularity Solve the Valentine’s Day Dilemma?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Every February, anxiety. Valentine’s Day looms and I agonize over what to get/do for my girlfriend. I’ll call her Veronica.* Funny/sexy/romantic card? Turkish delight or chocolates? Dinner at a fancy restaurant, and if so, which one? Lingerie? What size, style? Slutty or tasteful? [*See her response to this column below.]

Veronica has quirky–that is to say, unpredictable—tastes. The best present I ever got her, the one she appreciated most, was a vegetable scrubber with “natural” (hemp? flax?) bristles. After hers got old and died, she couldn’t find a replacement, and then I noticed one in a cookware shop in my hometown. Veronica was ecstatic! At getting a vegetable scrubber!

Otherwise, my gifts to Veronica often disappoint her. So I was wracking my brains about what to give her this year when I read a New York Times Magazine Q&A with Ray Kurzweil. I had my usual kneejerk aversive reaction: Why the hell is the Times giving Kurzweil free publicity—again–for his scitech-cult nonsense! And how could Google make this guy director of engineering fer crissake! But then I started wondering: Could a Singularity-style technology, like a brain implant, help me solve my Valentine’s Day Dilemma?

The Valentine’s Day Dilemma is a synecdoche of sorts for the much larger problem of subjectivity, or solipsism. Both Veronica and I—and all sentient creatures—are locked in our own private worlds. We can send signals to each other, visual, auditory and tactile, but neither of us can ever really be sure what the other is thinking. There’s lots of guesswork involved in our signal interpretation, which inevitably leads to squabbles, disappointments and so on. The dismal downside of romance.

These sorts of problems could be overcome if Veronica and I were both equipped with Stimoceivers. That is the term that brain-implant pioneer Jose Delgado (whom I profiled for Scientific American in October 2005) coined a half century ago for devices that he inserted into the brains of bulls, monkeys and humans. His Stimoceivers could detect and transmit signals from neural tissue as well as feeding signals back to the brain via electrical stimulation.

Delgado’s devices were crude. The Stimoceiver I envision would be snazzy, broadband, AI-enhanced. It would make Delgado’s device—and all our current methods of romantic communication–look as primitive as smoke signals.

Stimoceivers could have all sorts of apps for specific tasks. For example, I’d like a gift-giving app that queries Veronica’s brain about what she really wants for Valentine’s Day. Replicas of Ancient Egyptian owl figurines? Peter Max Tarot cards? Dinner at that Peruvian vegetarian restaurant in the Village? The app could do an internet search to see if the gift is available, within my price parameters, and order it, make the reservation, etc. Easy peasy lemon squeezy (as Veronica likes to say).

The app could also design a customized card–sappy/funny/naughty, whatever would delight Veronica. She will pre-arrange the settings on her Stimceiver so that it responds to my queries without alerting her conscious self, so my gifts will be a surprise.

Other apps could ensure in various ways that our Valentine’s Day dinner goes smoothly. One app could express my romantic feelings for Veronica more eloquently than I can. Call it the Cyrano de Bergerac app. Another app could filter out negative thoughts I might have about Veronica. Not that I ever have negative thoughts, but just in case. The app could also block transmission of thoughts that aren’t really negative but that she might take the wrong way.

If Veronica starts talking about something that bores me, my Stimoceiver would commandeer my language and motor centers. I’ll nod, maintain eye contact and emit appropriate verbal responses while the bulk of my brain is composing another “Cross-check” column or @Horganism twaiku.

The Stimoceiver would have total data-recording and storage capability, to resolve any disputes that might arise if Veronica and I have different recollections of something, like last year’s Valentine’s Day: “I told you I hate white chocolate when you gave them to me last year!” “I distinctively remember you saying you love white chocolate!” Let’s check our shared Stimoceiver databases and see who’s right!

In fact, such petty disagreements would never even arise, because we would have apps that anticipate and resolve potential conflicts before they even rise to the level of our awareness. It would be like having teams of super-smart troubleshooters, who never get tired and cranky, working 24/7 on our relationship down in the basements of our psyches. Our technologically enhanced love will be perfect, harmonious, unblemished by human frailty. Every day will be like Valentine’s Day, except much, much better.

I can’t wait for the Singularity.

*”Veronica” responds: Here’s the problem with this idea, Mr. Science. If this Stimoceiver existed then personalities wouldn’t matter much, would they?  You could just implant a Stimoceiver in any physically healthy, good-looking specimen and: Whammo! The perfect boyfriend. And even then, relationships would get boring.  If all that mattered was that I actually get the right present, then I’d just buy it myself.  You’re eliminating the dance that makes life interesting.  And where’s the challenge?  Pretty soon we’re just those fat people in WALL-E zipping around on scooters and living in their minds. Be mine! “Veronica” XXOO

Image: Paul Loughridge, http://www.flickr.com/photos/lockwasher.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Pauli 3:02 pm 02/11/2013

    This seems like satire but it might happen someday. There are many despretly miserable people who might give up a little self control in favor of happiness, security, and economic and romantic success. We already have drugs like prozac and such to do that for us. If our 20th girlfriend leaves us we can just take drugs, for “depression” of course. Maybe we will have an app that will monitor our minds and tell us when our brain doesn’t have desirable “chemical balance,” and we need drugs. Maybe we will treat undesirable personality traits, anger, lust(the “bad” kind), shyness, ect, as “diseases.” Even more onimous might be the political implications. It may start with “racism” and “sexism” and then expand into targeting communism, libertarianism, and other undesirable ideologies.

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  2. 2. Cramer 4:25 pm 02/11/2013

    My take on Horgan’s article was completely different from the commenter named Pauli.

    Horgan fantasizes about a device (called a Stimoceiver) that eliminates miscommunications/misunderstandings which better allows ones actual intentions to be fulfilled. He says nothing of eliminating emotions, nor do I know of any mental health professional who desires to eliminate emotions. If Horgan and Veronica decide to end their relationship, Horgan’s Stimoceiver would not eliminate the emotional distress that may result–as I understand his fantasy.

    You also seem to imply that depression and other mental illnesses are not real diseases, which I find disturbing if I understand you correctly. If this is a misunderstanding of your comment, here is an example where Horgan’s Stimoceiever would have helped.

    Link to this
  3. 3. George Smith 8:14 pm 02/11/2013

    @Cramer, Pauli has a point about depression. While depression is in many cases a highly genetic chemical thing, in other cases it is just an excuse to get drugged up. Millions of people are on mind-altering chemical drugs who were never “depressed” or only depressed temporarily. Millions of children are put on these drugs for the disease of “ADHD” “diagnosed” by “teachers” and “parents” eager to keep their children quiet and submissive, whatever the cost. I think the point of the willingness to give up personal freedom for security and happiness is a valid, disturbing trend.

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  4. 4. Cramer 10:47 pm 02/11/2013

    George, …as I said, that’s exactly why we need a Stimoceiver, because Pauli did not say that. By the context, I do not believe that’s what he meant. You implied the seriousness of the “chemical thing;” he implied the ridiculousness of the “desirable ‘chemical balance.’” He said nothing about overutilization of medications.

    Could you also point to any research that show SSRIs cause us to “give up personal freedom.” What is the medical name for that side effect? Depression and anxiety are what take away “personal freedom.”

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  5. 5. furrious 7:51 pm 02/12/2013

    The heart of the problem is this:
    “Both Veronica and I—and all sentient creatures—are locked in our own private worlds. We can send signals to each other, visual, auditory and tactile, but neither of us can ever really be sure what the other is thinking”.
    Surely the puzzle of who we are, what we know, how we know and who all those other people are is not as simple as the Stimoceiver would have us believe. Still,if such a device could be implemented it would give us more information on what Thomas Nagel would characterize as “what it’s like to be Veronica”

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  6. 6. diane47 4:39 am 02/13/2013

    Interesting fantasy but even if it could be done it probably wouldn’t improve your ability to select the right gift. See Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness to see why Veronica doesn’t know what would make her happy. And if she doesn’t know, your device would ipso facto give you inaccurate information.

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  7. 7. barbc 7:02 pm 02/13/2013

    I’m with “Veronica” on this one, so I’ll quote Kierkegaard: “Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.”

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  8. 8. George Smith 3:01 pm 02/14/2013

    Why was my comment deleted?

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  9. 9. couture 3:36 pm 06/22/2013

    Valentines day should always involve lingerie like this http://rookiemag.com/2013/06/longing-for-summer-to-end/?t=1371929247#comment-61312

    Link to this
  10. 10. couture 3:37 pm 06/22/2013

    http://www.sexylingeriecouture.com/

    Link to this

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