February 10, 2014 | 5
February is the most anxious month. Every year at this time, I agonize over the Valentine’s Day Dilemma. What should I do to show my girlfriend, “Emily,” how much I love her? Should I get her a funny card, or a romantic one? Turkish delight or chocolates? Dinner at a fancy restaurant, and if so, which one? If I get her lingerie, should it be slutty or tasteful?
Emily has quirky–that is, unpredictable—tastes. The best present I ever got her, the one she most appreciated, was a vegetable scrubber with hemp bristles. After hers got old and died, she couldn’t find a replacement, and I noticed one in a cookware shop in my hometown. Emily was ecstatic! Over a vegetable scrubber!
Unfortunately, my gifts usually disappoint her. So last weekend I was wracking my brain for ideas when a technological solution, albeit long-term, popped into my head: Brain implants could help solve the Valentine’s Day Dilemma once and for all!
The Valentine’s Day Dilemma is related to the much larger problem of subjectivity, or solipsism. Both Emily and I—and all sentient creatures—are locked in our own private worlds. We constantly send each other signals–visual, auditory, olfactory and so on–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 and disappointment–the dismal downside of romance.
These problems could be overcome if Emily and I were both equipped with souped-up Stimoceivers. Neuroscientist Jose Delgado (whom I profiled for Scientific American in October 2005) coined that term a half century ago to describe devices that he inserted into the brains of bulls, monkeys and humans. His Stimoceivers could detect signals from the brain and feed them back into it via electrical stimulation.
Delgado’s devices were crude. The ones I envision would be broadband, AI-enhanced, miniaturized–and based on flashy new optogenetic technology! Call them Optoceivers. They would make Delgado’s device—and all our current methods of romantic communication–look as primitive as smoke signals.
Optoceivers could have all sorts of apps for specific tasks. For example, I’d like a gift-giving app that queries Emily’s brain about what she really wants for Valentine’s Day. Replicas of Mesopotamian owl figurines? Glow-in-the-dark Tarot cards? Dinner at that Soho restaurant that serves only soy-based food? The app would go on the Internet to purchase the right gift or reserve a table at the perfect restaurant. “Easy peasy lemon squeezey!” (as Emily likes to say).
The app could also design a customized card–sappy/funny/naughty, whatever would delight Emily. She will pre-arrange the settings on her implanted Optoceiver so that it responds to my queries without alerting her conscious self, which can then be pleasantly surprised.
Other apps could ensure that our Valentine’s Day dinner goes smoothly. One app could express my romantic feelings for Emily more eloquently than I can. Call it the “Cyrano de Bergerac App.” Another app could filter out negative thoughts I might have about Emily. 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 Emily is talking about something that fails to hold my interest, my Optoceiver 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 blog post about military funding of neuroscience.
The Optoceivers would have total data-recording and storage capability, to resolve any disputes that might arise if Emily and I have different recollections of past events: “I keep telling you I hate white chocolate, and you keep giving it to me!” “I distinctively remember you saying you love white chocolate!” We can check our shared Optoceiver database and see who’s right!
In fact, such petty disagreements would never arise, because we would have apps that anticipate and resolve potential conflicts before they reach the level of our awareness. It would be like having teams of super-smart couples counselors working 24/7 on our relationship without any conscious effort from us.
Our optogenetically enhanced love will be perfect, harmonious, unblemished by human frailty. Every day will be like Valentine’s Day, except much, much better.
Self-plagiarism Alert: I posted a different version of this column last year.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.