DNI: Capabilities and Components

Direct Neural Interface equipment and operation details

Image from Bernd Helfert

DNI Integration

The first Direct Neural Interface devices date to the late Industrial/early Information Age. These primitive DNIs were simplistic drytech implants used to grant limited recovery to disabled individuals. Throughout the Information Age DNIs showed increasing levels of sophistication and eventually made the jump out of medicine and into everyday life. The first of these was the Gibson neural jack developed by Biotronics Incorporated, in conjunction with the VR-entertainment megacorporation Inscape in AT 95. Soon after many other companies followed with competing models.

Early DNIs from the middle Information age required extensive surgery to implant components directly into the brain; because of this they were rare and hugely expensive so as to avoid obsolescence for as long as possible. Further adoption of DNIs did not begin to kick off until advances in nanotechnology during the Interplanetary Age allowed the creation of self-inserting DNIs.

This method has been refined over the centuries and is still in use in the Current Era (though in situ construction by nanites is now more common). Self-inserting DNIs come as blocks of critical components embedded in a gel-like installation unit. This unit is applied to the head or neck of the individual. There it sticks to the skin and inserts microsized tendrils through an available entry point in the skull, this differs from clade to clade but for baseline humans this could include the oropharynx, cribriform plate, ear canal or even following the optic nerve. The tendrils can release drugs to remove discomfort as they penetrate into the brain before transporting components from the DNI into the appropriate areas. This process can take a couple of hours, after this time the tendrils harmlessly dissolve (stimulating any necessary repair as they do so) and the installation unit detaches. Over the next few hours or days the components grow neural links from proteins and other molecules scavenged from the body that branch out to connect with each other and the brain.

For many centuries this was the only form of installation however a wide variety of alternative methods have been derived. Installation in the form of injection, infusion, oral pill or even inhaler introduces nanites into the body that then migrate to the central nervous system (CNS) and build the DNI, this is the most common and effective method. Some biotech advances have even allowed the creation of genemods that bestow the user with a biological DNI derived from eir own biology, even more radical strategies involve symbiotic neogens have been created that burrow into the user's brain. In some societies integration is a rite of passage, in others sophonts are born with DNI already integrated.

Whatever the mechanism, DNI integration is a very common procedure in the Terragen Sphere.

Basic Capabilities and Components

Amongst the great diversity across the Terragen sphere and its history there have been fundamental components and capabilities that have defined DNIs. What follows is a description of these fundamentals.

Processor Units

DNIs consist of a network of processor units capable of computation and data storage. From these units micro- and nanosized tendrils grow into the CNS allowing synaptic and neuronal sub-cellular activity to be monitored and manipulated. These processor units typically house intelligent agents that in a short time gain an intimate understanding of the user. From this a DNI can 'predict' services that the user may need or want (in addition to taking orders) creating a perfect, complimentary servant; a typical example of this relationship is for a DNI to draw the user's attention to a news item ey would be interested in, order the kitchen to manufacture a suitable meal to cheer the user up or to throw up a directional heading over eir vision to follow if lost.

If the processing power of the DNI is not enough for the required task (usually due to waste heat problems; see DNI limitations below) it can 'outsource'. Utilising its MCA (see below) a DNI can interface with nearby available computronium embedded in clothing/jewellery/furniture/buildings or over the Net allowing intensive parallel processing to grant the necessary processing power. Some users choose to have extra processors embedded in eir bodies (see nanobone) or carry processors on eir person however in the majority of Inner Sphere and Middle Region societies computronium embedded in the local environment is ubiquitous.

Multichannel Communications Array

Utilising a wide variety of communication means from EM radiation to ultrasound an MCA threads through the user's skull and spine allowing a DNI to communicate with the outside world. This permits connection to the Net and to other DNIs. Whilst not fundamental, high bandwidth components are often installed in addition to an MCA. Examples of these include optical phased array tattoos, low intensity retinal masers, fibre optic sockets amongst many other designs (can be invasive or not as well as wired and/or wireless).

Early DNIs allowed the user to communicate with others through simple pseudo-auditory communication. A DNI enables this by simulating extra sensory/motor cortices, in a somewhat indescribable fashion to modosophonts who have not experienced it the user is aware of this split and can switch to speaking through the DNI to speaking through the mouth with the same ease as one can flip ones perception of an optical illusion. In addition the user is fully aware of which sounds are coming from the environment and which are from the pseudo-auditory centre.

This method of communication was amongst the first to be developed for DNI communication but later developments have endowed an MCA with the capability of stretching from this simple method all the way to technotelepathy using the transmission of 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 MCA is to modify it to provide extra senses to the user. DNIs capable of communicating in radio, ultrasound, SQUID modulation etc can allow the user to sense these phenomena as easily as they can see and hear.

Sensory/Motor Control

DNIs monitor and can intercept all sensory information and motor instructions coming into and out of the brain. Sensory and Motor Control is a basic feature of DNIs. It allows the DNI to utilise augmented reality techniques to display information as virtual images, sounds, smells, tastes and textures as well as edit out sensory/motor input/output and replace it with something else (this is particularly good for pain relief). These virtual icons can be public (viewable by anyone utilising an augmented reality device), private (viewable by the user only) or semi-private (viewable by selected individuals only).

The capabilities of DNI augmented reality range from simple textual displays apparently hovering in the user's field of vision to full virtual reality and all points in between. An example of a common sensory augmented reality program employed by DNIs is a babel program, this allows the DNI to translate any spoken or written language heard or read into one the user is familiar with, as well as intercepting the sub-vocalisation of the user causing them to speak or write a different language. The level of awareness the user has regarding the translation can be customised; at higher levels of awareness the sound of spoken foreign languages is quietened with an audible translation overlaid onto what the user is hearing, foreign text still appears as it is but with virtual text hovering over or nearby. When the users own speech or writing is translated they feel, hear and see themself speaking and writing in another tongue. Lower levels of awareness completely edit the original speech or text into a familiar language, adjust the perception of the speaker's lip-movements, keep the same typeface where possible and, where the user's speech or writing is translated, make them unaware they are speaking another tongue. This has led to a phenomenon in some civs where most sophonts speak totally different languages, a game for such sophonts is to go to a crowded place and switch off the babel program, the individual whose language is spoken most in the area wins!

A common motor control program employed by DNIs is an autopilot program. This allows the DNI to take control of the user's body for them. This is particularly useful in civs where physical exercise is necessary for health and fitness, a user's body can engage in hours of intensive workout whilst the user experiences a VR spa. In other civs a common mode of transport is to autopilot the body to constantly jog whilst AR techniques show the user to be riding some other form of transport (sedan chair, animal or even flying).

Virtual icons can be manipulated and instructions given by the user through pseudo-motorising, this is the primary method by which DNIs are controlled although interaction with the individual's physical body (e.g pressing virtual buttons) is common. Utilising the simulated extra sensory/motor cortices an individual can interact with icons either through providing cursors (virtual hands that operate in the same manner as real ones) or by linking the icons a pseudo-motor cortex directly essentially making the icons limbs themselves.

Pseudo-sensory/motor cortices can allow DNI users to interface with and operate machinery in their environment. The manner of operation can vary greatly depending on the technology available, the civilisation the user resides in and the personal wishes of the user. Operation can occur through pseudo-vocalisation commands (e.g. telling the machine what to do) or by a more inclusive manner whereby the machinery in question becomes a part of the user's body. Pseudo-sensory/motor cortices can, for example, allow a user to fly an aircraft through sensing the atmosphere or driving a legged ground vehicle through 'walking'. If the methods of sensing and movement are quite different to those that a biological brain has evolved to handle (e.g. echolocation and flight) the DNI will have to outsource the pseudo cortices to gain the required processing power, typically most vehicles are equipped with enough computronium to provide for these outsourcing needs. This fusion can be so invasive that after a while the user begins to identify the vehicle/machine as their body, this effect is ameliorated by societies capable of programing psychology-protection expert systems into their DNIs.

DNI Limitations

As with all types of processor waste heat is a problem. For DNIs this heat can damage brain tissue and this has long set a ceiling for how much computation DNI processors can perform at a time. To combat this better efficiency in DNI processor design to reduce waste heat (e.g. reversible computing, syntech components) and augmentation of an individual to deal with the heat (higher optimum core body temperature, radiator fins) are common albeit drastic strategies. A far easier technique is to simply outsource to nearby available computronium however some individuals and societies insist upon self-sufficiency over reliance on processors outside the body.

A less immediate limitation of DNIs is the bandwidth bottleneck problem. Sophonts making extensive use of an exoself through a DNI may find that eir mind has grown so large eir biological brain reaches the limit at which the DNI can transmit information to and from the outside world. This problem can be mitigated with increasing adoption of high bandwidth components however a secondary problem is to tie the user to eir environment. In the Inner Sphere and Middle Regions sophonts are rarely far from computronium (most everyday objects feature embedded processors) providing adequate living space for an exoself. For sophonts wishing to travel to civilisations where this is not the case (or where processing power is costly) eir exoself may be so large that it hinders eir movements.

Optional Capabilities and Components

In addition to the fundamental components DNIs across history and the Terragen sphere have included features capable of providing intelligence amplification services to the user. The adoption of these components varies greatly depending on a civilisation‟s technology, laws and culture as well as personal choice for those with the option to choose them. A comprehensive overview of all of the additional components and capabilities that have been developed for DNIs throughout history could fill an encyclopaedia itself, below is an overview of common optional components and capabilities.

Imagination Modelling Support

Ordinary baseline imagination is limited in the depth and breadth of the scenario being imagined. IMS seamlessly supports natural imagination; by utilising user-customised art generator software scenarios can be greatly improved in clarity, this has the added bonus of enabling the user to expend no effort in holding an imagination. The level of clarity can vary but with sufficient processing power and appropriate physics models a user's daydream can be converted into a fully realistic VR simulation. In addition a user can easily hold in their mind thousands of images or thoughts thanks to IMS taking on some of the cognition. A whimsical daydream of a rocket taking off can easily become an in depth model surrounded by data such as fuel consumption, exhaust velocity, delta V, fuel efficiency, wind resistance, kinetic energy etc. The user can be as aware or not of this information depending on preference with interfaces varying hugely. Early designs featured information as visual cues (e.g. labels, speedometers, graphs overlaid on the 'mind's eye') but more sophisticated systems use subtle manipulation to make the information instinctual.

Assembler template software can be included with an IMS allowing sufficiently detailed imaginings to be converted to a file type that can be sent to an appropriate autofab and assembled. Multiple DNI users can even share a simulation allowing groups of sophonts to contribute to the design of a product; this is a common practice amongst groups of modosophont artists, scientists and product designers.

Simple models can be easily accommodated by the processing power of the DNI itself but for increasingly complex models (such as those used for product testing and design) a DNI must outsource.

Emotional State Control

ESC systems allow the user to change their emotional state and how control they feel. A popular use of ESC is to 'dedicate' the user to the task at hand in a manner similar to the Homo superior 'focus' ability. To accomplish this a DNI utilising ESC will create feelings of motivation, serenity and enthusiasm for the task no matter what it is, the total attention of the user will be dedicated to achieving the set goal. The user is fully aware that such feelings are synthetic and many sophonts use it to complete work that previously would be a chore. A more common use is to sooth away inappropriate negative emotions such as anxiety, fear and impatience replacing them with more positive emotions such as calmness, alertness and contentedness.

Recreational uses of ESC are easy to see; feelings of ecstasy, confidence, joy and relaxation can be experienced with no side effects at any time, a user under the influence of ESC can experience almost any effect a drug may produce with the added bonus of the DNI scrubbing any onset of physical and psychological addiction.

Typically psychology-protection expert systems will oversee the use of ESC to make sure that its effects do not compromise the overall wishes of the user. This is to prevent wizard's apprentice type problems where dedicated workers never stop, or a casual digital drug session runs on indefinitely. However in some situations users override these expert systems and end up running into precisely these problems, intervention in the form of forced DNI shut down by medical AIs is a common solution.

Intelligence Support/Augmentation

A key faculty of DNIs is the ability to grant greater intelligence and skills to the user. At the most basic this is done by the DNI providing answers to problems in the form of visual or auditory cues, at a more advanced level DNIs can work on the problem facing the user (either through searching for a known answer from internal/external encyclopaedias or if required outsourcing to gain the required processing power to solve the problem) and provide this answer in the same manner as natural subconscious incubation e.g. the user is pondering a difficult problem when the answer suddenly pops into eir mind from the DNI (whether or not ey know it is from the DNI and not emselves is down to the user's DNI settings). This allows a user to 'delegate' thoughts to expert systems. In this fashion a user only has to start thinking on a topic and (if desired) expert systems will delicately begin assembling highly-detailed analysis available for conscious retrieval; users can focus on the 'bigger picture' whilst expert systems diligently fill out the details. This is particularly useful in examining the full ramifications of complex issues.

In addition a DNI can filter sensory input and overlay a logical critique; in operation this could manifest by transcribing a user's conversation to augmented reality text and highlighting logical fallacies, more invasive techniques utilising an exoself (see below) allow the user to instinctively employ formal logic to eir thoughts and to what they see and hear. This has the effect of quickly boosting the user's intelligence to high levels, often surprising the user with how many fallacies they previously used in everyday life.

More invasive mechanisms extend parts of the user's mind into the DNI and if desired outsourced to available substrates to create an exoself. Parts of the user's consciousness now residing in the exoself can be endowed with capabilities far outside of that allowed by their natural brains such as greater powers of pattern recognition, mathematics, linguistics etc.

Combined with imagination modelling support and an eidetic memory module a user can easily examine in their mind hugely complex systems and comprehend with ease all of their components. In societies where transapients are willing such modification to the exoself can be conducted under transapient guidance to facilitate ascension (though societies where this occurs are quite rare).

Eidetic Memory Module

Designed to seamlessly integrate with the user's memory, an EMM grants the user an almost 'perfect' memory. No experience need be forgotten: memories are stored in the same manner as they are perceived, with the same emotional and mnemonic connotations. Memories of the exact sensory input are also kept, but access to this data is separate to the natural memory of the individual. This allows the user the ability to relive experiences in a manner analogous to virtual reality or even send eir memories to other users.

Eidetic memory modules themselves can come in many forms and can be kept outside the body if desired. Certain memory modules may be among the user's most treasured possessions.

DNI-mediated Tachydidaxy

Wired into multiple areas of the brain a DNI capable of tachydidaxy is guaranteed to be capable of teaching a user nearly any subject in spite of eir intelligence (but still limited by eir toposophic level). In conjunction with the other DNI intelligence amplification components and capabilities described a DNI performing tachydidaxy can manipulate the user into an enthusiastic, highly receptive, focused state and utilising an expert system (see Feynman expert system) speed-teach them the desired topic.

Teaching can come in many forms from augmented reality using any and all senses to full virtual reality (the user may be conditioned to think the VR is real e.g. to understand life in the Interplanetary Age by believing they do live there). The expert system can monitor the subjective experience of the user to gauge how well the lesson is being learnt. Based on this the system can employ augmented learning methods to adjust its teaching style to suit the individual, nudge neural networks into different topographies as they form and discriminately weaken or strengthen memories where appropriate. A common feature to aid the user‟s state of mind (along with manipulating the user‟s emotions) is to suppress the perception of time, similar to that of a natural dream state. Thanks to this when the lesson ends the user will feel as though it has just started, in spite of them being able to recount all they have learnt, thus encouraging a belief that learning is as enjoyable and effortless as a pleasant light dream.

There is no boundary to learning (aside from toposophy); tachydidaxy methods can teach anyone anything given time. The speed at which a subject can learn is loosely determined by their intelligence but thanks to the sophistication of intelligence amplification inherent in tachydidaxy capable DNIs even the brightest modosophonts learn at barely twice the speed as the most unintelligent of individuals.

Comparisons of tachydidaxy teaching speeds to non-tachydidaxy methods such as the repetition and rote techniques of pre-interplanetary times (which were highly dependent on student aptitude, student behaviour and peer behaviour) are difficult owing to variations in teaching methods between subjects. There have been many studies to compare tachydidaxy vs. non-technological methods, on average groups employing tachydidaxy methods learn academic subjects ten times faster than other groups with physical skill based subjects such as dance and martial arts being taught much faster as they can be directly transcribed via motor learning. This is thanks to the (artificial) dedication of the student, the guarantee of committing the experience to memory, the customised teaching approach for the student and the enhanced cognitive capabilities a DNI can convey.

Digital Scion Simulation

Allowing a user to experience multiple events at once a DSS can grant a user a limited form of parallel processing capability. A DNI capable of creating a scion can upload a copy of the individual into the exoself (or any sufficient source of computronium). This scion then experiences independently from the user before eventually uploading its memories to the original.

A digital scion simulation can dedicate the scion as it is created by fixing the scion's emotional state towards a fanaticism (albeit calm and composed) for the goal at hand. Having a dedicated copy of oneself can be desirable in situations requiring the user's personality (such as creating a work of art) or to provide a compatible avenue for direct memory upload (see Omniupload). A common use of DSS is to create a dedicated scion that, in conjunction with tachydidaxy methods, can go and learn a topic in depth before uploading. This allows the user to learn something without having to do it themselves thus leaving emselves free to do other things.

If sufficient outsourced computronium is available a scion can be copied multiple times. When learning complex and large subjects a scion can 'fork'; with each scion receiving a different expert system and learning different things, once this is done they can 'merge' back into one scion. For example if a sophont wished to become an expert of biology they could upload a scion into a sufficiently sized processor. This scion could fork into multiple scions each tasked with learning a different sub-topic e.g. ecology, botany, anatomy, microbiology, biochemistry, genetics etc. These forked scions can each fork again, for example the biochemist scion can fork to study carbohydrates, lipids, nucleic acids, proteins etc.

Eventually an entire lineage of thousands of scions can be created, each speed-learning an individual topic. Scions can merge and fork across branches of the lineage for interdisciplinary purposes. Once a scion has finished learning it will merge with its nearest relations, in this fashion scions will continue to merge back up the lineage until just one remains. This last scion can either be merged with the original or edited by expert systems to remove personality related memories. In the latter case this is necessary to create safe omniuploads with no risk of transferring the personality of the original individual to another.

Depending on the sophistication and amount of computronium available the scion lineage can be capable of running at speeds tens or hundreds of times faster than an ordinary sophont. This further enhances the ease at which users can educate themselves; at a heavy cost in energy, bandwidth and computation a user can gain in a matter of days an education equivalent to hundreds of years of study by a pre-tachydidaxy Industrial Age individual.

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Text by Ryan B

Initially published on 15 October 2011.