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Machine Dependence

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The Danger Lurking In Neuroscience

By James Donahue

A comic episode in a very early issue of MAD Magazine once depicted a civilization of people so dependent upon advanced technology that machines, controlled by a master computer, provided for every need. Consequently people stopped doing for themselves and their muscles atrophied. Everybody moved around in motorized wheelchairs. They didn’t even have to lift their hands to feed themselves. Then the master computer crashed and the people perished because they were left helpless.

That cartoon, published sometime in the 1950s, was a form of off-beat science fiction that has slowly but surely been evolving into science fact. While a large number of people in this world still physically toil each day, there is another number that works with the electronic wizardry of the age. We sit at desks working with computers and telephones for our vocation. If we work out of the home the drive to and from work involves sitting in a comfortable vehicle filled with electronic gadgetry that either entertains us or keeps us in touch with the outside world. Evening entertainment involves a stop at a fast-food drive-in for a bucket of chicken, fish or hamburgers, and a night of watching television. The only exercise might be the stop at the party store where those so inclined might get out of the car and walk a few steps to buy a six-pack of beer.

Small wonder that Americans are obese and suffering from diabetes, heart disease and a variety of other diseases that would not occur among people with more active life styles.

Some people join work-out programs and attempt to combat this growing problem of physical inertia. Others play golf, tennis or just walk for exercise. They are the wise ones.

But science continues to creep up on us all. Because so many young men are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing arms and legs, the field of prosthetics has become a booming business. It is already possible for amputees to move prosthetic arms by mere thought and the blind are seeing with the assistance of electrodes. The deaf are now hearing with bionic ears and people like Steven Hawking, who suffers from neuro-muscular dystrophy, may now speak through brain electrodes connected to a computer.

Will humanity ever reach a point of allowing computerized machines to respond to our every whim? Indeed, the technology may already be available to create such a world. It is thought that within the next few decades we will be placing mini-microprocessors in our brains to download and store information, connect to our cell phones and operate machines by mere thought.

Humans can be too ingenious for their own good. You can be sure that once we have the ability to operate machines by thought, we will invent more machines to accomplish our every chore. Robots already are being developed that build our cars, perform certain surgical procedures and go places where humans dare not tread. Robotic machines were used to try to stop the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico 5,000 feet under the sea during the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Once we can “think” a robot’s movements it will not take long before we have machines that prepare our meals, wash our dishes, change the baby’s diaper and take out the trash. What is scary about this scenario is that we already have motorized wheel chairs to help immobile people move around.

After passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, every city, county and state in the nation began a major renovation of sidewalks and public buildings to make them wheelchair accessible. Every new building erected for business, industrial or government use is now required to have wheelchair accessible restrooms, doorways and elevators to get people in wheelchairs from one floor to the next.

It is common for private homes where elderly and handicapped people live, or have lived, to have wheelchair ramps installed.

Can you see where all of this is leading? That MAD Magazine cartoonist may have been a prophet in his own time.