Implants and Implications

All the Vatta books include characters who have cranial implants that enhance their mental abilities and characters who are opposed to implants as a form of “humodification” that makes the user less human and more machine.   Having or not having an implant creates social expectations and has legal implications as well.

Not all implants are alike, and once they’ve been used for awhile, the individual brain into which they’re implanted, and that person’s needs and lifestyle, make each one unique unless the user takes precautions.  Just as my computer contains files unique it, and my husband’s contains different files and software, Ky Vatta’s implant is not the same as her cousin Stella’s, or anyone else’s.   My conception of implants has grown since the first time I thought about them seriously, well before starting the Vatta books, both because of advances in IT, but also because of advances in genetics and developmental biology.

Ky had an implant as a child; she was given a genetic alteration that made implant acceptance easier on her neurology, and a “pocket” was created in her infant skull by a combination of genetic and surgical means.  When the pocket was large enough, she received her first implant, a child-level device that developed enhanced neurological connections to that, and future, implants, and also gave her some enhanced mental capacity–which she learned to use at the same time she learned to use her own.  Ky got a standard child’s model;  a child with developmental problems would be given a therapeutic device plus genetic and other treatments.  The child model was considered adequate for pre-college education (the equivalent of “apps” could be uploaded to it as education proceeded)  and except in cases of trauma, it served until the person was an adult and all growth and wild hormone fluctuations had ceased.

Some people did not get an implant until adulthood; this required surgery and additional gene treatments to “re-infantilize” the brain and grow the right connections.   Implants require physical space (squeezing part of the brain to make that space is not a good idea.)  So there is a visible bulge on the head, allowing the presence or absence of an implant to be detected easily (also whether there’s one or two implants.  In some occupations, a dedicated second implant is required.)   In anti-humod cultures, having an implant bulge (or simply a misshapen head)  results in social disapproval and ostracism.   A few are so strict that they reject the use of prostheses (certainly all powered prostheses) after injury.  In most, however, implant use is so common that it’s not considered a humodification (whereas other changes in appearance or function are.)

One function of an implant is accurate recording of the individual’s activities and surroundings, with on-demand playback.   This playback will temporarily render an individual unaware of current surroundings, but will not drive behavior.   The recording may be deleted by the implant user; low-end implants cannot store as much data as high-end ones, and their users typically edit recordings to save only the data they need, discarding the rest.  These recordings can be accessed by others if the implant is removed, or if it is “sucked” by means of the dataport.  Direct access from outside when the implant is installed–without serious damage to the user’s brain–is possible only with the assistance of the user, in turning off the implant’s own security.   Implant recordings function as memory assists, providing details of surroundings that the user might not notice; specific data the user wants to store go directly to the file system the user has set up.   Implants can sync with any electronic control system for which that implant has the security codes.  Thus because Ky (and other Vatta captains) have the Vatta ship codes, they can access the ship systems of Vatta ships when not on the bridge.

Because a user can grant someone permission to retrieve their implant’s recordings, and because recordings can be retrieved from implants after death (for instance), law enforcement agencies routinely check the implants of crime victims to get data far more reliable than the bio-brain will supply.   And they seek authorization to obtain the recordings of suspects in crimes.  This is one reason that anti-humods, who refuse to use implants, are so often recruited by criminal organizations.   In general, those without implants function at a lower level than those with them, and rarely rise high within an occupation (there are brilliant exceptions.)   It’s easy to arouse resentment of the “humods” who are, according to some, supplanting “real” humans.

What else can an implant do besides provide these recordings?   They store more data, in a more organized form, than the natural brain.  It’s easy to import, for instance, a catalog of all the personnel in a corporation, with critical information about each, retrieval instantly by any category: specialty, rank, salary, biometrics, whatever the user wants to include.   Tables of organization, formulae that that individual may need in his/her work,  procedures…all that stuff that every once in awhile we blank on, even when it’s familiar…the implant doesn’t blank on.  It makes social interaction easier (no forgotten faces or names or important affiliations–the first time the user meets someone, the implant stores facial recognition, name, and any other information), and links existing emotional responses stored in the natural brain to the hard data in the implant.   Standard implants also have a communications node, the “skullphone” that connects like a cellphone to local communications networks using the individual’s access code.  This is limited to planetary calls, however, even though those may be transferred via that planet’s communications satellites.   Most people prefer external devices; the implant skullphone sounds funny (it’s using the brain directly, not via the ear’s sound capture system) and is affected by some medical conditions.

Ky’s father’s implant held everything the top brass of Vatta Enterprises might need to know: financial data, personnel data, market analyses, etc.   It had advanced (for its type) communications functions, biomonitoring and adjustment capability (could, for instance, detect toxins in the body and–for some at least–get the body to synthesize antidotes.

When someone with an implant exits a planetary communications net, their skullphone goes dead; when they return to one, it pings–a single sharp “sound” signalling that the skullphone is working again.  The skullphone app is available.   Combining skullphone access to the planetary net with access to an ansible for interplanetary/interstellar communication is possible but difficult.  Ansible booths are set up to work with manual input of the destination codes.  (This was a decision on the part of InterStellar Communications, or ISC,  from the beginning.  They wanted to control ansible traffic completely, so they limited input to it.)

So what about the internal ansible, lodged in their implants, that Ky and Rafe now share?  This internal ansible is different, unique at this point.   The usual ansibles are large satellite-based machines,  with booster units orbiting a planet; their use is for real-time communication across deep-space distances.   They are far too large to be fitted into a spaceship, but they can handle a huge load of communication.  Most systems have at least two, one of them limited to the transmission of financial data.  Only recently have ship-board sized ansibles been developed; the original design was pirated from ISC and Stella Vatta was able to get a patent for it because Ky had “acquired” a number of the pirated units.  Her distant cousin Toby has since improved on the original, which could not interface with system ansibles (and was thus useful only for ship-t0-ship communication.  The personal ansible lodged in Rafe’s input was an even more secret research project at ISC.   It was the only one made by ISC, and supposedly only Rafe himself and his father knew the access code for it.   It requires an additional power source (outside the body) for full function, but can then interface with system ansibles or the planetary communications net.  ISC decided it was too dangerous (as well as a threat to their monopoly) but the prototype could not be removed from Rafe’s implant without damage to his brain.   On the first test, the implant ansible self-replicated into a  test implant (not in anyone’s head) when the implants were linked for download.   The research team could not find a way to make an implant-sized ansible that did not self-replicate, meaning that ISC could not possibly keep a monopoly on them.

So…how are implants powered?  Implants do have a battery, and the battery is normally recharged from the electricity the brain generates, via the genetically engineered “spike neurons.”   If for some reason the battery power is not fully recharged biologically (some illnesses, injuries, starvation, etc.)  there’s a power input jack and a cable that connects to normal commercial voltage with a step-down transformer in between to deliver the low-voltage current needed.   Implants with an ansible, however, require a different cable and a different voltage.

Implants can be removed and–if not damaged–preserved for later use by someone else by careful packaging and storage.   They’re fairly tough–Grace Vatta had packaged Ky’s father’s implant after his death,  then baked it into a fruitcake to conceal it and sent it off with Stella to give to Ky.   That’s how Ky was able to use her father’s implant after his death.  Her own had been removed after a head injury (standard procedure) though a direct transfer in a healthy individual is a fairly standard procedure.  Usually it takes 24-48 hours for someone to adjust to a new implant.  Some things were removed from that implant as part of Ky’s medical treatment after the loss of her ship at Moray, including her father’s personal memory-recordings and records of her childhood; these are now stored externally in a secured location at the treatment facility.  She agreed with the recommendation that she not access any of those for at least a full year; she hasn’t yet accessed them.

Some of the implant tech is derived (in my mind, anyway) from the earliest brain implants used on humans in the 20th c., cochlear implants for the profoundly deaf that convert sound waves to precise electrical signals delivered to the auditory processing system.   The CRISPR technology that is revolutionizing genetic manipulation right now would have advanced by the date of this story, but the concepts (the ability to change specific base pairs in the genetic material) allow for the development of such things as “spike” neurons.  Probably, anyway.

And this may be way more than you ever wanted to know about implants in the Vatta books.


8 thoughts on “Implants and Implications

  1. Interesting to read this background. Have you given any thought to how an implant would function if someone had a degenerative brain condition such as Alzheimer’s Disease/ dementia?

    1. Yes, though I used it directly in the story only in the case of Rafe’s father, whose implant was damaged in a traumatic interrogation that also caused a degenerative brain condition.

      The development of the “plaques” characteristic of both Alzheimer’s dementia and other related disorders (primary progressive aphasia, for instance) would have already been dealt with by interventions that prevented the development of the beta amyloid plaques at an early stage. The early implants (a couple of centuries before these books) would have been able to provide early detection of any interruptions in neurological signal transmission.

  2. See it once or read it once, perfect recall of it forever. That must have created interesting tensions between copyright holders and public libraries.

  3. The best part for some of us would be that checking out a “book” from a collection would automatically give one its info, so for example people -would- know Stephen Hawkings theories instead of them sitting on our bookshelves. Too bad exercise DVDs or woodwork lessons couldn’t be assimilated the same way, but those require muscle memory.

  4. I never quite bought the idea that the implant would require a noticeable bulge (typical non-ansible versions anyway). At minimum, the implant would require packaging memory, battery, and neural interface. Memory and battery technologies are shrinking in size exponentially today (packaging such is my real-life job), while neural interfaces are still in their infancy. Still, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to reduce an implant to the size of a coin, especially given the intervening centuries. Then the characters wouldn’t need to be worry as much about prejudice toward ‘humodifiers’.

    1. Certainly miniaturization of a simple implant could result in a coin-sized model, but the history of computers is that people are not satisfied with the capacity and processing power they had 20 years ago (even if that will fit in a much smaller unit.) In addition, there’s the desire to have modules that can be removed and replaced at the user’s desire. That requires (in this design) an internal “sleeve” that enables non-surgical removal and replacement without danger of infection.

      It’s quite true that far-future tech might take an alternate route to the functionality of a cranial implant that results in no outward sign…but I chose this approach. The “implant bulge” was initially a status symbol for those who could afford it; the bulge isn’t really that big, but it creates a slight asymmetry. In most “civilized” (technologically advanced) societies, pro-tech humans dominate over anti-humods in numbers and political power, so the bulge isn’t a problem. They don’t go to planets dominated by anti-humods, which they consider backward.

  5. Yes! Also implants that give deep brain stimulation to regulate brain activity for people with Parkinson’s and severe bipolar depression.

    We’re catching up.

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