Tattoo Tech: Entering the Age of Magical Thinking

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. ~Arthur C. Clarke

Let’s just say God works too slow. ~Magneto (Ian McKellen), in 2000’s X-Men


Once the stuff of folk religion, telepathy and telekinesis have in modern times been featured in the pages of comic books as well as on-screen in sci-fi and fantasy films, TV shows and video games.


Now, however, it seems likely that we’ll soon — i.e., in the next 30 years or so — be able to achieve what Stan Lee and other writers cooked up in X-Men, as demonstrated by superhuman mutant characters such as the telekinetic Jean Grey and the telepathic Charles Xavier.

Todd Coleman, an electrical engineer at the University of California in San Diego, is currently working on a temporary tattoo that would allow the wearer to operate machines with his thoughts or speak telepathically with others, presumably so long as they’re also tatted up with Coleman’s tiny device. Using bendable electrode arrays that easily attach to the skin, these so-small-they’re-almost-invisible tattoos pick up mental signals and convert them into commands.


Coleman and his research team hope to market the technology for use in the surgery room as well as the virtual cockpit, meaning drone pilots will one day be able to level Pakistani villages from the comfort of their living rooms. No word yet on whether we’ll be able to remotely control nine-foot blue aliens.

A Na'vi taking a selfie.

On second thought, that might not be such a good idea.

We already routinely practice magical thinking, of course, though not at the scale promised by Coleman’s tattoo tech. Whenever you willfully raise your arm or take a deep breath, you’re moving an object merely by thinking about it, which is the definition of telekinesis. Your thoughts send electrical signals from your brain to your arms, commanding them to rise, or to your lungs, commanding them to expand and receive air. What prevents you from scooting the chair away from the table without touching it is a simple lack of wiring — physical or otherwise — connecting your mind to said chair.

A lack of wiring is also what prevents those stricken with ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases from retaining control of their bodily movements. Help is allegedly on the way this year, though, in the form of thought-controlled robotic limbs, which will finally give paraplegics, quadriplegics and amputees the much-needed ability to perform simple everyday tasks. Coleman’s research could only increase the likelihood that no one unfortunate enough to contract ALS will be confined to a bed for the rest of his or her life. This application seems much more beneficial to humanity than facilitating drone strikes.

* * *

The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning-bug. ~Mark Twain


Whereas telekinesis has the potential to aid amputees and those with neurodegenerative illnesses as well as assist surgeons and pilots, telepathy has the potential to restructure the dynamics of human relationships at every level — parent-child, wife-husband, teacher-student, employer-employee, doctor-patient, ambassador-ambassador.

In fact, telepathy just might be the cure to war, famine and many other afflictions, human-made or otherwise.

For one thing, telepathy seems to be a more effective and efficient means to communicate with other people than verbal or even written language. Either the essence of what we mean is lost in the words, which, unless you’re a world-class poet, are irrefutably inadequate, or we can’t find the right words (and arrangement of words) to satisfactorily convey our message. In many cases, the wrong words can even confuse what we originally meant. Our thoughts, on the other hand, are pure, unfiltered and contain a much richer vocabulary — not just arbitrary, man-made words but also images, emotions, memories and other abstract, albeit meaningful, bits of data that we can never quite seem to translate into human language.

Consider the implications, both good and bad, of having the ability to speak telepathically with others.

With telepathic abilities, world leaders, ambassadors and Congresspeople could discuss important matters with no filters or blinding rhetoric and possibly find common ground. Assuming the beggar on the street corner has telepathic abilities, he could convey his hunger and desperation to passers-by much more effectively than any cardboard sign. A visit to the shrink would certainly be much more helpful than it is now. Having access to memories, emotions and anything else we often have trouble verbalizing would help the psychologist or psychiatrist determine and treat what’s giving us pain.

Telepathy as it’s described here sounds not unlike the Point of View Gun featured in the 2005 film The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Coincidentally, the gun doesn’t appear in the novel of the same name.

What we fear the most about the idea of telepathy is that we would constantly have “people in our heads,” never giving us a moment’s peace. Or conversely, we’d always be privy to other people’s secrets we’d prefer not to know. Let’s assume for a moment that, were we to have the ability to speak telepathically, it could be shut off like a radio, giving us some level of control. With Facebook, after all, we can pick and choose who gets to see our status updates and whom we want to receive status updates from. Telepathic implants or tattoos might work similarly.

But then, blocking others from gaining entry into our minds would inevitably arouse suspicion.

"You never let me read your thoughts! What are you hiding?"

“Whenever I try to scan your thoughts, I get a 404 error code! What are you hiding?”

The X-Men mutants designate themselves as a separate species to differentiate their kind from baseline humans: Homo superior. Able to bend the laws of physics in all imaginable ways, they’ve naturally crossed their own Singularity threshold. But as Arthur C. Clarke’s quote suggests, advanced technology such as we’re likely to witness in the twenty-first century — thanks to the research of Coleman and others — will give us abilities that can only be described as magical.


About Joseph Guyer

I'm a financial writer who lives in San Antonio.

Posted on February 25, 2013, in People, Singularity, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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