The Sense Engine

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What would I invent, if I could? What is invention, anyway? Where does it come from, this human tendency to improve on nature? I guess I have a few thoughts on the subject, with which I will proceed to bore the reader.

Desire, not necessity, is the mother of invention.

This is the first principle of the Gheorgheni theory of inventiveness. It is not sufficient to see the need for a thing. You have to want the thing itself - a newfangled lady's hair bob, a pet brush that won't make your cat bite you, a blanket with sleeves for cold, lazy people - so much that you'll put in the time and effort to get it right. And then go market it. Thomas Edison wanted a light bulb - I'm not sure why, the fame, the fortune, the technology groupies? Nonetheless, he wanted one so badly that he spent a lot of his life staring at failed filament after failed filament...until the tungsten burned brightly. We've been using the light bulb as a symbol for genius ever since - the genius that Edison said was 99% perspiration.

Once Edison had that light bulb, of course, the world and his uncle got excited about it, and there was night baseball. Which brings me to my second principle.

Once we've invented something, we find out what we really want to do with it.

The Wright Brothers wanted to fly. They weren't satisfied with bicycles, which just didn't get high enough off the ground, except in Belgium1. The Brothers kept on until they got their contraption off the ground. That was in 1903. For 11 years after that, people played around with the thing for the novelty of it. Then came the Great War, and somebody found a use for the 'aeroplane' - fly over the trenches and see what the enemy was up to.

It was a matter of weeks, I believe, before the first frustrated observer started carrying bricks up there: enemy troops, for dropping on the heads of. Thus was the bomber invented. A short while later, another aggressive pilot took a sidearm along to take potshots at the Red voilĂ , the fighter plane.

It took a war to tell people what they wanted out of the airplane. Oh, after the war they found other uses for the machine - hauling freight, moving people around, showing off at fairs, setting records. Whatever it was, that wasn't what made the Wright Brothers do it. They just wanted to see if you could, be the first, impress the ladies...besides, those birds shouldn't have it all their own way. They'd been flying forever. Humans wanted to be up there, too, that's why we climb trees. That's why we jump.

What was the computer for? To the government, the city-block-sized mainframe was a way to do calculations, to keep track of the enemy, figure out what his game plan was with all those atomic bombs. To my friends, cleverer than I but at least half as crazy, over at the really good technology university next door, it was something else. They spent their spare moments misusing the ARPANET to order huge wheels of cheese from abroad - which sustained them2 as they played text-based Star Trek with geeks3 from other places4.

My friends were showing us what the internet was going to be good for - buying things and playing games. The colonisation of virtual space for commercial and social activity. Which brings me to my third and final principle.

All inventions are extensions of abilities we already have.

All right. We can't fly by flapping our arms - or our gums, though if we could a lot of us would be airborne most of the time. But we can reach heights - mountaintops, treetops, chimneys - and we know what it looks like from there. We just wanted to get there more easily, or go higher than the cathedral spire.

The telephone, the grammophone, the iPod - extensions of our ears. Bifocals, binoculars, the Hubble - our eyes. Bikes, cars, get the idea. The computer - everything we do. Reading, writing, 'rithmetic. Talking, watching, thinking, gossiping...drawing, film-making, singing, cetera. And if your teacher thinks you're doing your homework with it, she hasn't checked out the MMO5 you've got running.

What's next? What do I want, now that my friends have eliminated my need for carbon paper and correction fluid, which is all I ever really wanted out of this lightbox typewriter? I'll tell you.

I want a memory machine - a Sense Engine. And it's possible, I suspect, with just a little technological know-how.

Quite a while ago, surgeons figured out that certain areas of our grey matter contained, if not our actual memories, which might be stored in some virtual-reality matrix we call the mind, at least the triggers for those memories - and that those memories could be awakened by a simple touch on the brain itself. They found this out while operating on people who were awake at the time, which is braver than I would be, but that's why they get the big bucks, those doctors.

These memories were not mere recall. The whole sensory experience was there - sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. The patient experienced the moment again in all its glory.

That's what I want. Who wouldn't? To feel that baby's soft curls between your fingers again. To be there, just for a moment, in that kitchen, with the aroma of your mother's cinnamon buns christmassing the air as she opens the oven door, to see her with adult eyes, that lovely woman, some dozen years departed now, see her as she was, young and alive, with a gleam in her soft brown eyes because she loved holidays, and she loved experience your first hesitant kiss again, your wedding day...why, you could even read your favourite book again, for the very first time...

I imagine there would be masochists who would want to revisit the painful past - their most humiliating defeats, their illnesses and sorrows - but I think most of us would rush to the happy memories, and fill our leisure hours with forgotten puppies and lost friends, like the old song says:

Precious memories, unseen angels, sent from somewhere in my soul, how they linger, ever near me...

When I hear that song, I'm back again at an old piano in a room full of people that I miss, every one of them, and the night is hot and fragrant and sticky, and my fingers are sweating but I can't stop playing, because they're all singing in four-part harmony...

I'd like to taste my grandmother's homemade buttermilk biscuits again. And hear her tell one of her wonderful stories. What would you remember, if you could? If you could bottle a memory, and share it, what moment from your past would you want a friend to experience with you?

Until that light-bulb-making genius comes along with the desire, the persistence, and the combination of medical and cybernetic skill required to make this dream a reality, I guess we'll have to make do with plain old brain-memory. Whenever we hear an old song, or pass downwind of a bakery, when the seasons turn, and the days grow short, something will flash across that inner screen - and a ghost, just a hint, of that old emotion will come back to us, no matter what the days and years have been like in between.

And if we wish to share that thought, that image, that feeling, we'll just have to write it down and tell it - try to use the words on the computer page, the best we can, to convey the shadow of where we have been.

That's why we write, didn't you know? To share what's in our heads until the Sense Engine comes along.

1Cobblestones. BIG cobblestones. Ship's ballast cobblestones.2With performance of the occasional 'mouldectomy'.3At that time still a term of abuse, until Bill Gates made the pocket protector fashionable.4I remember blowing up the Enterprise in that game. A lot.5Massive Multi-user Online Role-playing Game. Your kids are doing it. You may be doing it. It requires a computer, manual dexterity, and a certain amount of Playing Well with Others. If you are a bad virtual citizen, there are police out there. They're called GMs (gamemasters).

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