In addition to time travel, Continuum also looks at how advance neurotechnologies, in the form of mind control and cyborgs, might affect society. In Season Three’s episode, “Minute to Win It” we see Lucas Ingram (Omari Newton) use his scientific wizardry to hack the brains and take control of a few cockroaches and a dog to break out of prison using nothing more than homemade electronic devices. MacGyver would be proud.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to fans as Lucas once designed mind control weapons for SadTech. What may surprise fans is that the science behind creating these cyborg roaches is real. The roboroach kit can be brought online from the Backyard Brains website. You can even control your roboroach with an Android app. Of course, controlling insects is much easier than controlling a dog or even a human. Continuum takes everything further by examining the type of society we would live in if mind control was possible. We should also ask the even more important questions–is this is possible and should we be afraid?
The word “cyborg” is an abbreviation of cybernetic organism and is defined as an organism with biological and abiotic or non-living parts. First coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in the Astronautics article “Cyborgs and Space”, the two scientists believed that self-regulating human-machine systems would one day free man to explore space.
Information is transmitted electrochemically through the body via neurons, the basic building block of the nervous system. Cockroaches have neurons like ours but unlike us, cockroaches have much fewer neurons–about one million compared to our one hundred billion. This difference in numbers allow humans to think about the world around us, control roboroaches and ponder the paradoxes of time travel. Cockroaches are different from us in that they also have a decentralized nervous system with ganglia or clusters of neurons running down its body.
A cockroach as a large ganglia in its head and, for all intents and purposes, it can be considered the organism’s brain. This decentralized structure means that a cockroach’s brain doesn’t play the same important role that ours does. In fact, a cockroach can live for several days without a head. Decapitated cockroaches can even survive for several weeks if the decapitated wound is sealed with dental wax to prevent dehydration.
This decentralized system means that in the absence of its head, the other ganglia can take over and process information. Even though our nervous system is different from a cockroach, the structure and function of the individual neurons are similar–controlling cockroaches is thus possible because cockroaches have neurons like ours.
A cockroach’s two antenna help it navigate the world through its senses of touch and smell. Tiny hairlike sensors cover the cockroach’s antenna that connect directly to neurons and send signals to the roach’s brain. Cockroaches have evolved very quick escape responses. If they sense stimulus on one antenna, either from a direct touch or a gust of wind, the creature darts away in the opposite direction.
By implanting electrodes that are thinner than a human hair into the cockroach’s antenna, we create a neural interface. These electrical wires send electrical signals that match the signal from the hairlike sensors. Sending a signal to a roboroach’s right antenna “feels” the same as if that antenna was stimulated by a gust of wind or the touch of an object which sends the creature scuttling to the left.
Though we may not think of Lucas’ cockroaches as cyborgs, that is exactly what they are. By directly stimulating the creature’s neurons we can control the direction it goes. This type of direct neural interface used to control roboroaches was invented in the early 1970s and is used by scientists and doctors to learn about our nervous system and treat people who have lost critical biological functions.
Why Create a Roboroach?
There are some really good reasons to create cyborg roaches. Cockroaches have evolved to explore and navigate confined spaces to search for food and escape predators. These abilities are ideal for search-and-rescue operations in the event of a major disaster.
Instead of designing or building a mechanical roach of our own, which takes time as we also have to understand the physics of cockroach locomotion before we can actually build a robot, we can just control what nature has already created. Just be careful. If you, one day, find yourself trapped under rubble, that cockroach you want to crush may be your savior.
The type of neural interface used to control roboroaches can also help us better understand our own brains and how our neurons work; they may one day treat and cure diseases. In 2011, Sloan Churman, a young woman who was deaf from birth was able to hear for the first time in her life at the age of 29 with an Esteem cochlea implant offered by the Envoy Medical Corporation.
Mind Control in Continuum
Though may seem that the Backyard Brains Roboroach kit is some evil device designed to circumvent a cockroach’s “free will”, it doesn’t–it just mimics the sensations a roach experiences. This is similar to the bridle on a horse. Pulling the reins left or right controls the horse’s head and the direction the rider wants to go. In the same way, sending an electrical signal to the cockroach’s antenna makes it think there either is an object in its path or it has detected a gust of wind and heads in the opposite direction.
Everything about us, who we are, our likes, our dislikes and our memories are all encoded in the billions of neurons inside our brain; your mind is your brain. There isn’t a “switch” that can turn off who we are.
While Continuum’s world of 2077 appears to be capitalistic, it is not. Everyone exists to serve the Corporate Congress and lack the freedom to decide the course of their own lives. Mind control in 2077 becomes a metaphor of that lack of freedom. People’s value to society has been decided from birth and everyone is expected to pay off this “debt”. We also see what happens to people who are unable to pay their debts to society in the case of worker 22501 in the season two episode, “Seconds”.
The show’s premise is that everyone is a slave to the Corporate Congress. Liber8 appears to believe that without self-determination there can be no freedom but we are left to wonder how strongly they believe in that principle. Are they willing to sacrifice those ideals to achieve that freedom for all. We see Liber8 use 2077 mind control technology to control innocent civilians in the episodes “Seconds” and “Minute to Win It”. Does this mean that Liber8 think everyone can be used as pawns in their war against the future and thereby show little regard for individual lives?
As much as we would like to believe this is a more violent, “the end justifies the means” Liber8 under the leadership of Travis Verta (Roger Cross) and Sonia Valentine (Lexia Doig), it is not. Mind control in the present was first used in “Playtime” under Edouard Kagame’s (Tony Amendola) leadership. If Liber8’s philosophies are supposed to come from Julian Randol/Theseus (Richard Harmon), we are left wondering how Julian feels about Liber8’s current direction. So far, Julian has pretty much been laying low. Will we see a more central role from this character in future episodes?
Though Continuum often utilizes real science and technology in its episodes, this is not what leads humanity to the bleak and totalitarian future of 2077–the science of neurotechnology has no power to take away our minds or circumvent free will. The show goes far from saying science is scary. Rather it is people’s choices that leads to this ultimate demise.