Tag Archives: science fiction

The Roboroach and Mind Control in Continuum

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.

Discoid cockroach with the Roboroach control backpack can be brought from Backyard Brians.

Discoid cockroach with the Roboroach control backpack can be brought from Backyard Brians.

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?

Controlling Roboroaches

Continuum Roboroach

Lucas’ Roboroach Army

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.

Continuum Mind Control Neurons

Neurons communicate by sending information down neural pathways in the form of electrical activity called action potentials, or “spikes”. (Image courtest Backyard Brains)

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.

Continuum Roboroaches and Mind Control

The cockroach has a decentralized nervous system with ganglia (small brains) running down its body. (Image courtest Backyard Brains)

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.

Continuum Roboroach Mindcontrol

The silver electrode is inserted directly into the roboroach’s antenna. This sends a signal directly to the cockroach’s neurons and to its brain. (Image courtest Backyard Brains)

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.

Continuum Mind Control

New Pemberton worker 22501 whose mind has been wiped for inability to pay for a corporate life debt. Seen in Season 2 Episode 9, “Seconds”.

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”.

Continuum Mind Control Roboroach

Super soldier Stefan Jaworski (Mike Dopud) under mind control to control aggressive tendencies.

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.

I am not associated with the Backyard Brains company or website in any way but I believe in their mission to bring the field of neuroscience to students. You should really support them and buy one of their products and learn something really cool.

Continuum, Time Travel and The Grandfather Paradox

The last episode to Continuum’s second season (“Second Time”) sees a grief stricken Alec Sadler (Erik Knudsen use the time travel device to go back in time to save the life of Emily (Magda Apanowicz). A shocked and distraught Keira (Rachel Nichols) looks on as Alec disappears from the time line in a flash of light. What is everyone’s favorite Protector to do now that the time travel device no longer exists? Is she forever trapped in the present unable to do anything about Alec’s betrayal?

If you were hoping to find out what Kiera would do now that she is stuck in the present then don’t hold your breath. Alec reemerges in the past–one week in the past to be exact–to create a new timeline while Kiera is captured by the Freelancers. The original timeline, as explained by Head Freelancer Catherine (Rachael Crawford) no longer exists. The intense roller-coaster ride and the jaw-dropping events of the last season, from the pinning of Agent Gardiner’s (Nicholas Lea) murder on Kiera to Carlos Fonnegra (Victor Webster) leaving the Vancouver Police Department to join Julian (Richard Harmon) and Liber8 never happened.

So what are Continuum fans to do? Are we simply to ignore the last episodes of Season Two as if they never happened? That remains an open question.
The Season Three premier certainly continues with the same action packed intensity from which the last season ended but it does something else–it explains the time travel rules upon which the show is based. It also appears that the show’s writers have put a lot of thought and effort into ensuring that these rules are as consistent as possible, especially where the issues of paradoxes are concerned.

The Paradoxes of Time Lines

Continuum Time Travel

Head Freelancer Catherine explains that time travel is not immutable and is like a brancing tree that needs to be pruned.

“Destiny is not set. Time is not immutable. The continuum is like a tree. It can grow wild or it can be cultivated.”

In the premier episode, head Freelancer Catherine explains the concept of timelines and the physics of time travel to Kiera. While there is only one timeline, it can be changed. Go back far enough in time and you can change everything to create an entirely new and different timeline.

This answers some of the paradoxial questions of the last two seasons, if Maddie (Olivia Ryan-Stern) was really Kellog’s (Stephen Lobo) grandmother, then why didn’t he pop out of existence in the current timeline. One idea put forward by Alec was that she may not have been Matthew’s grandmother. It turns out she could have been and to understand why, we must look into how Continuum’s physics of time travel resolves the Grandfather Paradox.

The Grandfather Paradox


The grandfather paradox is one of the more well-known time travel paradoxes and was first described by the science fiction writer René Barjavel in his 1943 book “Le Voyageur Imprudent(Future Times Three). In this scenario, our time traveler goes back in time before his grandfather is married and kills him. The paradox is that the time traveler is never born and can not go back in time to kill his grandfather. His grandfather is free to meet the grandmother, get married, have kids and our time traveler is eventually born. When the time traveler gets older, he steps into his time-machine and goes back in time to kill his grandfather. This cycle continues ad infinitum and without resolution.

Recognizing this vulnerability, in the Season One episode “A Test of Time”, Kagame (Tony Amendola) decides to test this paradox and possibly get rid of their “Protector problem” once and for all. Liber8 start by killing young women with Kiera’s grandmother’s name–“Lily Jones”. During the course of the episode Liber8 take additional insurance by planning to kill Kellog’s grandmother; revenge against Kellog for helping Kiera. Travis (Roger Cross) shoots Kellog’s grandmother and everyone sees that Kellog does not disappear–the grandfather paradox does not apply to them. Or does it?

According to Catherine’s explanation of time travel, killing Maddie creates a new time line. In this new timeline Kellog will not be born and many of the events in Kellog’s life, from his meeting Kiera to his part in Liber8 will never happen. In a sense the very timeline that Kiera so desperately tries to protect no longer exists but this doesn’t mean that Kellog’s absence changes things so completely that the future Kiera and the Freelancers are trying to protect never happens. Kiera’s primary concern is her family but everything can still go according to plan even though Kellog no longer exists in the new timeline.

Catherine and the Freelancers appear to subscribe to the Great Man Theory, a 19th-century idea in which history can be explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes. As Kellog is not one of these supposed “great men” then many key events, such as Alec’s rise to power and discovery of time travel, will still happen. This means that Kiera’s family will still exist in the future. As they don’t know who Kellog is, they will also be completely unchanged by the ripple effect of Maddie’s death. The reason Catherine and the Freelancers aren’t too concerned of Maddie’s death is because her impact on the future is negligible–her life or death changes nothing. Talk about a major blow to one’s ego.

Resolving the Grandfather Paradox

Continuum’s time-travel physics provides a logically consistent way to resolve the Grandfather Paradox. A time traveler who kills his own ancestor or whose ancestor is murdered won’t vanish from existence. Rather, the timeline he came from will disappear to be replaced by a new timeline in which he will never be born. As our time traveler is a refugee from the previous timeline that no longer exists, he won’t pop out of existence and is safe from the ramifications of the Grandfather Paradox.

This single and mutable timeline idea not only overcomes the logical paradox and inconsistencies of the Grandfather Paradox but others as well , such as the Bootstrap and Predestination Paradoxes–something we will examine in future blog posts. It also highlights how dangerous time travel is in the series. As time is not immutable, a nefarious time traveler can use a time machine as a weapon to mold the future to achieve for personal gain. Jason has hinted that the Freelancers have meddled with humanity’s history before. The extent of this meddling remains to be seen.

The Freelancers have the power to monitor the continuum and stop people from making these changes to the timeline but this doesn’t mean they are the good guys. Catherine has admitted they see themselves as guardians to the continuum, in essence, the ones who “prune” the tree. This makes you wonder whose interests they represent and whether those interests are the best for everyone. This is interesting because the series has yet to really identify who the good guys and bad guys really are.

While we may at times root for Kiera, as the series progresses we may discover we never should have. We have two Alecs in this timeline. In the last timeline we have seen hints that Alec could be turning to the “dark side” and become the man to usher in a totalitarian and dystopian future of 2077. All that may have been changed with Emily’s death. It is amazing the difference a week makes. Could we see Alec Sadler fight on both sides of this temporal war? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Wibbly Wobbly of Continuum

The series Continuum is a time travel science fiction TV show that follows the adventures of City Protective Services (CPS) law enforcement officer Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) as she attempts to stop the self-proclaimed freedom fighters known as “Liber8”. It is easy to dismiss many science fiction shows dealing with time travel for the simple reason so many of them are done badly. Continuum is different in that there is an underlying mystery. A big part of that mystery is the motivation of an older Alec Sadler (William B. Davis) and the principles on which Continuum’s time travel is based.

The Continuum World of 2077

Continuum LogoIn 2077, the future of this world is both a distopian and Orwellian. World governments have somehow failed and, by implication, we assume so too has democracy. This has given way to a corporate controlled government that monitors and records every moment of a person’s life. People are born indebted and indentured to  the Global Corporate Congress until they pay off their life debts.

Among the largest corporations in the North American Union and possibly the world is SadTech, owned by Alec Sadler — a genius responsible for inventing and developing much of the technology we see in the world of Continuum. This hasn’t only made Sadler one of the richest men in the world but possibly one of the most powerful.

In an attempt to end the corporation’s rule over the people, Liber8 leader, Edouard Kagame (Tony Amendola) attempts to bring down the Corporate Congress by blowing up the building where a scheduled meeting is to take place thereby killing all 20 members. To Kagame’s surprise Sadler is the sole survivor. Sadler gives Kagame a time travel device to allow Liber8 to escape into the past; Sadler’s full intentions are unknown.

Upon arriving in 2012, Kiera meets and befriends a younger Alec Sadler (Erik Knudsen) who is coming to terms with the loss of his father and has decided to follow his father’s work and research. The beginnings of much of the “tech” that Keira uses was developed by Alec’s father. The young Alec posits two likely time traveling scenarios, both of which have their roots in physics. Evidence for both scenarios has been presented over the course of the first season and they both seem equally valid. The first is a “time loop” where conditions can not be altered. Everything that is happening has already happened and will give way to the future that Kiera knows. The second is an alternate time line and the very presence of both Kiera and Liber8 have altered Continuum’s 2077 future.

Time Loop

The first possibility is the “time loop” where the older Alec, knowing of his interactions in 2012 with Kiera, deliberately sends her back in time. This fulfills the events in the past and allow the future to progress in the way it has. All the events we see in 2012 have already happened and none of the Continuum characters can deviate from that. In a sense, everything is preordained. One of the most tantalizing clues, though unrelated, clues is the presence of Mr. Escher, the unknown head of the high security government agency, Section 6, who vouches for Kiera to the Vancouver Police Department.

Time Loop hypothesis for Continuum

“Ascending and Descending” is a lithograph print by the Dutch artist M. C. Escher which was first printed in March 1960. This perpetual loop illustrates the concept of the time loop used in Continuum.

This name may be a hidden clue that supports the the Time Loop theory. It may  Continuum’s writers way of telling viewers which of the two theories are correct. The name may have been taken from the Dutch artist, Maurits Cornelis Escher or M.C. Escher, who is best known for his mathematically inspired artwork. Escher was known for his depictions of impossible realities, especially those that related to infinite loops in some way. The “Ascending and Descending” litographic print is an artistic depiction of the “Penrose stairs“, an impossible object created by Lionel and Roger Penrose . The reality bending idea of the Penrose Stairs was used in the 2010 movie “Inception”.

Visual Time Loop in Continuum using a Mobius strip and ants

The ants crawl along a Möbius strip. This is another illustration of the principle of a time loop in the TV series Continuum.

In addition to impossible objects, Escher’s art also features insects. One of his paintings, Möbius Strip II (Red Ants), shows an ant walking along a surface with only one side — a Möbius strip. This strip looks very much like the infinity symbol. If an ant was to start at one point on the strip it will eventually return to that same point. We can create a Möbius strip of our own by twisting one end of a strip of paper by one half-turn and gluing the ends together. This object was dicovered independently by August Ferdinand Möbius and Johann Benedict Listing in 1858.

If this name is really a clue, then it add credibility to the time loop hypothesis. It could also mean that the reason that the older Sadler sends Keira back into time isn’t just to preserve the future but because he has to; he knows and recalls his interactions with this time traveling cop in his past.

This raises the question, can Kiera or Liber8 do anything to change the future? Does it mean that every little action, from the coffee they drink in the morning to the time they go to bed at night, has already been scripted? Can they do anything that might create a time paradox?

To resolve the problem of time paradoxes, which is permitted in some solutions of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, Russian physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov came up with his self-consistency principle . In simplest terms, the Novikov self-consistency principle says that if an event exists that would give rise to a paradox, or to any “change” to the past whatsoever, then the probability of that event is zero. This means that it is impossible to create time paradoxes.

Some may find this idea unpalatable as it interferes with our ideas of free will and destiny. Does it mean that Kiera and Alec and all of Liber8 are doing nothing more than following a script from which they can never deviate? Well, not entirely. The Novikov self-consistency principle does not imply that time traveler have no free-will. It just says that the results of their actions can not produce inconsistent results. Kiera can choose what to have for lunch but not stop the bombing of the building even if she tried. If she succeeded, her actions would be inconsistent with how events unfold in the future.

Alternate Timelines & the Many Worlds of Continuum

Alec also considers the possibility that Kiera’s and Liber8’s presence may have altered the time line making the fate of 2077 is uncertain. But what does that mean for the inhabitants of 2077 if Liber8 or even Kiera make a change in the present? Do they “blink” out of existence just like old Biff Tannen in Back to the Future II? No, they don’t have to and quantum mechanics may provide an answer.

To resolve some of the strange results observed in quantum mechanics, physicist Hugh Everett came up with his Many-Worlds Interpretation in 1957 . In this version of quantum mechanics, at every single instant of the tiniest portion of a second the Universe is splitting into countless billions of parallel universes. Thus our Universe branches out in which every possibility exists. The arrival of Kiera and Liber8 in the past results in a a new branch and a new alternate reality. This idea was seen in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. This spells bad news for Kiera as she can only travel to the future of the new time-line she is already in. Getting home or to the timeline she came from is an impossibility.

So which is it?

It’s difficult to say which of the two hypotheses are true as the series has given evidence to support either hypothesis. In “A Test of Time”, Kagame decides to test these theories of time travel. If Liber8 were to kill Kiera’s grandmother, then the threat posed by this future cop would literally cease to exist. While Kiera manages to save her grand-mother, Matthew Kellog’s (a former Liber8 member) teenage grandmother is killed in a confrontation between Kiera and Liber8.

Matthew’s continued existence provides no clear answers as Alec explains at the end of the episode. While we are certain who Kiera’s grandmother was, we are not quite sure in Kellog’s case. For all we know, Kellog could have been mistaken about the young girl’s identity and she was never his grandmother. The young girl could also have been Kellog’s grandmother and though she died thus preventing Matthew’s future birth, Kellog’s journey through time might protect him from this causality paradox. It does mean that the future can be changed which gives Liber8 even more incentive to succeed.

The good and bad guys in Continuum

If the future is a bad place to live and Kiera is trying to preserve the future, does that mean she is the bad guy? Liber8’s methods and motivations, while they are extreme, are to free the world from a tyrannical and oppressive system from ever taking place. Both sides are fighting to save the future they believe in. Liber8 seeks to create a better world while Kiera is trying to preserve her family’s existence. Neither knows if that is even possible.

It all comes down to one man, the older Alec Sadler and his ultimate goal and motivations. Young Alec discovers at the end of the season finale that he is the reason that Kiera is now living in the past. Did he send Kiera and Liber8 to save the future or to preserve it? Whatever the answer, we are going to have to wait for the answer in future episodes.

Further Reading