Borg Origin

2022, Jan 09    

One of the concepts that has fascinated me since I was a child is that of the Borg. By far the most dangerous and complex enemy within the Star Trek franchise, and while some argue that there are more powerful characters/species (Q for example), none of them come close to the never-ending relentless pursuit of their goal at the expense of those in their way. As the origin of the Borg have always been somewhat of a mystery I've thought about how they might have began more than once, and with companies actively working on interfacing the human brain with computers in a complex manner, I thought I'd write down my take on their possible beginnings based on observations of today.

The innocent purpose

It's difficult to believe that the Borg began malicious at their incarnation for multiple reasons... First, to be at a point where technology allows an interface with the human brain that allows communication of more than just simple numbers/clicks (based on current technology) implies a world where is some form of balance between good and bad. Examining today, we walk a tightrope between scientists pursuing the expansion of our knowledge/understanding/capabilities but not always under a motive-free banner (as both capitalism and militarisation exist and drive scientific discoveries). While the motivations may be a mix at many levels, enough people would undoubtedly exist to ensure its starting point wasn't that of enslavement or maliciousness (and if it was, it would be discovered and ended soon enough).

The removal of barriers

The technology to achieve such a feat would likely be in the pursuit of allowing human betterment, helping to overcome obstacles we face with technology rather than biology. Taking aside human disabilities for a moment, when we examine the human body we are plagued by the factor of time. Our brains retain information more easily at a younger age and start to shrink/deteriorate as we age, making learning more difficult (albeit not impossible) the older we get. As we learn every day (or try to), language presents another challenge for us. So many languages exist and even within defined languages there are the geographical and cultural variations which make them near-impossible to stay up-to-date with unless you are actively immersed in them. Factoring in the speed at which are able to process information (even when we fully understand a language) plays the next part as there is a clear difference between knowledge and understanding. We read at the rate that we read (closely linked to the speed that we speak) which has stayed near constant for the history that we have recorded. Time, and what we can do/must do with time, becomes our barrier to entry for a better life. It's no secret that at least one billionaire has invested in a firm trying to prevent ageing of the human body...

The sharing of knowledge

In many television shows and films there have been depictions of devices that allow you to share information at a faster-than-normal rate. The Matrix is a great example of this, with the ability to become knowledgable on a subject in a matter of seconds/minutes. This leveraging of technology allows us to save time, turning something that could potentially take years to learn into nothing longer than a phone call. Not only does this approach result in more time to ourselves, but as an added benefit to this approach we also gain consistency as a species. How many times have you found yourself getting frustrated with other road users because they aren't doing the speed limit (as they believe it to be slower than it actually is). YouTube is filled with dash-cam videos added daily, showcasing drivers who ignore the Highway Code and/or create dangerous situations because they don't correctly know/understand the rules of the road (especially when travelling abroad). If a technology had the ability to teach you how to drive in all manner of situations/geographical locations at an expert level, consistent with other drivers, and in a matter of minutes, would you say no? How about the ability to read/write/speak/understand all of the languages known today?

The two-way street

With such a technology created (and the bugs worked out) it's not difficult to imagine the majority of the population wanting to leverage this for the betterment of themselves and others. Imagine caring for a loved one and being able to have the latest medical knowledge related to their condition loaded into your brain in a matter of minutes every evening. Being able to recognise differences in the sound of their cough to determine if they need external medical treatment or if it is something you are able to undertake. Add to this the ability to share what you have seen/heard/felt with those in the medical profession in a matter of seconds so it can be further examined/processed/curated/redistributed, at a global scale, ensuring that everyone grows at the same rate and accuracy improves.
The technology would undoubtedly improve further, allowing access to all of your memories from even your earliest years and to store them digitally forever. The sharing of pictures/videos no longer requires digital cameras because you are the camera (all of your senses partaking). Memories can be shared with friends/loved ones and where required the memories of those who do bad can be retrieved by law enforcement to prove guilt (Black Mirror covered similar, albeit with a different take). Bad memories can be blocked as required, allowing a person to always feel happy and never feel weighed down by the parts of their life they don't like. To most this sounds like nirvana and in a perfect world it would be, but we don't life in a perfect world and as with everything in life there is always a flip-side to the coin.

The frustrations

Free will could be viewed by an outsider of civilisation as both the greatest and worst characteristic lifeforms possess. On the positive side it allows us creativity, spontaneity, randomness, and growth outside of fixed parameters. On the negative side it can cause chaos which in turn can lead to death and destruction. It's easy to examine the current COVID situation and see those on the news who have died due to catching COVID and not having the protection the vaccine would have provided. Frustration is growing worldwide on both sides, for those who don't want to see further deaths versus those who want taking the vaccine to be their choice. It's no secret that misinformation about the vaccine is everywhere and has cost lives as a result, which presents a different challenge to the knowledge-sharing so sought after to give us more time. How do we ensure that the knowledge that is shared to everyone is accurate and is maintained? Even if this task is accomplished, how do we ensure its consistency?
Switching to the Highway Code again, there are very few people in the UK that don't know the speed limit of a motorway. Despite this being common knowledge, people break the speed limit daily. In most cases it isn't from a lack of knowledge or even a lack of understanding the dangers, it's that a choice is made to break the law because our priorities are just that, our priorities. This lack of discipline requires measures to try and compensate, ranging from speed cameras that now track our speed between sections of road (average speed), to modern car safety standards looking to enforce speed limits based on GPS and map data. One could argue that without free will this wouldn't be an issue as speed limits would always be obeyed, but the trade-off is that progression of the species becomes almost programmatic in nature (as randomness is removed), following an algorithm of trial/error/expansion in the hope of finding something new. Turning everyone into this would stunt the growth of the human race, and what growth remains wouldn't be organic. Having a balance of the two takes us into Assassins Creed territory, left with those who control and those who follow (and the dangers it poses).

The desire for perfection

Wanting things to be done as correctly as they can be is a tricky discussion point when it comes to human beings... Some people are comfortable with getting something done regardless of if it resembles a perfect representation or if its barely able to function (but function it does). For others, not having something as perfect as it can be is painful to them, where their obsessive compulsive behaviour won't allow them to consider it finished or usable. The latter is something I am all too familiar with, and something that over many years I have tried to improve upon. The defining factor with either school of thought here (or most likely somewhere in-between) is what the impact is if the end-result isn't perfect. Examining a worker in a fast-food chain for a moment, putting the pickles underneath your lettuce instead of on top isn't likely to ruin your day or cause you any issue at all (despite instructions provided that detail how to create the burger). A doctor performing surgery on a patient and connecting the wrong arteries/veins/capillaries together likely results in the death of a patient, which clearly has a more significant impact.
Our exposure is another consideration in the quest for perfection, as sadly it's all too common to hear people talk of how an issue "isn't their problem". With global warming, famine, disease, and every other bad situation happening around the world, too often people take the view of "out of sight, out of mind". Our tolerance to a bad contractor may be quite high right until the point where the contractor is working within our own environment that we have exposure to on a frequent basis. Frustration builds when we encounter these things, especially when our view is expanded to feel the bigger picture. For those that seek things to be done (as they view it) correctly / as perfect as it can be, frustration becomes a daily encounter which only grows with time. To a mind that wants nothing but accuracy and precision a world that contains those who could do better but don't by choice, it's a problem that needs to be solved.

The leadership

In the original introduction to the Borg they were described as having "no centralised leadership" in that their collective consciousness formed the basis of their decisions and actions, which in principal sounds great (one large cooperative collection of minds). In later episodes it's revealed that this isn't the case and that a singular mind (the Borg queen) is responsible for their actions, mimicking the organisational structure of bees (albeit in a more complex way). The Borg queen is described as "bringing order to chaos" and considering all I have written so far it isn't a surprise or that far-fetched. Examining the current political systems around the world shows how there are always mixed views on a wide range of topics, and how even when using voting as the methodology to determine what is progressed/what is halted, there are still opposing views that aren't simply turned off when the vote is cast and the ballots tallied. When searching for perfection (even with this methodology) you still require everyone to perform 100% to the chosen task, even if they didn't vote for it. Today, this doesn't happen (for multiple reasons) and progress is stunted as a result.
The key consideration around having a single leader is if this came through consensus of all that partake or if this was forced. I can see chaos of thought between connected minds growing at an almost infinite rate (consider billions of minds all linked together) and a choice being made (by most) to elect some form of leadership, however this is where I believe it both happened and failed faster than we can image. Having a centralised leadership in this instance doesn't combine well with that of free will, as the decisions chosen by the leadership result in the same challenges/issues that we face today (just at a faster rate as speed of thought is increased). There will inevitably be disagreements by those who are on the losing side of a vote, resulting in those who want to rule inevitably wanting to remove free will. Be it a single mind that steps forward and forcefully takes control, or be it multiple minds that fight for control before there remains only one, I suspect this is how the foundation of the hive mind would be formed.

The lack of humanity

Leading billions of minds as the authoritative leader doesn't remove the problems previously mentioned, and this is where the "drone" concept emerges. To rule without interruption and distraction the notion of free will must be removed from those who are linked, otherwise the chaos is never-ending and control can never be guaranteed. This part I have always felt would be the most complex of all (more so than attaching brains to computers) as you inevitably need freedom of thought without freedom of choice. To think of it a different way, having a billion brains linked together serves no defining purpose if they all think of the same solutions to problems, as it would be easier to build technology-based computers at a gargantuan scale and program them accordingly (as it removes the free will issue entirely). The beauty of having a billion minds that each have their own unique memories/experiences is that the way they will tackle a problem may have its own unique twist (neural networks are fun in this way, depending on how they are trained). Not only do you get the power of a billion brains (the most complex computer that we know of) but you also have all of the collective knowledge and experience to solve problems.
Stripping away free will (and in effect individuality as you become an open book) greatly improves the quest to perfection, but also becomes self-damaging as achieving the goal becomes flawed as time progresses. Following the logic of the Borg, they expand throughout the universe assimilating races they encounter that they believe have something that will help fulfil their quest. Each time they do this they convert beings that are free-thinking into those that are drones, removing their ability to make random/questionable/debatable decisions. In effect, this removes entropy from the pool of life you can assimilate, and the more you do this, the less entropy there is. At some point all corners of the universe have been reached, all sentient life assimilated, and nothing new remains. Reaching this point doesn't guarantee perfection has been reached, only that you have used what was available. You could view this as perfection (as nothing remains), but in an imperfect universe (which we live in) this is a hollow victory that leaves you wanting more.
What use is a collective when there are no more questions to answer?

The simulation

Considering the challenges around entropy being removed until none remains, and how to manage the lack of randomness without bringing free will (and chaos) back into the equation, a solution is required to ensure these constructs aren't lost but don't hinder the quest for perfection. To achieve this, its not difficult to fathom a virtual world being created that allows this type of free thinking without the physical constraints. While Star Trek did have Unimatrix Zero (a virtual world where the suppressed part of a drone can be itself once more), I don't believe this equates to the same thing given it wasn't being used to the advantage of the Borg queen. I'm reminded of a film I watched called The Thirteenth Floor, whereby an immersive virtual world is created for humans to transfer their consciousness into as desired (into a character of choice). When not transferred, the character plays out their life as if they were real, with their own set of memories and desires. It's a slightly different take on this, but not so different. Taking the combined memories and thought process of a drone, digitising it, then running in a simulation with out digitised minds, with no view that their world isn't physical (simply a simulation), would provide new entropy providing the system is able to provide randomness of its own. This simulation could run at a rate that isn't limited by biological processing, allowing millennia to pass within seconds (when the technology exists to do so). The ideas that are created / progressed within the simulation can be extracted and implanted into the drones themselves for them to work on as directed in the real world, allowing further progression in the quest to perfection.

The change of physical form

Straying somewhat from the television show here, the one part that was never covered (which always surprised me) was the change in physical form. With the assimilation of an unknown number of races (but likely in the millions), their preferred form was always that of the species that they assimilate. The Borg never (at least as part of the show) switched into a purely technological form, nor did they ever create some form of hybrid humanoid based on the countless of specimens of DNA that they had ingested. I've always considered this odd, and a sign that their quest for perfection was less about improving their physical characterises and more about controlling the conscious minds of all. I recall an amazing scene from Battlestar Galactica whereby the frustration of someone who can't see/feel X-rays is vented (as they were given humanoid form). Even at its simplest level I'd love to be able to see infrared/ultraviolet with my eyes, as taking photos with cameras that support this show a very different view of the world. The lack of this within the show does deviate from the path I would expect to see if it was real, as the question for perfection would undoubtedly cover all aspects of reality, not just thought.

The Future

As it stands while writing this, Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) have been around for some time but are very limited in capability. Large organisations are working towards improving this, with a view to complex control via the human brain first (without moving exterior muscles), then to the outward sharing of information (for example, sharing something you can remember/imagine), and finally to the ingest of information without using external senses. As with all technology, how we use it is key... With everything (even down to the humble rock), it can be used for good or evil. This type of interface will be no different, and undoubtedly will be used for both. I can't say the thought of getting a computer virus uploaded to my cerebral cortex is a nice one, but I suspect it is something that will inevitably come.

For now, I will stick to the keyboard and mouse (and the hidden USB port on the back of my neck)