The Science behind The Six

The Six by Mark Alpert

This novel isn’t science fiction. I’m a science journalist as well as a novelist, so I like to insert lots of facts into my books. The technologies described in The Six are real. The electronic brains of the Pioneers are based on experimental circuits now being developed in laboratories. Sooner or later, human intelligences are going to live inside machines. It’s just a matter of time.

I got the idea for this book in 2011 after visiting the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York (the inspiration for the Unicorp lab in the opening chapters of The Six). I was looking for good stories for Scientific American, so I talked to several researchers at the IBM lab. One of them led the effort to develop Watson, the computer system that demonstrated the power of artificial intelligence by defeating two champions of the quiz show Jeopardy! Another scientist oversaw IBM’s work on new kinds of circuits -- neuromorphic electronics -- that can imitate brain cells. The new hardware and software may soon enable machines to outperform people at nearly every task. Superhuman robots, I realized, are on their way.

For years computer experts have predicted that machines will eventually become self-aware and self-improving, which will trigger a tremendous leap in their abilities. The experts have even coined a term for this pivotal moment: the Singularity. And some researchers have warned that we need to prepare for this leap by programming “friendliness” into artificial-intelligence systems. When powerful AIs start making decisions for themselves, we won’t be able to stop them from pursuing their goals, so we need to make sure that the well-being of the human race is one of their priorities. If we don’t, we may face a ruthless AI like Sigma, who sees humans only as competitors.

But the Singularity has a flip side: as machines become more capable we’ll start to incorporate them into our bodies. Researchers have already implanted computer chips into the brains of paralyzed patients, allowing them to use their thoughts to control robotic arms. As neuromorphic circuits improve, scientists will eventually develop a computer that can hold all of the human mind’s data -- memories, character traits, emotions and so on -- which can be gleaned from the brain by analyzing the myriad connections among its cells. What’s more, the neuromorphic circuits will be able to process this information the same way the brain does, allowing the computer to generate new thoughts and emotions. If researchers copy a person’s brain data to these circuits, the “personality” inside the machine will be self-aware and indistinguishable from the original personality in the living brain.

Scientists have already taken the first step in this process by studying how we think and reason and remember. In 2013 President Obama launched a long-term project to develop new technologies for revealing brain activity. Researchers can currently implant electrodes in the brain to monitor the activity of a few selected cells, but their goal is to map all the signals exchanged through the trillions of brain-cell connections. One of the proposed technologies for brain mapping involves the injection of minuscule nanoprobes that would stick to the membranes of brain cells. In addition to showing how the cells are connected, the nanoprobes could reveal the tiny electrical changes that occur when the cells signal one another.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can find plenty of good articles on this subject in Scientific American and other science publications. The rapid technological advances are exciting but also a little frightening. The first human-machine hybrids will probably stride across our cities within the next few decades. I just hope they won’t face as much trouble as Adam and his fellow Pioneers do.

One final item: to fully portray Adam’s personality I had to learn a lot about muscular dystrophy. I discovered that you can’t generalize about teenagers who have the disease. Each has his or her way of coping with it. One of the best ways to help them is to give generously to the Muscular Dystrophy Association (, which provides services to people with neuromuscular disease and supports efforts to study potential treatments.