Superfast drone fitted with new ‘rotating detonation rocket engine’ approaches the speed of sound

Venus Aerospace has completed the inaugural test flight of a drone fitted with its "rotating detonation rocket engine" (RDRE) — accelerating it to just under the speed of sound. The company wants to one day build superfast commercial jets using this new type of engine. 

In the test flight, conducted Feb. 24, the company flew the drone, which is 8 feet (2.4 meters) long and weighs 300 pounds (136 kilograms) to an altitude of 12,000 ft (3658 m) by an Aero L-29 Delfín plane, before it was deployed and the RDRE was activated, company representatives said in a statement. 

The drone flew 10 miles (16 km) at Mach 0.9 — over 680 miles per hour — using 80% of the RDRE’s available thrust. The successful flight proved the viability of RDRE and the associated onboard flight systems. Three weeks earlier, Venus Aerospace demonstrated the viability of its RDRE technology with a long-duration test burn — during which engineers showed their engine worked for the duration of this test flight.

Related: Wild new NASA plasma tech reduces drag during hypersonic flight

Rather than using a continuous burn like most rocket engines, RDRE operates by a detonation wave continuously rotating around an annulus, or ring-shaped, chamber. The fuel, hydrogen peroxide, is injected into the annulus and the repeated detonations become self-sustaining after the initial ignition. In the RDRE test flight, the annulus was approximately 12 inches  (25.4 centimeters) in diameter and produced 1,200 pounds (544 kg) of thrust.

The RDRE technology is 15% more efficient than conventional rocket engines, Venus Aerospace representatives said in a statement. As a result, an RDRE-propelled craft could theoretically travel farther on the same amount of fuel as conventional engines that combust fuel at constant pressure. Some have also theorized it could be as much as  25% more efficient than current technologies.

The successful test flight raises the odds of commercially viable supersonic flight. One of the long-term goals for Venus Aerospace is to develop a commercial supersonic aircraft that could travel at Mach 9 (over 6,800 mph) (11,000 km/h)

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For comparison, the Concorde aircraft could fly at just over Mach 2 (just under 1,550 mph, or 2,500 km/h), while the forthcoming Lockheed SR-72 prototype is expected to fly at speeds greater than Mach 6 (approximately 4,600 mph, or 7,400 km/h). To put this into context, a vehicle flying at Mach 9 could travel from London to San Francisco in an hour. 

Just as Concorde was noisy at take-off, the RDREs’ constant detonations will make any craft fitted with them incredibly loud. And unlike conventional jet engines, which offer much smoother accelerations, the rapid, repeated cycles of acceleration from the continuous detonations may also cause increased stress and fatigue of the engines and associated support structures.

Because RDRE could have military applications, Venus Aerospace is also collaborating with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

For now, Venus plans further test flights using drones One test flight engineers are considering involves fitting the current RDRE on a larger drone capable of achieving hypersonic flight — five times faster than the speed of sound (approximately 3,900 mph, or 6,200 km/h). 

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April 15, 2024 at 08:09AM

Toyota seeks patent for chameleon color-changing paint

No one knows better than the folks who manufacture and market automobiles how crucial the choice of color is. Now, hoping to chase the concept of some of BMW’s technologies, Toyota is developing a method to modify their vehicles’ colors, chameleon-like, by using heat and light.

As initially spotted by USA Today, the technique has been in development for two years and Toyota last month filed for a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The patent describes all cars with the paint leaving the factory with a single color, the color-changing material, in whatever default hue is chosen. Once at a dealer or other Toyota facility with the correct equipment, the color can be changed as desired. The method of which would include either large panels or even a movable panel that would heat the paint first, followed by applications of specific wavelengths of light. This whole process would allow the molecules in the paint to be shifted to reflect different wavelengths of light, creating different visible colors (similar to how "Structural Blue" on Lexus models achieves its color). Temperature sensors on the car would be employed in the process to help ensure the correct parameters are achieved for the right color.

Because these very specific conditions must be met for color changing, owners need not worry that if they drive their Camrys into Death Valley, they might shift from grey to hot pink.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in 2022, BMW showed a color-change concept known as E Ink on its iX electric SUV that was based on the electrophoretic technology used in e-readers. In that technology, the vehicle is wrapped, and an electric current causes pigments to pass through microcapsules, changing the exterior from white to gray to black, controlled by using an app on a mobile phone. Up to 32 colors could be displayed on 240 E Ink segments, each segment individually controlled.

Certainly, both these developments are conceptual now and not yet ready for prime time in a dealer’s showroom. But perhaps a hot pink Camry might not be bad.

Related Video:

via Autoblog

April 13, 2024 at 07:12AM

Google, a $1.97 trillion company, is protesting California’s plan to pay journalists

Google, the search giant that brought in more than $73 billion in profit last year, is protesting a California bill that would require it and other platforms to pay media outlets. The company announced that it was beginning a “short-term test” that will block links to local California news sources for a “small percentage” of users in the state.

The move is in response to the California Journalism Preservation Act, a bill that would require Google, Meta and other platforms to pay California publishers fees in exchange for links. The proposed law, which passed the state Assembly last year, amounts to a “link tax,” according to Google VP of News Partnerships Jaffer Zaidi.

“If passed, CJPA may result in significant changes to the services we can offer Californians and the traffic we can provide to California publishers,” Zaidi writes. But though the bill has yet to become law, Google is opting to give publishers and users in California a taste of what those changes could look like.

The company says it will temporarily test blocking links to California news sources that would be covered under the law in order “to measure the impact of the legislation on our product experience.” Zaidi didn’t say how large the test would be or how long it would last. Google is also halting new spending on California newsrooms, including “new partnerships through Google News Showcase, our product and licensing program for news organizations, and planned expansions of the Google News Initiative.”

Google isn’t the first company to use hardball tactics in the face of new laws that aim to force tech companies to pay for journalism. Meta pulled news from Facebook and Instagram in Canada after a similar law passed and has threatened to do the same in California. (Meta did eventually cut deals to pay publishers in Australia after a 2021 law went into effect, but said last month it would end those partnerships.)

Google has a mixed track record on the issue, It pulled its News service out of Spain for seven years in protest of local copyright laws that would have required licensing fees. But the company signed deals worth about $150 million to pay Australian publishers. It also eventually backed off threats to pull news from search results in Canada, and forked over about $74 million. That may sound like a lot, but those amounts are still just a tiny fraction of the $10 – $12 billion that researchers estimate Google should be paying publishers.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

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April 12, 2024 at 01:03PM

Europe Rules That Insufficient Climate Change Action Is a Human Rights Violation

Climate law experts are already calling it one of the most impactful rulings on human rights and climate change ever made. Today’s judgement, from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), was read out in front of an eclectic gathering of concerned plaintiffs from around the continent.

A group of older women from Switzerland, young people from Portugal, and a former French mayor —they had all brought cases to the court alleging that their governments were not doing enough to battle the climate crisis now regularly ravaging Europe with heat waves, droughts, and other extreme weather.

While the ECHR, based in Strasbourg, France, chose not to admit two of the cases in question, it ruled that the Swiss women were right—their government had failed to do enough to meet the country’s responsibilities over climate change. What’s more, the women plaintiffs had also been denied their right to a fair trial in their country, the court found.

“It’s really a landmark judgement that was issued today, and it’s going to shape how all future climate change judgements are decided,” says human rights law researcher Corina Heri from the University of Zurich, who was present to hear the court’s decision for herself. “I was really relieved and very happy,” she adds, describing the moment when she heard the results of the judges’ deliberations.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg, who also attended the ruling, told reporters afterwards that the world could expect more climate-change-related litigation.

The ECHR judges ruled by 16 to 1 that the Swiss women—known as the KlimaSeniorinnen, or Senior Women for Climate Protection—had been subject to a violation of their human rights under the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights. The women had argued, for instance, that they were particularly vulnerable to the effects of heat waves.

Essentially, the ECHR has said it deems the Swiss government’s efforts on climate change mitigation to be insufficient. In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, Swiss president Viola Amherd told reporters that she would have to read the court’s judgement before commenting in detail.

“What Switzerland failed to do in the eyes of the court is, firstly, they don’t have a sufficient regulatory framework [for tackling climate change],” says Catherine Higham at the London School of Economics, who coordinates the Climate Change Laws of the World project. “They also felt there was evidence that Switzerland had inadequate 2020 targets and it failed to comply with those.” By 2020, the country had aimed to cut emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels—however, emissions only fell by 14 percent.

The case brought by a former French mayor who said his town was at risk from rising sea levels was not admitted by the court because the man no longer lives in France. And the case by six Portuguese young people, penned in response to devastating wildfires in 2017, was also not admitted—partly because the plaintiffs did not bring their case in their own country before approaching the ECHR.

via Wired Top Stories

April 9, 2024 at 01:54PM

This Woman Will Decide Which Babies Are Born

God help the babies! Or, absent God, a fertility startup called Orchid. It offers prospective parents a fantastical choice: Have a regular baby or have an Orchid baby. A regular baby might grow up and get cancer. Or be born with a severe intellectual disability. Or go blind. Or become obese. A regular baby might not even make it to childbirth. Any of those things could still happen to an Orchid baby, yes, but the risk, says 29-year-old Noor Siddiqui, plummets if you choose her method. It’s often called “genetic enhancement.”

Whenever I bring up Orchid in polite company, people squirm. “I’m uncomfortable,” they say. “Not for me.” “So unnatural.” Inevitably, Nazis get mentioned, as does a related word that starts with “eu” and ends in “genics.” (Orchid prefers I not utter it.) One new mom I was talking to was particularly, head-shakingly disturbed. Then, a few minutes later, in an attempt to change the subject, she announced to the room that she’d just fed her six-month-old his first peanut, and that in three months’ time she’d be feeding him his first shrimp, because that’s what the science says she must do to protect him from developing allergies.

Which is, of course, the entirety of Siddiqui’s pitch: to—based on what the science says—protect future people from future suffering. It’s why, as a teenage Thiel Fellow, Siddiqui launched a medical startup; and why, at 25, she started Orchid. It’s also why, now that the company’s gene-enhancing product is available, she wanted to be one of its first customers.

Siddiqui and her husband are perfectly fertile, but for this kind of intervention to work, you need embryos. So in 2022, Siddiqui underwent IVF at Stanford, wound up with 16 contenders, and sent off representative slivers to Orchid’s lab in North Carolina. Typically, preimplantation testing only scans for alarming abnormalities, and then a doctor selects the nicest looker. This is not that. This is something that, as Siddiqui tells me, “has been on society’s mind—sci-fi’s mind—for a generation”: a first-of-its-kind picture of every baby-to-be’s genetic destiny. Right now, Orchid calculates each embryo’s likelihood of one day suffering from any number of the more than 1,200 diseases and conditions about which we currently have (anywhere from rock-solid to, ya know, vague and extrapolative) genetic information. Who knows what it will calculate in the future.

Orchid is still in its early days—16 employees, $12 million in funding. But already, they’re in 40 IVF clinics across the country and have thousands of customers. This includes, I’m told, several big-name figures in tech. Asked to betray their identities, Siddiqui scoffs, but she’s more than happy to show me the data on her own embryos. This she does on a picture-perfect day outside a coffee shop near her home in the Mission district of San Francisco. The report, which she pulls up on her laptop, is sleekly designed, with all sorts of charts and numbers, some in black (solid odds against schizophrenia), others in red (not so good for breast cancer). If it were up to Siddiqui, a Stanford-trained computer scientist, that’s all we’d talk about—the percentages, the percentiles, the “penetrances.” But I keep trying to pull her away from the numbers, from what the science (she claims) says. Because that’s not the whole story. Because, as she said herself, this is a science fiction story too …

Jason Kehe: Before we get to your embryos, I just learned that you have a new podcast—not just about Orchid but about all kinds of crazy science and future-y stuff. Should I be listening to it?

via Wired Top Stories

April 10, 2024 at 05:06AM

Mexico City’s Metro System Is Sinking Fast. Yours Could Be Next

With its expanse of buildings and concrete, Mexico City may not look squishy—but it is. Ever since the Spanish conquistadors drained Lake Texcoco to make way for more urbanization, the land has been gradually compacting under the weight. It’s a phenomenon known as subsidence, and the result is grim: Mexico City is sinking up to 20 inches a year, unleashing havoc on its infrastructure.

That includes the city’s Metro system, the second-largest in North America after New York City’s. Now, satellites have allowed scientists to meticulously measure the rate of sinking across Mexico City, mapping where subsidence has the potential to damage railways. “When you’re here in the city, you get used to buildings being tilted a little,” says Dari?o Solano?Rojas, a remote-sensing scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “You can feel how the rails are wobbly. Riding the Metro in Mexico City feels weird. You don’t know if it’s dangerous or not—you feel like it’s dangerous, but you don’t have that certainty.”

In a recent study in the journal Scientific Reports, Solano?Rojas went in search of certainty. Using radar satellite data, he and his team measured how the elevation changed across the city between 2011 and 2020. Subsidence isn’t uniform; the rate depends on several factors. The most dramatic instances globally are due to the overextraction of groundwater: Pump enough liquid out and the ground collapses like an empty water bottle. That’s why Jakarta, Indonesia, is sinking up to 10 inches a year. Over in California’s San Joaquin Valley, the land has sunk as much as 28 feet in the past century, due to farmers pumping out too much groundwater.

A similar draining of aquifers is happening in Mexico City, which is gripped by a worsening water crisis. “The subsurface is like a sponge: We get the water out, and then it deforms, because it’s losing volume,” says Solano?Rojas. How much volume depends on the underlying sediment in a given part of the city—the ancient lake didn’t neatly layer equal proportions of clay and sand in every area. “That produces a lot of different behaviors on the surface,” Solano?Rojas adds.

Subsidence rates across Mexico City vary substantially, from 20 inches annually to not at all, where the city is built atop solid volcanic rock. This creates “differential subsidence,” where the land sinks differently not just square mile to square mile, or block to block, but square foot to square foot. If a road, railway, or building is sinking differently at one end than the other, it’ll destabilize.

Courtesy of Dari?o Solano?Rojas

via Wired Top Stories

April 10, 2024 at 04:06AM

A brief, weird history of brainwashing

On an early spring day in 1959, Edward Hunter testified before a US Senate subcommittee investigating “the effect of Red China Communes on the United States.” It was the kind of opportunity he relished. A war correspondent who had spent considerable time in Asia, Hunter had achieved brief media stardom in 1951 after his book Brain-Washing in Red China introduced a new concept to the American public: a supposedly scientific system for changing people’s minds, even making them love things they once hated. 

But Hunter wasn’t just a reporter, objectively chronicling conditions in China. As he told the assembled senators, he was also an anticommunist activist who served as a propagandist for the OSS, or Office of Strategic Services—something that was considered normal and patriotic at the time. His reporting blurred the line between fact and political mythology.

portrait of Liang Qichao
Chinese reformists like Liang Qichao used the term xinao—a play on an older word, xixin, or “washing the heart”—in an attempt to bring ideas from Western science into Chinese philosophy

When a senator asked about Hunter’s work for the OSS, the operative boasted that he was the first to “discover the technique of mind-attack” in mainland China, the first to use the word “brainwashing” in writing in any language, and “the first, except for the Chinese, to use the word in speech in any language.” 

None of this was true. Other operatives associated with the OSS had used the word in reports before Hunter published articles about it. More important, as the University of Hong Kong legal scholar Ryan Mitchell has pointed out, the Chinese word Hunter used at the hearing—xinao (), translated as “wash brain”—has a long history going back to scientifically minded Chinese philosophers of the late 19th century, who used it to mean something more akin to enlightenment. 

Yet Hunter’s sensational tales still became an important part of the disinformation and pseudoscience that fueled a “mind-control race” during the Cold War, much like the space race. Inspired by new studies on brain function, the US military and intelligence communities prepared themselves for a psychic war with the Soviet Union and China by spending millions of dollars on research into manipulating the human brain. But while the science never exactly panned out, residual beliefs fostered by this bizarre conflict continue to play a role in ideological and scientific debates to this day.

Coercive persuasion and pseudoscience

Ironically, “brainwashing” was not a widely used term among communists in China. The word xinao, Mitchell told me in an email, is actually a play on an older word, xixin, or washing the heart, which alludes to a Confucian and Buddhist ideal of self-awareness. In the late 1800s, Chinese reformists such as Liang Qichao began using xinao—replacing the character for “heart” with “brain”—in part because they were trying to modernize Chinese philosophy. “They were eager to receive and internalize as much as they could of Western science in general, and discourse about the brain as the seat of consciousness was just one aspect of that set of imported ideas,” Mitchell said. 

For Liang and his circle, brainwashing wasn’t some kind of mind-wiping process. “It was a sort of notion of epistemic virtue,” Mitchell said, “or a personal duty to make oneself modern in order to behave properly in the modern world.”

Meanwhile, scientists outside China were investigating “brainwashing” in the sense we usually think of, with experiments into mind clearing and reprogramming. Some of the earliest research into the possibility began in the 1890s, when Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist who had famously conditioned dogs to drool at the sound of a bell, worked on Soviet-funded projects to investigate how trauma could change animal behavior. He found that even the most well-conditioned dogs would forget their training after intensely stressful experiences such as nearly drowning, especially when those were combined with sleep deprivation and isolation. It seemed that Pavlov had hit upon a quick way to wipe animals’ memories. Scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain subsequently wondered whether it might work on humans. And once memories were wiped, they wondered, could something else be installed their place? 

During the 1949 show trial of the Hungarian anticommunist József Mindszenty, American officials worried that the Russians might have found the answer. A Catholic cardinal, Mindszenty had protested several government policies of the newly formed, Soviet-backed Hungarian People’s Republic. He was arrested and tortured, and he eventually made a series of outlandish confessions at trial: that he had conspired to steal the Hungarian crown jewels, start World War III, and make himself ruler of the world. In his book Dark Persuasion, Joel Dimsdale, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Diego, argues that the US intelligence community saw these implausible claims as confirmation that the Soviets had made some kind of scientific breakthrough that allowed them to control the human mind through coercive persuasion.

This question became more urgent when, in 1953, a handful of American POWs in China and Korea switched sides, and a Marine named Frank Schwable was quoted on Chinese radio validating the communist claim that the US was testing germ warfare in Asia. By this time, Hunter had already published a book about brainwashing in China, so the Western public quickly gravitated toward his explanation that the prisoners had been brainwashed, just like Mindszenty. People were terrified, and this was a reassuring explanation for how nice American GIs could go Red. 

cover of "Brainwashing: The true and terrible story of the men who endured and defied  the most diabolical red torture." by Edward Hunter
Edward Hunter, who claimed to have coined the term “brainwashing,” wrote a book that fueled paranoia about a “mind-control race” during the Cold War.
a pamphlet cover of "Brain-Washing: A Synthesis of the Russian Textbook on Psychopolitics"
A pamphlet published in 1955, purported to be a translation of a work by the Russian secret police, claimed that the Soviets used drugs and psychology to control the masses and that Dianetics, a pseudoscience invented by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, could prevent brainwashing.

Over the following years, in the wake of the Korean War, “brainwashing” grew into a catchall explanation for any kind of radical or nonconformist behavior in the United States. Social scientists and politicians alike latched onto the idea. The Dutch psychologist Joost Meerloo warned that television was a brainwashing machine, for example, and the anticommunist educator J. Merrill Root claimed that high schools brainwashed kids into being weak-willed and vulnerable to communist influence. Meanwhile, popular movies like 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, starring Frank Sinatra, offered thrilling tales of Chinese communists whose advanced psychological techniques turned unsuspecting American POWs into assassins. 

For the military and intelligence communities, mind control hovered between myth and science. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the peculiar case of an anonymously published 1955 pamphlet called Brain-Washing: A Synthesis of the Russian Textbook on Psychopolitics, which purported to be a translation of work by the Soviet secret-police chief Lavrentiy Beria. Full of wild claims about how the Soviets used psychology and drugs to control the masses, the pamphlet has a peculiar section devoted to the ways that Dianetics—a pseudoscience invented by the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard—could prevent brainwashing. As a result, it is widely believed that Hubbard himself wrote the pamphlet as black propaganda, or propaganda that masquerades as something produced by a foreign adversary. 

The 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, starring Frank Sinatra, offered thrilling tales of Chinese communists whose advanced psychological techniques turned unsuspecting American POWs into assassins.

Still, US officials apparently took it seriously. David Seed, a cultural studies scholar at the University of Liverpool, plumbed the National Security Council papers at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, where he discovered that the NSC’s Operations Coordinating Board had analyzed the pamphlet as part of an investigation into enemy capabilities. A member of the board wrote that it might be “fake” but contained so much accurate information that it was clearly written by “experts.” When it came to brainwashing, government operatives made almost no distinction between black propaganda and so-called expertise.

This gobbledygook may also have struck the NSC investigator as legitimate because Hubbard borrowed lingo from the same sources as many scientists of the era. Hubbard chose the name Dianetics, for instance, specifically to evoke the computer scientist Norbert Wiener’s idea of cybernetics, an influential theory about information control systems that heavily informed both psychology and the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence. Cybernetics suggested that the brain functioned like a machine, with inputs and outputs, feedback and control. And if machines could be optimized, then why not brains?

An excuse for government abuse 

The fantasy of brainwashing was always one of optimization. Military experts knew that adversaries could be broken with torture, but it took months and was often a violent, messy process. A fast, scientifically informed interrogation method would save time and could potentially be deployed on a mass scale. In 1953, that dream led the CIA to invest millions of dollars in MK-Ultra, a project that injected cash into university and research programs devoted to memory wiping, mind control, and “truth serum” drugs. Worried that their rivals in the Soviet Union and China were controlling people’s minds to spread communism throughout the world, the intelligence community was willing to try almost anything to fight back. No operation was too weird. 

One of MK-Ultra’s most notorious projects was “Operation Midnight Climax” in San Francisco, where sex workers lured random American men to a safe house and dosed them with LSD while CIA agents covertly observed their behavior. At McGill University in Montreal, the CIA funded the work of the psychologist Donald Cameron, who used a combination of drugs and electroconvulsive therapy on patients with mental illness, attempting to erase and “repattern” their minds. Though many of his victims did wind up suffering from amnesia for years, Cameron never successfully injected new thoughts or memories. Marcia Holmes, a science historian who researched brainwashing for the Hidden Persuaders project at Birkbeck, University of London, told me that the CIA used Cameron’s data to develop new kinds of torture, which the US adopted as  “enhanced interrogation” techniques in the wake of 9/11. “You could put a scientific spin on it and claim that’s why it worked,” she said. “But it always boiled down to medieval tactics that people knew from experience worked.”

Believed to be a victim of communist mind control, the American
POW Frank Schwable claimed on Chinese radio in 1953 that the US was testing germ warfare in Asia.
József Mindszenty
After being arrested and tortured, the Catholic cardinal and anticommunist
József Mindszenty made outlandish confessions
at trial, like that he had conspired to steal the Hungarian crown jewels.

MK-Ultra remained secret until the mid-1970s, when the US Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, commonly known as the Church Committee after its chair, Senator Frank Church, opened hearings into the long-­running project. The shocking revelations that the CIA was drugging American citizens and paying for the torment of vulnerable Canadians changed the public’s understanding of mind control. “Brainwashing” came to seem less like a legitimate threat from overseas enemies and more like a ruse or excuse for almost any kind of bad behavior. When Patty Hearst, granddaughter of the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, was put on trial in 1976 for robbing a bank after being kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, an American militant organization, the judge refused to believe experts who testified that she had been tortured and brainwashed by her captors. She was convicted and spent 22 months in jail. This marked the end of the nation’s infatuation with brainwashing, and experts began to debunk the idea that there was a scientific basis for mind control.

Patty Hearts against a red flag
In publishing heiress Patty Hearst’s 1976 trial for bank robbery,
the judge refused to believe that she had been brainwashed as a victim of kidnapping.

Still, the revelations about MK-Ultra led to new cultural myths. Communists were no longer the baddies—instead, people feared that the US government was trying to experiment on its citizens. Soon after the Church Committee hearings were over, the media was gripped by a crime story of epic proportions: nearly two dozen Black children had been murdered in Atlanta, and the police had no leads other than a vague idea that maybe it could be a serial killer. Wayne Williams, a Black man who was eventually convicted of two of the murders, claimed at various points that he had been trained by the CIA. This led to popular conspiracy theories that MK-Ultra had been experimenting on Black people in Atlanta.

Colin Dickey, author of Under the Eye of Power: How Fear of Secret Societies Shapes American Democracy, told me these conspiracy theories became “a way of making sense of an otherwise mystifying and terrifying reality, [which is that America is] a country where Black people are so disenfranchised that their murders aren’t noticed.” Dickey added that this MK-Ultra conspiracy theory “gave a shape to systemic racism,” placing blame for the Atlanta child murders on the US government. In the process, it also suggested that Black people had been brainwashed to kill each other. 

No evidence ever surfaced that MK-Ultra was behind the children’s deaths, but the idea of brainwashing continues to be a powerful metaphor for the effects of systemic racism. It haunts contemporary Black horror films like Get Out, where white people take over Black people’s bodies through a fantastical version of hypnosis. And it provides the analytical substrate for the scathing indictment of racist marketing in the book Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, by the Black advertising executive Tom Burrell. He argues that advertising has systematically pushed stereotypes of Black people as second-class citizens, instilling a “slave mindset” in Black audiences.

A social and political phenomenon

Today, even as the idea of brainwashing is often dismissed as pseudoscience, Americans are still spellbound by the idea that people we disagree with have been psychologically captured by our enemies. Right-wing pundits and politicians often attribute discussions of racism to infections by a “woke mind virus”—an idea that is a direct descendant of Cold War panics over communist brainwashing. Meanwhile, contemporary psychology researchers like UCSD’s Dimsdale fear that social media is now a vector for coercive persuasion, just as Meerloo worried about television’s mind-control powers in the 1950s. 

Cutting-edge technology is also altering how we think about mind control. In a 2017 open letter published in Nature, an international group of researchers and ethicists warned that neurotechnologies like brain-computer interfaces “mean that we are on a path to a world in which it will be possible to decode people’s mental processes and directly manipulate the brain mechanisms underlying their intentions, emotions and decisions.” It sounds like MK-Ultra’s wish list. Hoping to head off a neuro-dystopia, the group outlined several key ways that companies and universities could guard against coercive uses of this technology in the future. They suggested that we need laws to prevent companies from spying on people’s private thoughts, for example, as well as regulations that bar anyone from using brain implants to change people’s personalities or make them more neurotypical. 

Many neuroscientists feel that these concerns are overblown; one of them, the University of Maryland cognitive scientist R. Douglas Fields, summed up the naysayers’ position with a column in Quanta magazine arguing that the brain is more plastic than we realize, and that neurotech mind control will never be as simple as throwing a switch. Kathleen Taylor, another neuroscientist who studies brainwashing, takes a more measured view; in her book Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, she acknowledges that neurotech and drugs could change people’s thought processes but ultimately concludes that “brainwashing is above all a social and political phenomenon.” 

Sydney Gottleib
Sidney Gottlieb was an American chemist and spymaster who in the 1950s headed the
Central Intelligence Agency’s mind-control program known as Project MK-Ultra.

Perhaps that means the anonymous National Security Council examiner was right to call Hubbard’s black propaganda the work of an “expert.” If brainwashing is politics, then disinformation might be as effective (or ineffective) as a brain implant in changing someone’s mind. Still, scholars have learned that political efforts at mind control do not have predictable results. Online disinformation leads to what Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, identifies as stochastic terrorism, or acts of violence that cannot be predicted precisely but can be analyzed statistically. She writes that stochastic terrorism is inspired by online rhetoric that demonizes groups of people, but it’s hard to know which people consuming that rhetoric will actually become terrorists, and which of them will just rage at their computer screens—the result of coercive persuasion that works on some targets and misses others. 

American operatives may never have found the perfect system for brainwashing foreign adversaries or unsuspecting citizens, but the US managed to win the mind-control wars in one small way. Mitchell, the legal scholar at Hong Kong University, told me that the American definition of brainwashing, or xinao, is now the dominant way the word is used in modern Chinese speech. “People refer to aggressive advertising campaigns or earworm pop songs as having a xinao effect,” he said. The Chinese government, Mitchell added, uses the term exactly the way the US military did back in the 1950s. State media, for example, “described many Hong Kong protesters in 2019 as having undergone xinao by the West.”

Annalee Newitz is the author of Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind, coming in June 2024.

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April 12, 2024 at 04:09AM