Object 47

Miriam Xu’s Lace

2034, Hong Kong, China

Even genius has its limits. Einstein might have gone unremarked in the turmoil of the Reformation; Da Vinci would have been an anonymous cave painter a few thousand years earlier; and Song would have toiled in Foxconn only a century ago. Miriam Xu, the composer and former conductor of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, is well aware of the contingency of history. "But for me, it's not a question of whether I would have been a dataminer or a teacher a generation ago. It's whether I would have reached my first birthday."

Shortly after she was born in 2034, Xu suffered a severe ventral pontine stroke following an accidental house fire. The stroke caused 'total locked-in syndrome', leaving her unable to control any voluntary muscles in her body, including her eyes.

The severity of her condition led to Xu being selected for an experimental suite of treatments in Hong Kong that included neuromuscular electrical patches, neural stem cell therapy — and a then-cutting-edge neural lace, as seen on this brain scan from around her third birthday. The lace was a crude but effective version of the ones we still use today, and, like our own, it read Xu's brain activity and gave her basic control over her muscles.

During those years of constant treatment, Xu developed an affinity for music.

"When I was still a baby in hospital and they'd only just started the treatments, my mother would play me music all the time," Xu tells me. "The doctors said that because I couldn't focus my eyes properly, the best way to reach me was through my ears. She used to play the violin at school and I think she always wished she could have kept studying, so she played me recordings of all of the classics as a baby."

Before she received her neuromuscular patches, the researchers tested Xu’s neural lace by measuring her electrical brain activity in response to auditory stimuli. At only three years old, Xu performed extremely well, showing an excellent ability to distinguish between different sounds and composers, and even different performers of the same music.

After hearing about Xu, a research student from the Royal College of Music developed software that allowed her to compose music based on her brain activity. Xu's first works were highly derivative at first but quickly grew in complexity, and as her childhood moved on and she regained direct control of her body, Xu continued to compose using her neural lace; having grown up with it, she simply found her lace faster and more natural than any other interface.

As a result, her compositions often lacked any consideration for the practical or logistical issues involved in, say, assembling 200 violinists and positioning them in a toroidal shape around the audience.

"I never even imagined that humans would actually play anything I composed. I'd always thought that music was something that a computer produced, not something that was made by people playing on physical instruments. But I did read what the critics said, and as soon as I could, I got my hands on a piano and a violin and tried to understand how they worked," said Xu.

Organ re-engineering and extensive stem cell therapies progressively restored Xu to full health during her adolescence, which allowed her to learn to physically play musical instruments. However, Xu eventually opted to focus on composition and conducting rather than performance. Her efforts led her to a number of conducting positions around the world, and finally to the Taipei Symphony, where she stayed for 11 years. Looking back, it's extraordinary to consider the volume of work she produced, especially coming from a singleton — someone not part of a chorus or amplified team.

Later in life, Xu's use of her neural lace from infancy, and the non-stop recording of her thoughts that entailed, gave her an important role in the free speech and privacy disputes of the early 50s. Cases in the European Union, African Union, and the United States sought to delineate the legitimate third-party uses of private recorded thoughts; could they be used as grounds for dismissal? Was it legal to intercept thoughts for national security or policing issues? For her part, Xu forcefully spoke in favour of citizens' rights to their own thoughts and opposed the notion that thoughts should be treated in the same way as actions. Her efforts earned her allies and enemies alike.

"After Bangalore, people were so scared. They thought mindreading would stop future attacks. It was desperate. I know better than anyone else that mindreading doesn't work like that, and even if it did, it would come at the cost of our liberty. A generation ago they wanted to use microgestures for the same thing, and that didn’t work either. The truth is that there will always be people who are afraid, and there will always be people who want to exploit that fear for their own ends."

Xu’s other passion was ensuring that other children would have the same access to the kinds of critical treatments that she had. "I was lucky, with my smart parents and living in a rich city. I feel bad for people who are just on basic minimum income because these neural laces and patches aren't cheap. We need to do everything we can to make these treatments available to as many people as possible."

Partly thanks to Xu's advocacy, her story is unlikely to be repeated. Improved amniocentesis, TNI scanning, phylogeny extrapolation, gene therapy, exowombs —  these all mean that locked-in syndromes can be cured. Not everyone can be a genius like Xu, but our technology gives us all more chances than ever before.