The Mech Touch Chapter 1350


1348 Justified Innovation


Ves and Old Man Terrence made themselves comfortable in their seats.

While Terrence leaned over his desk, Ves continued to pet Lucky in a leisurely manner.

The owner of the office pressed a button on his desk which caused a signal jammer to engage. Once the jamming field came into force, the old man began to speak."

"Let me start with something basic. Do you know why neural interfaces never became popular until the advent of mechs?"

This was an easy question to Ves. "That's because the early incarnations of neural interfaces were very crude. Because they are so intricately tied to the human minds that connect to them, permanent brain damage occurred very frequently. This depressed any further research into these devices."

"Right. While neural interfacing technology has made substantial leaps since then because of their widespread use in mechs up to today, the same problems that plagued the early models still exist to this day."

Ves frowned at that. "Are you suggesting that modern neural interfaces are dangerous?"

"Don't believe in the MTA!" The man released a feeble cackle. "They have done their best to paint their 'standard' neural interface models as the safest and least problematic devices in use today. That much is true, I admit, but the bar they set is not as high as you think. Each time a mech pilot interfaces with a mech, there is a non-zero chance that they will suffer adverse effects, which may or may not lead to permanent damage to the mech pilot's brain structure."

This was a very alarming revelation! Ves had no idea that something like this took place behind everyone's backs!

"Then.. if this problem exists, why isn't there a big stink about it? Shouldn't the MTA be more responsible?"

Old Man Terrence looked at Ves like he was an idiot. "And scare everyone away from piloting mechs? Do you really think the MTA is so responsible as to do that?"

Right.

"I see." Ves subsided. "If the problem is as severe as you suggest, then what is being done to protect mech pilots against the mechs they pilot?"

"I never said the problem was severe." Terrence knocked his fist against the surface of his desk. "The issue is more complex than that. What actually takes place is that the brains of mech pilots begin to adjust to the enduring neural interfacing sessions they experience. This is a known phenomenon. What the MTA and neural interface specialists like I don't mention is that sometimes the adjustments miss the mark."

"So.. it's a side effect of the normal long-term adjustment process?"

"You can describe it as such. These 'side effects' aren't necessarily a big deal either. Human brains are very fragile but also very resilient in a way. Veteran mech pilots no doubt accumulated a collection of miniscule scars or bumps in their brain structure. In most cases, that hasn't led to a deterioration in their cognitive functions. The changes happen so gradually that their brains can easily implement adaptations to retain most of their functionality."


"Then why mention this issue if it's just a side effect?"

"Because there are several instances where the 'side effects' can become serious." Terrence replied seriously. "The most prevalent instance is when a mech incurs heavily damage. Neural interfaces are some of the most protected components of the cockpit of a mech, but if by some chance they are damaged, then the man-machine connection can quickly turn from something benign into something dangerous."

"My grandfather used to be an expert pilot. He was forced to retire because of brain damage."

"Exactly! Now, if you have spent some time with your grandfather, did you notice that he is incapable of functioning normally?"

Compared to all of the crazy people Ves had met, his grandfather Benjamin was a beacon of normality!

"No."

"Then you see why the MTA doesn't feel the need to disclose this uncomfortable truth to the galaxy." Terrence sighed. "Interfacing changes brains. This is the fundamental reality the mech community has to work with. Categorizing the changes in brain structure is a controversial topic in itself. What is considered a benign adjustment and what is considered a malignant development? Sometimes, the changes can be both."

"How can they be both?"

"By providing a benefit that comes at a cost! Let me tell you something. If mech pilots are able to interface five percent more effectively in exchange for giving up five years of their cognitive lifespan, will they be willing to make this trade?"

That was a very difficult question! Ves paused his petting of Lucky, which caused the cat to let out a disgruntled meow.

"I think… some mech pilots harbor a lot of ambitions. Those who want to advance to expert pilot or those who want to do their utmost to defend their state will gladly pay this price. But not every mech pilot will want to make this trade. Those who see mech piloting as an easy job to earn a lot of money will just want to do their time before they retire with a comfortable amount of savings and a generous pension."

The Chukan mech designer smirked. "What if I tell you that mech pilots don't get to make that choice? What if the MTA has already decided on their behalf?"

"You mean.. The standard neural interface models.."

"As I said, the MTA may paint them as safe, but the truth is completely different! Even I can design a neural interface that is half as likely to result in adverse changes to a mech pilot's brains! Yet will anyone pilot a mech with my neural interface? No! Because its performance parameters are inferior compared to the more dangerous models!"

This was a lot to take in for Ves!

"So if I'm understanding it correctly, the MTA hasn't chosen the safest option because they want to squeeze more performance out of mech pilots?"

"Right, Mr. Larkinson. To their credit, they picked a reasonably safe threshold. They could have gone for much worse but they don't want to ruin too many mech pilots."

"Why exactly are the more dangerous neural interfaces more rewarding?"

"Because they allow for greater connections." The old man replied. "You can see it as a consideration of risk. If the connection is deeper, the mech pilot is more immersed with the mech. The higher degree of immersion means that their exposure is subsequently greater. If some sort of catastrophic incident occurs, a mech pilot with a shallow connection will be able to pull out the connections a lot faster and easier than one who is practically submerged in the systems of their own mechs!"

A lot of factors went into determining how deep a mech pilot could connect with their mechs. Some of it depended on the mech design, some of it depended on the neural interface model and configuration and the rest was up to the mech pilot themselves.

Ves knew that mech pilots could draw back or further engage their connection with their own mechs on their own volition.

However, from his Mastery experiences, he knew that mech pilots frequently got caught up in all of the excitement. They instinctively wanted to achieve greater performance, so their connection to their mechs unknowingly deepened, sometimes to a degree that they had never reached before!

"What kind of damage does a deep connection do?" Ves frowned. "I don't quite understand what risks the mech pilots incur. You mentioned something about decreased lifespan, but is that the only negative consequence?"

Old Man Terrence closed his eyes for a moment. "The damage can come in many forms. As you've already surmised, a decreased lifespan is just one of the consequences. This is also one of the hidden reasons why life-prolonging treatment is much more difficult to arrange for mech pilots. The standard treatments are only partially effective on the most critical organs of their bodies, their scarred and altered brains. The more they pilot, the greater the degree of abnormalities that hinder the treatment from taking effect."

This was another huge revelation! Visiting Old Man Terrence had already been worth it as far as Ves was concerned!

"So that is why life-prolonging treatments for mech pilots is so difficult to arrange."

"Do you think the MTA shows so much favoritism to expert pilots because they are fans of them?" Terrence Reedan scoffed. "Do you think one of the Big Two treat them with kid gloves because they are special snowflakes? It's because their numbers would heavily diminish if they haven't implemented all of these favorable policies! With how difficult it is to tailor life-prolonging treatments to take effect on a heavily-altered brain structure, expert pilots are some of the most unfortunate people in the mech community. They bloom so brilliantly, yet they last so short."

Unlike talented mech designers, who could generally get access to life-prolonging treatments without too much hassle.

In this, the difference between Ves and Old Man Terrence became very stark. Ves had a full life ahead of him. He had more than enough time to innovate and progress his design philosophy.

In fact, Ves believed that the first round of life-prolonging treatment was already redundant for him due to all of the gene optimisation treatments he received beforehand!

As for Old Man Terrence, the man was a storied Journeyman, but despite his lengthy career, he was unable to make the critical breakthrough.

Yet despite his sad situation, he showed no pity towards himself. Instead, he pitied expert pilots!

That was true dedication to mech pilots, Ves realized. Old Man Terrence respected mech pilots to a much greater degree than himself!

"Aside from diminishing the lifespan of pilots and making it harder for them to enjoy life-prolonging treatment, there are other debilitating effects as well." The old man continued. "When mech pilots begin to deepen their connections to mechs and embody their mechs, they will feel the damage the mech suffers on a deeper level."

"It would be as if their own bodies suffered those wounds?"

"Exactly. While there are medicines and treatments to suppress these side effects, the human body and mind are simply too complex. Solutions designed to be as compatible as possible will never be able to take effect to every mech pilot that suffers from lingering trauma. There is always a proportion of mech pilots that fall through the net."

"I see."

That explained why some of the retired Larkinson mech pilots at the Larkinson Estate didn't appear to be in good shape.

"Aside from the physiological changes, the psyche of the mech pilot is also affected." Terrence shook his head. "This is a very advanced and controversial topic. I'm not allowed to say much about it other than that there are at least two sides of this discussion. One side advocates that changes to a mech pilot's psyche is beneficial while the other side considers it to be contamination."

This caused Ves to sit more upright in his chair. The effect of a mech on a mech pilot's psyche was something that was highly relevant to his own specialization!

"Does this mean that the personality of a mech pilot can shift depending on the type of mech he pilots?"

"It's a difficult topic, Mr. Larkinson. For example, it is known that mechs designed to fulfill a specific purpose such as knight mechs will naturally make mech pilots more inclined to become protective and resilient. Now, think about the cause of this gradual shift in personality. Is it because the mech pilot is simply focused on performing defensive tasks with their mechs all the time? Or is it because the mech has already been designed with defensive inclinations that the machine somehow contaminated them to the mech pilot through a more esoteric process?"

The possibilities stumped Ves. He didn't know which one was true!

"Confused, Mr. Larkinson? Then you're not alone! Every specialist in neural interface technology is confused as well! We don't know the answer! So much research has been done in this topic but the experiments have continued to deliver contradictory evidence! Even the fancy, extravagantly-funded research institutions based in the galactic center don't know any better!"

Each time Old Man Terrence opened his mouth, Ves continued to be astounded by the complexities regarding neural interface technology. He had no idea that so many problems, devious dilemmas and unresolved mysteries surrounded this field!

No wonder the MTA encouraged such a stigma around it! Anyone who delved into this field lightly could unleash a slew of tragedies if they used their knowledge wrongly!

"I never knew that neural interfaces are associated with so many issues." He whispered. "I always learned during my mech design classes that neural interfaces have matured and that they've been made as safe as possible."

Terrence let out an ugly cackle. "That's what the MTA wants everyone to think. Mech designers like us who possess actual expertise have developed a saying amongst ourselves."

"What is this saying?"

"Neural interface technology is the devil's technology!"