Brain Upload

Once Johnny has installed his motion detector on the door, the brain upload can begin.

3. Building it

Johnny starts by opening his briefcase and removing various components, which he connects together into the complete upload system. Some of the parts are disguised, and the whole sequence is similar to an assassin in a thriller film assembling a gun out of harmless looking pieces.


It looks strange today to see a computer system with so many external devices connected by cables. We’ve become accustomed to one piece computing devices with integrated functionality, and keyboards, mice, cameras, printers, and headphones that connect wirelessly.

Cables and other connections are not always considered as interfaces, but “all parts of a thing which enable its use” is the definition according to Chris. In the early to mid 1990s most computer user were well aware of the potential for confusion and frustration in such interfaces. A personal computer could have connections to monitor, keyboard, mouse, modem, CD drive, and joystick – and every single device would use a different type of cable. USB, while not perfect, is one of the greatest ever improvements in user interfaces.

Why not go wireless? Wireless devices remove the need for a physical connection, but this means that anyone, not just you, could potentially connect. So instead of worrying about whether we have the right kind of cable, we now worry about the right kind of Bluetooth pairing and WiFi encryption password scheme. Mobile wireless devices also need their own batteries, which have to be charged. So wireless may seem visually cleaner, but comes with its own set of problems.

As of early 2016 we have two new standards, Lightning and USB-C, that are orientation-independent (only fifty years after audio cables), high bandwidth, and able to transmit power to peripherals as well. Perhaps by 2021 cables will have made a comeback as the usual way to connect devices.

2. Explaining it

Johnny explains the process to the scientists. He needs them to begin the upload by pushing a button, helpfully labelled “start”, on the gadget that resembles an optical disk drive. There’s a big red button as well, which is not explained but would make an excellent “cancel” button.


It would be simpler if Johnny just did this himself. But we will shortly discover that the upload process is apparently very painful. If Johnny had his hands near the system, he might involuntarily push another button or disturb a cable. So for them, having a single, easily differentiated button to press minimizes their chance of messing it up.

1. Making codes

He also sticks a small black disk on the hotel room’s silver remote control. The small disk is evidently is a wireless controller or camera of some kind. The scientists must watch the upload progress counter, and as it approaches the end, use this modified remote to grab three frames from the TV display, which will become the “access code” for the data. (More on this below.)


None of the buttons on this remote have markings or labels, but neither Johnny nor the scientist who will be using it are bothered. Perhaps this hotel chain tries to please every possible guest by not favouring any particular language? But even in that case, I’d expect there to be some kind of symbols on the buttons and a multilingual manual to explain the meaning of each. Maybe Johnny spends so much time in hotel suites that he has memorised the button layout?

Short of a mind reading remote that can translate any button press into “what the user intended”, I have to admit this is a terrible interface.

(There is a label on the black disk, but I have no idea what it means or even which script that is. Anyone?)

0. Go go go

Johnny plugs in his implant, puts on a headset with more cables, and bites down on a mouthguard. He’s ready.


The scientist pushes the start button and the upload begins. Johnny sees the data stream in his headset as a flood of graphics and text.


Why does he need the headset when there is a direct cable connection to the implant? The movie doesn’t make it explicit. It could be related to the images used as the access code. (More on this below.) Perhaps the images need to be processed by the recipient’s own optic nerve system for more reliable storage?

Still, in the spirit of apologetics we should try to find a better explanation than “an opportunity for 1995 cutting edge computer generated graphics.” Perhaps it is a very flashy progress indicator? Older computer systems had blinking lights on disk drives to indicate activity, copied on some of today’s USB sticks. Current-day file upload or download GUIs have progress bars. As processing and graphics capabilities increase, it will be possible for software to display thumbnails or previews of the actual data being transferred without slowing down.

Unfortunately there is an argument against this, which is that the obvious upload progress indicator is a numeric display counting gigabytes down to zero, and it makes a fast chirping sound as a sonic indicator as well. The counter shows the data flowing at gigabytes per second, the entire upload lasting about a minute. There’s also the problem that it’s not Johnny who is interested in knowing whether the upload is scientific data rather than, say, a video collection; but the scientists, and they can’t see it.


As the counter drops below one hundred, the scientist points the remote with black disk at the TV display, currently showing a cartoon, and presses the middle button. The image from the TV appears overlaid on the data stream to Johnny. This is a little odd, because Johnny assured the scientists that he wouldn’t know what the access codes were himself. Maybe these brief flashes are not enough time for him to remember these particular images among the gigabytes of visual content. But the way they’re shown to us, I’ll bet you can remember them when they come up again later in the plot.


Two more images are grabbed before the counter stops. When the upload finishes, the three images are printed out. (In the original film this is shown upside down, so I have rotated the image.)



So what are the images for? The script isn’t clear. I suggest that the images are being used as the equivalents of very large random numbers for whatever cryptography scheme protects the data against unauthorised access. Some current day systems use the timing of key presses and mouse movements as a source of randomness because humans simply can’t move their fingers with microsecond precision. Here, the human element makes it impossible to predict exactly which frame is chosen.

Humans also find images much easier to recognise than hundred digit numbers. Anyone who has seen the printout will be able to say whether a particular image is part of the access code or not with a high degree of confidence. In computer systems today, Secure Shell, or ssh, is a widely used encrypted terminal program for secure access to servers. Recent versions of ssh have a ‘randomart’ capability which shows a small ASCII icon generated from the current cryptographic key to everyone who logs on. If this ASCII icon appears different, this alerts everyone that the server key has been changed.

There’s one potential usability problem with the whole “pick three random images” mechanism. The last frame was grabbed when the counter was very close to zero. What would have happened if he had been too slow and missed altogether? Wouldn’t it be more reliable to have the upload system automatically grab the images rather than rely on a human? Chris suggests that maybe it secretly did grab three images that could have used without human input, but privileged the human input since it was more reliably random.

Quick aside: You may be asking, if images would be so wonderful, why aren’t we using them in this way already? It’s because our current security systems need not just very large random numbers, but very large random numbers with particular mathematical properties such as being prime. But let’s cut Johnny Mnemonic some slack,  saying that by 2021 we may have new algorithms.

OK, back to the plot.

-1. Sharing the codes

The access codes are to be faxed from Beijing to Newark, although this gets interrupted by the Yakuza intruders. This is yet another device with unmarked buttons.


This device makes the same beeps and screeches as a 1990s analog fax machine. Since we’ll later learn that all the fax messages and phone calls are stored digitally in cyberspace, this must be a skeuomorphism, the old familiar audio tones now serving just as progress indicators.

As with other audio output, the tones allow the user to know that the transmission is proceeding and when it ends without having to pay full attention to the device. On the other hand, there is potential for confusion here as the digital upload is (presumably) much faster. Most current day computer systems could upload three photos, even in high resolution, well before the sequence of tones would complete. Users would most likely wait longer than actually necessary before moving on to their next task.

-2. Washing up

During the upload Johnny clenches his fists and bites his mouthguard. When the upload finishes, he retreats to the bathroom in considerable pain. At one point blood flows from his nose, and he swipes his hand over the tap to wash it down the drain. The bathroom announces that the water temperature is 17 degrees. We’ll come back to this later.


As Make It So emphasises in the chapter on brain interfaces, there is nothing in our current knowledge to suggest that writing or reading memories to or from a human brain would be painful. On the other hand, we know that information in the brain is the shape of the neurons in the brain. Who knows what side effects will happen as those neurons are disconnected and reconnected as they need to be? We don’t know, so can’t really say whether it would hurt or not.

-3. Escaping the Yakuza

As mentioned in a prior post, while he is in the bathroom, the motion detector Johnny installed on the hotel door isn’t very effective and the Yakuza break in, kill everyone else, and acquire the second of the three access code images. Johnny escapes with the first image and flies to Newark, North America.


5 thoughts on “Brain Upload

  1. Thanks for that. “Frame hold” is/was sometimes used to describe grabbing an image from video, so this interface might actually make sense.

  2. From the short story, the images are a crypto key to unlock the data on the other end. The courier isn’t supposed to know them, nor can they see the data, so the sender knows it’s secure. That wasn’t made real clear in the movie.

  3. My memory is that the short story used a pass phrase, not images, but I don’t have my copy handy. While the images were not all that well explained in this scene, the film does keep hammering us with how important they are.

  4. Pingback: Talking Technology | Sci-fi interfaces

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