Cognitive Prosthetics and the Augmented Mind

Trying to extend our cognitive abilities is familiar human pursuit. We build tools, systems, and processes all with the goal of allowing us to think better and faster, to process information more effectively. The alphabet is one such tool and visible language is perhaps the preeminent example of how a capacity can augment and also reshape the mind.

As we move into new types of cognitive enhancements, we are also entering a new frontier of human history:

“Humanity’s ability to alter its own brain function might well shape history as powerfully as the development of metallurgy in the Iron Age, mechanization in the Industrial Revolution or genetics in the second half of the twentieth century.” (Farah et al. “Neurocognitive Enhancement: What Can We Do and What Should We Do?”, 2004)

Michael Chorost thinks of himself as a sort of cyborg. Not quite the way Steve Mann (Cyborg, 2001) or Kevin Warwick (I, Cyborg, 2002) does, but Chorost’s cochlear implant to improve his hearing made him one in a minor sort of way. And that lead him to think much more about the interconnection of humans and technology.

World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet (2011) is an exploration of human evolution. It has obvious links to Ray Kurzweil’s work on the singularity (The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, 2005). Chorost begins by making an analogy with the structure of the brain:

“Without a corpus callosum, the right and left halves of the brain would feel like, and be, separate entities. For any kind of unified consciousness to emerge from disparate parts, it needs fast and massively parallel communication. This is exactly what humans and the Internet lack. We are Paleolithics poking away at Pentiums.

But what if we built an electronic corpus callosum to bind us together?”

By linking the Internet to our brain “it would become seamlessly part of us, as natural and simple to use as our own hands,” and the result according to Chorost is a “new species in its own right.” Not only would we be directly and continuously connected to the Internet, this would also directly and continuously connect us to each other. A collective consciousness of global proportions; mind to mind communication.

Most importantly, and perhaps most reassuringly for many of us, Chorost emphasizes that this is not a cold, machine environment of hyper-logic or cyborg AI. He talks about this experience as “collective enchantment” and says “it would be like being part of a dance, sometimes, consciously, sometimes not.” While machine mediated it would feel natural, fluid, and human.

The dance is enabled not just because we share a communications link (brain to Internet to brain) but because we also share memories and emotions (at an interior level). Emphasizing the experience as a kind of “telempathy,” Chorost echoes, but deepens, the concept of “techlepathy” that Warwick describes as a technology enabled telepathy.

Chorost notes that “a brain implant that could know what you were seeing could also know what you were remembering. It would have access to what you think of as interior conscious states.” In 2002 Kevin Warrick did just this albeit in a very rudimentary fashion (I, Cyborg, 2002). By directly connecting his nervous system to the Internet (via a micro electrode array consisting of 100 individual electrodes implanted in the median nerve of the left wrist) and by having his wife Irena do something similar they achieved “the first direct nervous system to nervous system communication.” While what was communicated was both tentative, strange, and hardly sophisticated, it demonstrated the possibility of such an interaction and the intimate nature of such communication.

As we learn more about the mechanisms of memory and how to engage it (Chorost discusses optogenetics; the ability to target individual neurons and have them fire at will) we will have the capability to read, trigger, and inhibit neural activity (i.e. individual memories), measure the neurochemicals affecting this, interpret this data to find meaning and connections, and transmit it (wirelessly over the Internet) to others. These are the synthetic memories of Total Recall and many other sci-fi movies and novels.

Beyond the advanced technology and the leading edge neurology, what impresses most about Chorost is his firm belief in the humanity of the “world wide mind.” Martha Graham said that “dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery” and Chorost seems to believe this too. The post-literate world as a state of dance is a powerful metaphor that integrates the physical and the intellectual but also the emotional. It is an encompassing vision that both expresses individuality yet integrates the individual in the collective experience. The dancer and the dance become one.

LinkLink: Dance Your PhD

A Comment from Farah Chung, D. Fisher, Andrea Grassi, Sarah R.:
Dance and Post-Literacy

Derrick de Kerckhove, the Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology from 1983 to 2008 at the University of Toronto, has explored the nature and impact of this in The Augmented Mind (2010). The subtitle of the book, “The Stupid Ones are Those Who Do Not Use Google”, takes a swipe at Nicholas Carr (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, 2008). For de Kerckhove,

“the ‘augmented mind’ is the mind such as we know it (or think we know it) inside our heads, but externalized, shared, multiplied, accelerated, randomly accessed and generally processed connectively outside our heads … It is the augmentation and acceleration of the user’s mind, surely, but also the spontaneous formation of an aggregation of minds, performing different collaborative functions to achieve a myriad of individual or group aims and initiatives. So the ‘augmented mind’, although it is one (unified by electricity and digitalization), is far from being a collective mind, it is only connective.”

The “connective” nature is important. The technology enabled environment of the augmented mind is one in which “interactivity is a condition, not an option.” While technologically enabled, it is a more holistic form of interaction. By augmenting our capacity and connecting ourselves together in such ways, we create an awareness and an intimate exchange that would allow us to understand differently and to express ideas in a new manner.


9 Responses to “Cognitive Prosthetics and the Augmented Mind”

  1. Jeff Penfold November 21, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    I too like to refer to myself as a cyborg as I have an artificial part integrated into the biological. Even though my small modification is not what most people would think of as cyborg, I wonder if it is a first step. As non-biological parts become more integrated into bodies and it becomes more common fro people to have them, will it in turn become more acceptable to think in terms of augmentation which then leads us to more integration of parts. Are we going to reach a point in the near future where it will be more common to have some sort of augmentation than not? Even if these augmentations are minor does it create a social environment where further augmentations are seen as acceptable? Or desirable? Or necessary to compete?

  2. Amber Fundytus November 25, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    Throughout the Beyond Literacy project I have been fairly convinced that for a post-literate world to be truly and widely accepted/adapted to, society will have to achieve some sort of “post-human” status. With that said, I am still not entirely sure what being “post-human” would entail — and I think this chapter just confused things further for me. For instance in Chapter 9 [] there are separate descriptions for Cognitive Prosthetics and for Post/Trans-Humans, suggesting that they are somehow distinct from each other, and yet after reading this chapter I am starting to wonder if they are actually more linked than I had previously thought.

    Is a shift to a cyborg existence also a shift to a post or trans-human? I want to answer yes but I am still not convinced. I suppose I am hoping for something more drastic than “minor cognitive or biological enhancements” to define post-humanism…

  3. Sarah November 28, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

    Here we’re talking about humans taking on machine qualities: becoming cyborgs.
    I wonder about machines taking on human qualities: becoming cyborgs.
    How much intelligence does a machine need to become a person? And how would we deal with it when it happens?Would a machine born cyborg be the same kind of thing as I am when I – as Jeff says – use my cellphone to extend my cognition?

    (Is my cellphone the cyborg – using me to extend its humanity?)

  4. Patrick MacInnis November 29, 2012 at 9:51 am #

    That’s a very interesting idea Sarah… brings to bear the concept of symbiosis at the core of cyborg nature. I think it would be a question of asking what features of humanity would be an augmentation for machines

    • Camille December 2, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

      I believe that what defines humans most is our capacity to have emotions and feelings. I wonder if machines would consider this to be detrimental to progress. How helpful is it when love/hate/empathy/guilt/jealousy gets in the way? Perhaps they would choose (I assume that by this point they would no longer be under the rule of their maker i.e., humans) to stay as machines – perhaps machines wouldn’t want to be human at all and it’s only our ego that thinks they would! In a post-literate world we could still be very divided.

  5. Laurie November 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    Patrick, the day that I am laughing at an old Johnny Carson bit on YouTube, or a Professional Cat meme, and my laptop joins in is the day that I will embrace the Singularity!

  6. Patrick MacInnis November 30, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

    Google is trying to figure out how to search for the things you want that you wouldn’t have thought to ask. I think if they manage to crack that one then a laptop that appreciates my taste in comedy will be child’s play

  7. Caitlin M December 5, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    Interesting! If a laptop “appreciates” your taste in comedy because it is programmed to, does that mean that it has a sense of humor?

    I think that there is a question of free will here. It seems to me that a central assumption about being human is that we are somehow self aware and self directed.

    My initial feeling is that if a computer laughs because it has been programmed to laugh then it doesn’t really have a sense of humor…But this response comes from the assumption that I am different because I have free will. Perhaps I do not. If we are “meat machines” that are “programmed” by nothing more than a deterministic combination of our own genetics and past experiences. If this is the case then maybe we’re not so different from computers right now!

  8. Nate P September 2, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

    This is very interesting. It makes sense that technology, and thus, literature would follow a more streamlined and “hands-free” paradigm. That being said, the thought of thinking to a computer is a scary proposition. I feel we need to approach this technology with an open and cautious mind.

Leave a Reply