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.


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