Monday, July 18, 2011

Book review: World Wide Mind by Michael Chorost

World Wide Mind
The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet
By Michael Chorost

Is it surprising that self-aware beings become increasingly aware of their self-awareness and start pushing the boundaries? The Internet, Google, iPhones and wifi on every street corner have significantly changed the way we interact, share information and solve problems. Meanwhile, neuroscientists have made dramatic progress in deciphering brain activity. They have developed devices that allow to type using thoughts instead of fingers and monkeys with brain implants have learned how to move a robot arm with their thoughts. These are two examples that Michael Chorost discusses in his book, and that he then extrapolates.

Chorost's extrapolation is a combination of these developments in communication and information technology and neuroscience: Direct brain-to-brain communication by thought transmitted via implants rather than by typed words, combined with wireless access to various soft- and hardware to supplement to our cognitive skills.

I agree with Chorost that this "World Wide Mind" is the direction we are drifting, and that the benefits can be huge. It is interesting though if you read the comments to my two earlier posts that many people seemed to be scared rather than excited by the idea, mumbling Borg-Borg-Borg to themselves. Is is refreshing and also curageous then that Michael Chorost in his book addresses the topic from a quite romantic viewpoint.

Chorost describes himself as a short, deaf, popular science writer. He wears a Cochlear implant that allows him to hear by electric stimulation of the auditory system (content of his previous book, which I however didn't read). Chorost started writing "World Wide Mind" single and finished as a married man. He writes about his search for a partner and what he learned along the way about communication and what today's communication on the internet is lacking. The ills produced by our presently incomplete and insatisfactory online culture he believes will be resolved if we overcome the limitations of this exchange. He does not share the pessimism Jaron Lanier put forward in his book "You are not a gadget". (He does however share Lanier's fondness of octupi and a link to this amazing video with the reader.)

In "World Wide Mind" Chorost wants to offer an outlook of what he believes is doable if today's technology is pushed forward hard enough. He focuses mostly on optogenetics, a recently florishing field of study that has allowed to modify some targeted neurons' genetic code such that their activity can be switched on and off by light signals (most famously, this optogenetically controlled mouse running circles in blue light). He also discusses what scientists have learned about the way our brains store and process input. Chorost then suggests that it seems doable to record each person's pattern of neuronal activity for certain impressions, sights, smells, views, words, emotions and so on (which he calls "cliques") and transmit them to be triggered by somebody else's implant in that person's brain where they would cause a less intense signal of the corresponding clique. That would then allow us, so the idea, to share literally everything.

Chorost offers some examples what consequences this would have that seem to me however quite bizarre. Improving on Google's flu tracker, he suggests that the brain implants could "detect the cluster of physical feelings related to flu -- achiness, tiredness, and so on -- and send them directly to the CDC." I'm imagining in the future we can track the spread of yeast infections via shared itchiness, thank you very much. Chorost also speculates that "The greater share of the World Wide Mind's bandwidht might be devoted to sharing dreams" (more likely it would be devoted to downloadable brain-sex), and that "linking the memory [of what happened at some place to the place] could be done very easily, via GPS." I'm not sure I'd ever sleep in a hotel room again.

He barely touches in one sentence on what to me is maybe the most appealing aspect of increased empathy, a bridging of the gap between the rich and the poor, both locally and globally, and his vision for science gives me the creeps for it would almost certainly stiffle originality and innovation due to a naive sharing protocol.

"World Wide Mind" is a very optimistic book. It is a little too optimistic in that Chorost spends hardly any time discussing potential problems. He has a few pages in which he acknowledges the question of viruses and shizophrenia, but every new technology has problems, he writes, and we'll be able to address them. The Borg, he explains, are scary to us because they lack empathy and erase the individual. A World Wide Mind, in contrast, would enhance individuality because better connectivity fosters specialization that eventually improves performance. Rather than turning us into Borg, "brain-to-brain technologies would be profoundly humanizing."

It is quite disappointing Chorost does not at all discuss the cognitive biases we know we have, and what protocols might prevent them from becoming amplified. Nor does he, more trivially, address the point that everybody has something to hide. Imagine you're ignoring a speed limit sign (not that I would ever do such a thing). How do you avoid this spreading through your network, ending up in a fine? Can you at all? And let's not mention that reportedly a significant fraction of the adult population cheats on their partner. Should we better wait for the end of monogamy before we move on with the brain implants? (It may be close than you think.) And, come to think of it, let's better wait for the end of the Catholic Church as well. Trivial as it sounds, these issues will be real obstacles in convincing people to adapt such a technology, so why didn't Chorost spend a measly paragraph on that?

Chorost's book is an easy read. On the downside, it lacks in detail and explanation. His explanation of MRI for example is one paragraph saying it's a big expensive thing with a strong magnet that "can change the orientation of specific molecules in a person's body, letting viewers see various internal structures clearly." And that's it. He also talks about neurotransmitters without ever explaining what that is, and you're unlikely to learn anything about neurons that you didn't already know. Yes, I can go and look up the details. But that's not what I buy a book for.

"World Wide Mind" sends unfortunately very unclear messages that render Chorost's arguments unconvincing. He starts out stressing that the brain's hardware is its software, and so it's quite sloppy he then later, when discussing whether the Internet is or might become self-aware, confuses the Internet with the World Wide Web. According to different analogies that he draws upon, blogs either "could be seen as a collective amygdala, in that they respond emotionally to events" and Google (he means the search protocol, not the company) "can be seen as forming a nascent forebrain" or some pages later it can be seen as an organ of an organism, or a caste of a superorganism.

Chorost also spends a lot of words on some crazy California workshop that he attended where he learned about the power of human touch (in other words, the workshop consisted of a bunch of people stroking each other), but then never actually integrates his newly found insights about the importance of skin-contact with the World Wide Mind. This left me puzzled because the brain-to-brain messaging he envisions is able to transfer one's own neuronal activity only, which means essentially rather than tapping on your friend's shoulder, you'd have to tap your own shoulder and send it to your friend. And Chorost does not make a very convincing case when he claims that we'd be easily able to distinguish somebody else's memory from our own because it would lack in details. He does that after he discussed in length our brains' tendency to "confabulation," the creation of a narrative for events that didn't happen or didn't make sense to protect our sense of causality and meaning, something he seems to have forgotten some chapters after explaining it.

In Summary: the book is very readable, entertaining and it is smoothly written. If you don't know much about the recent developments in neuroscience and optogenetics, it will be very interesting. The explanations are however quite shallow and Chorost's vision is not well worked out. On the pro-side, this gives you something to think about yourself, and the book requires with only 200 pages not a big time investment.

Undecided? You can read the prologue and 1st Chapter of the book here, and Chapter 4 here. Michael Chorost tweets and is on facebook.

29 comments:

Ulla said...

Optogenetics is a technique for controlling the behavior of specific groups of nerve cells in the brain. Genetically engineered viruses carry light-triggered proteins into the brain of the animal; the viruses can be tailored to attach themselves to specific groups of cells.

It tells nothing about modifying the genetic code by light. This should however be possible. Links?

Plato said...

Ulla:It tells nothing about modifying the genetic code by light. This should however be possible. Links?

Just think of the potential.....and then think about what constraints may be applied to the freedoms of providing such links...to show the way in which medium is not providing a plethora of tools to help the mind to get it?:)

Best,

Plato said...

......to show the way in which medium is not providing a plethora of tools to help the mind to get it?:)

What I mean here is to constraint application of technology by Global efforts(France) while Tim Berner'ss Lee vision is much greater then efforts to transform too, commodity, wireless packets of energy?

To integrate text, sound and video is some of the tools with which I can give by example....if our hosts are constraint in an way by these efforts to limit use these tools then the piece we have just read looses some of it's versatility in helping the mind to recognize the full scope of those tools at hand and the help it provides in creating a understanding of what may be perceived by one.

Best,

Uncle Al said...

The physical concept and philosophical scope of "freedom" is one word: Privacy - the right to be left alone. "One World" is "Everbody Goes to College." What would such a college teach, nose picking?

The right to possess chattels secure against search and seizure; to possess thoughts secure against Inquisition; to meaningfully defend self, family, and property against loss, point of sale. The right not to possess chattels required by Official Truth; not to harbor thoughts required by Official Truth. The right for neighbors to voluntarily erect semi-permeable interfaces acceptable to all parties.

The world was a much better place when everybody did not wear blue denim, drink Lite beer, and mistake noise amplitude for signal content. US President Barack Obama, State of the Union 2011: "Win the future!" Uncle Al says, "WTF?"

Smith: as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.
Smith 2: It is purpose that created us,
Smith 3: Purpose that connects us,
Smith 4: Purpose that pulls us,
Smith 5: That guides us,
Smith 6: That drives us,
Smith 7: It is purpose that defines,
Smith 8: Purpose that binds us.
Smith: We're here because of you, Mister Anderson, we're here to take from you what you tried to take from us. Purpose.

A good world is crystalline not amorphous.

Biswajit said...

I liked "Beyond Boundaries" by Miguel Nicolelis. Deals with similar topics.

Bee said...

Hi Biswajit,

I bought both books together, now I'm reading "Beyond Boundaries," but stuck in the 1st chapter for now. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Ulla,

Well, you can modify the genetic code by light: that's why you put on sunscreen and avoid X-rays. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Uncle,

I grant you all the right to be left alone. But I believe a lot of people out there do not want to be left alone and they have the freedom to pursue their dreams as well. Herd instinct will do the rest. In any case, as there's people today who are freaked out by the idea of signing up on facebook (or, once they're signed up don't know what to do with it) so will there always be people who don't know how to interact with others, or don't want to. Best,

B.

Christine said...

Bee,

I do not think that people who do not sympathize with the idea of connecting brains are particularly misanthropes or anti-social. I think this idea of connecting brains foolish. We already connect ourselves through other means and believing that brain connection will improve that communication has no basis. It could just be the other way around. One is just making an utopia here, thinking that such a thing would evolve us as a species, etc. There is no evidence that would be the case. In fact, there is a concrete fact this would bring, as I mentioned previously: to remove the sense of our mind's loneliness *will* remove our sense of humanity. To argue that this is just a religious homocentric position is to misunderstand the human condition. People that feel so troubled to be alone in their minds, with such an urge to make a mind-twitter connection, as if by doing so would improve the human race, who are not comfortable facing their existencial singularity — these are the people who are actually afraid.

We can only evolve from within. There are no a priori guarantees that making brain connections will improve the human condition, in fact it could easily dissipate what we have as essential into multiplicative useless noise.

Some people are quick to think that favouring the collective is always for the best, while this is not necessarily so. E.g., democracy is a tragedy in a society with poor education.

We must value our singularities.

Yes, I want to die with my mind alone in the universe, feeling all for myself the gradeur that it brings. People unsatisfied with their condition may try something else, but I am awed enough with my own.

Best,
Christine

PS. I do value the idea of connecting the brain with a hardware, specially as an aid for those with brain injury.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

Well, there is of course no evidence that brain-connections would advance our species (or at least be fun), but there's no evidence to the contrary either. I believe it is pretty much inevitable we'll try, and if we try, I believe it will catch on. Whether it's something to wish for is another question entirely.

I don't understand why you think that "remov[ing] the sense of our mind's loneliness will remove our sense of humanity." It is of course (as so often) a matter of definition for you could just define "humanity" as "our mind's loneliness" but then your statement would be empty. So I have to ask you what you mean with "humanity." Best,

B.

Plato said...

Imagine, a mind whose extensions through ones fingers as a way in which to express mind and not to forget to mention it's memory?:)

Group mind is changed by applying the right terminology which captures another mind's adherence to societal expression...that best suits it's correspondence too, Facebook as a name as statistically favored by testing "one phrase versus another" as to that persons understanding of some of those factors which are represented in society?

Best,

Ulla said...

"you can modify the genetic code by light: that's why you put on sunscreen and avoid X-rays."

That one was good :D

But it is not modification.

The interesting thing is that a light- or similar signal starts the proteinsynthesis (open up the helix) and invokes on methylation.

Look at http://matpitka.blogspot.com/2011/07/quantum-model-for-remote-replication-of.html

Christine said...

Bee,

It's so strange! Suddenly it's like I'm talking to a completely different "audience"!

As I previously stated, the sum of philosophical work, literature, historical actions, etc — all these are expressions of our humanity one way or another. These would have come out quite differently if not for the singularity of the human existence.

Just because I work in the exact sciences it doesn't mean I do not give credit to philosophy, literature, arts, etc. Is it alien here to address "humanity" as part of these expressions? They may even be flawed, naive, obscure, senseless, but the question is not that these expressions need to be proved in a scientific sense. It's just the way we are! Do people here expect that all that is of human value lies in science exclusively? How strange! Are you so objectively logic in your daily lives, don't you never prove of your own feeling of self and immensity late in the night? Don't you have any idea of what humanity is?

How odd. But never mind. (Uncle Al, would you like to add something concerning what our singularity means??)

Back to the question, of course that there is no evidence now that connecting brains will work or not. However, it is clear that (1) the dangers outweight the benefits. If we have problems today with viruses in the internet, etc, imagine all types of manipulations that could be possible in brain connections (2) chaos and complexities of the human brain may lead to actual limitations implying in inefficiencies in propagation and coordination of information. This effect is well-known in simple systems like clusters of PC's. There is a study of this I believe reported in the last issue of Sci. Am., but I do not have the link here.


Best,

Christine

Bee said...

Ulla: Interesting. I don't see however how it could be useful to read/trigger neuronal activity. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Christine,

I’m sorry yet your central objections to this for me still appears to be rooted in unsubstantiated, self referential and thus self justified fear; rather than based upon hard evidence, able to show it not to be a feasible hypothesises able to have consciousness expanded in its more general conception. My contention being that such connections could very well mandate or perhaps even manifest the creation of a super consciousness, coupled to a super ego and thus the utility of will/desire wouldn’t be diminished, yet most likely vastly increased.

What I would admit to, being consistent with your concerns, is the individuals would no longer direct this will, yet it able to direct them; nor would they as individuals (while not connected) likely be able to comprehend either its reason or purpose. So your argument boils down to asking, when is an organism to be found as being complete, to find a human (as currently recognized) to be considered as being so.

Contrarily, I would argue the ever increasing expansion of complexity, as reflected by evolution to strongly suggest this view to be flawed, as your hypothesis has what an entity being limited in terms of its localness and not by its utility.

So I would ask, does your concern truly rest primarily with having reality understood or does it reside with the fear in perhaps having what you define as being self lost, so as to find with its loss only then might this be accomplished? On the other hand I would ask, what constitutes something to being recognized as a species, to find it not restricted to thought as unable to be something greater than it’s currently conceived, with that including its numbers being one, although its parts to being many.

“For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins; starstuff pondering the stars; organizing assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we sprang.”

-Carl Sagan “Cosmos”

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

An nice review of an interesting book, leaving one with many things to wonder about, not simply in terms of science’s capabilities, yet more so respective of human potential; that is in the more general sense. I for one would be willing to risk a mind meld and yet admittedly that’s perhaps as mainly from recognizing the limitations of my own. It might be also be resultant of being closer than some others to having my own existence end, with then harbouring a hope that such could have some (cognitive) part of me continue to having this too being extended.

The bottom line for me being, if guided by the principles of experiment, coupled to reason, risk is something which is not entirely avoidable if we desire to have expanded what both is known and what is capable of being known. It then could be argued, that reality should not be defined as being limited by chance, yet rather by risk, respective of then having chance to be marginalized relative to potential.

“It is proposed that a form of free dialogue may well be one of the most effective ways of investigating the crisis which faces society, and indeed the whole of human nature and consciousness today. Moreover, it may turn out that such a form of free exchange of ideas and information is of fundamental relevance for transforming culture and freeing it of destructive misinformation, so that creativity can be liberated.”

“What is essential here is the presence of the spirit of dialogue, which is in short, the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of common meaning..”



-David Bohm & F. David Peat, “Science Order, and Creativity”

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

It is not so much risk itself that is the limit than our willingness to take it. That willingness greatly depends on our understanding of the facts and with it our ability to reduce risk. That having been said, what do you think are the biggest risks in this case? Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Actually what I meant is it relates to our willingness to take risk and thus me finding as to what being our greatest risk is having ourselves unwilling to accept them as necessary to be taken. Thus this has risk found more relevant to what reality is rather than chance.

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Moreover, I find both Bohm’s and Sagan’s words more in the contest of being a challenge, rather than a warning. That is the willingness to take risks begins with accepting a (reasonable) challenge. That's to say boldness should never be confused with unreasonable bravery; and same could be said with having fear confused with unreasonable caution.

Best,

Phil

Christine said...

Phil,

There is nothing to argue about, all I state is of course my OPINION as any one else's, since the fact is — at this point no one knows the outcome of brain connections. I only state my opinion that this whole idea is foolish and that it could take out what is best in us.

Now if you are so enthusiastic, all I can advice to you, for what is worth, is to be one of the first to try the technology on yourself, if/when it becomes available. Good luck! I'm out.

Best,

Christine

Plato said...

Weizenbaum (and probably Carr) would have been one of those smart, well-meaning elder figures in ancient times preaching against the coming horrors of printing and books. They would highlight the loss or orality, and the way these new-fangled auxiliary technologies demean humanity. We have our own memories, people: use them! They would have been in good company, since even Plato lamented the same.

There may indeed be reasons to worry about AI, but the fact that AI and computers tend to be pervasive, indispensable, foundational, self-reinforcing, and irreversible are not reasons alone to worry. Rather, if the past history of printing and writing is any indication, they are reasons to celebrate. With the advent of ubiquitous computation we are about to undergo another overhaul of our identity.
The Machine That Made Us by Kevin Kelly

Plato said...

What is the compelling urgency of the machine that it can so intrude itself into the very stuff out of which man builds his world?JOSEPH WEIZENBAUM 1923 – 2008

In Michael Chorost case, it allowed him to expand his thinking by providing a "sensual connection" that did not exist before. It was for him to find commonality with another soul who demonstrated similar expressions, was to see that this elevated his thinking from the local situation to a much more pervading one.

He then fell in love then?:)

Best,

Jennifer Nielsen said...

Interesting post. The whole mind/machine interfacing trend is a bit creepy, but it's going to revolutionize life for paraplegics and other handicapped people, I think.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Christine,

My hope is what I attempted to communicate was not to be taken as an argument, or even an ordinary discussion, yet rather as my contribution to a true dialogue, as Bohm would have found one to be. That is to say as I did before, I have always respected your thoughts on things and I think to simply relate them to being opinions downgrades their importance. That is I would be the first to admit that such exploration presents risk and yet I think they can be minimized to the point deciding not to take them being the biggest risk of all.

So I guess where we differ is you find our singularity of mind/will to be our greatest asset as a species, where I find it’s our individual boldness coupled to shared purpose of mind which has us able to take risks; as finding them not only being reasonable, yet rather often when taken have us to understand more.

As for you opting out of mind melding, if it ever became feasibly possible, I find your decision disappointing and for two reasons. Firstly as what would be missed for all as what’s available to be found in that ultimate expansion of dialogue and second as what you might miss in not participating. So if it was ever to be possible, I on the contrary would like to find your thoughts among that chorus of others, to see what together what that entity referred to as we might have discovered; and please don’t understand this to be anything other than my most sincere projection of my thoughts and feelings.

Best,

Phil

Christine said...

Phil,

I understand your point.

But my thoughts, really, are not worth for adding anything to the collective "mind meld". And if I would miss something from it, well, I'd already be too old (even if still alive) to follow its "contents". So at the end I keep my position to stay out one way or another.

Best,

Christine