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.