World Wide Mind

Books / by Michael Chorost /

For an author with cochlear implants, the merger of computer and brain, bytes and thoughts, has never felt far-fetched. In a brilliant new book, Michael Chorost makes his case: by making the internet a new nervous system for humanity, humans will also re-connect with one another in a profoundly new way.

Even though I have 280,000 transistors in my skull, more than in the CPU of my computer when I started grad school, they can’t reproduce the functioning of a normal ear in all its subtlety and range. In fact, they stimulate the auditory nerves in a way that is quite different than in a normal ear. Because of that, I had to learn how to hear all over again. Voices sounded like gibberish at first. It took me months to learn how to interpret the software’s representation of vowels and consonants as English.

But I learned, and now I use radios and telephones easily again. My two implants make me irreversibly computational, a living example of the integration of humans and computers. So for me the thought of implanting something like a BlackBerry in my head is not so strange. It would not be so strange for a lot of people, I think. According to the New York Times, in 2009 the average teenage user sent or received 2,272 text messages per month. Assuming a sixteen-hour waking day, that’s 76 messages per day, five per hour. And that’s just an average. The article mentioned a girl who had sent or received 14,528 texts in a month, or 475 messages per day. If one hypothesizes that a relatively active user sends 4,000 texts per month, that’s 133 texts per day, or 8 per hour. Numbers
like that suggests a seamless, continuous flow of messages woven throughout the day. Teenagers will text on their devices inside knapsacks during class, during restaurant meals, even while driving. That’s dangerous and sometimes fatal, but the allure is so strong they cannot resist. And, of course, many adults behave the same way. This intense connectivity reveals a longing for fast, dense communication—one that current bodies and devices can only partly fulfill.

But few people, including me, would actually go to such measures simply to be able to text more efficiently. An implanted device would have to do much more than a BlackBerry. It would have to let people be effortlessly aware of what their friends and colleagues are doing. It would have to let them know what their friends are seeing and feeling, thus enabling much richer forms of communication. And people should be able to walk down the street savoring the richness of the world while also being aware, in the background of their minds, of the ceaseless hum of their friends’ ideas and experiences.

Such a human-machine integration is far beyond current technology, of course. But technology advances by integrating. That is, when one system improves, it spurs improvement in other systems so they can keep up. When those systems improve, they in turn spur the first system to improve. The systems become increasingly dependent on each other. Their futures become mutually bound.

Take, for example, desktop computers and the software that runs them. Better computers let software engineers write bigger programs. Bigger programs create a demand for better computers. The computer manufacturers are happy to oblige, and the cycle starts all over again. A push is matched by a pull, which evokes a new push. That push-pull dynamic has rammed innovation into overdrive. For example, it took between 1900 and 1990 to develop computers that could perform one million instructions per second (MIPS) per thousand dollars. In 2005, computer manufacturers added an additional MIPS per thousand dollars to their computers every five hours.
A push-pull dynamic is hobbled, though, when one system can’t improve as fast as the other. The Internet is improving very fast. The human body improves very slowly. Our hands evolved to grip spears and plows, and so can type only so many emails in a day. Our senses evolved to monitor a largely unchanging savannah for friends and predators, and so can pay attention to only a handful of events at a time. To be sure, some human attributes like IQ appear to have risen in the twentieth century, but the rate of increase is much slower than technology’s. There is no Moore’s Law for human beings.

This mismatch between humans and the Internet imposes inherent limits on how much either can improve. This is unfortunate, because they are a natural match for a push-pull dynamic driving each other upward. Their strengths are complementary. The Internet is fast, while humans are slow; capacious, while humans are forgetful. Conversely, humans are self-aware while the Internet isn’t, and humans can interact with the physical world while the Internet can’t. But they also have aligned strengths: they are both intensely networked, intensely communicative entities.

One way to overcome the separateness of humans and the Internet is to increase the speed and density of their information exchange. Nature has already solved an engineering challenge like this, in fact, in your own head. Your brain has two hemispheres, each of which controls the opposite side of your body. Your left hemisphere controls your right hand and the right side of your face, for instance. In a normal brain the two halves work together smoothly and efficiently because they are connected via the corpus callosum, a bundle of 200 to 250 million nerve fibers. Their separateness is overcome by what scientists call “massively parallel connectedness.”

But if a surgeon severs the corpus callosum, as has sometimes been done in last-ditch attempts to control epilepsy, it soon becomes clear that the two hemispheres have very different desires and intentions. One hand buttons a shirt while the other simultaneously unbuttons it. One hand pulls down one’s trousers, while the other pulls them back up. In his book The Bisected Brain Michael Gazzaniga wrote that splitting the hemispheres “produces two separate, but equal, cognitive systems each with its own abilities to learn, emote, think, and act.” In an intact brain the corpus callosum lets the hemispheres exchange so much data so quickly that functionally they behave as a unified brain. The rapidity and density of the connection effectively erases their differences.

But imagine that the two hemispheres were only weakly connected—by email, say. Then they could only send messages like this back and forth:

From: Left motor cortex
To: Right motor cortex
Subject: Help me open this jar
Importance: High

Dear Right motor cortex,
At 14:32:47.2 I gripped the peanut butter jar. Could you please grip the top and twist it to the right by 14.32:47.3? Please let me know how hard you start twisting, and I will email you back with how much I am tightening the grip. If the lid does not move, let’s talk to the forebrain for additional strategic planning. I look forward to working with you on this.

Left motor cortex

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? What if we eliminated the interface problem—the slow keyboards, the sore fingers, the tiny screens, the clumsiness of point-and-click—by directly linking the Internet to the human brain? It would become seamlessly part of us, as natural and simple to use as our own hands.

Tags books cognition communication internet language neuroscience

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