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.

The history of life on Earth shows that when new needs arise, evolution accommodates them by creating new structures. In the primeval Earth, single-celled creatures joined up to become multicelled ones, surrendering independence in exchange for collective power. CO2-breathing plants cooperated with O2-breathing animals to create a new biosphere in which each could evolve all the faster. Predators invented better ways to hunt, so prey invented better defenses, which forced predators to innovate yet again. When humans appeared the process picked up speed, with each cycle taking place in centuries rather than millennia. Plows led to better harvests, which gave people leisure time to invent better plows. Telegraphs let newspapers go national, which created a demand for better journalistic tools such as teletypewriters. New computer chips let electrical engineers create even faster chips. Each push triggers a pull, which sets the stage for another push.

This is the way evolution works. Increases in complexity and power are not accidental; they are automatic. Systems ratchet each other up in push-pull cycles, driving each other to higher levels of complexity and scope. We see this push-pull dynamic in so many contexts that some scientists argue there must be fundamental laws of nature, akin to those of thermodynamics, driving ecosystems to higher and higher levels of order. Progress via a push-pull dynamic appears to be woven into the very structure of life. In today’s world, the strongest push-pull dynamic in existence is the synergy between human beings and the Internet. The Internet constantly produces new tools—such as email, blogging, texting, YouTube, Twitter, the Kindle, and the iPad. People use them to amplify their powers by socializing and publishing in new ways. Money flows to developers, and even more tools are invented. Overdrive? More like strapping a rocket onto a sled careening downhill.

But as I said, the lack of a fast and efficient interface sets inherent limits on how much humans can do with the Internet. If human minds could work directly with the Internet, two grand unifications would happen at once. First, humans would become more closely connected with each other. As I will explain later in the book, we would have entirely new ways to sense each other’s presence, moods, and needs. A person with a suitably wired brain could be aware of other people as if they were part of her own body, the same way she knows where her own fingers are. Second, humanity and its tool, the Internet, would become a single organism with entirely new powers. Not just a mere hybrid, but a new species in its own right.

To be sure, the Internet is a human invention reflecting human choices and values. However, it often looks as if it is a separate species with an internal logic of its own. The 1987 stock market crash has been blamed on program trading—computers that started selling frantically because every other computer was selling. The ceaseless war between viruses and antivirus programs looks eerily like the workings of a biological ecosystem. However, even if one posits that the Internet is comparable to a biological species, it’s obvious that it’s not very intelligent. It has primitive ways of “sensing” and “reacting,” but it has no self-awareness and no ability to formulate its own goals. Nor, as I argue later, could it ever reach such a state on its own. It could, however, be the backbone of a sophisticated
new organism if physically integrated with humanity. The Internet would become a new nervous system for humanity, and humanity would become a new body and executive brain for the Internet.

Such a physical integration can now be discussed in a scientifically grounded way. It’s like the way Jules Verne, in his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, imagined launching a spaceship by firing it out of an enormous cannon. Verne underestimated the future development of rocketry, but he had the physics right. He explained the concept of escape velocity and correctly identified southern Florida as the best spot in the United States for launching a spacecraft. (Florida’s nearness to the equator gives any projectile additional velocity as long as it is launched eastward.) He correctly explained that such a spacecraft must slow down as it leaves Earth and speed up as it nears the Moon, and got the duration of the voyage almost right, predicting four days (the Apollo astronauts did
it in a little over three.) Because it was grounded in real science, Verne’s novel was conceptually plausible. In the same way, recent advances in neuroscience and neurotechnology make it possible to write a conceptually plausible account of how brains could be “read” and linked together. This book is grounded in science now going on in labs around the world, and draws on technology that is already in use in human beings. This book is, in other words, a thought experiment. In terms of technology, here is what it covers.

• It discusses existing technologies for detecting brain activity and the algorithms used to interpret the resulting data. I cover them in order of increasing sophistication. But none of these algorithms, I point out, can yet understand the brain’s lived experience
of the world.

• It presents two emerging mechanisms for reading and writing brain activity, specifically, nanowires and optogenetics. Mechanisms are crucial, since without them nothing else is feasible. If you need to be convinced that they now exist before going along
with the thought experiment of this book, then I suggest you read Chapter 8 first.
• It outlines a communications protocol for sending perceptions and memories from one brain to another. While the neural machinery of mental activity differs from one brain to another, high-level concepts and relationships are brain-independent. We share them through language and common experience. A suitable protocol could transmit those concepts and relationships in code, with implanted computers managing the specifics of each person’s neural wiring.

• It presents examples of the new kinds of collective communication that the physical interlinking of humans with the Internet would allow. I describe new activities such as telempathy, synthetic perception, synthetic memory, and dream brainstorming.

• It offers an account of how a collective mind might emerge out of these collective interactions. Such an entity—some call it a hive mind—would be, by definition, inaccessible to any individual, just as the collective action of an ant colony is beyond the imagination of an individual ant. We might know, however, that something new had come into existence, and I discuss what the clues to that might look like.

Along the way I debunk common assumptions about “mind reading” fed by science fiction. It will never be possible to experience the world exactly the way another brain does. It will never be possible to achieve perfect, unambiguous communication. It will never be possible to do away with language. What I propose are new kinds of communication, which like every previous kind will present new possibilities and new risks.

Tags books cognition communication internet language neuroscience

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