[Paleopsych] CHE: John Horgan: Brain Chips and Other Dreams of the Cyber-Evangelists

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John Horgan: Brain Chips and Other Dreams of the Cyber-Evangelists
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.6.3


    At times, I confess, I yearn for a brain chip. Dissatisfied with the
    sluggish, aging, three-pound lump of neurons that nature bequeathed
    me, I fantasize that a surgeon has drilled a hole in my cranium and
    installed a Neuromorphic Adaptive Quantum Nanoprocessor in my cortex.
    Its features would include a Wi-Fi Internet link-up and an
    artificial-pundit program customized to reflect my rhetorical and
    intellectual idiosyncracies.

    Instead of agonizing over this essay, I'd let my brain chip do the
    work. I'd mentally specify the essay's topic, target audience, word
    count, and tone (settings: mildly skeptical to viciously snarky). My
    brain chip would scour cyberspace for relevant readings, distill the
    mass of data and opinion into a nifty 2,000-word essay, and beam it to
    my editor -- all in less time than it takes my "real" self to type
    this period. "I" could finally make a decent living as a freelancer.

    Brain chips are only one of many technologies that could allow us to
    transcend our natural limits, but they appeal to those who consider
    genetic or pharmaceutical enhancement too subtle and slow. Think of
    the difference between the films Gattaca, whose genetically souped-up
    characters resembled supermodels with high IQ's, and The Matrix, in
    which everyone sported brain jacks. Brain chips could, in principle,
    allow us to download digitized knowledge of kung fu or helicopter
    navigation directly into our memory banks, like characters in The
    Matrix. We could also control our computers and toaster ovens with our
    thoughts; communicate with other chip-equipped people, not in our
    current tedious, one-word-at-a-time fashion but broadband; and
    exchange virtual fluids with ultra-talented "sexbots."

    Such sci-fi scenarios are imminent, if we are to believe recent books
    like Digital People, Citizen Cyborg, I, Cyborg, and Flesh and

    The tone of the books varies from sober to silly, but their
    perspectives overlap enough to form a distinct genre, which we might
    call cyber-evangelism. The basic theme is that science is on the verge
    of bringing about an astounding merger of machine and man. I say "man"
    advisedly: All the authors are men, and their infatuation with
    technology has a male cast. The major disagreement among the authors
    concerns how far we will go in embracing what Sidney Perkowitz, a
    physicist at Emory University, calls "neurobionics" in Digital People.
    Some cyber-evangelists believe that we will eventually abandon our
    flesh-and-blood selves and become entirely artificial -- like
    Hollywood starlets, but more so.

    Not everyone is thrilled by the prospect of cyborgs. Those
    fuddy-duddies on President Bush's Council on Bioethics have fretted
    that the capacity to download textbooks directly into the human brain
    could undermine students' work ethic. (Oh, the horror.) What if
    someone hacks into your brain chip to read your thoughts, or to
    control you, as in the recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate? And
    won't neurobionics deepen the gap between haves and have-nots?

    James Hughes, a bioethicist at Trinity College, in Hartford,
    nonetheless contends that the benefits of neurobionics far outweigh
    the risks. We could minimize potential problems, he argues in Citizen
    Cyborg, by establishing a benign, global government that made brain
    chips available to everyone and regulated their use. To ensure that
    cyborgs behaved, for example, the government would test them for moral
    decency; those who failed would have "morality chips" installed.

    Hughes is executive director of the World Transhumanist Association,
    whose members favor transcendence of our biological limits.
    Transhumanists enjoy debating issues like cryonic preservation: After
    you die, should you have your whole body frozen for revival after
    science has solved the problem of death -- or will your head alone
    suffice? Hughes also proposes equipping dolphins and monkeys with
    brain chips so that we can communicate with them. You would think
    someone who entertains such notions would be a fun guy, and perhaps
    Hughes is in person. But Citizen Cyborg has the deadly earnestness of
    an Al Gore white paper on toxic waste. Hughes wants us to take this
    cyborg stuff very, very seriously.

    Those who find Hughes too dry may prefer the flamboyant -- albeit
    relentlessly self-aggrandizing -- authorial persona of Kevin Warwick,
    a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading who has
    transformed himself into a kind of neurobionic performance artist. In
    I, Cyborg, a masterpiece of naïve, unwittingly comic narration,
    Warwick recounts how in 2002 he persuaded a surgeon to implant a chip
    in his forearm and another chip in the forearm of his hapless wife,
    Irena. As the surgeon pushed the chip into Irena's incision, "she
    remained brave," Warwick recalls, "shrieking on a couple of occasions
    when it was particularly painful."

    After the implantations, when Warwick made a fist, his chip picked up
    the minute electrical surge in his arm and sent a signal to his wife's
    chip, which buzzed her. She then flexed her hand, and he felt "a
    beautiful, sweet, deliciously sexy charge."

    Of course the Warwicks could have achieved an equivalent intimacy with
    vibrating cellphones; the fact that the chips were embedded in their
    bodies made no functional difference. Warwick nonetheless calls his
    stunt "the most incredible scientific project imaginable, one that is
    sure to change, incalculably, humankind and the future." We must begin
    asking ourselves, Warwick says, how to "deal with the possibility of
    superhumans." The real question Inman Harvey, another British
    scientist, remarked in Discover magazine, is whether Warwick is a
    "buffoon," who actually believes his own hype, or a "charlatan."

    Unlike Warwick, Ray Kurzweil is an accomplished authority in the
    fields of computer science and artificial intelligence; his many
    inventions include the first computer-based reading machine for the
    blind. But his worldview is if anything even wackier than Warwick's.
    In his manifesto The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil predicts that
    within a couple of decades, computers will become fully conscious and
    autonomous, and will begin rapidly evolving in unpredictable
    directions. Borrowing a term that refers to black holes and other
    phenomena that strain physics theories to the breaking point, Kurzweil
    calls that event "the singularity."

    Rather than passively allowing machines to leave us in the cognitive
    dust, we will have the option of digitizing our personalities and
    "uploading" them into computers, where we can live forever as software
    programs. That vision has been spelled out previously by others
    -- notably the roboticist Hans Moravec, in Mind Children: The Future
    of Robot and Human Intelligence (Harvard University Press, 1988) and
    Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind (Oxford University Press,
    1999) -- but Kurzweil's faith is especially fervent.

    In his recent Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever,
    written with a physician, Kurzweil advises us how to stay alive until
    uploading becomes possible. His regimen calls for exercising and
    meditating, eating organic vegetables and meat, drinking alkaline
    water (to keep the blood from being acidic), taking nutritional
    supplements (Kurzweil swallows 250 pills a day), and, of course,
    having injections of pineal cells culled from hydroponically grown
    fetuses (just kidding).

    Halfway into Flesh and Machines, by Rodney A. Brooks, director of the
    Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I thought finally common sense
    might prevail. Brooks points out that -- notwithstanding the
    precipitous increase in computer power over the past few decades -- AI
    has in many respects been a failure. No existing computer remotely
    resembles HAL, the smooth-talking, homicidal machine that was by far
    the most interesting, complex chararacter in the film 2001. Computers
    cannot even recognize faces in natural settings, which we can do
    effortlessly. Our fastest, most sophisticated machines still lack some
    mysterious, fundamental quality -- which Brooks calls "juice" -- that
    biological systems possess.

    So where does Brooks's candid acknowledgement of his field's
    shortcomings leave him, vis-à-vis uploading and other neurobionic
    scenarios? He thinks uploading will eventually be possible, just not
    soon enough for Kurzweil or anyone else alive today. "I think we are
    all going to have to die eventually," Brooks boldly ventures.

    But like Kevin Warwick, he believes that within a decade or two we
    will transform ourselves with brain-machine interfaces. "We will be
    superhumans in many respects. And through our thought-mediated
    connections to cyberspace, we will have access to physical control of
    our universe, just with our thoughts."

    What neither Brooks nor any other cyber-evangelist considers in any
    depth is the fundamental assumption of all their scenarios, that the
    brain is a digital computer. According to that view, the minute
    "action potentials" emitted by individual nerve cells are analogous to
    the electrical pulses that represent information in computers, and
    just as computers operate according to a machine code, so action
    potentials are arranged according to a "neural code." Given the right
    interface and knowledge of the neural code, brains and computers
    should be able to communicate as easily as iMacs and PC's.

    If a neural code exists, however, neuroscientists have no idea what it
    is. They cannot explain how the brain achieves even rudimentary feats
    of cognition, like my ability to recall Neo's final battle with Agent
    Smith in The Matrix. Such cognition may depend not only on action
    potentials but also on other processes at larger or smaller scales. No
    one knows.

    Moreover, my brain almost certainly represents Neo with a pattern of
    neural activity quite unlike yours. Not only is each person's code
    probably idiosyncratic, the product of his or her unique biology, but
    our individual codes may also constantly evolve in response to new
    experiences. For all those reasons, some neuroscientists suspect that
    uploading, downloading, telepathic conversations, and other scenarios
    that involve precise reading and manipulation of thoughts may never be
    possible -- no matter how far brain-chip technology advances.

    That view is corroborated by the slow progress of research on
    so-called neural prostheses, which replace or supplement capacities
    lost because of damage to the nervous system. Artificial retinas,
    light-sensitive chips that mimic the eye's signal-processing ability
    and stimulate the optical nerve or visual cortex, have been tested in
    a handful of blind subjects, but most have been able to see nothing
    more than phosphenes, or bright spots. A few paralyzed patients have
    learned to control a computer cursor -- "merely by thinking," as the
    media invariably put it, though the control is not telekinetic but via
    implanted electrodes that pick up the patients' neural signals -- but
    communicating that way remains slow and unreliable.

    The only truly successful neural prosthesis is the artificial cochlea.
    More than 50,000 hearing-impaired people have been equipped with those
    devices, which restore hearing by feeding signals from an external
    microphone to the auditory nerve. But as Michael Chorost makes clear
    in his memoir, Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human,
    artificial cochleas are far from perfect. Hard of hearing since
    childhood, Chorost was getting by with conventional hearing aids and
    writing reports for a Silicon Valley research firm when he suddenly
    went totally deaf in 2001. In Rebuilt -- which is by far the most
    original, honest, and authoritative book I've read on human-machine
    interfaces -- he recounts how he was equipped and learned to live with
    an artificial cochlea.

    Although Chorost was immensely grateful for the device, which restored
    some semblance of normality to his social life, he notes that it is a
    crude simulacrum of our innate auditory system. Artificial cochleas
    generally require a breaking-in period, during which technicians tweak
    the device's settings to optimize its performance. With that
    assistance, the brain learns how to make the most of the peculiar,
    artificial signals. Even then, the sound quality is often poor,
    especially in noisy settings. Chorost still occasionally relies on lip
    reading and contextual guessing to decipher what someone is saying to
    him. Some people are never able to use artificial cochleas, for
    reasons that are not clearly understood.

    Chorost's experience leaves him both impressed with the ingenuity of
    scientists and cognizant of how little they really know about how the
    brain works. He thus looks askance at the predictions of Warwick and
    others that neurobionics will eventually give us supernatural powers:
    "We are a long way from understanding our own brains well enough to
    implant devices in them to enhance our mental functioning." Chorost
    suspects that the prophesies of Warwick et al. have less to do with
    science than with the perennial human desire to transcend the
    loneliness and pain of the human condition.

    Indeed, now and for the foreseeable future, cyber-evangelism is best
    understood as an escapist, quasi-religious fantasy, which reflects an
    oddly dated, Jetsons-esque faith in scientific progress and its
    potential to cure all that ails us. Even those cyber-evangelical books
    published well after September 11, 2001, and the end of the dot-com
    boom echo the hysterical techno-optimism of the late 1990s. At their
    best, they raise some diverting questions: Would you rather live in a
    pleasant virtual world, or in an unpleasant real one? Would cyber-sex
    satisfy you? Would we still be recognizably human if we were immortal,
    or had IQ's over 1,000, or were immune to pain?

    But I felt my cognitive-dissonance alarm clanging whenever I reminded
    myself of the issues that preoccupy most mature adults these days:
    terrorism, overpopulation, poverty, environmental degradation, AIDS
    and other diseases, and all the pitfalls of ordinary life.

    I try to forget this vale of tears myself now and then by reading
    books like William Gibson's Neuromancer (Ace Books, 1994) or watching
    movies like The Matrix. But I also try not to confuse science fiction
    with science.

    John Horgan is a freelance writer and author of The End of Science
    (Addison-Wesley, 1996), The Undiscovered Mind (Free Press, 1999), and
    Rational Mysticism (Houghton Mifflin, 2003).


    The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human
    Intelligence, by Ray Kurzweil (Viking, 1999)

    Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the
    Redesigned Human of the Future, by James Hughes (Westview Press, 2004)

    Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids, by Sidney Perkowitz
    (Joseph Henry Press, 2004)

    Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, by Ray Kurzweil
    and Terry Grossman (Rodale, 2004)

    Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, by Rodney A. Brooks
    (Pantheon Books, 2002)

    I, Cyborg, by Kevin Warwick (Century, 2002)

    Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human, by Michael
    Chorost (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)

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