[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
By JOHN HORGAN
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
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
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
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).
SOME BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
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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