08 April 2013

World Wide Mind - is it really coming? Maybe so.

Michael Chorost's 2011 book World Wide Mind makes the case for the 'coming integration of humanity, machines and the internet'.  Taking off from Rebuilt, the book predicts that over the next 30 years or so many people will use direct brain implants to both receive inputs from others and broadcast out meaningful impulses in some fashion.

Overall I felt the science here is pretty believable.  We are learning very quickly about the brain, and how to detect neuron groups (cliques) that correlate with certain concepts.  One can imagine this work continuing at a rapid pace.  Chorost's experience with cochlear implants lends credibility to the technical progress in the area of direct stimulation of neurons to produce valuable sensory input.  He describes some nano-technology possibilities for putting outside tech in touch with many areas of the brain (more invasive in terms of its reach, less invasive in terms of not requiring head surgery).

The picture he paints in the book is one of constant reception of low-level inputs from other people you are linked to, for instance if a co-worker has some new ideas, you could receive inputs about the cluster of concepts connected to the idea, and along with standard written communication this could help trigger new ideas in you.  Chorost rightly points out that these inputs are not going to give you the other person's experience - rather you will get some inputs that will trigger your own experience given your own memories, etc.

There are two main points that I think deserved more attention in this book.  The first is the why question.  Why will people feel compelled to have these types of inputs?  One example from the book did not make this case well at all:
Having brainlike computers would greatly simplify the process of extracting information from one brain and sending it to another.  Suppose you have such a computer, and you're connected with another person via the World Wide Mind.  At the moment you're observing each other's visual experiences.  You see a cat on the sidewalk in front of you.  Your rig is able to watch neural activity in your neocortex with its optogenetic circuitry.  It sees activity in a large percentage of neurons constituting your brain's representation of a cat.  To let your friend know you're seeing a cat, it sends three letters of information - CAT - to the other person's implanted rig.  That person's rig activates her brain's invariant representation of a a cat, and she sees it. (p. 135)
Wow - distinctly underwhelming!  All this tech to send a three letter message, and wouldn't the receiver have the same experience if they received a text message with the word 'cat'?  To be fair, Chorost does give somewhat more compelling examples later in the book, but after this weak start I was pretty skeptical.

The second issue - let's say everyone had such technology implanted.  It seems to me that many commercial forces would be chomping at the bit for the ability to send inputs to everyone constantly - fast food joints might want to send you ideas of hamburgers and milk shakes, and so on.  And what kind of inputs might a government wish to send out to citizens?  Chorost spends a couple pages (196-8) on these types of questions in the final chapter, but for me it was a case of too little too late.

Overall an interesting book, one that imagines some potential developments in the field, is perhaps a bit optimistic about our ability to solve each hard problem that arises, and is sincere in its investigations of how such technology could connect us in new, meaningful ways.  The book also includes some touchy-feely material about a workshop the author attended, and it may turn off some readers.

Here's a link to the NY Times review by Katherine Bouton.  Here's another more critical blog reaction from Backreaction (two physicists).

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