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February 28th cyborg to borg—cont’d, with michael chorost

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February 28th cyborg to borg—cont’d, with michael chorost

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Robert Bloomfield welcomes Michael Chorost once again, as his guest on Metanomics. The discussion during Michael’s last visit centered on his book, Re-Built and his experience of receiving a cochlear implant. As a science writer, he knew how the implant worked, yet it was a fascinating journey to share his experience of stepping up to Cyborg status, utilizing lines of code and an implanted physical device to regain the ability to hear. His new book, World Wide Mind has just been released and further explores the integration of humans and machine coupled with the connective potential of the internet. It’s been widely praised in reviews including The New York Times, Wired Magazine, New Scientist, and The L-Magazine. All agree that the science is dazzling, and the interwoven account of his personal journey to become a more complete human, emotionally speaks to how this merge with technology might affect us all.

Click here to watch video http://www.metanomics.net/show/february_28th/

Robert Bloomfield welcomes Michael Chorost once again, as his guest on Metanomics. The discussion during Michael’s last visit centered on his book, Re-Built and his experience of receiving a cochlear implant. As a science writer, he knew how the implant worked, yet it was a fascinating journey to share his experience of stepping up to Cyborg status, utilizing lines of code and an implanted physical device to regain the ability to hear. His new book, World Wide Mind has just been released and further explores the integration of humans and machine coupled with the connective potential of the internet. It’s been widely praised in reviews including The New York Times, Wired Magazine, New Scientist, and The L-Magazine. All agree that the science is dazzling, and the interwoven account of his personal journey to become a more complete human, emotionally speaks to how this merge with technology might affect us all.

Click here to watch video http://www.metanomics.net/show/february_28th/

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February 28th cyborg to borg—cont’d, with michael chorost

  1. 1. METANOMICS: CYBORG TO BORG CONTINUED WITH MICHAEL CHOROST FEBRUARY 28, 2011 ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is owned and operated by Remedy and Dusan Writer's Metaverse. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Hi. I'm Robert Bloomfield, professor at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management. Today we continue exploring Virtual Worlds in the larger sphere of social media, culture, enterprise and policy. Naturally, our discussion about Virtual Worlds takes place in a Virtual World. So join us. This is Metanomics. ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is filmed today in front of a live audience at our studios in Second Life. We are pleased to broadcast weekly to our event partners and to welcome discussion. We use ChatBridge technology to allow viewers to comment during the show. Metanomics is sponsored by the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Welcome. This is Metanomics. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Welcome, everyone, to Metanomics. Our guest today is Michael Chorost, who was on Metanomics last fall, talking about his book Re- Built, and now we have him back to talk about his next book World Wide Mind, which was
  2. 2. published just recently and has been reviewed. I've seen publications of it in the New York Times, for example, and I'm sure our very capable staff will get some links into the chat so you can take a look at those, but we'll have our own conversation about the book, with Michael Chorost. Michael, welcome back to Metanomics. MICHAEL CHOROST: Thank you so much, Rob. Glad to be here. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: It's great to have you. Before we get into World Wide Mind, I just want to catch readers up on your last book Rebuilt, the subtitle of that is How Becoming Part Computer Made Me a Better Human. I think that that's a very important subtext for people to understand as they jump into this book. Could you give us a real quick version of the back story here, as you talk about it in Rebuilt? MICHAEL CHOROST: I would be happy to do that. Rebuilt is a story me losing what was left of my hearing, being completely deaf and getting cochlear implants. It's about the process of learning how to hear all over again. The book is what I call a scientific memoir because I talk not just about the personal experience, but about the philosophical issues of having a body that actually has a computer in it and what that is all about. So Rebuilt covered both of those angles, the cyborg angle, you might say, and the deafness angle. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: As I was working on our last interview, I ended up
  3. 3. creating a working title for it From Cyborg to Borg because we started by talking about your book Rebuilt, but you already had your book World Wide Mind well under way. Now the subtitle to that one is The Coming Integration of Humans and Machines just makes me think of the Borg, and, in fact, I saw in one of the later chapters in the book, you even quote Three of Nine or someone like that, from The Next Generation saying resistance is futile. Let's just jump into the title for starters. What do you mean by a World Wide Mind? MICHAEL CHOROST: The worldwide mind would be a consciousness that is constituted of humans and machines working together. So a nice handy example is Google's page-bank algorithm. So with Google, you have this incredibly powerful search engine, but in itself it has no agency or identity, is purely constituted of the collective decisions of everybody who is creating links on the web. So Google is, in a sense, a kind of subjectivity that is constituted of us but yet stands apart from us. So I see a worldwide mind as being an elaboration of that, a more sophisticated version of what we now see Google doing. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: How much of this is a reframing of things that already happen? My day job is to study stock markets and, much like Google, there are institutions that combine the thoughts of many different people mediated through their decisions to make buy and sell offers on assets. And what we get out of it though turns out to be an incredibly powerful aggregation of information. Now if I
  4. 4. wanted to, I could think of that as an integration of humans and machines and use different terms to describe it, but it's still the same stock market they had back in the Netherlands hundreds of years ago when they brought us the tulip bubbles, for those who know about those. So to what extent is this just a re-description of the familiar, and what is it as you see as really being new? MICHAEL CHOROST: It's a great question because the stock market is perhaps the best example going, the collective entity emerging from human interaction. You might call it an epiphenomenon, that it is its own seemingly independent entity that arises out of many transactions of buying and selling, and yet it has its own behavior that is not strictly predictable. So it's a really neat example. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And let me say I'm just delighted to hear the word epiphenomenon, which is one I don't hear enough since my undergraduate days. MICHAEL CHOROST: Great word. Of course, it's from Hofstadter, from Gödel, Escher, Bach, because he talked about it so brilliantly and so eloquently. And he also talked about the idea of can intelligence emerge out of the aggregated workings of entities, which, in themselves, are not mindful. So we talked about ant hives or rather anthills and beehives as examples of epiphenomenal entities, where each individual, each ant, each bee has no real brain. But you can speak of the hive as having a mind of its own. So the word epiphenomenon I totally agree with you, it's
  5. 5. such a neat work. So to come back to the question that you were asking, the place from my book goes beyond these epiphenomenon that we have now is that I talk about the physical integration of humans and machines, which is not something that we have now. What we have now is people working at keyboards and iPhones and all that collective activity becomes what we see in Google and in various other search engines. What I'm talking about is a little bit different. So I start with the physical fact of my own body, the fact that I have a cochlear implant in my head. And what that means is that I have this firsthand knowledge where you can actually install a computer into my nervous system and actually does useful work for me. My entire auditory world is constructed by its stimulation of my auditory nerve. So my sensory world is created by my integration with a computer. So that's my launching point in World Wide Mind, basically saying this kind of thing is now possible. Maybe I'll have to stop here for a moment, let you jump in if you want to pick up on that before I go to the next step. I'd like to say also at this point I would love to encourage discussion from the audience so--I'm not really familiar with Second Life interface, but if anyone wants to put up a virtual hand and ask questions, I'd encourage people to do so. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Speaking of integrating large groups of people, we do
  6. 6. have quite an active chat channel, and it not only allows people to converse within Second Life from one region to another, which Second Life itself doesn't directly support, but it also integrated with the web. So I know we have a number of viewers on the web right now, and I'm watching the chat scroll by. I share with you that wish, so those of you who are listening to this, please do provide your questions and comments, and we'll work them into our conversation. You talked about your cochlear implant as being much more than just holding a phone in your hand or something like that and a much deeper level of integration. I guess this is probably a good time for me to ask this question, which is: Toward the beginning of the book, you tell the reader that you're going to be making predictions that may seem very surprising and farfetched, but they're fictions, not lies, which was a distinction I had not heard before. So could you talk a little bit about that distinction? MICHAEL CHOROST: Oh, it's such a wonderful distinction when I first read about it, and I read about it in this chapter by a guy named Jerry Loeb who is a neural engineer. He said that an example of a lie is predicting a perpetual motion machine are faster than light travel, it's something that is not conceptually possible to coin to the laws of physics as we know them. But a fiction would be some thing like a man voyage to Jupiter. That is something that we know to be possible, even if we can't actually do it now. So in the book, I try to tell fictions but not lies. I think that's an important distinction.
  7. 7. The book is a thought experiment. The contribution I see my book is making is making a new kind of conversation possible, where instead of talking about World Wide Mind in a kind of science-fictional idea, with no idea of how it could actually be realized, I actually suggest specific technologies that could be used to realize it, specifically optogenetics. I'll talk a little bit more about optogenetics later, but the basic point for now is that optogenetics is beginning to give scientists a way of looking at individual thoughts and individual perceptions in the physical substrate of the brain. And that's something that has not been possible before. It hasn't even been possible dealing with functional [MRI?] or electrodes. It gives us an access to these interior states of consciousness. Or, to put it another way, it allows us to actually draw a direct connection between an internal experience as seeing something and feeling something and to actually connect that up with a specific activity of a group of neurons in the brain. And so that allows us to begin talking about the possibility of building networks that allow information to be taken out of one brain and transmitted to another brain, in order to allow that other brain to know what the first brain is seeing or feeling or thinking or experiencing in a very direct and visceral way. And, for me, what I found so exciting in the book was simply that I'm able to say this is now conceptually possible. This could be talked about, not as a fantasy, not as a
  8. 8. lie, but as something that we are beginning to actually being able to do. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: But still fiction. You have a great little vignette. Every science book has to have a little section of film noire in it, I guess. You've got this chapter early on of a drug bust that takes place in the future, where you have the SWAT team that comes in basically is linked. They are able to sense in a very minimal way, but a sufficient way, they are able to sense the impressions of the other people on the team. So I don't know if that's something that we can do justice to in an interview of this style. Would you want to just tell us about the parts of that story, that really capture your imagination? MICHAEL CHOROST: Sure. It was important to me to tell that fiction. I mean it's fiction in that literal sense because I just knew I had to tell the reader pretty early in the book, "This is what a worldwide mind may actually look like and actually feel like." I knew that, until I did that, the book would just seem like philosophizing. So here's a nice way I like to think about it. You know where your hand is, without having to look at it. You know where your fingers are. It's that sense that we call proprioception, that your fingers are always communicating with your brain in such a way that your brain is aware of where they are without you having to look at them. So you have that kind of intimate awareness of all these different parts of your body. And without that awareness, your body could not be coordinated. You would not be able to control your body in any meaningful sense.
  9. 9. So in the scenario, I basically tried to imagine a team of four people who have a proprioceptive awareness of each other's bodies. So they know the sensations that those other bodies are having, and they know where those bodies are in spatial relationship to them, even though they can't see them. So they know that one person is, say, 20 feet to their left in a different room and roughly parallel with them, for example, instead of being 20 feet ahead of them. And, if something happens to them, like if they hit something or someone hits them, they feel that body's sensation as if it was a sensation that happened to their body. So they have that direct visceral awareness of each other. That allows them to function as a team, with a speed and a rapidity that we couldn't possibly accomplish today, with using words or using video. That was a very important part early in the book. I was just trying to say to the reader, "This is kind of what it could look like." Now let me say, there's a couple scenarios like that in the book, and they were among the hardest parts of the book to write because it was like trying to imagine the impact of email before email. But I'm still trying to say this is kind of what I'm envisioning. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, first of all, I should also say my hat is off to anyone who can write fiction of any type. I write what I believe is nonfiction anyway, and it's challenge enough, and I'm just no good at fiction whatsoever. So you got a couple
  10. 10. chapters of fiction in your book, and my hat is off to you, Michael. A couple things I'd like to point out, and we also have some questions and comments from the audience. I'd like to say that one of the things I appreciated in that drug-bust story is that, while you're making the point right now of how effective this communication could be, where one person could actually sense that another, I think in the story, someone gets shot, and so the other people can feel it. What I thought was so accurate was that really the communication was not tremendously detailed. I think a lot of sci-fi that we read, it's people being able to communicate entire sentences. These are really just very, very simple physical and emotional impressions, which, to me, sounds much easier to pull off and much more likely to be what we'd see first. Let's see. We've got a couple comments here. Let me just scroll through for a second. Here's a question from Nettie B, who's watching on the web, "What about Donna Haraway's Cyborg Mythology?" Is that something that's familiar to you, Michael? MICHAEL CHOROST: Oh, yes. I actually wrote about it in some detail in my first book. So you thinking of A Cyborg Manifesto, which is a very famous piece back in the '80s.
  11. 11. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yes, exactly. Can you maybe just, for those of us not that familiar with it, please just tell us a little about it and your thoughts? MICHAEL CHOROST: Okay. A Cyborg Manifesto, first of all, it's very easily accessible on the web so you just pull it up and take a look at it. What Haraway is doing is really very different from what I am doing. For Haraway, she was really using the word cyborg as a metaphor for a kind of a political conditions, a political condition of the fact that everyone has a very heterogeneous set of loyalties, interests and affiliations and relationships and that we're all constituted these very heterogeneous things. So she wasn't really talking about actual biomedical technologies. The essay just doesn't touch on that. So one of the things that I concluded in my first book was, it could, at best, be read as a metaphorical discussion of the kind of body that I have. So it was just not something that helped me very much in this second book because I was trying to describe biomedical technology, without really getting into the kind of sociology philosophy that Haraway was getting into. So I'd be happy to try to delve deeper into that, but I just want to make clear that Haraway's discussion of cyborg is very different from the way I discuss the concepts. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: It sounds like the way you're describing it is the way that I think of it from, well, so at home we've been watching a lot of Battlestar Galactica lately. So you've got the Cylons who are essentially an artificial life form with human
  12. 12. elements. So yes, this sounds much more of a metaphorical approach. Where is it exactly that you see the similarities, the metaphor? So her story is a metaphorical one, yours is a very concrete one. I guess I'm having a little trouble seeing the link between them. MICHAEL CHOROST: Yeah. I would not say that there's an especially important link between those. But let's come back to what you were saying about the fact that this SWAT team, their communication was images proprioceptive, emotional, and my focus was on those kinds of communication. I don't know if that would necessarily be easier to transmit from one brain to another than verbal communication. But we already have an excellent technology for conveying verbal communication: that's the telephone and IP over internet and all sorts of stuff, or rather voiceover over IP. MICHAEL CHOROST: So I was trying to think beyond the kinds of technologies we have now, to imagine a new kind of technology. So to be really concrete about it because I think until you get concrete, people don't really get what I mean by World Wide Mind. So basically I explored this technology. In fact, it was rooted in a story I wrote for Wired Magazine that was published in November 2009. It was about a technology called optogenetics. So I visited labs at Stanford and MIT, and I learned that--well, to back up just a step: right now you can very easily make neurons fire by putting an electrode into the brain and sending a pulse of electricity into brain tissue,
  13. 13. and that will make all the neurons, around the electrode, fire. That's what my cochlear implant does. It just puts electrodes right near auditory neurons in my inner ear, force them to fire with a burst of electricity. So that technology has been around for decades. The problem with it is, it's several faults. First of all, it's not a very precise technology. It makes all the neurons, around the electrode, fire, instead of just particular neurons. Not only that, but there are many different kinds of neurons in brain tissue, and so, if you fire all the neurons, you get all sorts of side effects as neurons fire that you don't want to have firing. Finally, you can't inhibit neural firing. You can't stop neurons from firing. So electricity, which has been the reigning paradigm neural stimulation for decades, its limitations are really becoming clear. They've been always clear, but their limitations are becoming especially problematic now. So with optogenetics, you can use a virus to insert genes into neurons that come from plants; I mean plants like chlorophyll, or rather genes that control chlorophyll. You can give a neuron a gene from a plant, which makes that neuron create proteins that will make the neuron fire or stop firing when you shine a light on it. On that first level, it allows you to control neurons just by shining a light on them. Now that in itself would not be special because it's not so different from electricity.
  14. 14. What is special is that you can add things called promoters that will allow you to fire only certain genetically distinct kinds of neurons. In other words, you can say, "When I turn on this blue light, only the Purkinje neurons in this area of brain tissue are going to fire and nothing else." That's a kind of specificity that we've never had before. I dug deeper into that to show in the book is becoming practical in the lab, identifying the neurons that correspond to a specific perception or a specific memory and, in theory, to make those neurons and only those neurons fire again. So that's the core technology that allows me to talk about the fact that you could detect a specific thought rather than a broad activation of a part of a brain, but a specific thought or specific perception and then evoke a similar or rather an equivalent neuro pattern of activity in a different brain that would evoke roughly the same kind of percept. So that's the scientific basis of World Wide Mind, this technique of genetically modifying neurons so that they can be controlled very precisely with light. It's a really mind-blowing technology. It just astounded me when I started to learn about it. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: It's new to me, and I can see actually Jennette Forager, our producer, helpfully pasted a link from Wikipedia into the chat channel, and so I can see that it's quite new. The principle of optogenetics was discovered in 2002 and was selected as the Method of the Year in 2010, by Nature Methods, an organization that I've never heard of.
  15. 15. MICHAEL CHOROST: That's right. It's allowing all sorts of experiments to be conducted that were just simply not possible before. I want to be clear that I don't say that, in a few years, we're going to be installing optogenetic hardware in people's brains and allowing them to do this. The point that I was making was kind of like the point that I made about Jules Verne's book, in 1865, From the Earth to the Moon. He envisioned this trip from the earth to the moon almost exactly a hundred years before one actually happened. And, of course, he didn't know about technology like rocketry, but he got the basic science right so he was able to explain very accurately how long such a trip would take, how fast a capsule would have to move in order to get from the earth to the moon. He wrote about issues like weightlessness and the need to bring along your own air supply. So I see World Wide Mind as being a fiction in the same sense that Jules Verne's book was a fiction back in 1865, and it outlined the conceptual basis of something that actually did prove to be possible, with later technologies. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: We have a question from Latha Serevi. Latha, I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. The question refers to proprioception. So as you mentioned that's the ability of people to recognize where their hand is and get that information about their bodily position and tactile experiences. The question from Latha is, "Our brains have very specific maps into which the proprioception information is fed. Isn't it a problem that there's no map built in where other people's
  16. 16. positions can be put? MICHAEL CHOROST: That's a wonderful question. And, in fact, we know that the brain can very readily create new maps. So let me just give you some great examples. I'm trying to remember a certain experiment that was done way back when. But basically, if you tie two of the person's fingers together so that you can't move those fingers independently, the brain will actually change its internal map of the hand, in order to reflect the fact that those fingers have changed. It has been shown that when a person learns a new musical instrument, the map of the brain relating to the hand actually changes to reflect the new way in which that hand is being used. There's an even better example that relates to my own cochlear implant. If I think about something, my cochlear implant is giving me neural stimulation in ways that my brain had never experienced before. And some of that neural stimulation was about pitch perception that I had never heard before. For example, I had a severe hearing loss in the fairly high-frequency range. So just pulling a number out of a hat, I would not be able to hear a pitch of, say, 8,000 hertz, which is a fairly high-pitched note. If the implant is giving me information that corresponds to 8,000 hertz, that's a tone that my brain has never heard before. But my brain was able to remap its topography in my auditory cortex so that I was able to learn, okay, "This weird sensation that I'm feeling, I started to learn to hear, Oh, this is what that particular
  17. 17. high pitch now sounds like." So I literally had to hear all over again. The day that my implant was first turned on, I turned on the radio, and it sounded like gibberish. I just had no idea what I was hearing. It sounded like language, but I could not make out a single word. But over the next three months, six months really, I started to learn how to pick out consonants, like, "Oh, this is what an S sounds like now." An S is a relatively high-pitched sound. This is what a T sounds like. So my brain actually remapped itself. There is all sorts of evidence in neural science the brain not only can remap itself, but does so routinely. And it is always reconfiguring its own topography, to make sense of new kinds of inputs. So I'm actually very confident that, even if you gave your brain a very really unusual bizarre kind of input, it would learn how to make sense of it, so long as the person could get some kind of exterior correlative of it, that is, you'd have to learn to practice. You'd have to see those people at first, to figure out, "Okay, when a person is 20 feet to my left and they're 20 degrees ahead of me, this is what it feels like." But once you learn that, that kind of knowledge becomes second nature to you. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: When I was a kid, I used to read these Time Life Science Books. There is a whole series of them on just about everything that I could imagine at the time. I believe it was in the book on the brain or maybe it was called the mind, they talked about research where they would have people or animals wear goggles
  18. 18. that turned everything upside-down. And, after a couple days of wearing them, people were just fine, and the animals. They seemed to be able to track everything. Their brain reinterpreted the images. In your book you talk about a more advanced version of this, which is, people seeing with their tongues. I did see some research on this a few years ago, where, as I understand it, there is a camera basically sensing visual stimuli and then translating it into electrical stimuli that go right onto the tongue because someone is holding some sort of lollipop-like thing on their tongue. So the brain is clearly very plastic. MICHAEL CHOROST: Exactly. It's a wonderful example. I've read about those experiments too. Those blind people who have this device in their tongue, they start to report after awhile that they actually feel like they're seeing, even though they're having sensations on their tongue. So yeah, the brain is incredibly flexible and is able to make sense of new input, so long as it can match that input up with stuff that it is getting from some other modality. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: We have a question from Tammy Nowotny, which may be related to some of this because apparently Tammy notes the brain isn't all that plastic. The question is, "How come the brain has so much trouble filtering out tinnitus?" if I'm pronouncing that correctly.
  19. 19. MICHAEL CHOROST: Yes. That's a very interesting question. Some people do have trouble, other people don't. There's actually this technique called Tinnitus Retraining--I forget. It's TRT, I think, like, Tinnitus Retraining Therapy, which does try to teach people how to [habituate?] the tinnitus, and some people can do it, and some people can't. But the question is well-taken because we do know that the brain is not infinitely flexible. We know, for example, that speakers of Japanese have great difficulty learning how to hear the difference between an R and an L in English. Even after many years of practice, they often still can't do it. So there are some limitations to this kind of mapping. But nonetheless, we do know that the brain is able to make sense, to a very large extent, as shown by the fact that a Japanese speaker can learn to understand English, even if they can't make out the differences between all the syllables. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Let's see. As long as we're talking about fascinating technology that exists now, you were able to write out the name Amber, using a mind-reading hat. Can you tell us about that? MICHAEL CHOROST: That was really fun. This has been a wonderful thing that happens to you when you go to neuroscience conferences. I went to this demo of this cap one day, and they had this volunteer come up, put this incredibly bizarre
  20. 20. looking cap on, that looked like a swimsuit with colored Cheerios pasted all over it and wires coming out of it, mad scientist stuff. And this guy was able to stare at a screen and spell out, letter by letter, his own name. It looked like magic, just looking at it from the outside, like, "Oh, my gosh! He's standing there, without saying anything, and these letters appear on the screen. Wow! It really looks like this thing is reading his mind." The next day I was wandering around the exhibit area, and I came to the booth of this company that had the cap. I said, "Wow! Let me try this." I put the cap on. I had to take off my processors to do it, by the way, so he had to explain to me the whole thing before I took my processors off. But it was like a magic trick. When you see it on the stage, it's like, "Oh, my god! That looks just like magic," and then when you find out how it's actually done, it's like, "Oh, I could have told you that." The way this thing worked was the software had all the letters of the alphabet on the screen, and they were dimmed out, and, one at a time, each letter would flash brightly, and this would happen very rapidly so that, in less than a second, it would cycle through all 26 letters of the alphabet. So that if you're looking just at the T, for example, you see the T light up about once every second. What the cap was doing was, it was looking for a particular type of brain activity called the P300 Evoked Response Potential. Basically what that means is, where the brain recognizes a visually novel stimulus, something new happening, it will reliably generate that wave.
  21. 21. It's called the P300 wave. So all the cap was doing was waiting for a P300, and it was correlating that with the letters that I was flashing. So if it saw that you brain generated a P300 every time the T flashed, it guessed that you were looking at the T. And then you would put the T on the screen. Then you moved your gaze to the next letter that you wanted to quote/unquote "write," say, H. It was just looking for that P300 wave. It looked impressive, and it was impressive. Okay, I'm not denigrating DG, it is impressive technology, but the computer had no semantic understanding of what I was thinking. It didn't know that I was trying to spell out a name. It didn't even understand that the concepts of T and H and Q are distinct concepts. All it was doing was looking for a ping coming out of the brain, and then it inferred that that meant a certain letter. I talk about that technology in the early chapters to the book, to say this is the kind of stuff that we can actually do now. We can actually do mind-reading in this very restricted sense. It's authentic mind-reading, but it's obviously nowhere near knowing what someone else is thinking and feeling. So I kind of bring that up in order to set it aside, to say this is what we can do now, but that's not going to get us to the kind of technology I’m envisioning in the book. That's where I start to explain there are much more advanced technologies that let you see what individual sets of neurons are doing, to start correlating those with feelings and thoughts, which is a whole order of magnitude more complex that you can do with this kind of
  22. 22. mind-reading cap. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Let's move on to some of the social and psychological and cultural implications of the World Wide Mind. I'd like to start with a question that is the title of one of your chapters: Does Electronic Communication Make Us More Lonely. What's your take on that? MICHAEL CHOROST: Okay. Well, there has been a whole raft of books, in the past couple of years, about the social impact of the internet. Actually, it's been the last couple of decades. But I think the concern about this has really reached kind of a fever pitch lately. We've seen books, like Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together, where she marshals a raft of interview evidence. The teenagers who are really compelled by texting are also spending less time in empathetic and one-on-one interactions with people. They're actually becoming afraid of intimacy, in a very new and really kind of alarming way. There are books like Hamlet's BlackBerry, by William Powers, where he talks about the almost addictive nature of the internet. One of his solutions is to institute internet Sabbath, where he doesn't use the internet for one day out of the week, in order to disconnect from it. So there's this whole culture of deep concern about what our iPhones and BlackBerries and emails and texts are doing to us, in terms of distracting us and making us less likely to engage in intimate, emotional and
  23. 23. thoughtful conversations with each others on a one-to-one basis. So there's this whole background of concern, and that is something that I have to address in the book, and I do, at length, because we are already addicted to our BlackBerries and iPhones. Worldwide mind technology like I'm describing would just make it a thousand times worse because, if all of a sudden you have this technology in your head, where it's immediately part of your experience, then who need reality, right? And, of course, I'm aware that I'm saying to a Second Life audience. I'm sure that everybody in the audience thinks about these issues and has their own set of concerns and reactions to them. So I'm sure there'll be a bunch of questions. MICHAEL CHOROST: But let me just say that, in the book, what I say is that the answer is not, on the one hand, to stop using the internet. Nobody's going to do that. Nor is the answer to be completely blasé about it, kind of like the Ray Kurzweil is, "Oh, it's all very fine." But rather, I try to suggest that there may be a third way that, instead of seeing the internet as something that detracts us from the lived life of the body, to rather integrate it into our bodies so that online experience, the face-to-face experience become really indistinguishable where they complement each other, rather than take away from each other. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Just to flush this out with a couple stories. One I really
  24. 24. enjoyed in your book; I'm just reading from the section Does Electronic Communication Make Us Lonely?, and you write, "In 1909, Sigmund Freud duly observed that while the telephone let distant people communicate, it also let them be distant. Nearly a hundred years later, the writer Adam Gopnik was appalled to find his daughter's imaginary friend, Charlie Ravioli, could only be reached on her toy cell phone and was always too busy to play with her." It's true. That is very much the world we live in now, and Gopnik goes on, you write, "He suggested that modern technology has created a lifestyle in which people constantly postpone emotionally authentic communication to a later time, which never arrives. Like Charlie Ravioli, Gopnik wrote, we hop into taxis, and leave messages on answering machines to avoid our acquaintances and find that we keep missing our friends." So I thought that was a very interesting summary and one that I'll want to track down. You also tell a story. This was a major excerpt in the New York Times. I believe they ended up publishing all of Chapter Four of your book, in which, under the heading The Most Intimate Interface, you interweaved these two very different types of interfaces. One is the wires that are connected to your neurons, as you've discussed today, in your cochlear implant. And the other was just the sense of touch, of touching other people and hugging them in a rather unusual and--what was it called. I can't remember the name of that; it was like an encounter group or something like
  25. 25. that. MICHAEL CHOROST: Yes. Well, that's a 1960s term. That's not a term they would use today. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I read Gay Talese or whatever his name was, a long time ago. Clearly, my interpretation anyway of that chapter in the context of your larger point was that, in part, just there is right now no replacement for the human touch, no substitute for the human touch. But then also, the notion that maybe in the future, with these very, very intimate interfaces, like the cochlear implant, that there will be a substitute. Am I misreading you? MICHAEL CHOROST: Well, you're telling part of the story, but not the whole story. Yeah, some people are trying to develop these _____ interfaces which would trans similacrum someone else's touch and actually try to head off that kind of technology or rather head off the assumption that such a technology would be complete, but pointing out that communication is not just about touch, but it's also about smell and eye contact, pheromones and a whole range of things. So you can't really just take one part of it and assume it's going to do the job for everything else. But what you say does get me into what's really, I think, the most controversial part of the book, and it was the part the New York Times was less complimentary about
  26. 26. than the rest of the book. I think the New York Times misunderstood what I was trying to do. So what I was trying to do in the book is to say, "Well, the kind of technology I'm talking about, indeed the kind of technology we have now in BlackBerries and iPhones, is leading us toward a day high-tech, low-touch kind of world. This is what people are so concerned about--Sherry Turkle, Adam Gopnik, a lot of people. In the book I counteracted that or I counterbalanced it by telling a story about a high-touch, low-tech existence. I went to these workshops in northern California. Some people might call them encounter groups, and these kind of things do have a history. These do go back to the '60s and the '70s. I aimed to write about them in a way in which made them understandable, to say that, in a world where we are so afraid of losing touch with each other, we can't just theorize about it. And, in particular, I myself couldn't just theorize about it because I was also technology addicted and still am really, and I'm also a deaf person who has to work harder than most people to maintain that sense of connection with another person, just because I have to work harder to hear. It's harder for me to feel connected to a group because it's harder for me to hear people in a group. So I talk about in the book the fact that I've just turned 40 and never been loved, and I have really struggled with trying to establish intimacy and to learn how to listen to other people. So I took the risk of going to one of these groups.
  27. 27. But, for me, it was an enormously positive experience. It was very challenging. It was the kind of thing that not everyone would be comfortable with. But, for me, it was the exact kind of training I needed to learn to become more comfortable with my own body, to learn to become more comfortable interacting with other people. I'll tell you just one little vignette. There's one exercise that we did, where we just looked into someone else's eyes. Now that sounds all hippy-dippy, right? But it's actually very profound to do and profound because it's difficult. It's challenging. It pushes your buttons. You have to overcome your own desire to hide. But hiding is exactly what our civilization gives us enormous amount of practice in doing. So I want to counter pose a radical example of refusing to hide and am not hiding, and I'm learning not to hide. So these workshops were low tech in the sense that there was no tech. There wasn't even clothing. It was a clothing-optional environment. Not a sexual environment. Simply a clothing-optional environment. And the reason for that was very well thought out because when you don't even have that technology of clothing, you have to confront your own elemental being. And your own elemental being I found was the hardest to confront, not so much other people. So it's a very challenging part of the book, and it was extremely difficult for me to write because I wanted to make it blend into the overall argument that I was trying to
  28. 28. make. But I think it's an absolutely crucial point to make. The point can really be boiled down to this: You have to teach people how to communicate with other people. You can't just assume that they're going to do it on their own and especially not now when they are distracted by all sorts of gadgets that are presenting them with the quick allure of easy and addictive textual and auditory and visual communication. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Continuing with the theme of the cultural implications, you refer in a later chapter to the contagion that we see of things like habits and individual traits. So we've seen things like obesity, happiness smoking, many of these things tend to appear, I guess, to researchers nowadays as being contagious in the same way that the cold or the flu might be. How do you integrate that observation into the coming integration and worldwide mind that you envision? MICHAEL CHOROST: That book by Christakis and Fowler and a title, Connected. That book really had a profound impact on my thinking. And this research got a lot of attention when it started to surface two or three years ago. For example, Christakis and Fowler did these analyses of very large groups, and they started to find things like, if a friend of a friend of yours is overweight, that increases your statistical likelihood of being overweight by 25 percent. It's not so surprising if you're overweight, if just a friend of yours is overweight, because you can see all sorts of possible causal connections there. But it is surprising if someone whom you don't
  29. 29. know and have never met when their status has a statistical impact on your status. So the same rule holds true for other things. If you are unhappy or rather if a friend of a friend of yours is unhappy, your odds of being unhappy are 25 percent larger. Okay? So their research started to show where it raised the possibility that there are these threads of communication among us, of which we are really totally consciously completely unaware. That we simply have no idea that these things are going on, but yet have a profound impact on our own physical health, on our emotional health. So we are really much more worldwide minded than we realize. So this kind of research is going to show these really surprising and fascinating connections. What I say is that we're really already kind of a worldwide mind. It's just that we're wound with low bandwidth so we have a relatively limited ability to communicate with a large number of people. So I say, well, these technologies that I'm imagining as fictions could allow us to become a real worldwide mind in the sense that we would interact so richly and so densely that epiphenomenonal consciousness would emerge, of which we have no conception, that we might not even be able to recognize what's happening. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: This takes me to another heading of a section in your book: The Future of Individuality. This has been focusing so much on the unusual connections that technology can afford us, but what does this mean for the future of
  30. 30. the individual? MICHAEL CHOROST: This comes back to the Borgs, which you brought up at the very beginning of this discussion. That's kind of the archetypal nightmare of the worldwide mind, this fear that technology will turn us all into these emotionless drones. And so the Borg are really giving voice to this fear which has been expressed by Sherry Turkle and by books like Hamlet's BlackBerry and so forth. I think everybody is aware of this. Sherry Turkle tells these heartbreaking stories of the fact that teenagers get into their parents' car, they're being picked up from the soccer game, and they have to wait for their parents to stop typing away on their BlackBerry before they can start talking. So there is this fear that technology is depersonalizing us. I make an argument that it really can be just the other way around, that actually _____ develops, technology's connection make us more human. I was inspired there by a philosopher named Teilhard de Chardin. I'm not quite exactly sure how the name is pronounced. I need to look it up a little more closely. He's a very interesting guy because he was both a Catholic priest and a paleontologist. He was simultaneously part of a Catholic church that was very suspicious of evolution, and, at the same time he was a scientist whose research was very much about the evolutionary process. So he wrote this little visionary book titled The Phenomenon of Man, which the church forbade him to publish while he was alive. It came out only
  31. 31. after his death. He made the argument that humanity is evolving as a whole and that that evolution actually enhances individual consciousness at every step of the way, rather than diminishing it. One of the parts of the book I try to talk about what that would be like. What does that mean to become part of a collective but still even more individual, even more of your own self than you are now. That's a part of the book that I would have liked to work on for another six months before letting the book out, but I had a deadline to meet. But I suggested that one analogy is just like being a member of a symphony. You do not call the violinist diminished because she is contributing to a larger whole, which is really a transpersonal whole. She's rather realizing her own individuality, although more intensely becoming a part of this work of art. I suggested a number of scenarios of how people could brainstorm much more effectively in a worldwide mind, by sensing each other's feelings of excitement when ideas are starting to build, and that would give a collective a sense of which ideas are important and worth pursuing, as opposed to ideas which are not important. I make the analogy here with António Damásio's books. António Damásio has been really instrumentally in showing that a lot of what we think of as rational cognition is really very much based on emotion. So people who have brain damage that doesn't allow them access to their feelings,
  32. 32. you might think that would make them even more socially effective thinkers, but, in fact, they're almost completely crippled because they don't have feelings that tell them what's important. They don't get that sense of excitement saying, "This is important. This is what I need to focus on." So they become completely fragmented, completely scattered. They're unable to focus on anything. I suggest that the ability to share emotions and perceptions might actually allow a kind of higher cognition in which everybody participates more fully, without becoming depersonalized. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Great. Actually, I didn't realize it, we're to the top of the hour. I guess we do have a minute, if there's one big takeaway that you'd like to leave people with, now would be the time. MICHAEL CHOROST: Well, I would say this book is really about feelings. The subtitle I don't feel really expresses what the book is about, and, in fact, I had a very long debate with the publisher about the subtitle. I would have liked to have called it The Coming Integration of Humanity and Machines: A Love Story because the book really is a love story. It's a love story of how I met my wife, and that whole story gets told in the book. So my wife is actually a major character as the book unfolds. And it's also a love story of what humanity could become, of how it could become a better, more empathetic, more compassionate, more feeling-oriented collective than it is now.
  33. 33. So the book is really kind of an ode to the future that I would like to see happen. I actually talk about these workshops I went to. It's feeling more futuristic to me and the exotic technologies that I write about as a science writer. So I write for Wired. I write books on neurotechnology, so I'm no stranger to seeing these incredibly exotic futuristic technologies. What's in my head is incredibly exotic and futuristic, but I say in my book that this kind of connected compassionate kind of civilization, to me, is the most exciting and futuristic possibility of all. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Great. I would like to leave people with one of my favorite quotes from the book, where you were comparing the complexity of the human brain and a galaxy, and you point out that, in many ways, although the galaxy seems so large and makes us feel so small and irrelevant, in fact, it isn't clear that the balance goes that way and that the brain is, in many ways, more impressive than the galaxy. And then here's the quote from the book, "The proof is that when you say, 'Suddenly I feel so small,' the galaxy has nothing to say back." So I really enjoyed that quote. I enjoyed our conversation. So, Michael Chorost, thanks for coming back and joining us again. We've been discussing, for the most part, the book World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humans and Machines. I'm sorry you lost your battle with the publisher to have the subtitle be a love story. I'd also like to point viewers to Michael's prior book Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me a Better Human. And you can see our
  34. 34. discussion of that book in the Metanomics archives. So again, thank you for joining us, Michael. Thank you for joining us, those of you in the audience. Some great questions today. Sorry we didn't get to all of them. This is Rob Bloomfield signing off for Metanomics. Bye bye. Document: cor1096.doc Transcribed by: http://www.hiredhand.com

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