We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Transhumanist Collectivism Scenario

Exploration of how the research into more effective brain to machine interface may lead to hyper collectivism rather than individualism. No stance is taken on possible results of memory sharing.

Majority of transhumanists in the English speaking world often fancy that the future will continue becoming increasingly hyperindividualistic and that cybernetics will accelerate the process of divergence in pleasures, values, and modes of being due to divergence in vessels in which the human minds will find themselves. Considering the speeding up in fragmentation of cultural trends in Western culture (think of the duration and intensity of memes and trends in either music, film genres, activism, or even politics), such predictions sound like a safe bet. However, a couple of factors contribute to possible emergence of integrated collectivism the likes of which could not have been imagined before. Brain to computer interface communication is one such factor that is worth exploring. Let's discuss it systematically.

The last few years have brought great strides in the field of brain to computer interface. Paralyzed patients are now able to control cursors on computer screens with their thoughts and to type by thinking letters. Although much better communication between the brain and a machine's computer can be established through physical insertion of a net of carbon nanotube receivers straight into the brain tissue, increasingly it appears there is no need for that in many cases. The human brain waves have a frequency high enough to penetrate the skull and be read by ever more sensitive receivers on the scalp.

 Most recent breakthroughs in cybernetics still involve one way communication from the brain to the device as in the case of a monkey's mind controlling a robotic arm to feed itself and a monkey managing to move robotic legs on a treadmill by just thinking about it. It is necessary to emphasize that brain action in regards to use of the internet and non-humanoid machines can be very different than brain action in control of neuroprosthetic limbs. In the latter, the existing neural hardware is the source for outgoing brain signals and replaces missing/immobilized phantom limbs with mechanical ones while working in familiar territory. Whereas in the former, it is an unfamiliar territory and the brain has to be continuously exercised to create sufficient new neural connections and get an ever expanding stream of signals to operate programs that have little in common with human hardware.

As an example of the less familiar brain to computer interface, lets take a person's brainwaves "flying" an object (say a virtual airplane) through a simulation reality. This already exists by the way and you can get headsets allowing you to do so. At first the airplane spins wildly but the person realizes that he can steer it left when utilizing his right hemisphere and stir it to the right when utilizing the left. Frontal and posterior regions can do the up and down. The program understands the brain layout and thus utilizes it as a framework for 360 3D control. Obviously to think of math, lyrics, art, etc to control an object sounds insanely inefficient in comparison to neuroprosthetic method of thinking of moving a left thumb, right thumb, left foot, right foot, etc.

The issue here is not the development of the quickest simplest "universal remote thought control" (URTC) to control first a virtual object and then a real physical object in the form of a machine that is either attached to the body, is a short distance away, or is on the other side of the world. The issue is to create an easy to learn/use plug and play control mechanism that will have an almost non-existent lag in comparison to person's normal reflexes. Sure, we might at first have to create a simple internationally used URTC (think a simplified virtual keyboard for your brain to control a great number of programs from computer operating systems to lawn mowers to transport construction robots).

Lets take a ridiculous example of a lawn mower for instance (ridiculous in that it's easier to create an autonomous lawn mower than for a person to control it with thoughts). A person can direct the mower registered to his ID (can't have a citizen be able to control other people's property) over a lawn the way he directs a cursor over a screen. He can think at it some universally recognizable equivalent symbol of "faster" or "slower", to go to any of a handful of functions as well as of course to turn on and off. For many machines that is enough and same principles could be applied to literally thousands of gadgets of various sizes. Such a control scheme is not sufficient due to the lag involved. When a person is controlling his robot dog this way and a car is about to hit the dog, the middlemen of URTC can cause a lag that gets the robot smashed by the car. This problem is even greater when operating a passenger vehicle this way or some military bot. The advantages of the old joystick and wheel then become readily evident.

It now becomes more apparent that there are a number of possible thought control methods (with those relying on the most newly evolved linguistic parts of the brain being perhaps the slowest and least efficient). The linguistic thinking process may be enough for just communication (thinking up a word instead of typing it) but not for high speed and reliable manipulation of machinery. For that the more reptilian/ancient reflex oriented brain parts are probably needed.

Yes, but what does this have to do with emergence of possible collectivism?

The military and corporate organs will eventually be driven to find ways of capturing the total brain signal command output by capturing the information out of the spinal column as well as from the surface of the brain. This will be done with the purpose of achieving a reflex level control by the human brain over a desired computer program. Simultaneously there will be research done into creating a way to send signals from the machine to the brain to create a two way cybernetic communication. The breakthroughs in two way communication are the most exciting part if you ask any transhumanist. These are the technologies that will allow a blind person to have a spectrum of vision from the microscopic to the telescopic, for a deaf person to hear heartbeats, etc. As of today, research in this area involves making neuroprosthetics realistic so a person with a robotic hand can feel what it touches as well as command it smoothly with his nerves and brain.
If you consider that eventually, the total neural signal output will be captured, you'll see that this data can then be stored, streamed, modified, etc. In essence, the ability to read the total output will allow to fully record a person's experience as it happens and thus allow external storage of such experiences (memories). Reverse engineering of the total one way communication from the brain to machine will enable a total one way communication from machine to the brain. This means that the memories recorded from one person in real time can be stored and then played for another person.

Lets not even think of very augmented humans at this point and think of the implications for relatively familiar humanity that such technology creates. Playback of memories easily defeats movies as an entertainment medium. Eventually broadband speeds will enable streaming of such entertainment in real time to millions if not billions of humans (those who have the augmentation necessary to get the signal data). This in turn enables the sharing of virtually identical experiences (one's perception of the experiences is a different matter which is a topic for another day). We can see that people would like to spend their time and resources playing the most exciting memories and not the lousy ones. The more they do so, the more they become identical since what we are is just a collection of our unique memories with a physiological neural operating system.

We can conceptualize subcultures and religious sects where the members share the memories to such a degree that they increasingly relate more and more to each due to the fact of them increasingly becoming each other. Even without such inclination to overly share, we can see a youtube type sharing of thousands of key memories by millions of individuals who become one without really trying to do so. Rather than continue becoming individualized, the process will begin to revert itself as people from around the world gradually melt into one giant increasingly homogeneous collective. The more they become one the more that will influence which memories they seek out next which just accelerates the process. Of course since there are a number of different psychological breeds among humans, such process should result in a number of increasingly polarized collectives within one loosely integrated global one. After all, there would be thousands of hours of exciting memories yet not enough time to watch them all. Person's cultural, educational, psychological background would decide.

In a way this is already happening on the internet and the collectivization through a global or regional internet culture is the other factor in potential emergence of transhuman collectivism. I will explore the two factors more fully in part 2.

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