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.

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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, 2011ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is owned and operated by Remedy and Dusan WritersMetaverse.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Hi. Im Robert Bloomfield, professor at Cornell UniversitysJohnson Graduate School of Management. Today we continue exploring VirtualWorlds 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 isMetanomics.ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is filmed today in front of a live audience at our studiosin Second Life. We are pleased to broadcast weekly to our event partners and towelcome discussion. We use ChatBridge technology to allow viewers to commentduring the show. Metanomics is sponsored by the Johnson Graduate School ofManagement at Cornell University. Welcome. This is Metanomics.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Welcome, everyone, to Metanomics. Our guest today isMichael 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. Ive seen publications of it in theNew York Times, for example, and Im sure our very capable staff will get some linksinto the chat so you can take a look at those, but well have our own conversationabout the book, with Michael Chorost. Michael, welcome back to Metanomics.MICHAEL CHOROST: Thank you so much, Rob. Glad to be here.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Its great to have you. Before we get into World WideMind, I just want to catch readers up on your last book Rebuilt, the subtitle of that isHow Becoming Part Computer Made Me a Better Human. I think that thats a veryimportant subtext for people to understand as they jump into this book. Could yougive 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 losingwhat was left of my hearing, being completely deaf and getting cochlear implants.Its about the process of learning how to hear all over again. The book is what I call ascientific memoir because I talk not just about the personal experience, but aboutthe philosophical issues of having a body that actually has a computer in it and whatthat is all about. So Rebuilt covered both of those angles, the cyborg angle, youmight 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 talkingabout your book Rebuilt, but you already had your book World Wide Mind well underway. Now the subtitle to that one is The Coming Integration of Humans andMachines just makes me think of the Borg, and, in fact, I saw in one of the laterchapters in the book, you even quote Three of Nine or someone like that, from TheNext Generation saying resistance is futile. Lets 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 isconstituted of humans and machines working together. So a nice handy example isGoogles page-bank algorithm. So with Google, you have this incredibly powerfulsearch engine, but in itself it has no agency or identity, is purely constituted of thecollective decisions of everybody who is creating links on the web. So Google is, in asense, a kind of subjectivity that is constituted of us but yet stands apart from us. SoI see a worldwide mind as being an elaboration of that, a more sophisticated versionof what we now see Google doing.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: How much of this is a reframing of things that alreadyhappen? My day job is to study stock markets and, much like Google, there areinstitutions that combine the thoughts of many different people mediated throughtheir decisions to make buy and sell offers on assets. And what we get out of itthough 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 usedifferent terms to describe it, but its still the same stock market they had back in theNetherlands hundreds of years ago when they brought us the tulip bubbles, forthose who know about those. So to what extent is this just a re-description of thefamiliar, and what is it as you see as really being new?MICHAEL CHOROST: Its a great question because the stock market is perhapsthe best example going, the collective entity emerging from human interaction. Youmight call it an epiphenomenon, that it is its own seemingly independent entity thatarises out of many transactions of buying and selling, and yet it has its own behaviorthat is not strictly predictable. So its a really neat example.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And let me say Im just delighted to hear the wordepiphenomenon, which is one I dont hear enough since my undergraduate days.MICHAEL CHOROST: Great word. Of course, its from Hofstadter, from Gödel,Escher, Bach, because he talked about it so brilliantly and so eloquently. And healso talked about the idea of can intelligence emerge out of the aggregated workingsof entities, which, in themselves, are not mindful. So we talked about ant hives orrather anthills and beehives as examples of epiphenomenal entities, where eachindividual, each ant, each bee has no real brain. But you can speak of the hive ashaving a mind of its own. So the word epiphenomenon I totally agree with you, its
  5. 5. such a neat work.So to come back to the question that you were asking, the place from my book goesbeyond these epiphenomenon that we have now is that I talk about the physicalintegration 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 thatcollective activity becomes what we see in Google and in various other searchengines. What Im talking about is a little bit different. So I start with the physical factof my own body, the fact that I have a cochlear implant in my head. And what thatmeans is that I have this firsthand knowledge where you can actually install acomputer into my nervous system and actually does useful work for me. My entireauditory world is constructed by its stimulation of my auditory nerve. So my sensoryworld is created by my integration with a computer. So thats my launching point inWorld Wide Mind, basically saying this kind of thing is now possible.Maybe Ill have to stop here for a moment, let you jump in if you want to pick up onthat before I go to the next step. Id like to say also at this point I would love toencourage discussion from the audience so--Im not really familiar with Second Lifeinterface, but if anyone wants to put up a virtual hand and ask questions, Idencourage 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 withinSecond Life from one region to another, which Second Life itself doesnt directlysupport, but it also integrated with the web. So I know we have a number of viewerson the web right now, and Im 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 andcomments, and well work them into our conversation.You talked about your cochlear implant as being much more than just holding aphone in your hand or something like that and a much deeper level of integration. Iguess this is probably a good time for me to ask this question, which is: Toward thebeginning of the book, you tell the reader that youre going to be making predictionsthat may seem very surprising and farfetched, but theyre fictions, not lies, whichwas a distinction I had not heard before. So could you talk a little bit about thatdistinction?MICHAEL CHOROST: Oh, its 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 neuralengineer. He said that an example of a lie is predicting a perpetual motion machineare faster than light travel, its something that is not conceptually possible to coin tothe laws of physics as we know them. But a fiction would be some thing like a manvoyage to Jupiter. That is something that we know to be possible, even if we cantactually do it now. So in the book, I try to tell fictions but not lies. I think thats animportant distinction.
  7. 7. The book is a thought experiment. The contribution I see my book is making ismaking a new kind of conversation possible, where instead of talking about WorldWide Mind in a kind of science-fictional idea, with no idea of how it could actually berealized, I actually suggest specific technologies that could be used to realize it,specifically optogenetics. Ill talk a little bit more about optogenetics later, but thebasic point for now is that optogenetics is beginning to give scientists a way oflooking at individual thoughts and individual perceptions in the physical substrate ofthe brain. And thats something that has not been possible before. It hasnt evenbeen possible dealing with functional [MRI?] or electrodes.It gives us an access to these interior states of consciousness. Or, to put it anotherway, it allows us to actually draw a direct connection between an internal experienceas seeing something and feeling something and to actually connect that up with aspecific activity of a group of neurons in the brain. And so that allows us to begintalking about the possibility of building networks that allow information to be takenout of one brain and transmitted to another brain, in order to allow that other brain toknow what the first brain is seeing or feeling or thinking or experiencing in a verydirect and visceral way.And, for me, what I found so exciting in the book was simply that Im able to say thisis 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. Everyscience book has to have a little section of film noire in it, I guess. Youve got thischapter early on of a drug bust that takes place in the future, where you have theSWAT team that comes in basically is linked. They are able to sense in a veryminimal way, but a sufficient way, they are able to sense the impressions of theother people on the team. So I dont know if thats something that we can do justiceto in an interview of this style. Would you want to just tell us about the parts of thatstory, that really capture your imagination?MICHAEL CHOROST: Sure. It was important to me to tell that fiction. I mean itsfiction in that literal sense because I just knew I had to tell the reader pretty early inthe book, "This is what a worldwide mind may actually look like and actually feellike." I knew that, until I did that, the book would just seem like philosophizing. Soheres a nice way I like to think about it. You know where your hand is, withouthaving to look at it. You know where your fingers are. Its that sense that we callproprioception, that your fingers are always communicating with your brain in such away 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 beable 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 aproprioceptive awareness of each others bodies. So they know the sensations thatthose other bodies are having, and they know where those bodies are in spatialrelationship to them, even though they cant see them. So they know that oneperson 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 tothem, like if they hit something or someone hits them, they feel that bodys sensationas if it was a sensation that happened to their body. So they have that direct visceralawareness of each other. That allows them to function as a team, with a speed anda rapidity that we couldnt possibly accomplish today, with using words or usingvideo.That was a very important part early in the book. I was just trying to say to thereader, "This is kind of what it could look like." Now let me say, theres a couplescenarios like that in the book, and they were among the hardest parts of the bookto write because it was like trying to imagine the impact of email before email. ButIm still trying to say this is kind of what Im envisioning.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, first of all, I should also say my hat is off to anyonewho can write fiction of any type. I write what I believe is nonfiction anyway, and itschallenge enough, and Im 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 Idlike to point out, and we also have some questions and comments from theaudience. Id like to say that one of the things I appreciated in that drug-bust story isthat, while youre making the point right now of how effective this communicationcould 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 nottremendously detailed. I think a lot of sci-fi that we read, its people being able tocommunicate entire sentences. These are really just very, very simple physical andemotional impressions, which, to me, sounds much easier to pull off and much morelikely to be what wed see first.Lets see. Weve got a couple comments here. Let me just scroll through for asecond. Heres a question from Nettie B, whos watching on the web, "What aboutDonna Haraways Cyborg Mythology?" Is that something thats familiar to you,Michael?MICHAEL CHOROST: Oh, yes. I actually wrote about it in some detail in my firstbook. So you thinking of A Cyborg Manifesto, which is a very famous piece back inthe 80s.
  11. 11. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yes, exactly. Can you maybe just, for those of us not thatfamiliar with it, please just tell us a little about it and your thoughts?MICHAEL CHOROST: Okay. A Cyborg Manifesto, first of all, its very easilyaccessible on the web so you just pull it up and take a look at it. What Haraway isdoing is really very different from what I am doing. For Haraway, she was reallyusing the word cyborg as a metaphor for a kind of a political conditions, a politicalcondition of the fact that everyone has a very heterogeneous set of loyalties,interests and affiliations and relationships and that were all constituted these veryheterogeneous things. So she wasnt really talking about actual biomedicaltechnologies. The essay just doesnt touch on that.So one of the things that I concluded in my first book was, it could, at best, be readas a metaphorical discussion of the kind of body that I have. So it was just notsomething that helped me very much in this second book because I was trying todescribe biomedical technology, without really getting into the kind of sociologyphilosophy that Haraway was getting into. So Id be happy to try to delve deeper intothat, but I just want to make clear that Haraways discussion of cyborg is verydifferent from the way I discuss the concepts.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: It sounds like the way youre describing it is the way that Ithink of it from, well, so at home weve been watching a lot of Battlestar Galacticalately. So youve 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 itexactly that you see the similarities, the metaphor? So her story is a metaphoricalone, yours is a very concrete one. I guess Im having a little trouble seeing the linkbetween them.MICHAEL CHOROST: Yeah. I would not say that theres an especially importantlink between those. But lets come back to what you were saying about the fact thatthis SWAT team, their communication was images proprioceptive, emotional, andmy focus was on those kinds of communication. I dont know if that wouldnecessarily be easier to transmit from one brain to another than verbalcommunication. But we already have an excellent technology for conveying verbalcommunication: thats the telephone and IP over internet and all sorts of stuff, orrather voiceover over IP.MICHAEL CHOROST: So I was trying to think beyond the kinds of technologies wehave now, to imagine a new kind of technology. So to be really concrete about itbecause I think until you get concrete, people dont really get what I mean by WorldWide Mind. So basically I explored this technology. In fact, it was rooted in a story Iwrote for Wired Magazine that was published in November 2009. It was about atechnology called optogenetics. So I visited labs at Stanford and MIT, and I learnedthat--well, to back up just a step: right now you can very easily make neurons fire byputting 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. Thats what mycochlear implant does. It just puts electrodes right near auditory neurons in my innerear, force them to fire with a burst of electricity. So that technology has been aroundfor decades.The problem with it is, its several faults. First of all, its not a very precisetechnology. It makes all the neurons, around the electrode, fire, instead of justparticular neurons. Not only that, but there are many different kinds of neurons inbrain tissue, and so, if you fire all the neurons, you get all sorts of side effects asneurons fire that you dont want to have firing. Finally, you cant inhibit neural firing.You cant stop neurons from firing.So electricity, which has been the reigning paradigm neural stimulation for decades,its limitations are really becoming clear. Theyve been always clear, but theirlimitations are becoming especially problematic now. So with optogenetics, you canuse a virus to insert genes into neurons that come from plants; I mean plants likechlorophyll, or rather genes that control chlorophyll. You can give a neuron a genefrom a plant, which makes that neuron create proteins that will make the neuron fireor 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 its not so different from electricity.
  14. 14. What is special is that you can add things called promoters that will allow you to fireonly certain genetically distinct kinds of neurons. In other words, you can say, "WhenI turn on this blue light, only the Purkinje neurons in this area of brain tissue aregoing to fire and nothing else." Thats a kind of specificity that weve never hadbefore.I dug deeper into that to show in the book is becoming practical in the lab, identifyingthe neurons that correspond to a specific perception or a specific memory and, intheory, to make those neurons and only those neurons fire again. So thats the coretechnology that allows me to talk about the fact that you could detect a specificthought rather than a broad activation of a part of a brain, but a specific thought orspecific perception and then evoke a similar or rather an equivalent neuro pattern ofactivity in a different brain that would evoke roughly the same kind of percept. Sothats the scientific basis of World Wide Mind, this technique of genetically modifyingneurons so that they can be controlled very precisely with light. Its a reallymind-blowing technology. It just astounded me when I started to learn about it.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Its new to me, and I can see actually Jennette Forager,our producer, helpfully pasted a link from Wikipedia into the chat channel, and so Ican see that its quite new. The principle of optogenetics was discovered in 2002and was selected as the Method of the Year in 2010, by Nature Methods, anorganization that Ive never heard of.
  15. 15. MICHAEL CHOROST: Thats right. Its allowing all sorts of experiments to beconducted that were just simply not possible before. I want to be clear that I dontsay that, in a few years, were going to be installing optogenetic hardware inpeoples brains and allowing them to do this. The point that I was making was kind oflike the point that I made about Jules Vernes book, in 1865, From the Earth to theMoon. He envisioned this trip from the earth to the moon almost exactly a hundredyears before one actually happened. And, of course, he didnt know abouttechnology like rocketry, but he got the basic science right so he was able to explainvery accurately how long such a trip would take, how fast a capsule would have tomove in order to get from the earth to the moon. He wrote about issues likeweightlessness and the need to bring along your own air supply. So I see WorldWide Mind as being a fiction in the same sense that Jules Vernes book was a fictionback in 1865, and it outlined the conceptual basis of something that actually didprove to be possible, with later technologies.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: We have a question from Latha Serevi. Latha, I hope Impronouncing that correctly. The question refers to proprioception. So as youmentioned thats the ability of people to recognize where their hand is and get thatinformation about their bodily position and tactile experiences. The question fromLatha is, "Our brains have very specific maps into which the proprioceptioninformation is fed. Isnt it a problem that theres no map built in where other peoples
  16. 16. positions can be put?MICHAEL CHOROST: Thats a wonderful question. And, in fact, we know that thebrain can very readily create new maps. So let me just give you some greatexamples. Im trying to remember a certain experiment that was done way backwhen. But basically, if you tie two of the persons fingers together so that you cantmove those fingers independently, the brain will actually change its internal map ofthe hand, in order to reflect the fact that those fingers have changed. It has beenshown that when a person learns a new musical instrument, the map of the brainrelating to the hand actually changes to reflect the new way in which that hand isbeing used.Theres an even better example that relates to my own cochlear implant. If I thinkabout something, my cochlear implant is giving me neural stimulation in ways thatmy brain had never experienced before. And some of that neural stimulation wasabout pitch perception that I had never heard before. For example, I had a severehearing 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-pitchednote. If the implant is giving me information that corresponds to 8,000 hertz, thats atone that my brain has never heard before. But my brain was able to remap itstopography in my auditory cortex so that I was able to learn, okay, "This weirdsensation that Im 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 soundedlike gibberish. I just had no idea what I was hearing. It sounded like language, but Icould 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 likenow." An S is a relatively high-pitched sound. This is what a T sounds like. So mybrain actually remapped itself. There is all sorts of evidence in neural science thebrain not only can remap itself, but does so routinely. And it is always reconfiguringits own topography, to make sense of new kinds of inputs.So Im actually very confident that, even if you gave your brain a very really unusualbizarre kind of input, it would learn how to make sense of it, so long as the personcould get some kind of exterior correlative of it, that is, youd have to learn topractice. Youd have to see those people at first, to figure out, "Okay, when a personis 20 feet to my left and theyre 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 ScienceBooks. There is a whole series of them on just about everything that I could imagineat 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 seeingwith their tongues. I did see some research on this a few years ago, where, as Iunderstand it, there is a camera basically sensing visual stimuli and then translatingit into electrical stimuli that go right onto the tongue because someone is holdingsome sort of lollipop-like thing on their tongue. So the brain is clearly very plastic.MICHAEL CHOROST: Exactly. Its a wonderful example. Ive read about thoseexperiments too. Those blind people who have this device in their tongue, they startto report after awhile that they actually feel like theyre seeing, even though theyrehaving sensations on their tongue. So yeah, the brain is incredibly flexible and isable to make sense of new input, so long as it can match that input up with stuff thatit is getting from some other modality.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: We have a question from Tammy Nowotny, which may berelated to some of this because apparently Tammy notes the brain isnt all thatplastic. The question is, "How come the brain has so much trouble filtering outtinnitus?" if Im pronouncing that correctly.
  19. 19. MICHAEL CHOROST: Yes. Thats a very interesting question. Some people dohave trouble, other people dont. Theres actually this technique called TinnitusRetraining--I forget. Its TRT, I think, like, Tinnitus Retraining Therapy, which does tryto teach people how to [habituate?] the tinnitus, and some people can do it, andsome people cant. But the question is well-taken because we do know that the brainis not infinitely flexible.We know, for example, that speakers of Japanese have great difficulty learning howto hear the difference between an R and an L in English. Even after many years ofpractice, they often still cant do it. So there are some limitations to this kind ofmapping. But nonetheless, we do know that the brain is able to make sense, to avery large extent, as shown by the fact that a Japanese speaker can learn tounderstand English, even if they cant make out the differences between all thesyllables.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Lets see. As long as were talking aboutfascinating 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 thathappens to you when you go to neuroscience conferences. I went to this demo ofthis 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 itand wires coming out of it, mad scientist stuff. And this guy was able to stare at ascreen and spell out, letter by letter, his own name. It looked like magic, just lookingat it from the outside, like, "Oh, my gosh! Hes standing there, without sayinganything, and these letters appear on the screen. Wow! It really looks like this thingis reading his mind."The next day I was wandering around the exhibit area, and I came to the booth ofthis company that had the cap. I said, "Wow! Let me try this." I put the cap on. I hadto take off my processors to do it, by the way, so he had to explain to me the wholething before I took my processors off. But it was like a magic trick. When you see iton the stage, its like, "Oh, my god! That looks just like magic," and then when youfind out how its actually done, its like, "Oh, I could have told you that."The way this thing worked was the software had all the letters of the alphabet on thescreen, and they were dimmed out, and, one at a time, each letter would flashbrightly, and this would happen very rapidly so that, in less than a second, it wouldcycle through all 26 letters of the alphabet. So that if youre looking just at the T, forexample, you see the T light up about once every second. What the cap was doingwas, it was looking for a particular type of brain activity called the P300 EvokedResponse Potential. Basically what that means is, where the brain recognizes avisually novel stimulus, something new happening, it will reliably generate that wave.
  21. 21. Its called the P300 wave.So all the cap was doing was waiting for a P300, and it was correlating that with theletters that I was flashing. So if it saw that you brain generated a P300 every timethe T flashed, it guessed that you were looking at the T. And then you would putthe T on the screen. Then you moved your gaze to the next letter that you wanted toquote/unquote "write," say, H. It was just looking for that P300 wave. It lookedimpressive, and it was impressive. Okay, Im not denigrating DG, it is impressivetechnology, but the computer had no semantic understanding of what I was thinking.It didnt know that I was trying to spell out a name. It didnt even understand that theconcepts of T and H and Q are distinct concepts. All it was doing was looking for aping 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 ofstuff that we can actually do now. We can actually do mind-reading in this veryrestricted sense. Its authentic mind-reading, but its obviously nowhere nearknowing what someone else is thinking and feeling. So I kind of bring that up inorder to set it aside, to say this is what we can do now, but thats not going to get usto the kind of technology I’m envisioning in the book. Thats where I start to explainthere are much more advanced technologies that let you see what individual sets ofneurons are doing, to start correlating those with feelings and thoughts, which is awhole order of magnitude more complex that you can do with this kind of
  22. 22. mind-reading cap.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Lets move on to some of the social and psychologicaland cultural implications of the World Wide Mind. Id like to start with a question thatis the title of one of your chapters: Does Electronic Communication Make Us MoreLonely. Whats your take on that?MICHAEL CHOROST: Okay. Well, there has been a whole raft of books, in the pastcouple of years, about the social impact of the internet. Actually, its been the lastcouple of decades. But I think the concern about this has really reached kind of afever pitch lately. Weve seen books, like Sherry Turkles book Alone Together,where she marshals a raft of interview evidence. The teenagers who are reallycompelled by texting are also spending less time in empathetic and one-on-oneinteractions with people. Theyre actually becoming afraid of intimacy, in a very newand really kind of alarming way.There are books like Hamlets BlackBerry, by William Powers, where he talks aboutthe almost addictive nature of the internet. One of his solutions is to institute internetSabbath, where he doesnt use the internet for one day out of the week, in order todisconnect from it. So theres this whole culture of deep concern about what ouriPhones and BlackBerries and emails and texts are doing to us, in terms ofdistracting 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 theres thiswhole background of concern, and that is something that I have to address in thebook, and I do, at length, because we are already addicted to our BlackBerries andiPhones.Worldwide mind technology like Im describing would just make it a thousand timesworse because, if all of a sudden you have this technology in your head, where itsimmediately part of your experience, then who need reality, right? And, of course,Im aware that Im saying to a Second Life audience. Im sure that everybody in theaudience thinks about these issues and has their own set of concerns and reactionsto them. So Im sure therell be a bunch of questions.MICHAEL CHOROST: But let me just say that, in the book, what I say is that theanswer is not, on the one hand, to stop using the internet. Nobodys going to do that.Nor is the answer to be completely blasé about it, kind of like the Ray Kurzweil is,"Oh, its 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 thebody, to rather integrate it into our bodies so that online experience, the face-to-faceexperience 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; Im just reading from the section Does ElectronicCommunication Make Us Lonely?, and you write, "In 1909, Sigmund Freud dulyobserved that while the telephone let distant people communicate, it also let them bedistant. Nearly a hundred years later, the writer Adam Gopnik was appalled to findhis daughters imaginary friend, Charlie Ravioli, could only be reached on her toy cellphone and was always too busy to play with her."Its 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 peopleconstantly postpone emotionally authentic communication to a later time, whichnever arrives. Like Charlie Ravioli, Gopnik wrote, we hop into taxis, and leavemessages on answering machines to avoid our acquaintances and find that we keepmissing our friends." So I thought that was a very interesting summary and one thatIll want to track down.You also tell a story. This was a major excerpt in the New York Times. I believe theyended up publishing all of Chapter Four of your book, in which, under the headingThe Most Intimate Interface, you interweaved these two very different types ofinterfaces. One is the wires that are connected to your neurons, as youve discussedtoday, in your cochlear implant. And the other was just the sense of touch, oftouching other people and hugging them in a rather unusual and--what was it called.I cant remember the name of that; it was like an encounter group or something like
  25. 25. that.MICHAEL CHOROST: Yes. Well, thats a 1960s term. Thats not a term they woulduse today.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I read Gay Talese or whatever his name was, a long timeago. Clearly, my interpretation anyway of that chapter in the context of your largerpoint 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 bea substitute. Am I misreading you?MICHAEL CHOROST: Well, youre telling part of the story, but not the whole story.Yeah, some people are trying to develop these _____ interfaces which would transsimilacrum someone elses touch and actually try to head off that kind of technologyor rather head off the assumption that such a technology would be complete, butpointing out that communication is not just about touch, but its also about smell andeye contact, pheromones and a whole range of things. So you cant really just takeone part of it and assume its going to do the job for everything else.But what you say does get me into whats really, I think, the most controversial partof 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 wastrying to do. So what I was trying to do in the book is to say, "Well, the kind oftechnology Im talking about, indeed the kind of technology we have now inBlackBerries and iPhones, is leading us toward a day high-tech, low-touch kind ofworld. This is what people are so concerned about--Sherry Turkle, Adam Gopnik, alot of people.In the book I counteracted that or I counterbalanced it by telling a story about ahigh-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 ahistory. These do go back to the 60s and the 70s. I aimed to write about them in away in which made them understandable, to say that, in a world where we are soafraid of losing touch with each other, we cant just theorize about it. And, inparticular, I myself couldnt just theorize about it because I was also technologyaddicted and still am really, and Im also a deaf person who has to work harder thanmost people to maintain that sense of connection with another person, just becauseI have to work harder to hear.Its harder for me to feel connected to a group because its harder for me to hearpeople in a group. So I talk about in the book the fact that Ive just turned 40 andnever been loved, and I have really struggled with trying to establish intimacy and tolearn 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. Itwas the kind of thing that not everyone would be comfortable with. But, for me, itwas the exact kind of training I needed to learn to become more comfortable with myown body, to learn to become more comfortable interacting with other people.Ill tell you just one little vignette. Theres one exercise that we did, where we justlooked into someone elses eyes. Now that sounds all hippy-dippy, right? But itsactually very profound to do and profound because its difficult. Its challenging. Itpushes your buttons. You have to overcome your own desire to hide. But hiding isexactly what our civilization gives us enormous amount of practice in doing. So Iwant to counter pose a radical example of refusing to hide and am not hiding, andIm learning not to hide.So these workshops were low tech in the sense that there was no tech. There wasnteven clothing. It was a clothing-optional environment. Not a sexual environment.Simply a clothing-optional environment. And the reason for that was very wellthought out because when you dont even have that technology of clothing, youhave to confront your own elemental being. And your own elemental being I foundwas the hardest to confront, not so much other people.So its a very challenging part of the book, and it was extremely difficult for me towrite because I wanted to make it blend into the overall argument that I was trying to
  28. 28. make. But I think its an absolutely crucial point to make. The point can really beboiled down to this: You have to teach people how to communicate with otherpeople. You cant just assume that theyre going to do it on their own and especiallynot now when they are distracted by all sorts of gadgets that are presenting themwith the quick allure of easy and addictive textual and auditory and visualcommunication.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Continuing with the theme of the cultural implications, yourefer in a later chapter to the contagion that we see of things like habits andindividual traits. So weve seen things like obesity, happiness smoking, many ofthese things tend to appear, I guess, to researchers nowadays as being contagiousin the same way that the cold or the flu might be. How do you integrate thatobservation 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 ofattention when it started to surface two or three years ago. For example, Christakisand Fowler did these analyses of very large groups, and they started to find thingslike, if a friend of a friend of yours is overweight, that increases your statisticallikelihood of being overweight by 25 percent. Its not so surprising if youreoverweight, if just a friend of yours is overweight, because you can see all sorts ofpossible causal connections there. But it is surprising if someone whom you dont
  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 friendof 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 arethese threads of communication among us, of which we are really totally consciouslycompletely 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 ofresearch is going to show these really surprising and fascinating connections.What I say is that were really already kind of a worldwide mind. Its just that werewound with low bandwidth so we have a relatively limited ability to communicate witha large number of people. So I say, well, these technologies that Im imagining asfictions could allow us to become a real worldwide mind in the sense that we wouldinteract so richly and so densely that epiphenomenonal consciousness wouldemerge, of which we have no conception, that we might not even be able torecognize whats happening.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: This takes me to another heading of a section in yourbook: The Future of Individuality. This has been focusing so much on the unusualconnections 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 thevery beginning of this discussion. Thats kind of the archetypal nightmare of theworldwide mind, this fear that technology will turn us all into these emotionlessdrones. And so the Borg are really giving voice to this fear which has beenexpressed by Sherry Turkle and by books like Hamlets BlackBerry and so forth. Ithink everybody is aware of this. Sherry Turkle tells these heartbreaking stories ofthe fact that teenagers get into their parents car, theyre being picked up from thesoccer game, and they have to wait for their parents to stop typing away on theirBlackBerry before they can start talking. So there is this fear that technology isdepersonalizing us.I make an argument that it really can be just the other way around, that actually_____ develops, technologys connection make us more human. I was inspired thereby a philosopher named Teilhard de Chardin. Im not quite exactly sure how thename is pronounced. I need to look it up a little more closely. Hes a very interestingguy because he was both a Catholic priest and a paleontologist. He wassimultaneously 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 theevolutionary process. So he wrote this little visionary book titled The Phenomenonof 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 thatthat 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 doesthat mean to become part of a collective but still even more individual, even more ofyour own self than you are now. Thats a part of the book that I would have liked towork on for another six months before letting the book out, but I had a deadline tomeet. 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. Shes 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 moreeffectively in a worldwide mind, by sensing each others feelings of excitement whenideas are starting to build, and that would give a collective a sense of which ideasare important and worth pursuing, as opposed to ideas which are not important. Imake the analogy here with António Damásios books. António Damásio has beenreally instrumentally in showing that a lot of what we think of as rational cognition isreally very much based on emotion.So people who have brain damage that doesnt allow them access to their feelings,
  32. 32. you might think that would make them even more socially effective thinkers, but, infact, theyre almost completely crippled because they dont have feelings that tellthem whats important. They dont get that sense of excitement saying, "This isimportant. This is what I need to focus on." So they become completely fragmented,completely scattered. Theyre unable to focus on anything. I suggest that the abilityto share emotions and perceptions might actually allow a kind of higher cognition inwhich everybody participates more fully, without becoming depersonalized.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Great. Actually, I didnt realize it, were to the top ofthe hour. I guess we do have a minute, if theres one big takeaway that youd like toleave people with, now would be the time.MICHAEL CHOROST: Well, I would say this book is really about feelings. Thesubtitle I dont feel really expresses what the book is about, and, in fact, I had a verylong debate with the publisher about the subtitle. I would have liked to have called itThe Coming Integration of Humanity and Machines: A Love Story because the bookreally is a love story. Its a love story of how I met my wife, and that whole story getstold in the book. So my wife is actually a major character as the book unfolds. Andits also a love story of what humanity could become, of how it could become abetter, more empathetic, more compassionate, more feeling-oriented collective thanit is now.
  33. 33. So the book is really kind of an ode to the future that I would like to see happen. Iactually talk about these workshops I went to. Its feeling more futuristic to me andthe exotic technologies that I write about as a science writer. So I write for Wired. Iwrite books on neurotechnology, so Im no stranger to seeing these incredibly exoticfuturistic technologies. Whats in my head is incredibly exotic and futuristic, but I sayin my book that this kind of connected compassionate kind of civilization, to me, isthe most exciting and futuristic possibility of all.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Great. I would like to leave people with one of myfavorite quotes from the book, where you were comparing the complexity of thehuman brain and a galaxy, and you point out that, in many ways, although thegalaxy seems so large and makes us feel so small and irrelevant, in fact, it isnt clearthat the balance goes that way and that the brain is, in many ways, more impressivethan the galaxy. And then heres the quote from the book, "The proof is that whenyou say, Suddenly I feel so small, the galaxy has nothing to say back." So I reallyenjoyed that quote. I enjoyed our conversation.So, Michael Chorost, thanks for coming back and joining us again. Weve beendiscussing, for the most part, the book World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration ofHumans and Machines. Im sorry you lost your battle with the publisher to have thesubtitle be a love story. Id also like to point viewers to Michaels 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 inthe audience. Some great questions today. Sorry we didnt get to all of them. This isRob Bloomfield signing off for Metanomics. Bye bye.Document: cor1096.docTranscribed by: http://www.hiredhand.com