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The Dark Side of a World Without Boundaries
Rick Searle   Jan 28, 2014   Utopia or Dystopia  

The problem I see with Nicolelis’ view of the future of neuroscience, which I discussed last time, is not that I find it unlikely that a good deal of his optimistic predictions will someday come to pass, it is that he spends no time at all talking about the darker potential of such technology.

Of course, the benefit to paralyzed, or persons otherwise locked tightly in the straitjacket of their own skull, of technologies to communicate directly from the human brain to machines or to other human beings is undeniable. The potential to expand the range of human experience through directly experiencing the thoughts and emotions of others is, also, of course, great. Next weekend being Super Bowl Sunday, I can’t help but think how cool it would be to experience the game through the eyes of Peyton Manning, or Russell Wilson. How amazing would a concert or an orchestra be if experienced likewise in this way?

Still, one need not necessarily be a professional dystopian and unbudgeable cassandra to come up with all kinds of quite frightening scenarios that might arise through the erosion of boundaries between human minds, all one needs to do is pay attention to less sanguine developments of the latest iteration of a once believed to be utopian technology, that is, the Internet and the social Web, to get an idea of some of the possible dangers.

The Internet was at one time prophesied to user in a golden age of transparency and democratic governance, and promised the empowerment of individuals and small companies. Its legacy, at least at this juncture, is much more mixed. There is little disputing that the Internet and its successor mobile technologies have vastly improved our lives, yet it is also the case that these technologies have led to an explosion in the activities of surveillance and control, by nefarious individuals and criminal groups, corporations and the state. Nicolelis’ vision of eroded boundaries between human minds is but the logical conclusion of the trend towards transparency. Given how recently we’ve been burned by techno-utopianism in precisely this area a little skepticism is certainly in order.

The first question that might arise is whether direct brain-to-brain communication (especially when invasive technologies are required) will ever out-compete the kinds of mediated mind-to-mind technology we have had for quite sometime time, that is, both spoken and written language. Except in very special circumstances, not all of them good, language seem to retain its advantages over direct brain-to-brain communication, and, in cases where the advantage of language over such direct communication are used it be may be less of a gain in communicative capacity than a signal that normalcy has broken down.

Couples in the first rush of new love may want to fuse their minds for a time, but a couple that been together for decades? Seems less likely, though there might be cases of pathological jealousy or smothering control bordering on abuse when one half of a couple would demand such a thing. The communion with fellow human beings offered by religion might gain something from the ability of individuals to bridge the chasm that separates them from others, but such technologies would also be a “godsend” for fanatics and cultists. I can not decide whether a mega-church such as Yoido Full Gospel Church in a world where Nicolelis’ brain-nets are possible would represent a blessed leap in human empathetic capacity or a curse.

Nicolelis seems to assume that the capacity to form brain-nets will result in some kind of idealized and global neural version of FaceBook, but human history seems to show that communication technology is just as often used to hermetically seal group off from group and becomes a weapon in the primary human moral dilemma ,which is not the separation of individual from individual, so much as the rivalry between different groups. We seem unable to exit ourselves from such rivalry even when the stakes are merely imagined- as many of us will do next Sunday, and has Nicolelis himself should have known from his beloved soccer where the rivalry expressed in violent play has a tendency to slip into violent riots in the real world.

Direct brain-to-brain communication would seem to have real advantages over language when persons are joined together in teams acting as a unit in response to a rapidly changing situation. Groups such as fire-fighters. By far the greatest value of such capacities would be found in small military units such as Platoons, members who are already bonded in a close experiential and deep emotional bond, as in on display in the documentary- Restrepo. Whatever their virtuous courage, armed bands killing one another are about as far as you can get from the global kumbaya of Nicolelis’ brain-net.

If such technologies were non-invasive, would they be used by employers to monitor the absence of sustained attention while on the job? What of poor dissidents under the thumb of a madman like Kim Jong Un .Imagine such technologies in the hands of a pimp, or even, the kinds of slave owners who, despite our obliviousness, still exist.

One of the problems with the transparency paradigm, and the new craze for an “Internet of things” where everything in the environment of an individual is transformed into Web connected computers is the fact that anything that is a computer, by that very fact, becomes hackable. If someone is worried about their digital data being sucked up and sold on an elaborate black market, about webcams being used as spying tools, if one has concern that connecting one’s home to the web might make one vulnerable, how much more so should be worried if our very thoughts could be hacked? The opportunities for abuse seem legion.

Everything is shaped by personal experience. Nicolelis whose views of the collective mind were forged by the crowds that overthrew the Brazilian military dictatorship and his beloved soccer games. But the crowd is not always wise. I being a person who has always valued solitude and time with individuals and small groups over the electric energy of crowds have no interest in being part of a hive mind to any degree more than the limited extent I might be said to already be in such a mind by writing a piece such as this.

It is a sad fact, but nonetheless true, that should anything like Nicolelis’ brain-net ever be created it can not be under the assumptions of the innate goodness of everyone. As our experience with the Internet should have taught us, an open system with even a minority of bad actors leads to a world of constant headaches and sometimes what amount to very real dangers.

Rick Searle, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a writer and educator living the very non-technological Amish country of central Pennsylvania along with his two young daughters. He is an adjunct professor of political science and history for Delaware Valley College and works for the PA Distance Learning Project.



COMMENTS

I agree that it is unwise to see developments like brain-to-brain communication in an exclusively positive light, and one issue that both fascinates and scares me is the issue of identity. It seems to me that our sense of individual identity is to a significant extent dependent on the relatively weak bandwidth of communication with the outside world, and in particular other brains.

My guess is that such technology *will* outcompete currently available technology. What lovers do is up to them (I think you’re right that they will experiment with it but then want their individuality back, kind of like moving in together but still wanting to pursue separate hobbies and social networks), but firms that use it among colleagues will surely be at an emormous advantage over others (once the formidable teething problems have been dealt with, of course). And the ones that take it so far that their workers lose any sense of individuality will presumably be at an even greater advantage.

Agreed.

One of the things that seems unique about human beings is that we are eusocial- like some insects- ants bees etc- and highly individualized. Much of what we consider best about ourselves consists in the tension between the two.

Utopians have been trying to close this rift in favor of the eusocial since Plato which makes me suspect that MN’s view of the future of brain to brain interfaces is just another version of this long held human fantasy, or nightmare.

re “The problem I see with Nicolelis’ view of the future of neuroscience, which I discussed last time, is not that I find it unlikely that a good deal of his optimistic predictions will someday come to pass, it is that he spends no time at all talking about the darker potential of such technology.”

There are already many people who focus on the darker potential of everything, what we need is more voices who focus on positive expectations. Otherwise our whole society will become like those old persons who are afraid of everything including their own shadow.

@Giulio:

We are merely at the design stage of such technology when some
of the negative potential might be designed out before it becomes
ubiquitous. This is a better option than opposing such technology whole cloth which, I admit, has great positive potential.

Much better, I think, to avoid problems in the first place by admitting their possibility and doing what we can to avoid them, or at least not pursue them the kind of monomania that stems from the likely delusion that they will end up in some perennial utopian dreamland.

@Rick re “We are merely at the design stage of such technology when some of the negative potential might be designed out before it becomes ubiquitous.”

But Rick, it doesn’t work like that. Once a technology is developed, somebody will realize its positive potential, and somebody else will realize its negative potential. That’s what happened for all technologies developed so far. But I am persuaded that, overall, the positive side of technology outweighs its negative side.

re “the likely delusion that they will end up in some perennial utopian dreamland”

The idea that they will end up in some perennial nightmare is equally delusional, and more dangerous because it leads to stasis and ossification.

I guess my utopian scenario is as follows: those of us who want our individual identity preserved will be able to do so, and those who want to merge can merge. Also, brain-to-brain communication could conceivably emerge as an alternative to anti-aging technology and/or mind uploading in the following sense: our “individual” identity might remain intact in the sense that there is a more-or-less continuous evolution (at least no more discontinuous than, say, falling asleep at night and waking up the next morning), but it might increasingly come to be distributed across several different brains (and/or artificial substrates), until it eventually becomes independent from the original human body/brain n which it first emerged.

The key difference between this and mind uploading is that you don’t need to find a way to transfer an entire mind (even assuming that this is somehow a “thing” that can be transferred). Rather, by incremental and controlled direct communication between individual brains our psychological “selves” simply become more distributed.

Or, perhaps even more realistically, direct brain-to-brain communication will facilitate an identification with the collective that will go beyond what most people can experience now (but of which we get a glimpse in a football crowd, or a particularly strong e.g. religious community), and while this will not in itself destroy our individual sense of self it will make us much more accepting of its demise, and therefore physical death.

@Peter re “I guess my utopian scenario is as follows: those of us who want our individual identity preserved will be able to do so, and those who want to merge can merge.”

This is a good scenario. I can imagine an even better one, where everyone is able to switch at will between individual and merged mode (like in Ramez Naam Nexus novels).

@Giulio:

“Once a technology is developed, somebody will realize its positive potential, and somebody else will realize its negative potential. That’s what happened for all technologies developed so far. But I am persuaded that, overall, the positive side of technology outweighs its negative side.”

I see it differently. What seems to me is the usual cycle is much more wild swings between adoption and abolition until we settle where we should have been in the first place which is controlled adoption.

Take DDT. Back in the 50’s and 60’s we deployed it with abandon despite uncertainty. Then we banned it for its detrimental effects, and now we use it- sparingly- where as it is quite useful and lifesaving as a topical pesticide for nets to protect people from malaria carrying mosquito. 

We should start using more foresight when it comes to design, regulation and permitted, prohibited applications in the first place.

“The idea that they will end up in some perennial nightmare is equally delusional, and more dangerous because it leads to stasis and ossification.”

I actually agree with this. What I dislike are boom and bust cycles where we swing between “Dow 36,000!” and the belief that the whole world is falling apart.

I am not convinced that blind optimism is a vehicle for progress especially when progress requires long term commitment. We were way overly optimistic about the settlement of outer space in the late 1960’s and what that resulted in was premature disillusionment and exhaustion once we realized how long those goals would take to realize and how hard they were to obtain.

@Peter:

“Also, brain-to-brain communication could conceivably emerge as an alternative to anti-aging technology and/or mind uploading in the following sense: our “individual” identity might remain intact in the sense that there is a more-or-less continuous evolution (at least no more discontinuous than, say, falling asleep at night and waking up the next morning), but it might increasingly come to be distributed across several different brains….”

Sounds plausible. Nicolelis himself doesn’t think uploading will be possible but he does think the preservation of thoughts (though not the thinker) will be.

Does he provide a clear definition of the “thinker” as opposed to the thoughts? I am increasingly of the view that the self is a fundamentally subjective quality, that is to say essentially a figment of the imagination, albeit one that is essential in order for life to have any meaning. It seems to have emerged for essentially evolutionary reasons, and because it corresponds to something that is identifiably real (the evolution of a single human being through time, from birth to death). But my suspicion is that our tendency to imagine ourselves as individual beings, evolving through time but distinct from each other, has a potential to be massively disrupted by s technology. If we get it right (and I fully agree with you that we might not, and that imagining dystopias, far from being dangerous, is an essential part of risk management), then why might the “thinker”, in this thoroughly subjective sense, also increasingly transcend the constraints of our individual body/brain?

@Peter:

Nicolelis actually seems to have a stronger sense of individual self-hood than I have seen in psychology of late i.e. Kahneman et al.

Indeed, if you’re interested in the implications for trans-humanism of this seeming absence of self-hood you might want to, if you haven’t already, check out James Hughes’ essay in The Transhumanist Reader, where, if memory serves me, he urges trans-humanists to start taking this into account and sketches out some possible implications.

As for Nicolelis, he seems to hold an idea that the brain is akin to a finely tuned set of instruments or perhaps orchestra than is refined in its “music” by our particular biology coming in contact with our particular biography. In this each of us are absolutely unique beings in the universe our particular mental “music”, what he calls brain storm, has never occurred before and will never occur again.  Because of its complexity these brain storms are not replicable en total, but that does not mean that some aspects of them cannot be shared or even, at some point in the far future, recorded for posterity. 

Thanks Rick. Might well check out James’ essay.  At first glance Nicolelis’ view seems fairly compatible with my own, two important caveats being:

1. since the “brain storm” varies from moment to moment, there doesn’t seem to be an ironclad case for identifying me now and me five minutes ago as the same person;

2. the fact of having a clearly distinguishable mental landscape as distinct from others seems to be a product of the relatively weak bandwidth of information exchange between a single brain and the rest of the world.

In many ways my view of the self mirrors my view of morality, and indeed the future: it is perhaps something we need to decide on and create, rather than something that already exists and is to be discovered. Or perhaps (more likely) a bit of both.

@Rick re “We were way overly optimistic about the settlement of outer space in the late 1960’s and what that resulted in was premature disillusionment and exhaustion once we realized how long those goals would take to realize and how hard they were to obtain.”

Good point, but it doesn’t change the fact that the settlement of outer space is positive and desirable. I am way less optimistic than others about the timeframe for transhumanist technologies (indefinite life extension, mind uploading, mind fusion etc.), but I am no less enthusiastic. These things will be developed someday, and I am sure they will have a positive impact.

@Giulio:

“I am way less optimistic than others about the timeframe for transhumanist technologies (indefinite life extension, mind uploading, mind fusion etc.), but I am no less enthusiastic.”

I think you are very fortunate in this. I may be wrong, but I perceive a sense of frustration and impatience among trans-humanists regarding the slowness of their dreams being reached, no doubt driven by their own receding life span. I know that you answer this anxiety with the faith that you will see these things even if you do not experience them within your biological lifetime, but others have not found this enough to assuage their anxiety and thus their impatience and transformation of these questions into political ones.

“others have not found this enough to assuage their anxiety and thus their impatience and transformation of these questions into political ones.”

Not that this has to be a bad thing, does it? For me the big question is whether political objectives (such as the current longevity movement) are accompanied by a denial of reality and/or intolerance of people with different views, or not. One can be anxious and impatient - perhaps because one has recognised and embraced one’s basic thanatophobia - and still channel it into something positive. In fact, I think that is precisely what one *should* do with anxiety and impatience: find a way to channel it positively and not to deny it or brush it under the carpet.

But the issue about optimism vs pessimism is an important one. Giulio’s first comment on this thread was indeed a call for optimism (“we need is more voices who focus on positive expectations”), so Rick’s point about blind optimism is relevant. I actually *don’t* agree with the statement that “The idea that they will end up in some perennial nightmare is…more dangerous [than blind optimism] because it leads to stasis and ossification.” I fear both, in roughly equal measure. We need to imagine what could go right, and also what could go wrong, without seeing either as inevitable.

Perhaps the future doesn’t exist at all, or is entirely unpredictable and uninfluenceable. But if the past is any guide to the future at all (and all science and planning is based on the idea that it is), then identifying both risks and opportunities would appear to be essential in order to prepare for it. Advocating one to the exclusion of the other seems entirely pointless to me, and counterproductive.

@Peter:

Of late, I have been reading about the French Revolution, and am sure I am getting some influence on these matters from that. I am looking at it from the experience of two characters in that story, Condorcet and Robespierre.

Condorcet took the long view of the human future and even speculated that at some point far down the road we would have discovered the keys to biological immortality. Yet, he was also a gradualist: social change took time, scientific discovery took time, and it was a danger to rush it. He seemed above the concern that a complete revolution in human affairs would take place in his life time comforted in the faith that it would happen for us at some point.  Robespierre, on the other hand, demanded utopia NOW, and because he saw no real role for the story of human intellectual development in the end blamed the absence of utopia on a conspiracy against it, a conspiracy that needed to be met with force and violence, and ultimately culminated in the Terror.

I saw some of this Robespierre like thinking in the Transhumanist Wager which is why I came out swinging against it. Existential panic at the thought of one’s demise seems to open the door widely for a justification of violence if one places the blame on the absence of “salvation technologies” on a cabal of political and institutional religious resistance rather than being a problem of norms and technical hurdles. History teaches the virtues of principled patience.

Speaking of TW, I see that Zoltan has just written a new article here (“When Does Hindering Life Extension Science Become A Crime”). Looks like that could be a fun debate!

@Rick re “I think you are very fortunate in this…”

Yes, I think this is a benefit of my belief. Like most people, I listen to both my heart and my mind. My heart doesn’t want to accept death, mine and of my loved ones, and wants to believe in some kind of immortality. My mind tells me that immortality will be achieved someday, but not in my lifetime.

My belief puts heart and mind together:
http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/prisco20120813

With my belief, the heart can believe in personal immortality for everyone, and the mind can find this belief scientifically plausible.

Of course this doesn’t make it “true,” whatever that means, I have always been a follower of William James, and consider utility more fundamental than “truth.”. Also, my belief will be “true” if we will make it so.

By a very sad coincidence, while typing this post I learned that a dear friend died yesterday. I hope to see her again, someday.

@Giulio:

I sympathize with your loss and hope you get to see her again someday as well.

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