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Will We Eventually Upload Our Minds?

Neuron network

Bruce Katz received his Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from University of Illinois. He is a frequent lecturer in artificial intelligence at the University of Sussex in the U.K and serves as adjunct professor in of Computer Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Dr. Katz is the accomplished author of Neuroengineering the Future, Digital Design, as well as many prestigious journal articles.

Katz believes we are on the cusp of a broad neuro-revolution, one that will radically reshape our views of perception, cognition, emotion and even personal identity. Neuroengineering is rapidly advancing from perceptual aids such as cochlear implants to devices that will enhance and speed up thought. Ultimately, he says, this may free the mind from its bound state in the body to a platform independent existence.

h+: What trends do you see in cognitive enhancement modalities and therapies (drugs, supplements, music, meditation, entrainment, AI and so forth)?

BRUCE KATZ: There are two primary types of cognitive enhancement — enhancement of intelligence and enhancement of creative faculties. Even though creativity is often considered a quasi-mystical process, it may surprise some that we are actually closer to enhancing this aspect of cognition than pure intelligence.

The reason is that intelligence is an unwieldy collection of processes, and creativity is more akin to a state, so it may very well be possible to produce higher levels of creative insight for a fixed level of intelligence before we are able to make people smarter in general.

Cognitive human brainThere appear to be three main neurophysiological ingredients that influence the creative process These are 1) relatively low levels of cortical arousal; 2) a relatively flat associative gradient; 3) a judicious amount of noise in the cognitive system. [Editor’s note: A person with a high associative gradient is able to make a few common associations with a stimulus word such as “flight,” whereas those with a flat gradient are able to make many associations with the stimulus word. Creative people have been found to have fairly flat gradients, and uncreative people have much steeper gradients.]

All three ingredients conspire to encourage the conditions whereby cognition runs outside of its normal attractors, and produces new and potentially valuable insights.

Solving compound remote associate (CRA) problems illustrates how these factors work. In a CRA problem, the task is to find a word that is related to three items. For example, given “fountain”, “baking”, and “pop” the solution would be “soda.”

The reason CRA problems are difficult, and why creative insight helps, is that the mind tends to fixate on the stronger associates of the priming words (for example, “music” for “pop”), which in turn inhibits the desired solution.

What are the implications of this for artificially enhancing insight? First, any technique that quiets the mind is likely to have beneficial effects. These include traditional meditative techniques, but possibly also more brute-force technologies such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Low frequency pulses (below 1Hz) enable inhibitory processes, and TMS applied in this manner to the frontal cortices could produce the desired result.

Second, the inhibition of the more literal and less associative left hemisphere through similar means could also produce good results. In fact, EEG studies of people solving CRA problems with insight have shown an increase in gamma activity (possibly indicative of conceptual binding activity) in the right but not the left hemisphere just prior to solution.

NeuronsFinally, the application of noise to the brain, either non-invasively, through TMS, or eventually through direct stimulation may encourage it to be more “playful” and to escape its normal ruts.

In the not too distant future, we may not have to rely on nature to produce the one-in-a-million combination [of a high IQ and creative insight], and be able to produce it at will on many if not all neural substrates.

h+: What are some of the issues (legal, societal, ethical) that you anticipate for such technology?

BK: My own opinion is that — except in the case of minors — we must let an informed public make their own choices. Any government-mandated set of rules will be imperfect, and in any case will deviate from the needs and desires of its individual citizens.

What we in the neuroengineering community should be pushing for is a comprehensive freedom of thought initiative, ideally enshrined as a constitutional amendment rather than as a set of clumsy laws. And we should be doing so sooner rather than later, before individual technologies come online, and before we allow the “tyranny of the majority” to control a right that ought to trump all other rights.

h+: What is your vision for the future of cognitive enhancement and neurotechnology in the next 20 years?

BK: Ultimately, we want to be free of the limitations of the human brain. There are just too many inherent difficulties in its kludgy design — provided by evolution — to make it worthwhile to continue along this path.

As I describe in my book, Neuroengineering the Future, these kludges include:

  • Short-term memory limitations (typically seven plus or minus 2 items),
  • Significant long-term memory limitations (the brain can only hold about as much as a PC hard disk circa 1990),
  • Strong limitations on processing speed (although the brain is a highly parallel system, each neuron is a very slow processor),
  • Bounds on rationality (we are less than fully impartial processors, sometimes significantly so),
  • Bounds on creativity (most people go through their entire lives without making a significant creative contribution to humanity), and perhaps most significantly…
  • Bounds on the number of concepts that can be entertained in consciousness at once (some estimate that the bottleneck of consciousness restricts us to one plus or minus zero items!).

Ultimately, we want to be free of the limitations of the human brain. There are just too many inherent difficulties in its kludgy design…

The alternative is to free the mind from limitations of the brain by the addition of prosthetic devices and ultimately uploading it into digital form. While it is unlikely either of these (and especially the latter) will occur in the next few decades, this remains the ultimate goal of enhancement. Both processing speed and memory will be the most immediate beneficiaries of such developments, but the truly significant gains will involve the types of processing that will be possible.

Freeing the mind from this limited, albeit remarkable, organ will allow us to manipulate thought directly, and this will produce the most gains in intelligence, creativity, and in achieving harmony with other sentient beings and the universe as a whole.

13 Comments

  1. I find the idea of uploading ourselves into a machine flawed. You might be able to upload your consciousness to a computer, but that will simply be a copy of you. It will not truly be you, Just a copy in a machine.

    For those of you searching this page for the concept of human immortality, this is not the answer. I think it’s best to wait for nanotechnology to be invented. With nanotech you will truly be immortal, as you will still be you. Nanites can in theory repair the human body and kill off all tumors, pathogens and diseases. Making you truly immortal. Don’t copy yourself, be yourself.

  2. As was mentioned in one of the earlier, the perception of the “self” is not encapsulated in the brain as an organ.

    For example, hormones that develop elsewhere in the body have a huge effect on our daily moods, creativity, and concentration. I am sure subtle processes we don’t quite understand regarding levels of iron or oxygen in the blood may have effects as well. As wonderful as it would be to download our consciousness into a machine, consciousness may be comprised of many more bodily systems that simply our neurons.

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