Some have pointed out the supposed increase in multitasking during recent decades. An overlapping issue is the increase in raw information that humans have access to. It is certainly a fascinating sociocultural change. However, humans are not capable of true multitasking. First I will describe what humans do have presently, and then I will discuss what future humans might be capable of.
“Multitasking” in humans is primarily switchtasking combined with scripting:
1. Switchtasking is switching between tasks. This can be done quite rapidly, so fast in fact that you might feel as though you are truly multitasking.
In an article for science 2.0, I have suggested that attentional consciousness is like a single-threaded manager. However, I want to be clear that I’m not saying there’s a Cartesian theatre. I’m saying that the brain, although highly parallel at certain levels of detail, has a functionally singular attention and working memory system. Whether the model of a top-down manager is valid in all circumstances is undetermined. Neuroscientists have found a model with top-down influences on visuospatial working memory, but that is not necessarily the case for all mechanisms involved with attention.
2. Scripting is the auto-piloting in your mind. A script is the sequence of steps that you can do without conscious attention.
These scripts are often activities you had to learn at first, for instance bicycling and driving. The reason driving while multitasking is notorious is that the script works until something happens that breaks the script, such as a person suddenly wandering out in front of your car. When the script breaks, your attentional consciousness is interrupted to attend to the situation, but by the time you have decided what to do it might be too late.
You can drive your car with your scripts, meanwhile entertaining yourself with detailed telemetry (e.g. MPG, engine temperatures, etc.), MP3 players and satellite radio, video players, GPS navigation, your cell phone handling multiple calls and running multiple applications, etc. I think many people would love to be able to handle all those interactions at the same time. Some people try and end up crashing. And there’s always the few who abuse technology in special ways.
I consider background tasks like listening to music to also be just that — in the background. If you actually pay attention to music, you will find that you are not doing it at the same time as your other task (e.g. writing) — you are switching between them.
In the future humans may be able to truly increase their multitasking capacity. An obvious question is, why bother?
My speculative answer: society has increased the expectation for simultaneous activities; at the same time social interactions through always-on mediums are massively popular. Humans desperately want omnipresent interaction multiplicity — be it for work, social interaction, entertainment, or all of the above. The enabling technologies are already here — the real limiting factor is the human brain.
Even when people know they are less efficient due to switchtasking, it is still quite difficult to use that premise to revert to a more efficient way of working, and to be focused for longer periods of times on single tasks.
Personally, I switch between periods of single-tasking and switchtasking. However, being able to focus for a long period of time on one thing depends on you and your situation. This brings us to enhancement.
One of the potentially popular mind enhancements will be multitasking abilities. This could start off with working memory enhancements. With memory enhancement, we would be able to switch between more tasks (or more complex tasks) while having the necessary information still loaded for all of them. But true multitasking will require enhancements to our attention system.
This essay is not about how it can be done technically — it may involve drugs, cyborg technology such as electronic implants and nervous interfaces, other types of invasive objects like nanobots, substrate changes (e.g. to digital computers) that enable programmatic enhancements, or none of those. Whatever the case, we can acknowledge some of the problems multitasking cyborgs or posthumans will face.
Problems with Multitasking
in ancient rome there was a poem
about a dog who had two bones
he picked at one he licked the other
he went in circles till he dropped dead
—Devo, Freedom of Choice
The main problem is that multitasking will change the architecture of attentional consciousness and working memory. The changes for the new architecture have to take into account control of the body — attempting to answer the phone with the same hand that is ironing could be disastrous. Likewise with trying to run in two directions at the same time. Choices that affect or require the use of limited body resources must reduce to a single decision.
Also, multiple tasks that require visual perception will have to wait for each other (basically resulting in switchtasking again) unless we also are enhanced with extra visual perception inputs. In general, the limits of the sensory modalities will limit the types of tasks being done at the same time, a problem we already have with our primitive switchtasking.
The other architectural problem is that the multiple attention sub-systems need a way to stay in sync. It’s feasible that a part of the mind would have to become a meta-manager, although that could just be the default attentional consciousness controlling the others.
From the outside, broken multitasking behavior would look like dissociative identity disorder, or even worse, like Bruce Campbell in the movie The Man With the Screaming Brain: