Our brains are being re-shaped. Make no mistake about it.
We humans have most likely invented our last great tool, computer intelligence.
This machine intelligence, known as AI, is now capable of teaching itself in ways computer engineers and neuroscientists can’t fully anticipate. And, it’s expanding at such exponentially high speeds that most of its manifestations are not yet visible.
We’ve seen it beat our best chess players and defeat the best “Go” player, shocking many AI experts, as “Go” requires intuitive skills only humans supposedly have, and out-diagnose our best physicians.
Machine intelligence is infiltrating our lives to such an extent that education, finance, work, communication, and our personal relationships are all being re-shaped. So are the very ways we perceive our own intelligence, and think about ourselves.
As billions of us continue to upload thoughts, perceptions, affections, and preferences into cyberspace, this powerful trend of brain-machine interface puts us on the precipice of an evolutionary leap. The Internet gives us instant access to the world’s knowledge and connects people around the globe more intricately than ever before. At the same time, the speed-up of constant informational flow generates uncertainty, anxiety, and emotional volatility.
If the 20th century was defined as the age of atomic power, the laser, and the transistor, the 21st will be defined as the age of the computer brain.
THE AI CURVE
How do we react to this new, fast-changing environment? We can become more passive and get shoved behind the curve. Or we can choose to understand what’s going on at a deeper level and get ahead of the curve.
For example, the biggest news story of 2018 having the greatest impact by far is not Mueller’s investigation, the most recent natural disaster, or the stock market’s latest gyration. It’s Zuckerberg’s Facebook concession, in response to public pressure, to give its 2 billion+ users more input into what news is being fed to them.
On-line users are finally waking up as to how computer algorithms, manipulated by a tight group of corporations and political interests, are force feeding biased information into our brains every day. The Internet is a two-way medium and users, more than any time in history, can actually push back.
CONGRESS FACES FACEBOOK
The NY Times headline of April 11 read, “Zuckerberg Faces Hostile Congress as Call for Regulation Mounts.” Hostile? Really? Sure, a bunch of Representatives raised their voices and hurled accusations, but Zuckerberg, barely breaking a sweat, shrugged them off with ease, offering a combo plate of platitudes, mild mea culpas, and noncommittal promises.
The politicians clearly didn’t have a clue how to rein in or regulate this totally new kind of media/corporate power force.
After all, if Congress isn’t willing to take on banks which are too big to fail, why would it take on an entity even bigger and more influential than any bank, despite its proclivity to sell off the sensitive data of as many as 87 million users without consent?
While Congress will win a few battles with Facebook and force it to make some minor concessions regarding privacy issues, the media giant will continue to do business as it basically pleases here in the U.S.
In Europe, however, watch for a major fight as the European Union continues to insist that private data is inherently owned by the user. The EU claims that it’s Facebook (and Google, Amazon, Microsoft) who have to pay users for use of their private information. In other words, the users are the product, and Facebook is the consumer.
The only reason Congress even agreed to put on their extended dog and pony show was due to public pressure, based on a crucial and timely issue. This was reflected in the question asked of Zuckerberg by Representative Marsha Blackburn, “Who do you think owns an individual’s presence online? Who owns their virtual you? Is it you, or is it them?”
In a culture dominated by bottom line economic results, here is a U.S. Representative asking what is likely the most important philosophical question of our time. A question of existential identity.
And then at a point within the hours and hours of back and forth testimony between exasperated politicians and the CEO who really runs the show, came an even more basic philosophical question, which speaks to the most important trend influencing our day-to-day lives. Representative Greg Walden looked at Mark Zuckerberg and asked, “What exactly is Facebook?”
Not an easy question to answer. Walden was seeking to distinguish Facebook’s role as publisher, advertiser, and telecommunications medium. Yet while the company’s economic model, including the selling of private information is a key issue, the deeper answer to the question, “What is Facebook?”, along with equally relevant “What is Google?”, “What is Amazon?”, and “What is Microsoft?”, goes beyond economic and material issues to…
THE EXTENDED MIND TREND
Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are both literally and virtually extensions of our human minds, in complex and important ways.
It used to be a criticism if told we had our heads in the clouds. Now our heads are literally in the technological “Cloud,” as we upload what’s in our heads — our preferences, opinions, emotional reactions, and self-images into Google, Apple, and Amazon algorithms. In fact, Google now processes over 40,000 search queries every second, over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide.
And since the Internet is a two-way media environment, what we input into the mosaic of super computer brains gets communicated back to us as news feeds, health guides, consumer come-ons, and preferences for altering our self-identities. The very nature of our own mind is being transmitted back to us every moment we’re on the digital screen.
So, the anxiety surrounding Facebook’s gathering and manipulating of our private data, while a legitimate issue to be addressed, misses the point. Which is: What will be the consequences of our human lives interacting microscopically closely, every second, with expanding computer intelligence?
That existential question should remain a deep concern to each of us, whether the CEO of Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg or Mother Theresa.
A number of influential philosophers and neuroscientists are making a strong case that our biological anatomy, the literal body and brain, is not entirely who we are. As thoughts, perceptions, opinions, and feelings are extended out into computer algorithms in the form of emails, blogs, searches, YouTube videos, and Instagram posts, where our minds begin and end is an open question.
This trend of ‘Extended Mind Theory’ is spreading out to the degree that even as pragmatic and conservative a mind as Chief Justice John Roberts has weighed in on, with a provocative opinion.
A VISITOR FROM MARS?
In 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case based on the question of whether police must obtain a warrant before looking into anyone’s smart phone. Writing for the majority opinion, Justice Roberts wrote that smart phones are, “…such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life, that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”
Even now, our smart phones are in many ways more reliable than our often unreliable memories as to who we are in terms of the people we communicate with, what we are thinking about, and what our primary emotional concerns are.
From growing interest by public philosophers concerning the Extended Mind Theory, to the recent analysis of over 10,000 IP (Intellectual Property) filings by the market research firm SmartBrains, to prominent legal decisions such as that of Chief Justice John Roberts, the question of what constitutes the boundaries of the human mind will take on ever greater importance. Both the U.S. and Europe are investing billions of dollars in research into the workings of the human brain.
The positive dimension of the Expanded Mind Theory is that in many ways, our interaction with computer intelligence is providing significantly deeper insights into how our minds and brains work. Thanks to increasing interest, we are learning just how flexible and open to change our brains actually are when we are more fully conscious of the internal thought processes going on.
In addition to being the most complex biological tool known to us, with billions of neurons and trillions of syntactical connections, our brains are capable of continuously sensing, revising and remodeling our connection to the world around us. And as our digital devices take over more and more of our rote memory needs, this potentially opens up the more intuitive, creative, and spiritually oriented capabilities of our human, non-machine brains.
But this positive potential will be set against the growing personal and cultural anxiety created by a future coming at us faster and faster, due to increasing computer speeds generating the electronic screens we are attached to most of the day. Soon we will have smart homes, smart transportation, smart offices, and smart public venues. And underneath all of this is the key existential question “Who are we?” as the line where our minds begin and end continue to shift. TJ
The trend going forward? The co-founder of Google, now Alphabet, Sergey Brin, said in an interview, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or in an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off. Perhaps in the future, we can attach a little version of Google that you just plug into your brain.”
Google is spending over $12 billion a year in research to develop what is referred to as “AI Complete,” also referred to as “Strong AI”, the next generation development of machines, to exceed human intelligence.
Zuckerberg, at the recent Congressional hearing, referred to the promise of AI to help Facebook sort through hate speech and other problematic posts. No doubt AI can do the sorting, but as we become more and more cyborg, part human, part computer intelligence, it will take the human brain’s unique ability to contemplate and wrestle with cultural, ethical and existential issues if we humans are going to undertake the leadership role going forward.