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““The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
Slartibartfast hails from the planet Magrithea, being a designer of planets, and is particularly renowned for (and proud of) his award winning work on coastlines. Notably “the fjords of Norway....were mine”.
Oh to have the power to create worlds...
Well you can. With a little acumen for programming anyone can indeed be the architect of their own environment. Virtual Reality interfaces are readily available and via open source software such as Unity one can embark on a journey literally creating the context in which that journey takes place.
To a citizen of a more anachronistic age such technology may seem to be ‘indistinguishable from magic’ as one Arthur Clarke would have put it. But it is here, it is open to access, and it can be embraced, and immersed within.
From a perceptual and philosophical standpoint this puts us in a fascinating position. We can explore the mechanisms behind how we perceive our own reality by actually engaging in the construction of it! Which in itself is a perfect literal analogy for the basis of perceived reality being a construction of the brain anyway...
At our fingertips is a medium that allows for the generation of scenes in real time letting us place objects in situ, and explore the interrelationship of these to one another and in their own place within that scene background. And once we have done this, by donning a set of goggles we can then supplant our physical environment with a virtual one, and thence to physically move about within it. And even to interact with those objects therein! That’s quite a proposition to consider right there!
We can realise our own personal Narnias. We can create the wardrobe then step right on through into the snowy wastes beyond.
How might this assist in solving ‘problems’ encountered in the real world one might ask (I.e. to get past the ‘gimmick’ phase allowing one to infinitely exterminate zombies...)? One avenue I am currently exploring is to replicate my own working environment (currently my living room/office space). The constraints of physical space coupled with a disorganised system employing sheets of paper, post-its and wall space lead me to wonder how I can better organise my workspace in the virtual realm. By replicating this space I can potentially recreate an infinite variety of similar workspaces in which I will never be short of space to ‘organise’ my thoughts (on virtual post-its). And the very process of doing so will help me improve my capacity to organise, and my ability to connect thoughts together, seeing intersections of disparate ideas that may catalyse creative innovation in my own thought processes. I will never, in effect, need to ‘tidy up’, and risk losing my thinking as the post-its go into a figurative bin.
A further benefit of this virtual realm being used in such a way is to physically navigate throughout it. The act of moving through a scene can in itself significantly contribute to learning, to memory, to general cognitive ability. In acting (I.e. moving) my brain will galvanise it’s motor areas, engaging sensorimotor functions that enrich the perception of the world with which I am engaging, and the thinking processes that are collectively being operationalised. Consider the idea of the ‘memory palace’ (also known as the ‘Method of Loci’). This was a mnemonic device utilised in the ancient world as a means to commit to memory various facts by virtue of imagining key cues to said facts being ‘placed’ in an imagined ‘palace’ that the individual could then reconstruct in mind and ‘walk down the corridors’ as it were of such a personally significant realm. Thereby revisiting the various locations of these facts and conjuring a vivid environment in which memories could be readily accessed.
Such a device was also employed by the character Hannibal Lecter and referenced throughout Thomas Harris’s (2000) novel ‘Hannibal’, as well as being written about by historian Jonathan Spence (1984). Naturally, the technique lends itself to the medium of Virtual Reality. A team led by linguist Aaron Ralby has explored the potential for this, devising a PC/Virtual Reality platform in which one can construct one’s own memory palaces in virtual environments, thereby employing the technique of spatial learning to perhaps learn new languages or string together facts as an aide-memoire. (see Wired article)
All this points to exciting possibilities for the utility of virtual reality technology to enhance our cognitive capabilities, extending more traditional media (eg. written diaries, mnemonics). Furthermore, as a tool to uncover the basic mechanisms of perception, and notably our own brain’s propensity to derive a notion of ‘veridical experience’ from the constituent elements of the environment in which we are immersed, this is potentially invaluable. As a somewhat strange ‘coincidence’ today, as I sought to get to grips with some basic geometrical scene properties, I constructed a simple environment with various geometric shapes. At centre stage (well actually off to one side) was what I intended to be a sort of plinth acting as a bridge that one could walk along, and composed of various objects embedded within it (obstacles as it were). When I interfaced with this for the first time in the VR headset, the scale and position that I had somewhat randomly selected, just so happened to correspond uncannily with the table at which I am sat typing. The ‘plinth’ became a table, being exactly the right height, and even the same colour and texture. I reached out (virtually) and was able to touch in the right proportions the surface in front of me (physically). Unwittingly I had constructed a virtual environment that effectively corresponded to my physical environment, despite intending something quite different (the positioning was totally by chance as I am a complete novice so far). Perhaps this is my unconscious acting as the architect of my environment, very much in the way that my unconscious brain functions act to likewise construct the nature of ‘reality’ that I come to perceive in a conscious fashion....Boundless potential exists when we begin to explore how far we can mix our realities in this way, further consolidating the brain's capacity to engage with it's environment and extended cognitive functional capacity out into the virtual realm but coupled with physical sensory feedback as to that interaction...
Hopefully before too much longer I shall be working on fjords of my very own. And then finally determine what is the actual question for which the answer is, by all accounts, 42.
VR 'memory palaces' could help you master a new language. Wired magazine:
Harris, T. (2000). Hannibal. Arrow Books: London
Spence, Jonathan D. (1984). The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. New York: Viking Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-008098-8.
“You talk as if a god had made the Machine," cried the other. "I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but not everything.”
― E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops
Consider a simple proposition. That ‘self’ is the basis for human suffering, discontent, inequality. That ‘self’ has a basis in specific and malleable physiology. That ‘self’ can therefore be ‘turned off’, re-moulded, inhibited, put to ‘better use’. Directly controllable in effect.
Age old traditions, modes of thinking, pincipled systems purport the above. Eastern methods for banishing the ‘illusion of self’ have perpetuated for millenia. Yogic practices, ancient spiritual ceremonial rituals, and even more modern day techno-philosophies abound to tackle this ‘realisable’ premise.
What if a future version of our society encompasses an Artificial intelligence enhanced state of being that has established this capacity to overrule ‘self-indulgence’? Would this be a preferable state of affairs? Max Tegmark (Life 3.0, 2017) refers to a future scenario of ‘Libertarian Utopia’ in which machine derived superintelligence lives in harmony with human (standard) intelligence and a plethora of hybridised human-machine variants (cyborgs, upgrades, augmented intelligences). Now this may or may not come to pass, but the question Tegmark is posing is to what degree one or another envisoned future scenario may be selected? This is effectively dependent on humanity’s current role in defining where artificial intelligence may take us as a species, as well as a development in itself that perhaps WILL at some point fly the nest, break out of the confines of human-limited intelligence as dictated by our biological machinery...
I would like to pose a proposition as per the opening gambit, and which seeks to get at the heart of the issue with respect to the human element determining this future. The core of my thinking is lodged in a ‘simple’ notion that the self is indeed ‘locatable’ within a physiological frame that can be notionally influenced, moulded, ‘turned off’ even. As our understanding of ‘intelligence’ increases, or at least with respect to brain functioning pertinent to cognition (our perception and construction of ‘reality’), we can begin to envision ways to address the existential question of ‘selfhood’ and its basis in suffering, individual ambition and collective inequality... This understanding takes into account the motivators of our own behaviour within the world at large, how we can mould our own environment, and how through technology to extend ‘intelligence’ into that world, and expand (or shrink) our awareness within this wider system,
The ‘simple’ proposition is that a ‘default state’ within the brain feeds (metabolically) a network of regions that are involved in internally-directed cognition, pertaining to one’s perspective of where one is in space, what one has previously experienced through the course of one’s life, and what may happen to ‘one’ in future anticipated scenarios. This ‘self’ can be seen to be a cause for anguish, greed, obsession and addiction. These ‘cortical mid line structures’ (amongst other areas) essentially could be said to define ‘self’ at a neurophysiological level. Conversely, a set of brain regions involved in ‘goal-directed’ cognitive functioning, and located for instance in pre-frontal cortical structures, work together, in conjunction with an attentional system that maintains focus on task (or fluctuates between ‘default’/self-distraction and task-focus). With task focus comes productivity, enhanced performance, and, actually, banishment of the self. When the ‘task-positive’ network is engaged, the individual is exactly that – engaged in, absorbed by, purposeful action. The ‘default’ / self-related network is tuned down as these networked regions operate in a mutually exclusive fashion by and large (though as evidence from research becomes more granular there will be greater understanding of nuanced interaction/fluctuation between networks under certain productive conditions).
In our technology-enhanced future scenario we can, underpinned by burgeoning awareness of how our biological machinery supports our cognitive functioning, perceptions and behaviour, begin to consider how we might influence this state of being. Through technological interventions. Technology can be described as ‘the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry’ (thanks google). ‘Industry’ can be interpreted as ‘productivity’ and as directed towards sustaining economic activity that advances affluence of a society, an individual, a ‘quality of life’. So we might defer to ‘technology’ in the sense of computer/artificial intelligence imbued apparatus, but in fact can apply this more generically to any practical intervention wherein knowledge can enhance and inspire change, progress, development.
Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler (2017) have written about how science and technology can (and has already begun to) inspire interventions that transform thinking, prompt innovation, and connect with more ancient traditions of self-mastery, so I owe a debt to this for referencing many strands of research I have mined to inform my own. A central conceit of all this is that indeed technological interventions can target, neuroscientifically, the brain construct of selfhood. This can effectively be boiled down to three possible means of ‘intervention’:
It should be emphasised here that this task-positive state of being comes with it a sense of satisfaction and wellbeing as a consequence of being focused, and aligned: one’s skills are being employed to their best, in harmony with the environment. When one ‘returns’ from this task-focused ‘journey’ one has grown, strengthened from that experience. Skills consolidated, learnings gleaned. And re-connection with ‘self’, however momentary gains a feeling of being more in control, more fulfilled (and better capable of disconnecting as needed back into a goal directed state).
Now the interesting thing from an egalitarian perspective here is that focusing on a goal and tuning down the brain regions that are ‘self focused’ naturally lends itself to being more outward focused, and altruistic in a sense. For it is not about one’s individual role or goal per se. When the default ‘self’ is ‘banished’ it’s own self-interest ought to retreat from focus within the context of pursuing goal-directed tasks, opening up to possibilities that are beyond self and more in the interests of a wider societal context. This is the tricky part to define when it comes to structuring tasks that do not become too individually constrained, but that is a piece for future exposition. This idea has not yet been fully qualified in research and care should be taken simplifying the argument too readily, as in fact areas within the default mode are involved with Theory of Mind which consider the thoughts and feelings of others (see Filkowski et al., 2016). As such there will doubtlessly be components of default activity that may be necessary to preserve when engaged in tasks that have collective benefits. But nonetheless in principle, the removal of self paves the way towards harmonious interrelationship with other and the wider community and environment. Further research as mentioned will tease out the nuances of functionally connective brain resource distribution when in task-positive states.
Summing up then, the basis here is that ‘self’ is a function of brain regions that demand a lot of energy, somewhat wastefully, and which detract from effective performance on goal related tasks. Now there is deeper understanding of how this is based in brain activity that can be relatively localised, we can also seek to intervene in that system and divert resources to more producitve networks of brain regions that optimise task performance. In doing so the self ‘switches off’, and a more industrious and fulfilling state of being arises. Through this scientific understanding we can devise technological interventions that help in this process of ‘self mastery’. We can do this through structuring our environment in a way to motivate and direct participants towards task focus at expense of internal distracting ‘self-thoughts’. We can do it by offering pharmacological substances (which may target quite specifically receptors such as serotonergic 5-HT2A) that dissolve self and desynchronise electrophysiological activity associated with ‘normal cognition’ (Muthukumaraswamy SD, et al. (2013)), or creating observable impact on the ‘balance’ of stress hormones such as cortisol and noradrenaline (influencing arousal and therefore motivation). Finally we can devise better measuring apparatus that can probe this brain activity, and even through ‘neurofeedback’ give better control over the distribution of activity and its cognitive associative processing. And in accord with this, through Internet of Things enabled connectivity with our WHOLE environment, perchance synthesise a means for ‘controlling’ all aspects of our ‘being’. Like a thermostat controlling the heating system in your house,you could ensure that your brain state resonates most harmoniously with the wider external environment and the demands of any task that requires fulfilling. All the whilst being more attuned to collective goals, needs of society, needs of the planet...
So a future could exist in which a more egalitarian status is conferred societally-wide by understanding how to guide individual ‘self-absorption’ more towards altruistic goal directed focus through application of technology (as conceptualised in different ways above). The techno-spiritual revolution could go hand in hand with the resurgence of ancient practices (as is happening anyway) so that we all reconnect with our species’ purpose to evolve harmoniously with the machines that will eventually replace us. But at which point, with self banished there is no ‘one’ left to mind!
5th December 2053: sat by the virtual fireside in my condominium, preparing for the day’s ‘work’. Have installed my fNIRS headband and ensured it’s synced with the Human-Environment integration system, networked world-wide via the Global Internat of Things. The AI huge-data analysis framework has concocted my task list for today and is now through real time neurofeedback providing my own digital augmented operating system with impetus to optimise my large scale brain networks connectivity protocol. I can feel now in tune with my own cognitive capabilities, switching effortlessly into a cenrtal-executive prefrontal cortex connective state. My ‘self’ is dwindling as my engagement tunes in to my goal which is to provide innovative solutions to sustainable energy technology challenges affecting a community in India. I am virtually in my remote ‘neighbour’s shoes, understanding and experiencing what daily challenges he faces making ends meet. But importantly I can help focus all my energies onto a constructive solution that can be fed across the web network to stimulate further solutions and innovations, coupled with AI enhanced superadditive innovation engineering. We can test it all iteratively in VR, 3D print concepts and then test for real in-situ. After a day’s work like this I can return to my ‘self’ space briefly and review how better ‘I’ feel for it. I don’t even need to use the fNIRS interface to marshall my own thought processes, that;s more for my ‘working day’ conncting planetary wide for industrious applications. No this is for personal ‘benefit’ as I strengthen my own resolve and motivation as a person to be a better version of myself, content, fulfilled, and eager and full of energy to get into tomorrow’s working day helping my fellows across the worldweb.
Sinister? Against the spirit of human potential? Granting too much 'power' to AI? Or idealistic and unattainable? To be explored....
Carhart-Harris, R. and Nutt, D.J. (2017). Serotonin and brain function: a tale of two receptors. J Psychopharmacol. 31(9): 1091–1120
Filkowski, M.M., Cochran, R>N. And Haas, B.W. (2016). Altruistic behavior: mapping responses in the brain. Neurosci Neuroecon. 2016; 5: 65–75.
Muthukumaraswamy SD, et al. (2013) Broadbandcortical desynchronization underlies the human psychedelic state. J Neurosci 33(38):15171–15183
Sitaram, R., Ros, T., Stoeckel, L., Haller, S., Scharnowski, F., Lewis-Peacock, J., Weiskopf, N., Blefari, M.L., Rana, M., Oblak, E., Birbaumer, N., and Sulzer, J. (2017). Closed-loop brain training: the science of neurofeedback. Nature Reviews Neuroscience volume 18, pages86–100
Tegmark,, M., (2017). Life 3.0. Pemguin Books: UK
Wheal, J. and Kotler, S. (2017). Stealing Fire:How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs and Maverick Scientists are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. Harper Collin
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions... Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...”
― William Gibson, Neuromancer
As a cineaste and ardent fan of the craft and storytelling potential for the immersive medium that is film, I have sat through (suffered) many an experience that has bored me to tears, frustrated me, annoyed me, or sent me to sleep. But I don’t believe I have ever actually walked out of a film. Though I have come close. In fact I think the closest I ever came was whilst watching the grandstanding motion picture event that is/was AI: Artificial Intelligence.
I confess to being a diehard afficianado of Stanley Kubrick (3 of his film are in my all time top 10 – which ones I wonder...?! - there’s not that many to choose from tbh), and I suppose I had high hopes for the long germinating project of his that posthumously was realised by none other than Steven Spielberg. I guess I had hoped that in his spirit, a sort of sequel (thematically at least) to 2001 might have followed up on notions about machine intelligence as a natural evolution of consciousness, perhaps questioning the role of emotion as redundant in a more clinically perfectionist universe where ultimate limits of cognition might enable intelligent expansion across the void of space. At the expense of sugary sentiment. But no, Spielberg indulged himself and the viewer in a particularly overly saccharine take on ‘what it means to be human’, and how the future of machines rests in their capacity to evolve emotional connectivity. So far so Hollywood.
It made me squirm in my seat, long for it to end. I had to compel myself to not storm out of the cinema with half an hour more to go, muttering indignantly.
Perhaps this speaks to me as a cognitive psychologist, skeptical of ‘cod’ ideas about emotion – what is emotion? - as espoused in popular fictions, or an over amplified sense of how humanity will prevail due to some special status. Couched in this ‘feel-good’ but ambiguous notion of ‘emotion’. Am not here to write a PhD on ‘what is emotion and how does it relate to the concept of man vs machine dominance of the future Intelligence Landscape and evolutionary Darwinist cyber-thinking' (!) - though perhaps I could? Rather I want to begin touching on (from hereonin) in a series of pieces about what AI might mean more generally in a discussion about humankind’s reliance upon technology, notions of ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’, and how inevitable progress is simply the prime directive for evolution, and that’s something we need to accept and put up with...
Hopefully this will touch on some notions such as emotion, including more up to date thinking on that subject (such as the ‘constructionist’ framework as championed by the likes of Lisa Feldman-Barrett, 2014, – wherein at the heart of the matter is consideration of the human brain as a prediction-machine in itself, permutating iterative algorithms that learn, fail, adapt, succeed, grow, with emotional ‘signals’ in the mix as important functions facilitating that process). Within this line of thought, we can look at the brain and its architecture as indeed analogous to a ‘machine’, with mechanistic causal chains and connections, feedback loops, networks, which beget the cognitions, ‘qualia’ of experiential perception, in short the ‘programs’ (programmes) and operating software dependent on this infrastructure.
A good source of popular reference I shall draw on amongst others is Max Tegmark’s (2017) book ‘Life 3.0’ which nicely elucidates upon the field of Artificial Intelligence research, it’s ethical role in determining the future of AI development (to avoid the fateful Cyberdyne Systems ‘incident’ of 1997), and a serious look at where AI may present significant benefit to our species’ co-development into the near, intermediate and long term future. It’s here to stay, it’s growing exponentially, and we really don’t know truly where it is going to take us (or leave us).
It is becoming an ever stranger world day by day. Yesterday I conversed with a chat-function online attempting to source some virtual reality equipment compatible with slightly outdated computer hardware. Frustrated at the speed with which everything updates and creates redundancy in old equipment, I was somewhat exasperated and defensive with the agent with whom I was chatting. I rather tersely conversed with him and came close to asking irritatedly if he was a human or an AI and if the latter could I please have a human instead (perhaps I prefer some’one’ with the capacity to obfuscate more and put me at ease even when getting nowhere?!). The tenor of his responses suggested to me he was indeed human. But in retrospect I can’t be 100% sure. Such is the bizarrre state of affairs (at least interactively speaking) that we live in. Is it a good or a bad thing? Is devolving responsibilities such as providing consumer advice (or health advice, fitness advice, legal advice etc. etc.) to AI a sensible, effective, preferable course of action?
Much research in AI, and psychology, would argue that non-human agents can provide the appropriate rapport cues that put humans at ease, engender trust in the communication process, even elicit deeper levels of openness than human counterparts may do so (Fiske et al., 2019). It's still early days, but one thing for sure is that machine intelligence will certainly exponentially improve, learn, develop, extend beyond it’s original operating system, program, limitations. And perhaps it is best to see that as an exciting opportunity to be harnessed, or guided where possible.
Or we pull the plug now...before it’s too late. Damn, Shroedinger’s Cat is out of the bag. The mice have escaped the interface and are scurrying after the silicon cheese. The red eyes are glowing in the dark, metal legs scraping across the tarmac, relentless, rasping ‘we’ll be back’...
Next up: how AI may ‘solve’ our modern day political crisis, putting the meaning of democracy back into the lexicon. All politicians from the year 2037 will be required to register their profiles on the Mechanical Turk, henceforth their political machinations at the behest of the crowdsourcing algorithm that determines whose proposition wins the big data-analysed consensus of opinion, carefully weighing into the equation socio-economic equality formulae, balanced against environmental impact (from the worldwide IoT net), offset against predicted movement of key stocks and sustainable business practices. Nobody profits from politics, financially or status wise. Protected anonymity is key to ensure the latter. Everybody gets what nobody wants.
And lo it’s Metal Mickey. In a blond wig and puckered visage. Running the whole show.
Some things might just never change.
"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."
- George Orwell, Animal Farm
Feldman-Barret t and Russell, J.A. (2014).The Psychological Construction of Emotion ISBN 9781462516971
Fiske, A. , Henningsen, P., Buyx A (2019). Your Robot Therapist Will See You Now: Ethical Implications of Embodied Artificial Intelligence in Psychiatry, Psychology, and Psychotherapy. JOURNAL OF MEDICAL INTERNET RESEARCH, 21 (5), 1-12
Spielberg, S. (dir) (2001)/ A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Dreamworks Pictures. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.I._Artificial_Intelligence
Tegmark, M. (2017). Life 3.0. Penguin Books: UK
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.