“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
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.