July 10, 2010

An exponential rate of change

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , , at 11:10 pm by Jeremy

Here’s a working draft of the second section of Chapter 1 of my book, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.  I invite constructive comments from readers of my blog.


An exponential rate of change

Let’s start by scoping out the magnitude of what the pfc has accomplished in a relatively short time.  For most of us, busily managing the daily challenges of our lives, it seems that things have always been somewhat like this.  Sure, technologies change from one generation to the next, and we all know that modern times are more frenetic than they used to be… but isn’t that just what every new generation says?  Because we live in the continually swirling events of our own age, it’s difficult sometimes to stand back and see just how different our current age is from every other time in history.

Perhaps the most unique feature about our age is the very rate of change itself.  It’s getting faster and faster.  At an ever accelerating rate.  But how can we quantify something like that?  One instructive approach is to look at just one particular changing technology, which happens to lend itself to some fairly good historical quantification: the measurement of time.

Long ago, the Chinese had time wrapped up tighter than anyone else in the world.  Their clocks could track time with an error of just a minute or two per day.  And they gradually improved on their time-keeping technology, so over a thousand years or so, the error was reduced to about ten seconds a day.  That was about the same accuracy of the first pendulum clock in the West, patented in 1657 by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens. But then, something very strange happened.  The accuracy of Western clocks kept getting better and better.  And the rate of improvement itself kept getting faster and faster.  So in less than two centuries the Western clocks were a hundred times more accurate than Huygens’.  And less than a century later, a hundred times more accurate still.  And in the past century, they’ve become ten thousand times more accurate than that.  That’s known as an exponential rate of change, which follows a logarithmic curve, and can be seen in Figure 1.[1]

Figure 1: The exponential rate of increase in the accuracy of time measurement.

In fact, there are many graphs depicting human achievements historically that follow this same exponential curve.  Perhaps the most fundamental and striking of them is the graph showing the rise in human population to its current level of nearly seven billion people, as show in Figure 2.[2] The close match between these two curves and their inflection points, where they start going vertical, is no coincidence.  It is, in fact, the dramatic increase in technological innovation that has permitted the human population to grow so rapidly.

Figure 2: The exponential rate of increase in human population

If you look closely at Figure 1, you might notice a couple of interesting things.  First, see how the Chinese rate of improvement (depicted by the dotted line) was very stable and consistent.  It was only the Western rate of technological change that went exponential.  And then, take a good look at the right hand side of the graph, representing our current age.  In recent times, the line seems almost vertical.  But how much longer can it continue on that course?  And when you extrapolate this out to all the other areas of technological innovation with similar exponential curves, it’s difficult not to ask, where is this taking us?  How did it all get started?


[1] Chart reprinted from Aveni, A. (2002). Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures, Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  Additionally, see Needham, J. (1969). The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, for an earlier version of the same chart.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Population_curve.svg.

November 10, 2009

More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

Posted in Book/article Reviews tagged , , , , at 5:27 pm by Jeremy

More Than Human Cover - SmallestMore Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

By Ramez Naam

New York: Broadway Books

Johnny Ray was a healthy Vietnam vet who, one day, suffered a massive stroke, paralyzing him from the neck down.  In More Than Human, Ramez Naam describes the miraculous intervention of technology, whereby Ray, in 1998, received a neural implant, permitting him to move a cursor on a computer monitor using nothing but his own thoughts, imagining he was moving his hand.  As time went on, Ray stopped having to even think about his hands: he simply willed the cursor to move, and it moved.  As Naam describes it, “In some sense, the computer had become a part of him.”

This, to me, is the crux of Naam’s book about the promise of re-engineering the human organism.  Who could possibly deny someone like Johnny Ray the ability to regain some small part of his existence?  But then, where does the line get drawn?  The unthinkable possibilities of one generation become the avant-garde of the next, and the mundane realities of the generations to follow.  As Naam would have it, this is a good thing.  A very good thing.  In fact, he sees future biological enhancements as the next step in the great human tradition of using technology to improve our lives, from the Stone Age onwards.

In a recent post, I’ve traced the near-mystical vision those who believe in the benefits of a merged cyber-human future, back to the mind-body dualism of Plato and his followers.  Naam is clearly in this camp, but he deserves a considered hearing.  He writes his book with humanity and sensitivity.  He’s interested in the improvement of people’s real human condition in the here-and-now, and believes he’s simply exploring the path that we’re destined to take to a benevolent future.

But what a future!  Naam describes in some detail a sci-fi type of scenario where getting a neural implant becomes the de rigeur activity of the time, a bit like getting a smartphone in 2009.  The neural implant essentially puts your conscious mind on steroids, improving your power over your own bodily drives in addition to turning you into a power-web surfer simply by thinking your queries.  But then, when you and your implant communicate with other equally-empowered individuals, you’re in a whole new world.  In just the way that the network of the Internet transformed the power of an individual computer, so neural-implant communication with others would transform the very definition of being a human.  As Naam puts it:

You routinely trade memories and experiences with other implanted humans.  You learn to view the world through other people’s eyes.  You let others see through yours… You can no longer imagine a disconnected life.

What I find most fascinating in this discussion is that it’s really the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) and its “conceptual consciousness” that’s being enhanced.  (You can see the pfc’s unique attributes summarized in another post.)  Ever since the rise of what neuroscientist Merlin Donald describes as “external symbolic storage”[1] – humanity’s entire collection of symbolic constructs ranging from cave art and necklaces to writing and computer code – each individual consciousness is structured from birth by what I can the “external pfc”.  In Naam’s future, this external pfc breaks down the barrier between external and internal and begins to morph into a gigantic superorganism.  Here’s how Naam describes it:

We individuals are, in a sense, like neurons in a global brain – a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and innovations.  The more power we gain to communicate with one another, the more integrated that aggregate brain becomes.  In the last few centuries, we’ve taken tremendous steps, from small isolated pockets of computation in individual tribes and civilizations to the World Wide Web… The next step is the integration of our biological brains: unlocking the inner ideas and experiences we have, and allowing us to share them with one another, to weave them together into thoughts in a world wide mind.

The pfc’s “tyranny” over our consciousness transforms, in this scenario, into utter domination.  “L’état, c’est moi,” in the immortal words of Sun King Louis XIV – “The state?  It is me.”

To me, what’s most interesting is to see how people like Naam eliminate the distinction between our humanity and the attributes of the pfc.  If you think of yourself as a pfc housed in a body, then of course you’ll be delighted to consider a future world where your pfc is enhanced.  To understand what I mean, consider this passage, where Naam quotes from bio-ethicist Leon Kass:

The human soul yearns for, longs for, aspires to some conditions, some state, some goal toward which our earthly activities are directed but which cannot be attained in earthly life.  Our soul’s reach exceeds our grasp; it seeks more than continuance; it reaches for something beyond us, something that for the most part eludes us.

Here, Kass is describing “our soul” purely in terms of pfc-mediated functions: forward planning, aspirations, abstractions.  This is to be expected, since our Western notion of “soul” is so closely interlinked with the Cartesian, dualistic notion of “mind” (as described in another post.)

But now let’s see where Naam takes this idea:

This hunger, this reach that exceeds our grasp, this aspiration to attain something ‘which cannot be attained in earthly life’ is the force that has built our world.  It has produced our art, our music, our philosophy.  It has built our deepest understanding of the mysteries of the universe.  Never to say enough, always to want more – that is what it means to be human. (My italics.)

Now, here’s where I profoundly disagree with Naam.  What he’s describing is not “our humanity”; it’s one of the consequences of the dominance of the pfc in our human consciousness.  As I’ve argued in another post, even this seemingly defining human characteristic, roughly comparable to what the Buddhist name dukkha, may have emerged in its current form only with the development of sedentism, agriculture, and the consequent rise of the notion of private property and hierarchy.

Have you ever experienced moments when everything seemed just right?  After making love, perhaps, or in the middle of playing sports, or hiking in the countryside?  Have you ever looked at a sunset and lost yourself in its beauty?  Did you stop being human during those moments?  Or did you, perhaps, experience the sensation of what life feels like when the never-ending grasp of our pfc quiets itself, and harmonizes with the rest of our consciousness?

I would argue that our humanity is, in fact, the result of the dynamic interaction between our animate and conceptual consciousness.  When we’re taking a piss or enjoying a meal, we’re still human.  These are just aspects of our humanity that our pfc-dominated culture tends to ignore, because they’re, well, like all the other animals.  What’s going on is that Naam – along with most people in Western culture – has conflated the features that make humans unique among animals with the definition of our humanity.  And those things that make humans unique are, by and large, incorporated in our conceptual consciousness, the attributes of the pfc.  The result of this conflation is that humanity becomes defined by the pfc.  And if we humans are our pfc, then what’s wrong with biological enhancement, neural implants, and the full-blast acceleration to cyber- immortality that (in another post) I’ve called “infinition”?

Naam chose an interesting title to his book: More Than Human.  If you think about it, it gives the game away.  Our humanity is implicitly defined as a collection of attributes that differentiate us from our animate consciousness: our rationality, our will-power, our intelligence.  Therefore, permitting technology to enhance those attributes makes us “more than human.”  But if, in fact, our humanity also incorporates our animate consciousness, then what do these enhancements make us?  Less than human?  Dehumanized? New form of human?  Human 2.0?  This, I think, it the crucial issue we need to delve into as we debate the implications of biological enhancement.  Are we as a species making ourselves extinct in paving the way for Ramez Naam’s future?  And if so, is that a good or a bad thing?

[1] Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


November 4, 2009

Infinition: Our acceleration to the infinite

Posted in Infinition, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , at 6:07 pm by Jeremy

“Our existence resembles the course of a man running down a mountain who would fall over if he tried to stop and can stay on his feet only by running on.”[1] So said German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer over a hundred years ago.  He’d be amazed how his prediction has played out.  By now, the human race is taking off from that mountain.  But the underlying dynamic remains the same: we have to keep going faster and faster to avoid crashing.


Infinition: our prefrontal cortex-driven conceptual consciousness is taking off

What this means in global terms is only too apparent: the impact of our technology-driven civilization threatens the world’s climate stability – and any eventual solution is likely to require even more technology.  But the ever accelerating speed of human existence applies equally to our individual humanity.  Our conceptual consciousness (that unique attribute of our prefrontal cortex) is forging its own path away from our animate consciousness at an ever increasing speed.  I call this dynamic the acceleration to the infinite, or infinition.

In Western culture, the drive towards the infinite has been inextricably linked with our dualistic sense of a  soul or mind[2], that abstraction of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) perceived to have a separate existence from our “miserable” material bodies, which have a habit of getting old, dying, and wasting away.  It’s amazing to see how the idea of the eternal soul (the evolution of which I discuss in another post,)  is morphing in the 21st century into the notion of an eternal mind/computer interface.

Futurists write breathlessly of the fast approaching moment when computers become more intelligent than humans.  With their religious-like zeal, people who call themselves “transhumanists” are taking the pfc’s idea of its own immortality to a new dimension, blending metaphor with reality as they speak longingly of the merger of man and machine.  In the words of technologist Ramez Naam,

Playing God’ is actually the highest expression of human nature.  The urges to improve ourselves, to master our environment, and to set our children on the best path possible have been the fundamental driving forces of all of human history.  Without these urges to ‘play God’, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist today.[3]

the rapture

"The Rapture" as envisaged in the Christian tradition

I’m certainly not the first person to see this linkage of Western body/soul dualism and modern transhumanism.  In an interesting 2008 article entitled Waiting for the Rapture, Glenn Zorpette compares modern “singularitarians”[4] believing in a future when you can “upload your consciousness”, with those who, over the ages, have “yearned to transcend death.”  In his words, we’re witnessing the “rapture of the geeks.”

And in a prophetic article over twenty years ago, The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century, Morris Berman saw the home computer as “the modern fulfillment of the Gnostic vision,” warning that our culture is acquiring a “computer consciousness… disembodied, a form of pure mental process.” [5]

These observations are not just metaphors.  Our human brains really are, bit by bit, becoming more like the computers they created.  In a 2008 study, Small & Vorgan report how Internet usage causes increased activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the pfc that mediates abstract concepts, while “the pathways for human interaction and communication weaken as customary one-on-one people skills atrophy.”[6]

Cultured neurons

Cultured neurons placed onto a multi-electrode array (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Reading)

And at the other end of the spectrum, we can already see the first traces of a future merger of man and machine.  A 2008 article in Science Daily reports on a robot developed in England “which is controlled by a biological brain formed from cultured neurons.”  It’s early days yet, but the borders between silicon-based artificial intelligence and cellular-based human intelligence are beginning to get a little blurry.

There are some who just can’t wait for this moment when mind and machine become one – the so-called “singularity.”  Perhaps the most mystical of these is the technologist, Raymond Kurzweil.  For Kurzweil, the mind/body dualism is clear.  Bodies die.  That’s bad.  If you want to live forever, get moving to that singularity as fast as you possibly can.   As he sees it:

Whereas some of my contemporaries may be satisfied to embrace aging gracefully as part of the cycle of life, that is not my view.  It may be ‘natural’, but I don’t see anything positive in losing my mental agility, sensory acuity, physical limberness, sexual desire, or any other human ability.  I view disease and death at any age as a calamity, as problems to be overcome.[7]

Kurzweil continues the age-old Platonic tradition as purely as if he were Plato himself.  For him,

…the purpose of the universe reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge.  Our human intelligence and our technology form the cutting edge of this expanding intelligence.[8]

In Kurzweil’s Platonism, intelligence will one day literally make us God, as our computer/mind interface pervades the universe.  “In my view,” he says, “the fate of the universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.”[9]

It might be easy to dismiss Kurzweil as a quixotic figure, tilting at the windmills of time, but there are plenty of other transhumanists following the same path, if a little less mystically.  And even within the Christian tradition, there have been influential modern thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin, who held the belief that “the destiny of humans and human culture is to transcend the natural world and natural processes… as a way of liberating humans from Nature’s constraints.”[10]

This transcending of natural processes is the acceleration towards the infinite – or infinition – that I’m talking about.  And once we’ve taken off, there’s no going back.  English cybernetics professor, Kevin Warwick warns ominously of the “slippery slope”:

There is a clear incentive to go down this path.  Given a choice, people will prefer to keep their bones from crumbling, their skin supple, their life systems strong and vital.  Improving our lives through neural implants on the mental level, and nanotechnology-enhanced bodies on the physical level, will be popular and compelling.  It is another one of those slippery slopes – there is no obvious place to stop this progression until the human race has largely replaced the brains and bodies that evolution first provided.”[11]

I would argue that, in fact, we’ve been going along this path for hundreds of years, since the birth of the scientific mindset and its foundational ethic of exercising power over nature (described in another post.)  It’s an ethic described by nuclear scientist Freeman Dyson as “irresistible… an illusion of illimitable power… what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”[12]

So why complain about infinition if it really is capable of transcending our natural constraints?  It really depends on how you define your own humanity.  If you see yourself, deep down, as a mind inhabiting your body, then jump on board the Infinition Express.  But if you see your humanity as embodied, as part of the natural world, intertwined through 4 billion years of evolution with everything else around you, then there’s every reason to be concerned.  In the words of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas,

Surely it is our animal nature that recognizes the divinity of the natural world in all its mystery and beauty, despite the distressing habits and limited perception that afflict our species.  So perhaps our hope of redemption lies in the fact that we are animals, not that we are people.[13]

the organic worldview

The natural world: cornerstone of the "organic" worldview

There’s a profound conflict here, between an “organic” worldview and the worldview of infinition.  The organic view embraces the wonder of life, from the smallest microbe to humankind, seeing the same life force, the same “spirit”, the connectivity of all the living parts, integrating in complexity and harmony.  The force of infinition, by contrast, comes from the pfc.  Its very nature is non-organic.  Its view of the organic world is something apart, something to conquer, to control.  It’s the cause of the destruction we’ve wrought on the organic world.  And it will destroy our own organic existence unless we find a way to harness its power.  This is the true dualistic struggle: not between good and evil, not between body and soul, but between the organism and the abstraction, between our own organic existence and the power of our own pfc.  It’s the ultimate epic struggle of humanity.  And it’s a struggle in which each of us is one of the warriors.  We are all on the front line.

Is there a middle path, a way to reconcile this struggle, or are we destined on the one hand to take off into the stratosphere of infinition leaving our earthly home behind, or on the other hand to experience a dire collapse of civilization through overreaching?  I believe there may be a trajectory that, in effect, keeps us in earthly orbit, but in order to reach that trajectory, we have to find the path within ourselves that mediates between our conceptual and animate consciousness.  Each of us – as individuals – has to begin to define our own humanity not in terms of “pure mind living in a body” nor “pure animal afflicted by mind.”  Instead, we need to work towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness”, where our attention harmonizes with the never-ending dynamic between bodily impulses, abstract thoughts, and the vast realm in between.  Only if we re-integrate our own minds do we have any hope of bridging the chasm that has developed in our society between science and the spirit, between the “cybernetic dreams” of technology and the precarious beauty of our natural world.

[1] Quoted by Batchelor, S., (1994). The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Berkeley Parallax Press.


[2] What was viewed as the soul in Platonic and early Christian thought was largely transformed by Descartes into the modern view of the mind. See Macdonald, P. S. (2003). The History of the Concept of the Mind: Speculations about Soul, Mind and Spirit from Homer to Hume, Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

[3] Quoted by Kurzweil, R., (2005). The Singularity Is Near. New York: Penguin Books.

[4] Called such because they believe in a future event called “the Singularity” when computers will transcend the human mind.

[5] Berman, M. (Spring 1986). “The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 24-51.

[6] Small, G., and Vorgan, G. (2008). “Meet Your iBrain: How the technologies that have become part of our daily lives are changing the way we think.” Scientific American Mind(October/November 2008), 43-49.

[7] Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near, New York: Penguin Books.

[8] Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.

[9] Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.

[10] Sessions, G. ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala Publications, pp. 292-4.

[11] Cited by Greenfield, S. (2003). Tomorrow’s People: How 21st-Century Technology is Changing the Way We Think and Feel, London: Penguin Books, p. 4.

[12] Cited by Joy, B. (2004). “Why the future doesn’t need us.” Wired Magazine(August 2004).

[13] Quoted by Bekoff, M. (2002). Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions and Heart, New York: Oxford University Press.