Journal of a Cosmic Anthropologist
In my rant on The Imaginative Death of the Future I said I’d think about ideas I’d rather see being explored today. This is the first post in this series. The subject: BRAINS!
Supplements like gingko and brahmi can help slow the degradation of the brain, but what technologies are available to actually provide human enhancement, increasing our active intelligence? And what would intelligence augmentation look like?
In this quote he talks about industrial cognition and how it might feel..
And in this quote, from the Q’n’A section of the speech, he talks about being given a ‘gizmo that ramps up one’s intelligence‘.
So, how else can we define what intelligence++ might look like?
Let’s look at one current reference for smarter people, savants..
Most autistic savants have very extensive mental abilities, called splinter skills. They can recall facts, numbers, license plates, maps, and extensive lists of sports and weather statistics after only being exposed to them once. Some savants can mentally note and then recall perfectly a very long sequence of music, numbers, or speech. Some, dubbed mental calculators, can do exceptionally fast arithmetic, including prime factorization. Other skills include precisely estimating distances and angles by sight, calculating the day of the week for any given date over the span of tens of thousands of years, and being able to accurately gauge the passing of time without a clock. Most autistic savants have a single special skill, while others have multiple skills. Usually these skills are concrete, non-symbolic, right hemisphere skills, rather than left hemisphere skills, which tend to be more sequential, logical, and symbolic.
So that’s idea of the kind of skill set we might aspire to. Genius however, isn’t without its problems..
Leta Hollingworth introduced the idea of an essential “communication limit” based on IQ. According to her theory, to be a good leader of one’s contemporaries, he/she must be more intelligent but not too much more intelligent than the people who are being led. This implies that geniuses may not make good leaders of those substantially less gifted and that they could have disdain for authority. The theory also states that children and adults become intellectually ostracized from their contemporaries when an IQ difference of 30 points or more exists.
So, even if achieved, advances in cognition aren’t without their problems. Unless you bring everyone along with you, creating a whole new Flynn Effect.
Now, let’s look at two different contemporary approaches to IA.
Advanced Human-Computer Interaction
One method being pursued is creating ever-better HCI. This fits with something I was taught in my Intro to Artifical Intelligence subject back in the ye olde Uni days. That it was all about the co-evolution of tools. That as we got smarter, we’d make our tools smarter, which would make us smarter… etc. Sounds fine to me.
A main goal of the field of Augmented Cognition (AugCog) is to research and develop technologies capable of extending, by an order of magnitude or more, the information management capacity of individuals working with 21st Century computing technologies. AugCog science and technology (S&T) research and development (R&D) is therefore focused on accelerating the production of novel concepts in human-system integration and includes the study of methods for addressing cognitive bottlenecks (e.g., limitations in attention, memory, learning, comprehension, visualization abilities, and decision making) via technologies that assess the user’s cognitive status in real time.
Of course, as any user of Windows, or indeed any other OS knows, we’ve got a long way to go before we reach that sort of HCI. BUT, given its military applications for Command and Control systems – there’s no doubt there’ll be some DARPA dollars been thrown behind this.
What about hacking the brain itself?
“Allan Snyder, at the University of Sydney, has reported being able to enhance certain mental skills and increased creativity by using the TMS on the frontal lobes of volunteer students. Some of these temporarily acquired skills bear remarkable similarity to those of autistic savants.  It is important to note that the effect, although significant, is very small and has yet to be replicated.”
More details about this in a NYT article:
The Medtronic MagPro was originally developed as a tool for brain surgery: by stimulating or slowing down specific regions of the brain, it allowed doctors to monitor the effects of surgery in real time. But it also produced, they noted, strange and unexpected effects on patients’ mental functions: one minute they would lose the ability to speak, another minute they would speak easily but would make odd linguistic errors and so on. A number of researchers started to look into the possibilities, but one in particular intrigued Snyder: that people undergoing transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, could suddenly exhibit savant intelligence — those isolated pockets of geniuslike mental ability that most often appear in autistic people.
While I drew, Snyder continued his lecture. ”You could call this a creativity-amplifying machine. It’s a way of altering our states of mind without taking drugs like mescaline. You can make people see the raw data of the world as it is. As it is actually represented in the unconscious mind of all of us.”
Two minutes after I started the first drawing, I was instructed to try again. After another two minutes, I tried a third cat, and then in due course a fourth. Then the experiment was over, and the electrodes were removed. I looked down at my work. The first felines were boxy and stiffly unconvincing. But after I had been subjected to about 10 minutes of transcranial magnetic stimulation, their tails had grown more vibrant, more nervous; their faces were personable and convincing. They were even beginning to wear clever expressions.
I could hardly recognize them as my own drawings, though I had watched myself render each one, in all its loving detail. Somehow over the course of a very few minutes, and with no additional instruction, I had gone from an incompetent draftsman to a very impressive artist of the feline form.
As remarkable as the cat-drawing lesson was, it was just a hint of Snyder’s work and its implications for the study of cognition. He has used TMS dozens of times on university students, measuring its effect on their ability to draw, to proofread and to perform difficult mathematical functions like identifying prime numbers by sight. Hooked up to the machine, 40 percent of test subjects exhibited extraordinary, and newfound, mental skills. That Snyder was able to induce these remarkable feats in a controlled, repeatable experiment is more than just a great party trick; it’s a breakthrough that may lead to a revolution in the way we understand the limits of our own intelligence — and the functioning of the human brain in general.
Despite these limitations, a small subset of autistics, known as savants, can also perform superspecialized mental feats. Perhaps the most famous savant was Dustin Hoffman’s character in ”Rain Man,” who could count hundreds of matchsticks at a glance. But the truth has often been even stranger: one celebrated savant in turn-of-the-century Vienna could calculate the day of the week for every date since the birth of Christ. Other savants can speak dozens of languages without formally studying any of them or can reproduce music at the piano after only a single hearing. A savant studied by the English doctor J. Langdon Down in 1887 had memorized every page of Gibbon’s ”Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” At the beginning of the 19th century, the splendidly named Gottfried Mind became famous all over Europe for the amazing pictures he drew of cats.
And so Snyder turned to TMS, in an attempt, as he says, ”to enhance the brain by shutting off certain parts of it.”
If Snyder’s suspicions are correct, in fact, and savants have not more brainpower than the rest of us, but less, then it’s even possible that everybody starts out life as a savant. Look, for example, at the ease with which children master complex languages — a mysterious skill that seems to shut off automatically around the age of 12. ”What we’re doing is counterintuitive,” Snyder tells me. ”We’re saying that all these genius skills are easy, they’re natural. Our brain does them naturally. Like walking. Do you know how difficult walking is? It’s much more difficult than drawing!”
Meanwhile, researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke found that TMS applied to the prefrontal cortex enabled subjects to solve geometric puzzles much more rapidly. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, associate professor of neurology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston (who, through his work at the Laboratory for Magnetic Brain Stimulation, has been one of the American visionaries of TMS), has even suggested that TMS could be used to ”prep” students’ minds before lessons.
None of this has gone unnoticed by canny entrepreneurs and visionary scientists. Last year, the Brain Stimulation Laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina received a $2 million government grant to develop a smaller TMS device that sleep-deprived soldiers could wear to keep them alert. ”It’s not ‘Star Trek’ at all,” says Ziad Nahas, the laboratory’s medical director. ”We’ve done a lot of the science on reversing cognitive deficiencies in people with insomnia and sleep deficiencies. It works.” If so, it could be a small leap to the day it boosts soldiers’ cognitive functioning under normal circumstances.
Bruce L. Miller, the A.W. and Mary Margaret Claussen distinguished professor in neurology at the University of California at San Francisco, is intrigued by Snyder’s experiments and his attempts to understand the physiological basis of cognition. But he points out that certain profound questions about artificially altered intelligence have not yet been answered. ”Do we really want these abilities?” he asks. ”Wouldn’t it change my idea of myself if I could suddenly paint amazing pictures?”
‘More important than that, we can change our own intelligence in unexpected ways. Why would we not want to explore that?”
Now, imagine if they could combine TMS with the advanced HCI? Such that, not only is the computer customised for what the brain can process, but also the brain customised for the information being processed?! Crazy. That would deliver true information-warriors for the 21stC.
I was gonna write something next about advances in pharmacology in enhancing cognition. But I couldn’t really find that much. There is the ‘field’ of nootropics, but all I really learnt is the disturbing fact that American retiree’s seem to be scoring GHB in Mexico.
Instead, I stumbled upon something far more speculative than what I’ve said so far, in Natasha Vita-More’s article Wisdom [Meta-Knowledge] through AGI / Neural Macrosensing:
Wisdom is a kind of meta-knowledge that helps us make better sense by putting our facts into a variety of contexts for viewing from a variety of perspectives—self-knowledge, laws-of-nature, and complex systems. In today’s era of blending technology with human biology, scientists are speculating on the potential of biotechnologies for triggering these perspectives as we continue to try to make sense of the world and our relationship to it.
One approach is to couple two emerging, speculative technologies that have this potential, separately or together. These two technologies are artificial general intelligence (AGI) and nanotechnological macrosensing.
Engineers at Adaptive AI Inc. are building AGI that will act as intelligent assistants in various fields, including psychologically-coupled personal ‘oracles’. These systems will develop an intimate symbiotic relationship with individual humans—over time, becoming trusted advisors. The envisioned silicon oracle would assist its human counterpart on personal, intimate levels by interacting with our thoughts. According to inventor and scientist Peter Voss, “Once we have human level AGI, we will essentially possess our own personal AGI to integrate with us and advise us.” Voss asserts that our new AGI silicon partner would develop rationality, wisdom, and knowledge through a relatively loose integration with our brain. This non-invasive approach to augmenting the brain would at first appear as mundane as an external, non-obtrusive black box, (which could give new meaning to “in the box thinking”); and later possibly as streamlined as light-activated ion channels for remote control of neural activity. (Richard H. Kramer) The oracle silicon partner would also be a new, emotional part of ourselves to bounce ideas off of; similar, but far more advanced than the Remembrance Agent (RA) computer, designed by Bradley Rhodes at MIT Media Lab, that watches over our shoulder and suggests information relevant to what we are reading or writing.
The second technology is “neural macrosensing.” Macrosensing, a concept created by scientist and nanotechnology expert Robert A. Freitas Jr., relates to medical in vivo nanorobotics for the detection of somatic states as well as extrasomatic states, such as sensory data originating outside the body. In theory, it is the “ability to detect individual neural cell electrical discharges non-invasively … [and] offers the possibility of indirect ‘neural macrosensing’ of complex environmental stimuli by eavesdropping on the body’s own regular sensory signal traffic.” (Freitas 1999) Neural macrosensing would be comprised of millions of nanorobots in sensory locations designed to work with the entire body by listening to and recording sensory responses and transporting this information to the brain’s cognition center. Your brain would be in constant contact with your senses, allowing for super-senses or a more in tune ability to sense yourselves and your environment. (Freitas 1999) This means that nanorobots would listen to, or eavesdrop on, the body’s sensory organs. The nanorobots would detect individual neural cell electrical discharges non-invasively and recognize and identify specific desired target nerve cells and pool data gathered independently by spatially separated nanodevices in real time.
For example, facultative (granted permission) mobile nanodevices may swim into the spiral artery of the ear and down through its bifurcations to reach the cochlear canal, then position themselves as neural monitors in the vicinity of the spiral nerve fibers and the nerves entering the epithelium (thin layer of cells) of the organ of auditory nerves within the spiral ganglion. These monitors can detect, record, or rebroadcast to other nanodevices in the communications network all the auditory neural traffic perceived by the human ear. … Since properly configured monitors can also modulate or stimulate nerve impulses, these devices may add audible signals to the audio traffic, thus may be employed as hearing aids (using feedback loops), real-time language translation mechanisms, continuous vocalization/audition recorders, voice-stress analyzers, or nano device-user communications links. (Freitas 1999)
The most likely approach would be to build generic oracles with a large skill set and ability to bond quickly with their counterparts. This bonding would require more than technically-driven intellectual motivation; it would require strong sensory capabilities for, essentially, sniffing out the environment. And this is where neural macrosensing comes in; to “allow us to become exquisitely sensitive, like ‘super-senses’ to fine details in our environment.” (Freitas) Neural macrosensing could provide the needed sensorial feedback for both assisting the brain and developing elevated acuity.
Being a pragmatist, however, he is mindful of the possibility that neural macrosensing technology could advance faster than AGI, “in which case it will initially be driven by specialized ‘narrow AI’ (task oriented artificial intelligence rather than a learning general intelligence) applications rather than AGI.”
“Hybridizing this sort of narrow AI with neural macrosensing technology could lead to amazing neuro feedback technology even without AGI. Use of neuro feedback devices could allow us to control our states of mind with far more fluidity and dexterity than is currently conceivable, perhaps solving age-old problems such as the difficulty of sustaining Zen-style ‘mindfulness’ while engaged in intensive and challenging intellectual activity. [If we figured out the biological indicators of the rare state of mind where both spiritual mindfulness and intellectual mastery were being demonstrated, quite possibly neuro feedback would allow us to learn to trigger that state via conscious effort.] And the use of AGI for guiding neuro feedback, in place of relatively simple machine learning methods, would make the possibilities even more awesome, almost surely enabling states of consciousness that are currently inaccessible (and literally unthinkable) to humans.” (Goertzel 2006)
I mean, honestly, when consumers and homebrewers find out that you can coat buckytubes so they don’t rot in the human body, all bets will be off.
And that about wraps it up, AFAIK. Nothing out there just right now that’ll ramp up the old IQ, but maybe a few things on the horizon. But if there’s something cool out there I’ve missed, let us know…