Friday, February 18, 2011

World Wide Mind:

Imagining a World of Total Connectedness, and Its Consequences

From the New York Times:

Imagine, Michael Chorost proposes, that four police officers on a drug raid are connected mentally in a way that allows them to sense what their colleagues are seeing and feeling. Tony Vittorio, the captain, is in the center room of the three-room drug den.

He can sense that his partner Wilson, in the room on his left, is not feeling danger or arousal and thus has encountered no one. But suddenly Vittorio feels a distant thump on his chest. Sarsen, in the room on the right, has been hit with something, possibly a bullet fired from a gun with a silencer.

Vittorio glimpses a flickering image of a metallic barrel pointed at Sarsen, who is projecting overwhelming shock and alarm. By deducing how far Sarsen might have gone into the room and where the gunman is likely to be standing, Vittorio fires shots into the wall that will, at the very least, distract the gunman and allow Sarsen to shoot back. Sarsen is saved; the gunman is dead.

That scene, from his new book, “World Wide Mind,” is an example of what Mr. Chorost sees as “the coming integration of humanity, machines, and the Internet.” The prediction is conceptually feasible, he tells us, something that technology does not yet permit but that breaks no known physical laws.

Mr. Chorost also wrote “Rebuilt,” about his experience with deafness and his decision to get a cochlear implant in 2001. In that eloquent and thoughtful book, he refers to himself as a cyborg: He has a computer in his skull, which, along with a second implant three years ago, artificially restores his hearing. In “World Wide Mind,” he writes, “My two implants make me irreversibly computational, a living example of the integration of humans and computers.”

He takes off from his own implanted computer to imagine a world where people are connected by them. The implanted computer would work something like his BlackBerry, he explains, in that it would let people “be effortlessly aware of what their friends and colleagues are doing.” It would let each person know what the others “are seeing and feeling, thus enabling much richer forms of communication.”

Cool. Maybe. But beginning with privacy issues, the hazards are almost countless.

In discussing one of them, he cites the work of Dr. John Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard who believes people can be physically addicted to e-mail. “Each e-mail you open gives you a little hit of dopamine,” Mr. Chorost writes, “which you associate with satiety. But it’s just a little hit. The effect wears off quickly, leaving you wanting another hit.”

Dr. Ratey, he says, calls this “acquired attention deficit disorder.” Think about how this addiction to the quick informational hit would be compounded many times over by those implanted BlackBerrys shooting off constant information. “The effort would be so low, the rewards so intermittent, and the payoff so good, that a savage compulsion would result.”

Recognizing these dangers, and his own isolation, Mr. Chorost set out to make human contact. About to turn 40, in 2005, he had never been in love. Obsessed with the fact that he is short and deaf, by his own description, he undermined relationships. He enrolled in a workshop that a friend told him was about “love, sexuality and intimacy.”

The workshop was such a success that he attended six more and then became an assistant. Passages describing workshop experiences alternate with erudite passages about technology. Sometimes it’s hard to see the connection. Often it’s cringe-inducing.

Halfway into the weekend, clothes come off and participants are urged to hug someone: “I peered around, looking for likely candidates. I met the eyes of a chubby woman about my height, clothed only from the waist down. She smiled warmly and held out her arms.”

A fascinating discussion of optogenetics research is followed by the story of how Mr. Chorost met the woman who is now his wife, Victoria, on a dating Web site. I’m happy for him — Victoria sounds like a wonderful person. But as in “Rebuilt,” he’s shared too much intimacy, too many confessions.

Avert your eyes and get back to technology. Mr. Chorost’s curiosity is contagious. Even if you don’t quite follow the explanation and graphics about how the brain generates speech (discussing the work of computational neuroscientists at Harvard), you may be glad you tried. Edited out of the final book (I read an early galley proof) is the author’s assurance that if you just get through a few technical paragraphs, you’ll understand “how specific memories and perception can be manipulated.”

I didn’t. But I enjoyed the effort. And I liked the author’s belief in my ability to follow what he was saying.
Michael Chorost is not only a clear and concise science writer, but also a visionary. The coming integration of humans and machines may be a bit further off than he thinks, but he convinced me that we will get there someday.
In Ramez Naam’s book More Than Human I learned of an idea that had been proposed by Rodolfo Llinás, a New York University neuroscientist. It was hair-raising. He suggested that engineers could bundle thousands of slender wires into a cable and insert it into the femoral artery in the groin. They would snake the cable through the bloodstream to the brain, as if doing an angiogram. As the cable entered the brain, the wires would spread out so that each one ended up in a capillary. Once put in place, each wire could detect a single neuron’s firing, and change its firing by pulsing a jolt of electricity to it.
Imagine it: a flower blossoming inside the brain, nanometer stalks splitting away from a micrometer stem. Expanding into every available capillary, touching every cubic millimeter of the brain, collecting terabytes of data in every second. By the same token, it could send in terabytes of data every second. It would be the most intimate interface ever invented. If you connected one person’s wired brain to another person’s, you could literally connect them together; they would have a real corpus callosum joining them (albeit with links of radio waves rather than wires.) And if you connected a number of people to each other via the Internet, then you would have a network in which each node was a human brain. The World Wide Web would become the World Wide Mind.
You wouldn’t think there’s room inside your capillaries to insert any kind of wire, but there is. As the image above shows, each nanowire is less than a micron (a millionth of a meter) across—substantially narrower than a capillary. Llinás’s lab has shown that it can be done in principle. They inserted platinum nanowires into the capillaries of tissue samples and detected the activity of neurons lying next to them. Power tends to dissipate rapidly from extremely thin wires, but researchers are trying, with some success, to create wires that can carry the necessary levels of current.[1]
Larger-scale technologies already exist. Doctors can now thread a tube from the groin into the brain to inject anticancer drugs into tumors. These devices, called microcatheters, are thousands of times wider than nanowires, at half a millimeter to a millimeter in diameter. Nonetheless, they show that it’s possible to go deeply into the brain by threading a wire through the bloodstream. In an article on microcatheters the New York Times quoted a doctor as saying, “Technically, I can go anywhere in your brain.”
Of course, anyone can see problems with using large numbers of nanowires in a living brain. How does one guide thousands of wires through tangled kinks of capillaries? (Brain capillaries are as gnarled and twisted as baobab tree branches.) How does one get each one of them to a specific location? What if the wires get tangled? How do you keep them from shorting each other out? What about blood clotting? What if a wire goes through a capillary wall?
But virtually all of these objections were raised against cochlear implants in the 1970s.