Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Dumb Ideas From Academia, No. 23: How Computer Technology Will Enable Brain to Brain Communication

Ian Morris, a Stanford-based ex-Brit, has produced another long and tedious work of current history  (see reviews here), consistent with the US imperialist narrative, which is to say that war is good, and we need more of it.

Having been stung by an earlier work by Morris, I naturally refrained from purchasing his latest screed, but I glanced through it at the bookstore, committing the following passage to my capacious memory before returning the volume to the shelf upside down (a convenient method of book review):
But when we turn from soothsaying to what is actually happening in laboratories, we discover — perhaps unsurprisingly — that while no one can predict the detailed results, the broad trend does keep moving toward the computerization of everything. I touched on some of this science in my book Why the West Rules — for Now, so here I can be brief, but I do want to note a couple of remarkable advances in what neuroscientists call brain-to-brain interfacing. (In plain English, telepathy, over the Internet) made since that book appeared in 2010. 
See what I meant about tedious? We don't have merely what is happening in laboratories, we have what is actually happening. The claim that we cannot predict the future of scientific discovery in detail, hardly needs prefacing with the words perhaps unsurprisingly, and the assumption that we must have read the author's previous incredibly long and tedious book seems rash, since anyone susceptible to the pain of extreme boredom who had read the previous book is unlikely to be reading the present one. But at least, here, Morris promises to be brief, which is encouraging, so let us continue, at least briefly:
The first requirement for merging minds through machines is machines that can read the electrical signals inside out skulls ...
Etc. Yeah, well, some people no doubt hope to recreate the Borg empire on Earth, everyone to have a thingy stuck in their head to assure unresisting assimilation. But the mind meld that we are familiar with from Star Trek, with or without the Borg snorkel, is not new. It's as old as the hills. About a hundred thousand years old, anyhow, since that's how long humans have used language with which, not only to talk, but to think. See, that's the essence of the mind meld. Creating the same thought in your head as in mine. So if I say, "shit, this book by Morris is a bore," what you'll hear is "shit, this book by Morris is a bore."

But there's more to verbal communication than that. If you live in town and like to walk, or if you commute by public transport, you must overhear the conversations of other walkers or commuters, and one thing that you will thus be aware of is that not only do people use speech to convey verbal thoughts, but they express emotion in tones of voice and in patterns of verbal emphasis. Moreover, although these characteristics of speech vary from place to place, within any local group they become highly standardized, as is particularly obvious among young people who have been socialized almost entirely by other children, plus TV and Hollywood (which is why one rather despairs of the next generation). We can be confident, therefore, that when certain tones of expression and patterns of emphasis are used, they have essentially the same emotional significance for both speaker and hearer.

So, contrary to this idea that "the broad trend does keep moving toward the computerization of everything," you don't need a computer for brain-to-brain communication unless you are communicating remotely, in which case you do need a computer, but only as an input device activated via a keyboard, microphone or camera. So actually, Professor Morris seems to be about a hundred thousand years behind the times. True there are some forms of thought that are not so easily verbalized, but humanity managed to develop the Theory of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics with nothing beside words, including some special math terminology, as a means of communication, so it remains open to question whether there would be any gain in communication effectiveness from wiring people's brains together. The downside, though, is obvious: the NSA would tap your thoughts and then decide, by means of a computer algorithm, probably,  whether to set you up for a drone attack next week.

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