As the author of World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet, Michael Chorost lays out a bold conceptual framework for a rudimentary solution for integrating networked neural interfaces into the human mind. Effortlessly blending the fields of neuroscience, biology, and Chorost’s own personal experiences breaking down social barriers to achieve deeper, more meaningful interpersonal relationships, the book is a love story wrapped in a scientific vision with a liberal dollop of speculation on how the technology would evolve the state of human communication.
I caught up with Dr. Chorost recently in his adopted hometown of Washington, D.C., fresh on the heels of the February 15th launch of World Wide Mind. We had a chance to explore some of the themes introduced in the book, and dig a little deeper into Chorost’s vision for how human communication might function if we were able to transmit emotional information and memories at the speed of the Internet. Below are excerpts from the interview, and be sure to check out the full Appletell review of World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet.
Appletell (AT): You speak about the human propensity to seek the creation of comunitas. Do you see this propensity continuing in a World Wide Mind, or would a new global community emerge?
Michael Chorost (MC): I don’t see that as an either/or kind of thing. I think the important point in technology development is that we almost never see new technology completely replace an older form. Movies didn’t replace theatre, the telephone didn’t replace face-to-face conversation; they just created a new set of possibilities, and allowed people to look at the old possibilities in a different light. I don’t see this World Wide Mind I suggest [in the book] as taking anything away that we have now—it will add on a new layer, and may cause us to rethink small groups, communities, towns, and see them from a new perspective, and I certainly do not think that any of these forms will simply go away.
AT: In a world that already encourages sensory overload, what mechanisms could the World Wide Mind provide to help filter out the new types of sensory information that would be shared?
MC: Sensory overload, and overload in general, is a huge problem now, and it’s still going to be a problem in the future. I think the answer is what I talked about in relation to the [interpersonal relationship building] workshops. You have this world of constant distraction, and we’re not going to get rid of that world. But what I learned in the workshops was how to really focus on just one other person. That’s really an amazing thing to learn; it’s not that I didn’t really know it before, but there is no substitute for really being able to practice it in an organized environment. It was a school—a school for learning these kinds of skills. We don’t need to turn off technology—we need to learn to turn on that human facility of mutual focus and mutual attention.
AT: With discussion of interconnected minds, we almost have to have a reference to the Borg from Star Trek. If we were all communicating in this vast internetworked world, do you foresee the need for a central authority, in Star Trek terms like the Borg Queen?
MC: That was a question I didn’t have the time to explore in the length I would have liked to in World Wide Mind, because I had to meet a really stiff deadline. The idea of the Borg Queen in Star Trek was kind of added on later—initially the Borg were this decentralized, dehierarchicalized entity; not, of course, that Star Trek is really noted for consistency. We know that ants do this—ants exist completely at the will of the colony, even though there is no single directive making stuff happen in the colony. There are all these built-in rules that govern how the colony behaves, so even ants aren’t following centralized orders. That works for ants because ants don’t have a subjective consciousness to begin with. I feel that the answer that I came up with in the book, allusions to ant and bee colonies, really wasn’t an answer, it was just a gesture at what’s possible.
AT: Do you see a continuing interdependence of humans and machinery, or more human-like machines growing out of our current dependence on technology?
MC: With the current state of technology I don’t see that at all. I think technology like Watson is fundamentally an illusion. It looks like it’s doing the same thing as a human, but it really isn’t. The most important difference between Watson and you is you can say, “I don’t want to play Jeopardy, I’d rather play chess.” The important point is Watson couldn’t want to play chess, or Deep Blue couldn’t want to play checkers, and there’s nothing in the computational world that approximates that sense of wanting. Machines as we know them do not have an inherent quality of wanting anything.
AT: The World Wide Mind technology you propose involves some pretty drastic measures, including genetic modification, implantation of LEDs in the skull, and implantation of other circuitry and connections in the brain and skull. Given this challenging barrier to entry, what vector for human/machine integration do you see apart from therapeutic uses as you discuss in the book?
MC: This is a big divide in bionics: the divide between therapy and enhancement. When a part of your body is broken—like your ear, and it’s drastically affecting the quality of your life—then you’re willing to take the risk of surgery to have a device implanted inside of you that will help. If you don’t have that problem then the equation changes entirely. In the book I’m not proposing that people undergo these kind of drastic technologies—you would never get this past the FDA. The point of the book is that this kind of technological intervention is conceptually discussable. In Star Trek, it is simply taken for granted that the technology required by the Borg exist, but it gives you no idea how it actually works and the writers have no idea how it works.