Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence

Andy Clark – Notes from the book Natural-Born Cyborgs, Oxford University Press (2003)

My body is wherever there is something to be done.

—Maurice Merleau-Ponty

My body is an electronic virgin. I incorporate no silicon chips, no retinal or cochlear implants, no pacemaker. I don’t even wear glasses (though I do wear clothes), but I am slowly becoming more and more a cyborg. So are you. Pretty soon, and still without the need for wires, surgery, or bodily alterations, we shall all be kin to the Terminator, to Eve 8, to Cable . . . just fill in your favorite fictional cyborg. Perhaps we already are. For we shall be cyborgs not in the merely superficial sense of combining flesh and wires but in the more profound sense of being human-technology symbionts: thinking and reasoning systems whose minds and selves are spread across biological brain and nonbiological circuitry. This book is the story of that transition and of its roots in some of the most basic and characteristic facts about human nature. For human beings, I want to convince you, are natural- born cyborgs.

 

To better appreciate what we already are: creatures whose minds are special precisely because they are tailor- made for multiple mergers and coalitions. The line between biological self and technological world was, in fact, never very firm. Plasticity and multiplicity are our true constants, and new technologies merely dramatize our oldest puzzles (prosthetics and tele- presence are just walking sticks and shouting, cyberspace is just one more place to be). Human intellectual history is, in large part, the tale of this fragile and always unstable frontier.

The everyday notions of “minds” and “persons” pick out deeply plastic, open-ended systems—systems fully capable of including non-biological props and aids as quite literally parts of themselves. What makes us distinctively human is our capacity to continually restructure and re- build our own mental circuitry, courtesy of an empowering web of culture, education, technology, and artifacts. Minds like ours are complex, messy, contested, permeable, and constantly up for grabs. The neural difference that makes all this possible is probably not very large, but its effects are beyond measure.

The mind-body problem, really involves a hidden third party. It is the mind-body-scaffolding problem. It is the problem of under- standing how human thought and reason is born out of looping interactions between material brains, material bodies, and complex cultural and technological environments. We create these supportive environments, but they create us too. We exist, as the thinking things we are, only thanks to a baffling dance of brains, bodies, and cultural and technological scaffolding. Understanding this evolutionarily novel arrangement is crucial for our science, our morals, and our self-image both as persons and as a species.

We are, in short, in the grip of a seductive but quite untenable illusion: the illusion that the mechanisms of mind and self can ultimately unfold only on some privileged stage marked out by the good old-fashioned skin-bag. My goal is to dispel this illusion, and to show how a complex matrix of brain, body, and technology can actually constitute the problem-solving machine that we should properly identify as ourselves. Seen in this light, the cell phones of the Introduction were not such a capricious choice of entry-point after all. None of us, to be sure, are yet likely to think of ourselves as born-again cyborgs, even if we invest in the most potent phone on the market and integrate its sweeping functionality deep into our lives. But the cell phone is, indeed, a prime, if entry-level, cyborg technology. It is a technology that may, indeed, turn out to mark a crucial transition point between the first (pen, paper, diagrams, and digital media dominated) and the second waves (marked by more personalized, online, dynamic biotechnological unions) of natural-born cyborgs. The mistake—and it is a familiar one—was to assume that the most profound mergers and intimacies must always involve literal penetrations of the skin-bag.

The biological design innovations that make all this possible include the provision (in us) of an unusual degree of cortical plasticity and the (related) presence of an unusually extended period of development and learning (child-hood). These dual innovations (intensively studied by the new research program called “neural constructivism”) enable the human brain, more than that of any other creature on the planet, to factor an open-ended set of bio- logically external operations and resources deep into its own basic modes of operation and functioning. It is the presence of this unusual plasticity that makes humans (but not dogs, cats, or elephants) natural-born cyborgs: beings primed by Mother Nature to annex wave upon wave of external elements and structures as part and parcel of their own extended minds.

various kinds of deep human-machine symbiosis really do expand and alter the shape of the psychological processes that make us who we are. The old technologies of pen and paper have deeply impacted the shape and form of biological reason in mature, literate brains. The presence of such technologies, and their modern and more responsive counterparts, does not merely act as a convenient wrap around for a fixed biological engine of reason. Nor does it merely free up neural resources. It provides instead an array of resources to which biological brains, as they learn and grow, will dovetail their own activities. The moral, for now, is simply that this process of fitting, tailoring, and factoring in leads to the creation of extended computational and mental organizations.

I believe that the idea of human cognition as subsisting in a hybrid, extended architecture (one which includes aspects of the brain and of the cognitive technological envelope in which our brains develop and operate) remains vastly under-appreciated. We cannot understand what is special and distinctively powerful about human thought and reason by simply paying lip service to the importance of the web of surrounding structure. Instead, we need to understand in detail how brains like ours dovetail their problem-solving activities to these additional resources, and how the larger systems thus created operate, change, and evolve. In addition, we need to understand that the very ideas of minds and persons are not limited to the biological skin-bag, and that our sense of self, place, and potential are all malleable constructs ready to expand, change, or contract at surprisingly short notice.

One quite general way to see the contribution of tools such as pen and paper is thus in terms of a deep complementarity between what the bio- logical brain is naturally good at, and what the tool provides. Biological brains do not seem to function like logic machines or like digital computers. Brains—unlike computers—are not good at storing and recalling long arbitrary sequences such as a 200-digit number. Brains—again unlike computers—are not good at recalling long arbitrary lists of instructions. That’s why a lot of multifunction technology, like current PCs, and a lot of old technology, like first-generation VCRs, can be so hard to use. These technologies require the biological brain to perform a role for which it is inherently unsuited: recalling and executing long, essentially arbitrary lists of instructions.

The brain’s role is crucial and special, but it is not the whole story. In fact, the true power and beauty of the brain’s role was that it acted as a mediating factor in a wide variety of complex and iterated processes, which continually looped between brain, body, and technological environment, and it is this larger system that solved the problem.

THE EARLY ADOPTER’S DREAM TECHNOLOGY

It was hard to believe. A fully portable, shareable resource, which would radically alter the way we think, work, and live. The early adopters, indeed, would be so vastly empowered that there were great fears in the land concerning fairness, access, and equality. Subject to local protocol matches, groups of users could cheaply share information and coordinate activities across vast disconnections in space and time. Totally human-centered, delicately matched to the strengths and weak- nesses of our biological brains, able to evolve and alter to become easier to learn and deploy, the new piece of kit was, in fact, so simple that even a child could use it! Yet it would allow us to learn quicker, to grasp concepts otherwise beyond our reach. And—wonder of wonders—it would allow us to begin actively to think about our own thoughts and problem-solving strategies. As a result, it would invite us to systematically and repeatedly build better worlds to think in.

Many feared the new resource. They felt it was sure to encourage great laziness and to stop people thinking for themselves. If you could just ask someone for the answer, who would bother to learn anything? In the presence of such potent resources, wouldn’t our “real” memories simply wither away? Where would it all lead? Might we not turn into a race of lazy, desensitized “post-humans”—hybrids who had traded flesh and spirit for artifice, abstraction, and power?

You be the judge. For the technology was (of course) language, and indeed, it changed us beyond recognition. It brought into being the kinds of explicit thought and reflection upon which this whole scenario depends. That’s why the scenes just imagined could never have occurred. Public language was the spark that lit the hybrid fire.

A more realistic vision depicts us humans as, by nature, products of a complex and heterogeneous developmental matrix in which culture, technology, and biology are pretty well inextricably intermingled. It is a mistake to posit a biologically fixed “human nature” with a simple wrap-around of tools and culture; the tools and culture are indeed as much determiners of our nature as products of it. Ours are (by nature) unusually plastic and opportunistic brains whose biological proper functioning has always involved the recruitment and exploitation of non-biological props and scaffolds.

Our sense of personal location has more to do with this sense of an action-space than with anything else. The larger lesson, then, is that embodiment is essential but negotiable. Humans are never disembodied intelligences; work in telepresence, virtual reality, and telerobotics, far from bolstering any mistaken vision of detached, bodiless intelligence, simply underlines the crucial importance of touch, motion, and intervention. In all the cases we have examined, what matters are the complex feedback loops that connect action-commands, bodily motions, environmental effects, and multisensory perceptual inputs. It is the two-way flow of influence between brain, body, and world that matters, and on the basis of which we construct (and constantly re-reconstruct) our sense of self, potential, and presence. The biological skin-bag has no special significance here. It is the flow that counts.

Do you feel an identity crisis looming? Where, in this increasingly dense biotechnological matrix shall we locate our (human?) selves? The question can quickly confound, since the notions of self and identity are notoriously elusive. What is the self anyway? Does it make sense to even try to locate it? The philosopher Daniel Dennett offers the following formula. Control, says Dennett, is the ultimate criterion: “I am the sum total of the parts I control directly.”

I think of myself not just as a physical presence but as a kind of rational or intellectual presence. I think of myself in terms of a certain set of ongoing goals, projects, and commitments: to write a new paper, to be a good husband, to better understand the nature of persons, and so on. These goals and projects are not static, nor are they arbitrarily changeable. I recognize myself, over my lifetime, in part by keeping track of this flow of projects and commitments. Others, likewise, will often recognize me as a unique individual, not (or not only) by recognizing my physical shape and form but by recognizing some distinctive nexus of projects and activities. Some writers speak here of the narrative self—the self identified by a story told both to ourselves and others, and told both by ourselves and others.

This narrative self, I want to suggest, may be a biotechnological hybrid in a different, even a deeper, fashion. The narrative self is a self built out of our own and others’ conceptions of our projects, capacities, possibilities, and potentials. Can we really suppose that it would make no difference, to the “I” thus identified, to find itself moving, thinking, and acting in a more highly biotechnologically integrated world? In a world where dedicated software agents constantly search the web for items of special interest and for new opportunities to carry forward the projects dearest to its heart? In a world where the capacity to use certain devices and software packages is as fluent and direct as the capacity to move my own biological body?

There is no self, if by self we mean some central cognitive essence that makes me who and what I am. In its place there is just the “soft self”: a rough-and-tumble, control- sharing coalition of processes—some neural, some bodily, some technological—and an ongoing drive to tell a story, to paint a picture in which “I” am the central player. In suggesting that our best biotechnological unions may deeply impact our narrative sense of self, I mean to be suggesting nothing more—but nothing less—radical than the kinds of changes we have already encountered several times in human history. The advent of personal timekeeping made possible a new kind of attitude to life for the average worker. By allowing us to budget our time and divide it between various tasks, we became able to pursue a wider variety of projects. The use of text allowed us to undertake massive intellectual projects, requiring slow, step-by-step critical appraisal and re-appraisal.

Clynes and Kline, originators of the very term “cyborg,” were, we saw, somewhat opposed to the idea that new developments might lead to the bioelectronic transformation of humanity into something post-human. In- stead, the cyborg additions would simply allow the control of certain bodily processes to fade into the background, freeing the mind to pursue its own, paradigmatically human ends. What all this neglects, however, is the powerful sense in which our conceptions of ourselves (of who, what, and where we are) depend, at several levels, upon the specifics of just this backdrop. My sense of my own physical body depends on my experiences of direct control, and these can be extended, via new technologies, to incorporate both new biomechanical attachments and spatially disconnected, thought- controlled equipment. My sense of myself as the protagonist in my own ongoing story is conditioned by my understanding of my own capacities and potentials—an understanding that must surely be impacted, in deep and abiding ways, by the technological cocoons in which my projects are conceived, incubated, and matured. Such extensions should not be thought of as rendering us in any way post-human; not because they are not deeply transformative but because we humans are naturally designed to be the subjects of just such repeated transformations!

Luis Rocha (who we met earlier in this chapter) is an expert on Distributed Information Systems, which he defines as “collections of electronic, networked resources in some kind of interaction with communities of users.” internet, the web, corporate intranets, and databases are all examples of such systems. The more such systems can be set up to be self-organizing, changing, and evolving in automatic response to changing patterns in user activity, the closer we come, Rocha suggests, to a kind of collective human- machine symbiosis. Early information retrieval routines, based solely on key- word searches and the like, were limiting and inflexible tools. Their demerits were compounded by the fact that the databases they were required to search were often large, unruly, and with no central organization or standard for- mat. These retrieval routines were passive and rigid, unable to lead the re- searcher in new, appropriate but unanticipated directions—unlike even the simple collaborative filtering techniques deployed by amazon.com. They were all-purpose, making no attempt to tailor their searches to a long-term profile of the user; and they suffered from what Rocha dubs “fixed semantics,” having no way to amend and update their own search and indexing as a community evolves new terms, ceases to use older ones, and begins to link together previously unrelated areas of study. The long-term memory of such associations is the system’s main tool for selecting and filtering information from the data- bases to which it is linked, but it is a tool that is automatically and continuously changing in response to user input, and which alters to accommodate changes in the terminology and expectations of a community of users. It is not bounded by any fixed semantics, and by using collaborative filtering techniques combined with keyword strategies it can actively point the user in new and useful directions. It thus establishes what Rocha describes as “an open-ended human-machine symbiosis . . . facilitating the rapid dissemination of relevant information and the discovery of new knowledge.”

Some suggest that we should actively limit our reliance on technological props and aids, not just to protect our privacy but to control our own destinies and preserve our essential humanity. Here, the title of this book gives me away. Human-machine symbiosis, I believe, is simply what comes naturally. It lies on a direct continuum with clothes, cooking (“external, artificial digestion”), bricklaying, and writing. The capacity to creatively distribute labor between biology and the designed environment is the very signature of our species, and it implies no real loss of control on our part. For who we are is in large part a function of the webs of surrounding structure in which the conscious mind exercises at best a kind of gentle, indirect control.

We are torn, it seems, between two ways of viewing our own relations to the technologies we create and which surround us. One way fears retreat and diminishment, as our scope for choice and control is progressively eroded. The other anticipates expansion and growth, as we find our capacities to achieve our goals and projects amplified and enhanced in new and unexpected ways. Which vision will prove most accurate depends, to some extent, on the technologies themselves, but it depends also—and crucially—upon a sensitive appreciation of our own nature.

Many feel, for example, that increased human-machine symbiosis directly implies decreasing control. In an age of Ubiquitous Computing must we be slaves to the whims of the machines that surround us? In an age of global swarming, should we fear that even the machines don’t have a leader? Have we cast ourselves as King Lear, but with whole legions of ungrateful daughters?

Pickering has a point. We really do need to pay closer attention to the many ways in which new technologies may impact our social relations, and our sense of ourselves and of others. As identity becomes fluid, embodiment multiple, and presence negotiable, it is the perfect time to take a new look at who, what, and where we are. New kinds of human-machine symbiosis will, without a doubt, alter the way we see ourselves, our ma- chines, and the world. As N. Katherine Hayles, a University of California professor, rather eloquently puts it, “When the body is integrated into a Cybernetic circuit, modification of the circuit will necessarily modify consciousness as well. Connected by multiple feedback loops to the objects it designs, the mind is also an object of design.”

There is, however, a new danger that accompanies the creation of more and more specific (often gated) electronic communities. It is one that is especially marked in the case of communities held together by shared but un- usual sexual preferences or tendencies. The danger is of a new kind of marginalization. By relying upon an electronic community in which it is easy to speak of unusual needs and passions, people with special interests may find it easier to live out the rest of their lives without revealing or admitting this aspect of their identity. This could be dangerous insofar as it artificially relieves the wider society of its usual obligations of understanding and support, creating a new kind of ghetto that once again hides the group from the eyes—and protective social policies—of mainstream society. Where some fear disembodiment and social isolation, I anticipate multiple embodiment and social complexity. An individual may identify himself as a member of a wide variety of social groups, and may (in part courtesy of the new technologies of telepresence and telerobotics) explore in each of those contexts, a variety of forms of embodiment, contact, and sexuality. The feeling of disembodiment arises only when we are digitally immersed but lack the full spectrum of rich, real-time feedback that body and world provide. As feedback links become richer and more varied, our experience will rather become one of multiple ways of being embodied; akin, perhaps, to the way a skilled athlete feels when she exchanges tennis racket for wetsuit and flippers. In these new worlds, Katherine Hayles notes, it is “not a question of leaving the body behind but rather of extending embodied aware- ness in highly specific local and material ways that would be impossible without electronic prostheses.”

We must recognize that, in a very deep sense, we were always hybrid beings, joint products of our biological nature and multilayered linguistic, cultural, and technological webs. Only then can we confront, without fear or prejudice, the specific demons in our cyborg closets. Only then can we actively structure the kinds of world, technology, and culture that will build the kinds of people we choose to be.

The human brain is nature’s great mental chameleon. Pumped and primed by native plasticity, it is poised for profound mergers with the surrounding web of symbols, culture, and technology. Human thought and reason emerges from a nest in which biological brains and bodies, acting in con- cert with non-biological props and tools, build, benefit from, and then re- build an endless succession of designer environments. In each such setting our brains and bodies couple to new tools, yielding new extended thinking systems. These new thinking systems create new waves of designer environments, in which yet further kinds of extended thinking systems emerge. By this magic, seeded long ago by the emergence of language itself, the ratchets engage and the golden machinery of mind-design, mind redesign, and mind re-redesign, rumbles into life.

The process continues, and it is picking up speed. Some of our best new tools adapt to individual brains during use, thus speeding up the process of mutual accommodation beyond measure. Human thought is biologically and technologically poised to explore cognitive spaces that would remain forever beyond the reach of non-cyborg animals. Our technologically enhanced minds are barely, if at all, tethered to the ancestral realm. As William Burroughs put it, “We’re here to go.”

The word cyborg once conjured visions of wires and implants, but as we have seen, the use of such penetrative technologies is inessential. To focus on them is to concede far too much to the ancient biological skin-bag. What matters most is our obsessive, endless weaving of biotechnological webs: the constant two-way traffic between biological wetware and tools, media, props, and technologies. The very best of these resources are not so much used as incorporated into the user herself. They fall into place as aspects of the thinking process. They have the power to transform our sense of self, of location, of embodiment, and of our own mental capacities. They impact who, what and where we are.

But if I am right—if it is our basic human nature to annex, exploit, and incorporate non-biological stuff deep into our mental profiles—then the question is not whether we go that route, but in what ways we actively sculpt and shape it. By seeing ourselves as we truly are, we increase the chances that our future biotechnological unions will be good ones.

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