What is Transhumanism? by Nick Bostrom at the World Transhumanist Association

What is transhumanism?  This part definition, part article on transhumanity is from the World Transhumanist Association website and was written by Nick Bostrom.


 

What is Transhumanism?

Over the past few years, a new paradigm for thinking about humankind’s future has begun to take shape among some leading computer scientists, neuroscientists, nanotechnologists and researchers at the forefront of technological development. The new paradigm rejects a crucial assumption that is implicit in both traditional futurology and practically all of today’s political thinking. This is the assumption that the “human condition” is at root a constant. Present-day processes can be fine-tuned; wealth can be increased and redistributed; tools can be developed and refined; culture can change, sometimes drastically; but human nature itself is not up for grabs.

This assumption no longer holds true. Arguably it has never been true. Such innovations as speech, written language, printing, engines, modern medicine and computers have had a profound impact not just on how people live their lives, but on who and what they are. Compared to what might happen in the next few decades, these changes may have been slow and even relatively tame. But note that even a single additional innovation as important as any of the above would be enough to invalidate orthodox projections of the future of our world.

“Transhumanism” has gained currency as the name for a new way of thinking that challenges the premiss that the human condition is and will remain essentially unalterable. Clearing away that mental block allows one to see a dazzling landscape of radical possibilities, ranging from unlimited bliss to the extinction of intelligent life. In general, the future by present lights looks very weird – but perhaps very wonderful – indeed.

Some of the possibilities that you will no doubt hear discussed in the coming years are quite extreme and sound like science-fiction. Consider the following:

bullet Superintelligent machines. Superintelligence means any form of artificial intelligence, maybe based on “self-taught” neural networks, that is capable of outclassing the best human brains in practically every discipline, including scientific creativity, practical wisdom, and social skills. Several commentators have argued that both the hardware and the software required for superintelligence might be developed in the first few decades of the next century. (See Moravec [1998] and Bostrom [1998].)
bullet Lifelong emotional well-being through re-calibration of the pleasure-centers. Even today, mild variants of sustainable euphoria are possible for a minority of people who respond especially well to clinical mood-brighteners (“antidepressants”). Pharmaceuticals currently under development promise to give an increasing number of “normal” people the choice of drastically reducing the incidence of negative emotions in their lives. In some cases, the adverse side-effects of the new agents are negligible. Whereas street drugs typically wreak havoc on the brain’s neurochemistry, producing a brief emotional “high” followed by a crash, modern clinical drugs may target with high specificity a given neurotransmitter or receptor subtype, thereby avoiding any negative effect on the subject’s cognitive faculties – (s)he won’t feel “drugged” – and enables a constant, indefinitely sustainable mood-elevation without being addictive. David Pearce [1997] advocates and predicts a post-Darwinian era in which all aversive experience will be replaced by gradients of pleasure beyond the bounds of normal human experience. As cleaner and safer mood-brighteners and gene-therapies become available, paradise-engineering may become a practicable possibility.
bullet Personality pills. Drugs and gene therapy will yield far more than shallow one-dimensional pleasure. They can also modify personality. They can help overcome shyness, eliminate jealousy (Kramer [1994]), increase creativity and enhance the capacity for empathy and emotional depth. Think of all the preaching, fasting and self-discipline that people have subjected themselves to throughout the ages in attempts to ennoble their character. Shortly it may become possible to achieve the same goals much more thoroughly by swallowing a daily cocktail pill.
bullet Space colonization. Today, space colonization is technologically feasible but prohibitively expensive. As costs decrease, it will become economically and politically possible to begin to colonize space. The thing to note is that once a single self-sustaining colony has been established, capable of sending out its own colonization probes, then an exponentially self-replicating process has been set in motion that is capable – without any further input from the planet Earth – of spreading out across the millions of stars in our galaxy and then to millions of other galaxies as well. Of course, this sequence of events will take an extremely long time on a human time-scale. But is interesting to notice how near we are to being able to initiate a chain of events that will have such momentous consequences as filling the observable universe with our descendants.
bullet Molecular nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the hypothetical design and manufacture of machines to atomic-scale precision, including general-purpose “assemblers”, devices that can position atoms individually in order to build almost any chemically permitted matter-configuration for which we can give a detailed specification – including exact copies of themselves. An existence-proof of a limited form of nanotechnology is given by biology: the cell is a molecular self-replicator that can produce a broad range of proteins. But the part of design space that is accessible to present biological organisms is restricted by their evolutionary history, and is mostly confined to non-rigid carbon structures. Eric Drexler ([1988], [1992]) was the first person to analyze in detail the physical possibility of a practically universal molecular assembler. Once such a gadget exists, it would make possible dirt-cheap (but perfectly clean) production of almost any commodity, given a design-specification and the requisite input of energy and atoms. The bootstrap problem for nanotechnology – how to build this first assembler – is very hard to solve. Two approaches are currently pursued. One of them builds on what nature has achieved and seeks to use biochemistry to engineer new proteins that can serve as tools in further engineering efforts. The other attempts to build atomic structures from scratch, using proximal probes such as atomic-force microscopes to position atoms one-by-one on a surface. The two methods can potentially be used in conjunction. Much research is required before the physical possibility of Drexlerian nanotechnology can be turned into an actuality; it will certainly not happen in the next couple of years, but it might come about in the first few decades of the next century.
bullet Vastly extended life spans. It may prove feasible to use radical gene-therapy and other biological methods to block normal aging processes, and to stimulate rejuvenation and repair mechanisms indefinitely. It is also possible that nothing short of nanotechnology will do the trick. Meanwhile there are unproven and in some cases expensive hormone treatments that seem to have some effect on general vitality in elderly people, although as yet nothing has been shown to be more effective at life-extension than controlled caloric restriction.
bullet Extinction of intelligent life. The risks are as enormous as the potential benefits. In addition to dangers that are already recognized (though perhaps inadequately counteracted?), such as a major military, terrorist or accidental disaster involving nuclear, chemical, viral or bacteriological agents, the new technologies threaten dangers of a different order altogether. Nanotechnology, for example, could pose a terrible threat to our existence if obtained by some terrorist group before adequate defense systems have been developed. It is not even certain that adequate defense is possible. Perhaps in a nanotechnological world offense has a decisive intrinsic advantage over defense. Nor is it farfetched to assume that there are other risks that we haven’t yet been able to imagine.
bullet The interconnected world. Even in its present form, the Internet has an immense impact on some people’s lives. And its ramifications are just beginning to unfold. This is one area where radical change is quite widely perceived, and where media discussion has been extensive.
bullet Uploading of our consciousness into a virtual reality. If we could scan the synaptic matrix of a human brain and simulate it on a computer then it would be possible for us to migrate from our biological embodiments to a purely digital substrate (given certain philosophical assumptions about the nature of consciousness and personal identity). By making sure we always had back-up copies, we might then enjoy effectively unlimited life-spans. By directing the activation flow in the simulated neural networks, we could engineer totally new types of experience. Uploading, in this sense, would probably require mature nanotechnology. But there are less extreme ways of fusing the human mind with computers. Work is being done today on developing neuro/chip interfaces. The technology is still in its early stages; but it might one day enable us to build neuroprostheses whereby we could “plug in” to cyberspace. Even less speculative are various schemes for immersive virtual reality – for instance using head-mounted displays – that communicate with the brain via our natural sense organs.
bullet Reanimation of cryogenically-suspended patients. Persons frozen with today’s procedure can probably not be brought back to life with anything less than mature nanotechnology. Even if we could be absolutely sure that mature nanotechnology will one day be developed, there would still be no guarantee that the cryonics customer’s gamble would succeed – perhaps the beings of the future won’t be interested in reanimating present-day humans. Still, even a 5% or 10% chance of success could make anAlcor contract a rational option for people who can afford it and who place a great value on their continued personal existence. If reanimated, they might look forward to aeons of subjective life time under conditions of their own choosing.

These prospects might seem remote. Yet transhumanists think there is reason to believe that they might not be so far off as is commonly supposed. The Technology Postulate denotes the hypothesis that several of the items listed, or other changes that are equally profound, will become feasible within, say, seventy years (possibly much sooner). This is the antithesis of the assumption that the human condition is a constant. The Technology Postulate is often presupposed in transhumanist discussion. But it is not an article of blind faith; it’s a falsifiable hypothesis that is argued for on specific scientific and technological grounds.

If we come to believe that there are good grounds for believing that Technology Postulate is true, what consequences does that have for how we perceive the world and for how we spend our time? Once we start reflecting on the matter and become aware of its ramifications, the implications are profound.

From this awareness springs the transhumanist philosophy – and “movement”. For transhumanism is more than just an abstract belief that we are about to transcend our biological limitations by means of technology; it is also an attempt to re-evaluate the entire human predicament as traditionally conceived. And it is a bid to take a far-sighted and constructive approach to our new situation. A primary task is to provoke the widest possible discussion of these topics and to promote a better public understanding. The set of skills and competencies that are needed to drive the transhumanist agenda extend far beyond those of computer scientists, neuroscientists, software-designers and other high-tech gurus. Transhumanism is not just for brains accustomed to hard-core futurism. It should be a concern for our whole society.

The Foresight Institute is an excellent source of information about nanotechnology-related issues. They organize annual conferences and have built up a substantial infrastructure of expertise in nanotechnology. The Extropy Institute has organized several international conferences on general transhumanist themes, and its president Max More has done much to get extropian memes out into the mass media. (Extropianism is a distinctive type transhumanism, defined by the Extropian Principles.) In 1997, the World Transhumanist Association was founded, with the aim of turning transhumanism into a mainstream academic discipline and also to facilitate networking between different transhumanist groups and local chapters and among individual transhumanists, both academic and non-academic. The WTA publishes the electronic Journal of Transhumanism, featuring leading-edge research papers by scholars working in transhumanist-related disciplines. The WTA web pages are one good starting place to find out more about transhumanism.

It is extremely hard to anticipate the long-term consequences of our present actions. But rather than sticking our heads in the sand, transhumanists reckon we should at least try to plan for them as best we can. In doing so, it becomes necessary to confront some of the notorious “big questions”, such the so-called Fermi paradox (“Why haven’t we seen any signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life?”). This problem requires delving into a number of different scientific disciplines. The Fermi paradox is not only intellectually stimulating, it is also potentially practically important since it could turn out to have consequences for whether we should expect to survive and colonize the universe (Hanson [1996]). At the present, though, it appears that the state of evolutionary biology is insufficiently advanced to allow us to draw any firm conclusions about our own future from this type of consideration. Another purported indirect source of information about our own future is the highly controversial Carter-Leslie Doomsday argument. This attempts to prove from basic principles of probability theory together with some trivial empirical assumptions that human extinction in the next century is much more likely than has previously been thought. The argument, which uses a version of the Anthropic Principle, was first conceived by astrophysicist Brandon Carter and was later developed by philosopher John Leslie [1996] and others. So far, nobody has been able to explain to general satisfaction what, if anything, is wrong with it (Bostrom [1998]).

While the wider perspective and the bigger questions are essential to transhumanism, that does not mean that transhumanists do not take an intense interest in what goes in our world today. On the contrary! Recent topical themes that have been the subject of wide and lively debate in transhumanist forums include such diverse issues as cloning; proliferation of weapons of mass-destruction; neuro/chip interfaces; psychological tools such as critical thinking skills, NLP, and memetics; processor technology and Moore’s law; gender roles and sexuality; neural networks and neuromorphic engineering; life-extension techniques such as caloric restriction; PET, MRI and other brain-scanning methods; evidence(?) for life on Mars; transhumanist fiction and films; quantum cryptography and “teleportation”; the Digital Citizen; atomic force microscopy as a possible enabling technology for nanotechnology; electronic commerce… Not all participants are equally at home in all of these fields, of course, but many like the experience of taking part in a joint exploration of unfamiliar ideas, facts and standpoints.

An important transhumanist goal is to improve the functioning of human society as an epistemic community. In addition to trying to figure out what is happening, we can try to figure out ways of making ourselves better at figuring out what is happening. We can create institutions that increase the efficiency of the academic- and other knowledge-communities. More and more people are gaining access to the Internet. Programmers, software designers, IT consultants and others are involved in projects that are constantly increasing the quality and quantity of advantages of being connected. Hypertext publishing and the collaborative information filtering paradigm (Chislenko [1997]) have the potential to accelerate the propagation of valuable information and aid the demolition of what transpire to be misconceptions and crackpot claims. The people working in information technology are only the latest reinforcement to the body of educators, scientists, humanists, teachers and responsible journalists who have been striving throughout the ages to decrease ignorance and make humankind as a whole more rational.

One simple but brilliant idea, developed by Robin Hanson [1990], is that we create a market of “idea futures”. Basically, this means that it would be possible to place bets on all sorts of claims about controversial scientific and technological issues. One of the many benefits of such an institution is that it would provide policy-makers and others with consensus estimates of the probabilities of uncertain hypotheses about projected future events, such as when a certain technological breakthrough will occur. It would also offer a decentralized way of providing financial incentives for people to make an effort to be right in what they think. And it could promote intellectual sincerity in that persons making strong claims would be encouraged to put their money where their mouth is. At present, the idea is embodied in an experimental set-up, the Foresight Exchange, where people can stake “credibility points” on a variety of claims. But for its potential advantages to materialize, a market has to be created that deals in real money and is as integrated in the established economic structure as are current stock exchanges. (Present anti-gambling regulations are one impediment to this; in many countries betting on anything other than sport and horses is prohibited.)

The transhumanist outlook can appear cold and alien at first. Many people are frightened by the rapid changes they are witnessing and respond with denial or by calling for bans on new technologies. It’s worth recalling how pain relief at childbirth through the use of anesthetics was once deplored as unnatural. More recently, the idea of “test-tube babies” has been viewed with abhorrence. Genetic engineering is widely seen as interfering with God’s designs. Right now, the biggest moral panic is cloning. We have today a whole breed of well-meaning biofundamentalists, religious leaders and so-called ethical experts who see it as their duty to protect us from whatever “unnatural” possibilities that don’t fit into their preconceived world-view. The transhumanist philosophy is a positive alternative to this ban-the-new approach to coping with a changing world. Instead of rejecting the unprecedented opportunities on offer, it invites us to embrace them as vigorously as we can. Transhumanists view technological progress as a joint human effort to invent new tools that we can use to reshape the human condition and overcome our biological limitations, making it possible for those who so want to become “post-humans”. Whether the tools are “natural” or “unnatural” is entirely irrelevant.

Transhumanism is not a philosophy with a fixed set of dogmas. What distinguishes transhumanists, in addition to their broadly technophiliac values, is the sort of problems they explore. These include subject matter as far-reaching as the future of intelligent life, as well as much more narrow questions about present-day scientific, technological or social developments. In addressing these problems, transhumanists aim to take a fact-driven, scientific, problem-solving approach. They also make a point of challenging holy cows and questioning purported impossibilities. No principle is beyond doubt, not the necessity of death, not our confinement to the finite resources of planet Earth, not even transhumanism itself is held to be too good for constant critical reassessment. The ideology is meant to evolve and be reshaped as we move along, in response to new experiences and new challenges. Transhumanists are prepared to be shown wrong and to learn from their mistakes.

Transhumanism can also be very practical and down-to-earth. Many transhumanists find ways of applying their philosophy to their own lives, ranging from the use of diet and exercise to improve health and life-expectancy; to signing up for cryonic suspension; making money from investing in technology stocks; creating transhumanist art; using clinical drugs to adjust parameters of mood and personality; applying various psychological self-improvement techniques; and in general taking steps to live richer and more responsible lives. An empowering mind-set that is common among transhumanists is dynamic optimism: the attitude that desirable results can in general be accomplished, but only through hard effort and smart choices (More [1997]).

Are you a transhumanist? If so, then you can look forward to increasingly seeing your own views reflected in the media and in society. For it is clear that transhumanism is an idea whose time has come.

Nick Bostrom
Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific method
London School of Economics
nick@nickbostrom.com

References

Bostrom, N. 1998. “How long before superintelligence?” International Journal of Futures Studies, 2. (Also available at http://www.hedweb.com/nickb/superintelligence.htm)

Bostrom, N. 1998. “Investigations into the Doomsday Argument”
http://www.anthropic-principle.com/preprints/inv/investigations.html

Bostrom, N. 1997. “The Fermi Paradox”
http://www.ndirect.co.uk/~transhumanism/Fermi.htm

Chislenko, A. 1997. “Collaborative Information Filtering” http://www.lucifer.com/~sasha/articles/ACF.html

Drexler, E. 1992. Nanosystems. John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Drexler, E. 1988. Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. Fourth Estate. London. http://www.foresight.org/EOC/index.html

Hanson, R. 1996. “The Great Filter: Are we almost past it?”
http://hanson.berkeley.edu/

Kramer, P. 1994. Listning to Prozac. Penguin. U.S.A.

Leslie, J. 1996. The End of the World: The Ethics and Science of Human Extinction. Routledge, New York.

More, M. 1997. “The Extropian Principles”
http://www.extropy.com/~exi/extprn26.htm

More, M. 1995. “Dynamic optimism: Epistemological Psychology for Extropians”
http://www.primenet.com/~maxmore/optimism.htm

Moravec, H. 1998. Robot, Being: mere machine to transcendent mind. Oxford Univ. Press.

Pearce, D. 1997. “The Hedonistic Imperative”.
http://www.hedweb.com/hedab.htm

Institutes

Extropy Institute
http://www.extropy.org/

Foresight Exchange
http://www.ideosphere.com/fx/main.html

Foresight Institute
http://www.foresight.org/

World Transhumanist Association
http://www.transhumanism.com/

I am grateful to David Pearce and Anders Sandberg for extensive comments on earlier versions of this text. N. B.

 


This article can also be found here.

 

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From the Human Brain to the Global Brain by Marios Kyriazis

This paper (From the Human Brain to the Global Brain by Marios Kyriazis) talks about brain augmentation and the possible (probable?) emergence of a global brain.  This is actually a concept which is quite familiar to me because it is the backdrop to a science fiction novel (possibly series) I’ve been writing in my spare time – limited as that may be, but more on that another time.  I’d just like to point out (and I know I’m not the first) that we already have the framework (the internet) for a rudimentary global brain.  Really, all it lacks is sophistication.


 

From the Human Brain to the Global Brain

Introduction

Human intelligence (i.e., the ability to consistently solve problems successfully) has evolved through the need to adapt to changing environments. This is not only true of our past but also of our present. Our brain faculties are becoming more sophisticated by cooperating and interacting with technology, specifically digital communication technology (Asaro, 2008).

When we consider the matter of brain function augmentation, we take it for granted that the issue refers to the human brain as a distinct organ. However, as we live in a complex technological society, it is now becoming clear that the issue is much more complicated. Individual brains cannot simply be considered in isolation, and their function is no longer localized or contained within the cranium, as we now know that information may be transmitted directly from one brain to another (Deadwyler et al., 2013; Pais-Vieira et al., 2013). This issue has been discussed in detail and attempts have been made to study the matter within a wider and more global context (Nicolelis and Laporta, 2011). Recent research in the field of brain to brain interfaces has provided the basis for further research and formation of new hypotheses in this respect (Grau et al., 2014; Rao et al., 2014). This concept of rudimentary “brain nets” may be expanded in a more global fashion, and within this framework, it is possible to envisage a much bigger and abstract “meta-entity” of inclusive and distributed capabilities, called the Global Brain (Mayer-Kress and Barczys, 1995;Heylighen and Bollen, 1996;Johnson et al., 1998; Helbing, 2011; Vidal, in press).

This entity reciprocally feeds information back to its components—the individual human brains. As a result, novel and hitherto unknown consequences may materialize such as, for instance, the emergence of rudimentary global “emotion” (Garcia and Tanase, 2013; Garcia et al., 2013; Kramera et al., 2014), and the appearance of decision-making faculties (Rodriguez et al., 2007). These characteristics may have direct impact upon our biology (Kyriazis, 2014a). This has been long discussed in futuristic and sociology literature (Engelbart, 1988), but now it also becomes more relevant to systems neuroscience partly because of the very promising research in brain-to-brain interfaces. The concept is grounded on scientific principles (Last, 2014a) and mathematical modeling (Heylighen et al., 2012).

Augmenting Brain Function on a Global Scale

It can be argued that the continual enhancement of brain function in humans, i.e., the tendency to an increasing intellectual sophistication, broadly aligns well with the main direction of evolution (Steward, 2014). This tendency to an increasing intellectual sophistication also obeys Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety (Ashby, 1958) which essentially states that, for any system to be stable, the number of states of its control mechanisms must be greater than the number of states in the system being controlled. This means that, within an ever-increasing technological environment, we must continue to increase our brain function (mostly through using, or merging with, technology such as in the example of brain to brain communication mentioned above), in order to improve integration and maintain stability of the wider system. Several other authors (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry, 1997;Woolley et al., 2010; Last, 2014a) have expanded on this point, which seems to underpin our continual search for brain enrichment.

The tendency to enrich our brain is an innate characteristic of humans. We have been trying to augment our mental abilities, either intentionally or unintentionally, for millennia through the use of botanicals and custom-made medicaments, herbs and remedies, and, more recently, synthetic nootropics and improved ways to assimilate information. Many of these methods are not only useful in healthy people but are invaluable in age-related neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease (Kumar and Khanum, 2012). Other neuroscience-based methods such as transcranial laser treatments and physical implants (such as neural dust nanoparticles) are useful in enhancing cognition and modulate other brain functions (Gonzalez-Lima and Barrett, 2014).

However, these approaches are limited to the biological human brain as a distinct agent. As shown by the increased research interest in brain to brain communication (Trimper et al., 2014), I argue that the issue of brain augmentation is now embracing a more global aspect. The reason is the continual developments in technology which are changing our society and culture (Long, 2010). Certain brain faculties that were originally evolved for solving practical physical problems have been co-opted and exapted for solving more abstract metaphors, making humans adopt a better position within a technological niche.

The line between human brain function and digital information technologies is progressively becoming indistinct and less well-defined. This blurring is possible through the development of new technologies which enable more efficient brain-computer interfaces (Pfurtscheller and Neuper, 2002), and recently, brain-to-brain interfaces (Grau et al., 2014).

We are now in a position expand on this emergent worldview and examine what trends of systems neuroscience are likely in the near-term future. Technology has been the main drive which brought us to the position we are in today (Henry, 2014). This position is the merging of the physical human brain abilities with virtual domains and automated web services (Kurzweil, 2009). Modern humans cannot purely be defined by their biological brain function. Instead, we are now becoming an amalgam of biological and virtual/digital characteristics, a discrete unit, or autonomous agent, forming part of a wider and more global entity (Figure 1).

global brain

Figure 1. Computer-generated image of internet connections world-wide (Global Brain). The conceptual similarities with the human brain are remarkable. Both networks exhibit a scale-free, fractal distribution, with some weakly-connected units, and some strongly-connected ones which are arranged in hubs of increasing functional complexity. This helps protect the constituents of the network against stresses. Both networks are “small worlds” which means that information can reach any given unit within the network by passing through only a small number of other units. This assists in the global propagation of information within the network, and gives each and every unit the functional potential to be directly connected to all others. Source: The Opte Project/Barrett Lyon. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.

Large Scale Networks and the Global Brain

The Global Brain (Heylighen, 2007; Iandoli et al., 2009; Bernstein et al., 2012) is a self-organizing system which encompasses all those humans who are connected with communication technologies, as well as the emergent properties of these connections. Its intelligence and information-processing characteristics are distributed, in contrast to that of individuals whose intelligence is localized. Its characteristics emerge from the dynamic networks and global interactions between its individual agents. These individual agents are not merely the biological humans but are something more complex. In order to describe this relationship further, I have introduced the notion of the noeme, an emergent agent, which helps formalize the relationships involved (Kyriazis, 2014a). The noeme is a combination of a distinct physical brain function and that of an “outsourced” virtual one. It is the intellectual “networked presence” of an individual within the GB, a meaningful synergy between each individual human, their social interactions and artificial agents, globally connected to other noemes through digital communications technology (and, perhaps soon, through direct brain to brain interfaces). A comparison can be made with neurons which, as individual discrete agents, form part of the human brain. In this comparison, the noemes act as the individual, information-sharing discrete agents which form the GB (Gershenson, 2011). The modeling of noemes helps us define ourselves in a way that strengthens our rational presence in the digital world. By trying to enhance our information-sharing capabilities we become better integrated within the GB and so become a valuable component of it, encouraging mechanisms active in all complex adaptive systems to operate in a way that prolongs our retention within this system (Gershenson and Fernández, 2012), i.e., prolongs our biological lifespan (Kyriazis, 2014b; Last, 2014b).

Discussion

This concept is a helpful way of interpreting the developing cognitive relationship between humans and artificial agents as we evolve and adapt to our changing technological environment. The concept of the noeme provides insights with regards to future problems and opportunities. For instance, the study of the function of the noeme may provide answers useful to biomedicine, by coopting laws applicable to any artificial intelligence medium and using these to enhance human health (Kyriazis, 2014a). Just as certain physical or pharmacological therapies for brain augmentation are useful in neurodegeneration in individuals, so global ways of brain enhancement are useful in a global sense, improving the function and adaptive capabilities of humanity as a whole. One way to augment global brain function is to increase the information content of our environment by constructing smart cities (Caragliu et al., 2009), expanding the notion of the Web of Things (Kamilaris et al., 2011), and by developing new concepts in educational domains (Veletsianos, 2010). This improves the information exchange between us and our surroundings and helps augment brain function, not just physically in individuals, but also virtually in society.

Practical ways for enhancing our noeme (i.e., our digital presence) include:

• Cultivate a robust social media base, in different forums.

• Aim for respect, esteem and value within your virtual environment.

• Increase the number of your connections both in virtual and in real terms.

• Stay consistently visible online.

• Share meaningful information that requires action.

• Avoid the use of meaningless, trivial or outdated platforms.

• Increase the unity of your connections by using only one (user) name for all online and physical platforms.

These methods can help increase information sharing and facilitate our integration within the GB (Kyriazis, 2014a). In a practical sense, these actions are easy to perform and can encompass a wide section of modern communities. Although the benefits of these actions are not well studied, nevertheless some initial findings appear promising (Griffiths, 2002; Granic et al., 2014).

Concluding Remarks

With regards to improving brain function, we are gradually moving away from the realms of science fiction and into the realms of reality (Kurzweil, 2005). It is now possible to suggest ways to enhance our brain function, based on novel concepts dependent not only on neuroscience but also on digital and other technology. The result of such augmentation does not only benefit the individual brain but can also improve all humanity in a more abstract sense. It improves human evolution and adaptation to new technological environments, and this, in turn, may have positive impact upon our health and thus longevity (Solman, 2012; Kyriazis, 2014c).

In a more philosophical sense, our progressive and distributed brain function amplification has begun to lead us toward attaining “god-like” characteristics (Heylighen, in press) particularly “omniscience” (through Google, Wikipedia, the semantic web, Massively Online Open Courses MOOCs—which dramatically enhance our knowledge base), and “omnipresence” (cloud and fog computing, Twitter, YouTube, Internet of Things, Internet of Everything). These are the result of the outsourcing of our brain capabilities to the cloud in a distributed and universal manner, which is an ideal global neural augmentation. The first steps have already been taken through brain to brain communication research. The concept of systems neuroscience is thus expanded to encompass not only the human nervous network but also a global network with societal and cultural elements.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Acknowledgment

I thank the help and input of the reviewers, particularly the first one who has dedicated a lot of time into improving the paper.

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Keywords: global brain, complex adaptive systems, human longevity, techno-cultural society, noeme, systems neuroscience

Citation: Kyriazis M (2015) Systems neuroscience in focus: from the human brain to the global brain? Front. Syst. Neurosci. 9:7. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2015.00007

Received: 14 October 2014; Accepted: 14 January 2015;
Published online: 06 February 2015.

Edited by:

Manuel Fernando Casanova, University of Louisville, USA

Reviewed by:

Mikhail Lebedev, Duke University, USA
Andrea Stocco, University of Washington, USA

Copyright © 2015 Kyriazis. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: drmarios@live.it


 

This article can also be found at http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/02/10/human-brain-global-brain/

Wired Magazine – Diary of becoming an NHS-funded cyborg

This piece (Diary of becoming an NHS-funded cyborg from Wired Magazine) is a firsthand account of being a cyborg* by William Mager.  Mager was born deaf and talks about having cochlear implants surgically installed in his ears.  I’m posting this article mainly because I subscribe to the idea that anyone who owns a smartphone or drives a car (or bike, for that matter) is already a cyborg.  Something to chew on…  Tell me what you think in the comments below.  I always want to hear from you!

*Dictionary.com defines the term cyborg as “a person whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device.”  By this definition, I would say that we are all cyborgs, but that’s a conversation for another time.

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This is a guest post by William Mager, an award winning director who works for the BBC. His blog can be found at http://www.wlmager.com

The human brain has an evolutionary mandate to adapt to its surroundings. It constantly rewires itself every day in response to the sensory input it receives.

Our brain shapes the way we view the world, and the world shapes our brain.

My brain, however, is not wired for sound. I was born deaf. The audiogram below shows my right and left ears.

From the day I was born, my brain developed according to the stimuli it received. My senses of vision, touch, taste, smell were all slightly heightened in compensation for the lack of input from my ears, helping me to create a world I could understand.

My mother worked full time with me, playing a set of activities she called “the game”. I was a child, and didn’t understand the real reason for playing the game — but it taught me to read, write, lipread, and speak, if not to hear in the traditional sense of the word. What I do hear is filtered through digital hearing aids that amplify what little sound I can hear:

I also used technology to help me connect with the world. Through necessity, deaf people have always been at the forefront of technology — from the earliest ear trumpets, through to the use of transistor technology in hearing aids, and exploiting existing technologies like text messaging and video chat in different ways.

Whether fine tuning a teletext decoder to get subtitles on television, making calls to videogame mail order shops via a textphone and relay operator, or logging onto a 2000AD Bulletin Board via a BBC Micro B and 56k dialup modem — technology could crack any obstacle life might throw at me. Even today I’m using a smartphone which allows me to make video calls and relay calls, watch subtitled BBC and online streaming content, as well as send text messages, receive voicemails transcribed to text, and more.

A cyborg is someone who relies on external technological means to extend their daily life. Whether wearing glasses, sending an email, or wearing a Bluetooth earpiece — we’re all cyborgs. But the popular vision of a cyborg is that seen in movies and videogames — Robocop, the Borg in Star Trek, Universal Soldier — people who wear technology as a permanent part of their body.

A month ago, for the first time, I made the change from external technology to internal technology. I became a full time cyborg, free of charge on the NHS.

They cut away a flap of skin behind my left ear, drilled a tiny hole into my skull between the two main nerves of the face that control taste and the face, and inserted an electrode into my cochlear, connected to a small magnet and circuit board under the skin.

They’re going to switch me on in a few days — and if it’s all working as it should, my auditory cortex will be bombarded by a range of electronic noises. Over time, I may come to understand these sounds as consonants, music, even the spoken word.

This is what it will sound like, apparently.

Even if I can make sense of those sounds, it won’t be “hearing” in the normal sense of the word. My ears have had the same level of input for the last 30 years of my life — and now I’ve physically rewired one of them to receive a completely different signal.

In all the recent blue sky thinking on Wired.co.uk and elsewhere about the future of the human race — coprocessors for the brain, enhanced spectrum bionic eyes, artificial legs, even the possibility of interfacing with computers directly — people forget one thing. What it feels like, what it’s like to live with it every day, whether it makes you feel more, or less, yourself.

I’m also wary of augmentation and body enhancement becoming the norm. We have a fluid definition of what a disability is, and what isn’t. If certain people with access to this technology start engineering themselves to have greater physical or mental abilities, then where does that leave ordinary people? Differently abled? Or Disabled? Or in fact more abled? In giving up perfectly usable eyes, the end result of millions of years of evolution, to install digital eyes that can project images onto the retina, are we really putting ourselves at an advantage?

If I’d been born into a deaf family, all of us signing, my brain developing to become fluent in sign language and developing a deaf identity so strong and complete that I saw deafness as “normal” and hearing as “abnormal” — I wouldn’t have had this implant.

The cochlear implant, in crossing the line from external wearable technology to permanent fixture, becomes a technology that is potentially in conflict with human values, rather than a testament to them. Many deaf people see the cochlear implant as a symbol of medical intervention, to oppress and ultimately eradicate the deaf community and deaf culture, by fixing them one implant at a time — this includes implanting children at an early age so that they’ll be able to acquire spoken language rather than sign.

It’s a complex and emotive area, and not all deaf people may want to be “fixed” — but I do.

When all’s said and done, I’m at the beginning of a complicated journey, starting with an NHS-sanctioned implant. Wish me luck.

Video Info:

Uploaded on Jan 23, 2011

A simulation of what speech sounds like when recorded first through a hearing aid, and then through a personal FM system linked to the hearng aid. The demonstration takes place in an empty classroom while the presenter walks toward and away from the “listener” and while competing voices are played in background. To view the Captioned Version, go to our website: http://www.vcdhh.org/community-progra….

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Uploaded on Mar 21, 2011

A simulation / demonstration of what users of a cochlear implant hear, for both speech and music.

Demonstrates 1, 4, 8, 12 and 20 channel implants for speech, and 4, 8, 12 and 20 channels for music.

All audio for this video is from http://www.sens.com/helps/ — the website has additional sounds for different sentences and pieces of music, as well as video so you can see what a difference being able to lipread makes: well worth a visit.

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This article can also be found at http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-12/10/cochlear-implant