The Interbrain: a wi-fi or a net?

Browsing the net I have indirectly run into the new book (about to be released) of Digby Tantam, a British Professor of Psychotherapy. The first traces toward the book were not promising at all: some article in the International Business Times (India Edition) reported that „Human brains act like Wi-Fi”. Great, I said, another like hunter article with either no content at all, with overstretched conclusions or a commentary grossly distorting some background research. But at least I can write a short post about how modern and/or social media distorts scientific results, I thought.

So I clicked and yes, at first the content of the article has just seemed to confirm my suspicion. No reference to any research or proper written source: a supreme act of evil in my eye. Moreover, at some point the article said that Mr. Tantam claims that there are „direct connection between our brains”. Great, what comes next, telepathy? But a newspaper article is not a proper representation of the author’s statements – especially if the journalist is not able to write his name once properly, but misspelled it two times in two different way… And there were also interesting points as well: the importance of nonverbal, subconscious perception of other peoples’ emotions and their focuses of attention. We all are constantly aware of the moods and intentions of people around us – obviously a very useful feature for one’s survival and success. Humans are social beings after all. Obviously it won’t make our brain wi-fi, it will make more of a part of a larger net, if you are forced to use a metaphor. Regardless, the scientific article in the background may be interesting, I said, so lets’ find it.

There came the surprise: I could not find any related recent article from Mr. Tantam at the beginning. But my hunting instinct was already on, so after a time I discovered that the article was probably linked to his new book, The Interbrain: Embodied Connections Versus Common Knowledge. Luckily I was able to look into it and could see that there is no nonsense there: no telepathy, not even wi-fi, but well based research and conclusion about the idea that human beings are endlessly connected by a continuous interplay of non-verbal communication, of which we are unaware. The channels of these communications are the eyes, nose, skin and ears. All inputs from these sources are subconsciously processed and used by everyone’s brain, potentially creating a network of connected feeling and low-level awareness. If you think about how much the feelings of our family members immediately affect us, causing either happiness or misery, you can understand the validity of the conclusions. And all of this automatically, without a conscious thought. Quoting from some summary: “Considering social smiles and the way emotions can spread from one person to another, he explores the research that shows how our brains are linked and draws out the implications of the interbrain for our understanding of empathy, social communication, psychology and group behaviour.”

The book may have several interesting fundamental contributions to our own topic (the scientific answers to the meaning of life):

  • The author openly speculates about the meaning of life. The connections built and knowledge gained unconsciously have several results, and of these results “…the experience of transcendence is one and this might be the root of spirituality and indeed what many people would consider the meaning of life.” So the meaning of life may be obtained unconsciously. Interesting idea, deserves further research.
  • The Interbrain significantly influence our feelings and behaviour. But this influence leaves less room for conscious decisions and, indirectly, free will. At least partly we are dragged up and down by invisible forces. It is hardly new: most of our thinking (data processing and decision) process is also not conscious, and most of the physical and biological processes of our body is deterministic. Nevertheless these new unobserved influences are direct, personal and targeted free-will-limiting factors. They can even be (and probably are) exploited to manipulate our behaviour and decisions. The first step to solve a problem is to see it.
  • We have always knew that a potential answer to the meaning of life is our relationship to other people, friends, family or to a group. It is not just a logical conclusion, it is also our deep feelings about these connections. Now we partially understand why we have these gut feelings.

 

And I also have a gut feeling that this book may deserve a proper post-publication review sooner or later.

 

Laszlo

The Meaning of Life Team

Singularity as a Heaven for Humanity?

It was interesting to read about and see the studio discussion of Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering in the SXSW Conference. He is a well-known futurist and he claims “Of his 147 predictions since the 1990s, …86 percent accuracy rate.” An undeniably smart guy with (probably merited) high self-confidence. Let’s see his latest forecasts!

“2029 is the consistent date I have predicted for when an AI will pass a valid Turing test and therefore achieve human levels of intelligence. I have set the date 2045 for the ‘Singularity’ which is when we will multiply our effective intelligence a billion fold by merging with the intelligence we have created.”

The related article confirms that “Kurzweil’s timetable for the singularity is consistent with other predictions,– notably those of Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son, who predicts that the dawn of super-intelligent machines will happen by 2047.”

Ray Kurzweil may even be right. The future is unpredictable and computers are still developing rapidly. New technologies are developed daily. However, there are also reasonable doubts here.

Even if we assume the Moore’s law will be valid for the next 18 years (not fully realistic), computer’s speed may increase by about 260 thousand times “only”. We can’t see the million times here. Besides our intelligence is difficult to be measured. We can hardly estimate our memory capacity, let alone the number and nature of calculations our brain makes automatically during e.g. image/pattern recognitions. Moreover, how can we “merge” our brain/intelligence with that of the machines? It sounds great, but any programmer can tell to you that even building interfaces between computer programs is difficult sometimes. What about building functional connections between two entirely different “hardware”, “software” and “operations”, between human brains ad silicon chips?

These problems are somewhat resonate with those expressed regarding any other “singularity” theory. Singularity theories usually relies on assumptions of exponential growth – growth of knowledge, growth of performance. However, it is knows that in several areas of science new discoveries requires investments increasing more that linearly. USD 5 bn price tag of the Large Hadron Collider is a good example. Moreover, there are physical limits to certain developments, as there are limits for the speed (the speed of light) and the accuracy of certain physical measurements (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). It is simply too bold to say the exponential growth is feasible anyway in a limited environment, on Earth. And yes, we used the word “environment” not accidently.

But we don’t have to rely on word only. We can test his predictions relatively soon. In his 2005 book “The Singularity Is Near” he predicted that we can buy a computer with computational capacity of the human brain for 1000 dollars in 2020. So we can just sit back and wait for the first test results.

What is also very interesting in his speech is his positive outlook of these developments for us. “What’s actually happening is [machines] are powering all of us,” Kurzweil said. “They’re making us smarter.” Yes, there are many positive effect of the computers. We can hardly wait to be cleverer – we all know that we need it, right? But they can also make us weaker and stupider. It is proven that those parts of the brain and the body, which are not used and exercised usually, become weaker. Brain and body functions taken over by machines will not be better – they will be artificially augmented, resulting in dependencies. Remember the cars/elevators and obscenity, glasses and weaker eyesight, orthodontics and tooth degradation. Such effects can happen in short-term (lack of exercise results in weaker muscles) and long-term (lack of evolutionary pressure can allow the inheritance of unfavourable genes variants).

So while we sincerely hope that Ray Kurzweil is right in every possible aspect, we recommend not to lay down our mental weaponry and give up thinking. Chance favours the prepared mind – not the lazy one.

The Meaning of Life Team