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Posts Tagged ‘brain’

I’m currently reading a riveting book about the history of innovation.  In How We Got To Now, author Steven Johnson traces the trajectory of six innovations that shaped the modern world.  What Johnson is particularly focused on in this book is the so-called Hummingbird Effect; how seemingly unrelated events are actually connected, such as the way that the Hummingbird evolved its unique ability to hover in place as a response to the way that the flower had evolved to attract pollinators.

One of the examples that Johnson gives is of the Gutenberg Press, the world’s first printing press.  This invention obviously had a huge impact on the world as access to information increased and literacy rates improved.  But it also had unintended consequences such as the spread of heretic ideas that undermined the authority of the church.  But that’s not all it did.  As a perfect example of the Hummingbird effect the printing press also impacted several other innovations that would have been impossible to predict at the time.  For instance, since people were starting to read more they realized that they were really farsighted.  This lead to an increased interest in correcting vision, which lead to an increased interest in lenses, which lead to the invention of the microscope and the telescope, which lead to advances in healthcare and physics.  If the printing press had never been invented we might not know what a cell was or that there are planets surrounding other stars.

Other inventions had similar long-term effects.  Shipping ice from Boston to the Caribbean to make ice cream and cool drinks created a global luxury market for ice which led to people taking an interest in cooling techniques.  This ultimately lead to refrigerators, which then lead to air conditioners, which led to the greatest mass migration the world has ever seen as warmer climes could now be settled, which led to a dramatic shift in the balance of power in U.S. politics with the Democrats losing control of Congress as population centers migrated South.  Political reverberations that are still being felt today.

The accidental discovery of glass, stumbled upon in the Sahara desert, had a far greater impact.  At first, the transparency of glass is what appealed to people as it became a key fixture in jewelry.  But later on mankind would start to tinker with some of its other properties, such as its strength and its ability to bend light, using it to make wine glasses and then beautiful stain glass windows.  Eventually it would make its way into eyewear and ultimately mirrors and that’s where things would get really interesting.

For the first time in human history people could actually see what they looked like, instead of forming a rough picture based off of seeing their reflection in a pond.  This fundamentally altered the way they saw the world.  Instead of relying on institutions such as their families or the church for guidance, they would instead start to rely more on themselves, even caring more about their possessions and their social status.  Not so coincidentally, it was around this time that there was also a rise in the number of self-portraits as artists took more of an interest in the proverbial selfie of the day.  This fundamental change just so happened to coincide with the Renaissance and while it would be foolish to say that the Renaissance was caused by the discovery of glass and the advent of the mirror, it is worth mentioning, at least, as a possible contributing factor, especially when you consider that the Renaissance was fueled in part by artists competing for recognition and commissions from the wealthy Medici.

This idea that the mirror could change the way people saw the world, and that in turn, could lead to the Renaissance is completely mind-blowing to me.  I’ve always just kind of taken our way of life, the modern human condition, for granted.  I’ve never thought philosophically about the way that I see the world; that perhaps there could be another entirely different perspective that one could take.  I never once considered that a new technology might be able to profoundly change my worldview.

Sure, there are plenty of people claiming that we are, in fact, currently undergoing a transformation in the way we see the world, for better or for worse, thanks to our reliance on computers.  On the one hand these machines may be making us dumber as we outsource our memories to them.  On the other hand they could be changing our understanding of the world around us as we start to equate naturally occurring phenomenon with programming the way that the invention of watches led to some imagining natural systems as a series of cogs and wheels. But, while both of those perspectives are true, it’s hard for me to imagine that computers are fundamentally impacting the way I see the world or that they could lead to another Renaissance.  Computers may be making us dumber but they also could be making us smarter, augmenting our performance and improving it bit by bit.  Either way, they’re not really altering our sense of self the way that the mirror did.  But there is a new discovery that might.  A breakthrough in our understanding of the human mind and how it works that could change everything.  A revelation that could lead to a heightened sense of self, unlike anything ever seen before in human history.

That bold claim is based on the working theory that consciousness has various levels of intensity.  You might want to imagine these levels on a baseline of 1-10 with one representing somebody in a coma and ten representing someone fighting in the Octagon with their fight or flight response in full swing.  But now we’ve come to find out that there’s a higher level of consciousness that’s off the charts.

According to I Fucking Love Science:

“One way in which neuroscientists measure consciousness is to look at something called neural signal diversity. This assesses how complex a brain’s activity is at any given time and provides a mathematical index of the level of consciousness. For example, a waking brain has more diverse neural activity than a sleeping one, which means it has a higher state of consciousness.

When the researchers from the University of Sussex and Imperial College, London, looked at the neural signal diversity of volunteers given one of the three different psychedelic drugs, they found something surprising. The brain signal diversity was higher in those who had taken the drugs compared to a baseline of someone who is simply awake and aware, suggesting that they have a heightened sense of consciousness.”

Taping into this higher state of consciousness for the first time could have the same transformative psychological impact of looking in the mirror for the first time.  You’d suddenly realize that you have infinitely more potential than you had ever imagined.  Your perspective on life would instantly change as you begin to wonder what you could do with heightened senses, with better reflexes, with more situational awareness.  Your mind would race as you contemplate how much smarter you’ve become and if you’ve gained any new abilities.  And what about society as a whole?  If everyone was operating at this higher state of consciousness would it usher in a new era of creativity, a new Renaissance?  What innovations will this Great Awareness lead to?  What sort of Hummingbird Effects would it have?

The great thing about innovation is that it’s impossible to answer these questions from our present day perspective.  Johannes Gutenberg had no idea that the printing press would lead to the discovery of the cell.  The first person to stumble across glass in the desert could never have fathomed that it would one day be used as a mirror and lead to the Renaissance.  When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph he first thought it would be used to send messages from one person to another.  When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone he first thought it would be used so that a musician on one end could perform for someone listening on the other end.  They had no idea that the use cases for their inventions would wind up getting switched with the telephone getting used to communicate and the phonograph becoming a music player.

When it comes to innovation, it’s not always necessary to know where you’re going to wind up.  The only thing that truly matters is knowing when to start.  Knowing when the next revolution is about to begin. And I believe that our discovery of a higher state of consciousness is one of those key moments in history.  A pivotal moment that could change everything, even if we don’t yet realize how.

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Is a higher state of consciousness within our reach?

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The difference between Elon Musk and most other people is that when Elon Musk sees a problem, he takes it upon himself to fix it.  Energy.  Transportation.  Space travel.  Even traffic congestion in Los Angeles.  So when Musk made comments recently that he was concerned about the threat that Artificial Intelligence poses to humanity it was only a matter of time before he would decide to do something about it the only way he knows how: by starting a company to tackle the problem head on.

It’s with that in mind (pun intended) that we say hello to Musk’s latest venture: Neuralink, a company that will try to develop a computer-brain interface, similar to the fictional Neural Lace that Musk has made reference to, so that humans can keep pace with the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence.

As the Verge puts it:

“These types of brain-computer interfaces exist today only in science fiction. In the medical realm, electrode arrays and other implants have been used to help ameliorate the effects of Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and other neurodegenerative diseases. However, very few people on the planet have complex implants placed inside their skulls, while the number of patients with very basic stimulating devices number only in the tens of thousands. This is partly because it is incredibly dangerous and invasive to operate on the human brain, and only those who have exhausted every other medical option choose to undergo such surgery as a last resort.  This has not stopped a surge in Silicon Valley interest from tech industry futurists who are interested in accelerating the advancement of these types of far-off ideas. Kernel, a startup created by Braintree co-founder Bryan Johnson, is also trying to enhance human cognition.”

The ultimate goal is to get to the point where we can figure out a way to augment human potential.  A neural link or neural lace could enable its user to access the internet just by thinking about it, extend the capabilities of their memory, allow them to control an exoskeleton, or even self-diagnosis medical issues as they arise throughout the body.  It’s essentially a modern day spin on the old adage: if you can’t beat them, join them.   One that could very well be necessary if we want to avoid becoming enslaves by our robot overlords.

On the other hand there’s still so much about the brain that we don’t understand, the technology is still in its infancy, and most healthy people aren’t exactly going to being lining up for risky elective brain surgery no matter the potential reward.  This is definitely one technology where you’re not going to want to be an early adopter.

But if there’s anyone who can overcome those stigmas and hurdles it’s Musk.  At least, that is, until he turns his attention to something else that needs fixing.

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Is Neuralink the Greatest Idea Ever?

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