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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


The Rise of the Robots

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On the day when Chinese scientists announce that they have developed a way of remotely controlling pigeons through implants in their brain, I go to a lecture by the world's first human cyborg, Professor Kevin Warwick. Talking at Newcastle Life Centre on the subject of "Pride: The Rise of the Robots," Warwick suggests that humans should be ashamed rather than proud of their intellectual and physical capacities in comparison to computers. The most vocal and optimistic prophet of cybernetics this side of the Atlantic, as Marvin Minsky has been to the American audience, Warwick predicts that as cyborg and artificial intelligences are developed, un-modified humans will become something of a sub-species.

Animatedly, he suggests how incredibly large the memories of the internet are, how vast its stores of knowledge, and how small and innacurate seem our own in comparison. If only we could slot an extra drive into our brains! But my memory is actually rather good in the fields for which it was designed. For example, if I want to find the website of my friend Will Smith on Google, I have to go through the hundreds of search results discussing the actor, before I come across the right one; the collective memory of the internet is larger than mine, but also cumbersome. By contrast, when some one mentions to me in the office "Do you know the web address of our mate Will?" I know immediately which Will he is referring to, because of the context, and I can immediately point him to the website he is interested in, because unlike the computer I have only remembered that relevant one rather than the hundreds that don't interest me.

Next, Warwick grumbles that he has thoughts buzzing quickly through his head, and yet if he wants to communicate those thoughts to the mind of another, he has to use slow and cumbersome medium of speech. If only, in an argument with his wife, he could transmit directly what he was thinking, rather than the words coming out all wrong as they have a habit of doing. However, I would point out, the slow nature of communication also ensures editing, and although this editing may be poorly performed under pressure, by and large it gets us by very well. Much better, in fact, than if we were to communicate via a digital telepathy. Frankly, when having an argument with my girlfriend, I would rather not know the babble of thoughts running through her head, and would rather argue about the one or two lines of thought that actually emerge from her mouth (sometimes even then rather too quickly and loudly for my liking!).

How about sight, then? It does seem a shame that we can only see in three-dimensions, doesn't it? Why not ultrasound or infra-red, why can we not compute in multiple dimensions - it would make quantum physics a lot easier? I wonder whether in thinking of what the human could be or do, Warwick completely overlooks what the human is now, a case of blindness to our selves no computer could correct. For do I really see only in three-dimensions? When I look at an animated globe, for example, I can see the three visual axes of the country (height, length, breadth), but if the map is coloured red to blue, I intuit immediately a fourth dimension (temperature), and if the map changes as I watch I intuit the fifth dimension of time. Programming a computer to read pertinent information from such a map takes a great deal of time, as it looks at each variety of data mapped onto each physical point; by contrast, I can look at it and immediately know whether I need to take a spare jumper tomorrow, or whether the warm spell is going to last.

Whilst Warwick talked about these potentials as "upgrades," I think, then, that he has been confusing quantity with quality. As we all know when searching online, quantity and quality are not the same things, and though computers can do specific things faster or with more capacity than us, we remain because of our intuitions (what cyberneticians model as heuristics) far better equipped to deal with our daily environments than a computer is, even than a cybernetically modified organism would be.

Having said that, one startling clip of film Warwick showed was of a patient suffering from Parkinson's disease. Typically of the syndrome, he lapsed into uncontrollable spasms, but after receiving a neural implant which "corrected" the erratic electrical activity in his brain, he was able to stand, walk, grasp and talk. According to Warwick, this implant is becoming an increasingly standard treatment, and it would be utterly callous of me to reject this treatment as being anything other than an improvement to a debilitating condition caused by flaws in the human mind. Likewise, for the amputee fitted with a robot arm and able to control it using his thought, or for the blind man able to see the outlines of shapes through a camera mounted to a cap and "plugged-in" to his retinal nerves, these cyborgs are undoubtedly upgraded versions of who and, materialistically, what they were before.

My different reactions to the memory and the arm upgrades leave me at a logical crux, however. For if I perceive correct the disabled body as an upgrade, but argued that adaptations to intellect can not be classed as improviements per se, I am retaining a kind of dualism. I, though I think of myself as an empirical materialist, am grasping to the Cartesian a belief that whilst the body is one sort of matter, and can be explained and interfered with by science, the mind, though it also is built by cells following genetic plans, is nevertheless something fundamentally different from the corporeal self, something intangible, untouchable, irreducible, un-simulable.

This is the area of debate in literature and culture I am engaged with at the moment in my research. For whilst Warwick calls modified humans "cyborgs," have we not always been so? Is not the man who picks up a hammer upgrading his arm, or the wearer of contact lenses a technologically modified organism? Cultural theorists such as Donna Haraway or N. Katherine Hayles argue that the human-technology symbiosis in the modern age makes us differ fundamentally from humans in relationships with more primitive, physical tools; they claim that we are now in the age of the "posthuman." I can put down a hammer, my glasses steam up, reminding me that the tool and myself are separate entities; but I forget as I type this that I can see the words only because of my contact lenses, and that as I write I am also linked, subconsciously, to an email facility which is merely in a different virtual point in the network to which I am connected; I do not hear the rattle of a letterbox, do not have to go downstairs, when electronic post slips its way to me.

Immanent in the moment of the revolution they are proclaiming, I remain sceptical. Only with hindsight will the ideals of Warwick come to fruition, or not, and the label "posthuman" seem justified, or simply a clever reiteration of what has always been our relationship to upgrades outside the boundaries of our bodies. And, on the train on the way home, I wonder what possible cybernetic upgrade could have predicted or initiated the brief and surprising flow of inspiration that comes as I look out of the window. Carried by this strange muse, I write 500 inspired words for my PhD in fifteen minutes, whereas for the hours of the day preceding I had been unable to write anything, though I had all the upgrades to my innate learning and writing capacities - the pen, computer, book - before me.

And on that note, here is a clip on the limits of information technology that Warwick didn't show...

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Posted by Alistair at 12:45 pm

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