Interview: Michael Chorost, author of World Wide Mind
Imagine being able to sense friends' and colleagues' thoughts and feelings almost as they experience them.
A world where everyone has technologies built into their brain that capture their sensations and stream them to other people around the world.
A world where police officers can instantly sense that their partner is in danger or parents immediately know when their child is scared, and where people can explore random thoughts in each other's minds in an attempt to devise groundbreaking ideas.
This is the World Wide Mind - a concept explored in a new book of the same name by science writer Michael Chorost.
As far-fetched and remote as the technology sounds, Chorost says modern science is at the threshold of discoveries that could one day make his vision a reality.
Technologies that will combine genetic engineering and computer chips based on neural networks to capture neural activity in the brain, and wirelessly stream the resulting terabytes of data to the wider world.
"The technologies I envision could be one path driving humanity to a level of sophistication that we can't imagine," Chorost said.
"I don't see it as acceleration. It's not about doing more stuff faster. It's about doing stuff that is as different from what chimpanzees do to what we do."
How could we build the World Wide Mind?
The idea of sending thoughts, perceptions and feelings between our brains may sound like science fiction, but in his book, Chorost talks about how a mix of modern-day and future technologies might make the World Wide Mind possible.
Chorost believes there are two technologies that may hold the key to making it a reality - optogenetics and neuromorphic microchips.
Optogenetics is the practice of genetically engineering brain cells to respond to or emit light. By inserting new genes into neurons they can be triggered to fire when they are exposed to a particular coloured light - down to individual neurons - or fluoresce different colours when they are firing in a particular pattern.
Researchers at Stanford have already demonstrated that a mouse can be made to run in counter-clockwise circles by shining a blue light on its brain, after the left half of the brain's motor cortex was genetically altered to respond to blue light.
In the case of the World Wide Mind, neurons would be genetically modified so that flashes of light from LED panels fitted under the skull would trigger specific neurons to fire, prompting that person's mind to recall memories, concepts, emotions and perceptions.
Neurons would also be genetically altered to fluoresce in response to certain patterns of neural activity - allowing that neural activity to be read and interpreted by an embedded computer watching for the tell-tale flashes of light.
The computer would be built using neuromorphic microchips, with architectures based on the organisation of neural systems in the brain, and that would be able to interpret neural activity in the brain based on previous sensory experience - in much the same way that higher levels of the brain interpret and shape perceptions such as sight and sound.
Again, researchers at Stanford have already built neuromorphic microchips with circuitry that, according to Chorost's book, "self-organise to resemble the visual cortex of lab animals".
Once a person's neural activity had been captured it would be transmitted wirelessly to the internet and relayed to a similar computer inside another person.
That computer would interpret the signal and then flash the embedded LED panels to fire and inhibit the neurons of the person receiving the signal, and reproduce the sensation being experienced by the sender.
The World Wide Mind would not allow...
...the receiver to experience the exact sensations of the sender, Chorost says, but would instead trigger memories, perceptions, emotions and concepts in the receiver's brain that were associated with the sender's experience.
In his book, Chorost gives the following example to illustrate the point: "Suppose you have a computer and you're connected with another person via the World Wide Mind.
"At the moment you're observing each other's visual experiences. You see a cat on the sidewalk in front of you.
"Your rig is able to watch neural activity in your neocortex with its optogenetic circuitry.
"It sees activity in a large percentage of the neurons consulting your brain's invariant representation of a cat.
"To let your friend know you're seeing a cat, it sends three letters of information - CAT - to the other person's implanted rig.
"That person's rig activates her invariant representation of a cat, and she sees it.
"Or rather, to be more accurate, she sees a memory of a cat that is taken from her neural circuitry."
Chorost admits that many details of the cat such as its breed, colour and posture would be missing but said the key piece of information, that the sender was seeing a cat, would be transmitted.
"We are beginning to have tools to look at neural activity on a functional level, which is something that was not even remotely imaginable five years ago," he said.
"If we are on the threshold of understanding the brain on a network level, it will help us untangle the mechanisms from which perception and consciousness emerge.
"It's become possible to talk conceptually about these technologies in a way that couldn't be done five years ago, and that's exciting."
How would a World Wide Mind alter society?
Telempathy - the ability to feel what another person is feeling, seeing and hearing - is just one ability that could be made possible by the World Wide Mind.
In his book, Chorost vividly describes a scenario in which a cop infiltrating a criminal hideout feels the thud of a bullet hitting his partner in an adjacent room and senses the gleam of a gun barrel glimpsed through his partner's eyes, leading him to fire a few rounds through the wall saving his partner's life.
"My book opened up the theoretical possibility that one brain might be able to know what another brain is seeing and hearing," Chorost said.
This telempathetic communication would make it easier for work colleagues to collaborate on projects or for foreign nations to empathise with the plight of a repressed populace.
"These kind of mind-reading technologies can open up new forms of communication between people which are tactile, sensory and emotional, which our current tools can't do at all," he said.
"So we might be able to feel what other people, and large groups of people, are feeling at a distance. So it might become possible to talk about what a country is feeling, for example."
For Chorost, technologies that provide some insight into...
...the collective mind of nations already exist, in the form of microblogging services such as Twitter.
"We can already get a sense of that using Twitter. For example, if you follow the Twitter feed out of Libya and Bahrain, you can sense the anger, fear and joy that people are feeling in those countries. That is something that was simply impossible before," he said.
In one sense, every time we search the internet today we are reliant on a computer interpretation of human behaviour, similar to the mechanism that would underpin the World Wide Mind, Chorost said.
"To me, the World Wide Mind is the combination of human agency and computer networks - the two together potentially yield a consciousness that might be quite different from either separately," said Chorost.
"To give you an example, I talk about Google. Google appears to be a very powerful search engine. You can ask it a question and you get the answer almost immediately.
"The reason it's so powerful is because it's aggregating many human decisions about what information is important and correct."
How to beat brain malware
Technologies that perform similar functions to today's antivirus and anti-spyware software would be required to prevent hackers from stealing information from people's minds or wreaking havoc with their thought processes, Chorost said.
"Equivalent technologies would have to be developed to protect people's brains and we would have to have control over those," he said.
"We would also be able to choose what [we] want to see and what [we] don't want to see. It's kind of like on Facebook. We choose who we want to be friends with and how much we want to share."
Everyone today is familiar with the constant distraction of emails, tweets, texts, Facebook status updates and RSS feeds, but imagine how annoying it would be if this torrent of information was piped directly into your brain.
"We already have this problem now - with email and Twitter and Facebook and TV competing for our attention," he said.
"Right now we are losing the battle and are a very distracted species.
"Books coming out lately are showing that this sensory saturation does detract from people's ability to focus and think - so this is a here-and-now problem.
"The answer is to develop filtering technologies. For example, Google is beginning to experiment with technologies that prioritise which emails are important to you. They don't work very well but at least people are trying to do this."
The end of the self
When other people's thoughts and feelings are occupying space inside...
...our head then our sense of who we are and how we are distinct from others will become more difficult to define, Chorost said.
Yet he said the problems raised by the World Wide Mind are, once again, exaggerated reflections of challenges posed by the digital world today.
"In Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together she interviewed dozens of teenagers and she is concerned that their ability to develop an independent self is undermined by technology giving them the ability to communicate with people at all moments of the day.
"So there are concerns about individuality today, and obviously this technology that I imagine would make it 100 times worse. Because if all of a sudden you're aware of other people's thoughts and sensations, and they are aware of yours, then the boundaries of the self can start to dissolve - and what you could get is a kind of technological schizophrenia.
"I do think this is a very real potential threat. The answer to that is maybe we will realise we don't need to be quite as worried about individual selves as we are now. Maybe behaviour that now would be viewed as schizophrenic will in 50 years be viewed as perfectly healthy."
Chorost suggests that the trade-off for the loss of self would be the ability of the collective World Wide Mind to transcend what any individual mind is capable of, drawing parallels with the new abilities that resulted from the evolution of complex, multicellular life forms from their single cell predecessors.
"I was inspired by the philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his book The Phenomenon of Man.
"He suggested that in an evolutionary ascent, individuality is intensified. It is not diminished.
"He raised an example when single cells join to become multicellular creatures. Those cells do, in some sense, lose their autonomy. They can no longer decide for themselves where to go as they are part of a larger collective.
"But at the same time, they start to form organs and specialised functions that allow them to do more in a collective sense than they could have done before."
Threat of isolation
The danger of people retreating from the real world and...
...living within the confines of the World Wide Mind is identified as a genuine threat by Chorost. However, just like information overload, he sees the threat of disconnection with real people as a problem that needs to be tackled in today's digital world.
"I think there's a deeper issue, which is that the threat that technology poses to us is disassociation with people," he said.
"We have this problem now as we see that people are so obsessed with their BlackBerrys and their iPhones that they become more comfortable communicating through those devices than face to face.
"This is a huge problem and the kind of technology envisaged has the potential to make it even worse.
"I talk about EM Forster's novel, The Machine Stops. It is eerie. Forster wrote that in 1911 and it's uncannily familiar because it's about people spending their entire lives alone in rooms endlessly videoconferencing.
Chorost doesn't think that any technology can replace face-to-face communication. "I talk about the importance of the body, that physical and visual connection, and I say if we ever lose that then we are in that world of Forster's The Machine Stops."
Will the World Wide Mind ever be made?
Chorost admits that the technology of the World Wide Mind is so far ahead of current technological capabilities that some people might feel it is not even worth discussing.
However, he says even if the World Wide Mind doesn't pan out exactly as he envisages, the book raises an interesting question about the impact of pervasive computing technology on our lives.
"The value of the book is that it makes new kinds of discussions possible that weren't possible before. It's a thought experiment. It's not a prediction. I'm saying, 'If such things become possible what would happen?'," he said.
And in Chorost's view, the rise of fledgling technologies such as optogenetics and neuromorphic chips means some approximation of the World Wide Mind may one day become a reality.
"It's not just empty philosophising because there are real scientific tools coming into being which make the analysis of brain circuitry possible on an unprecedented level," he said.
"We are very rapidly developing access to things going on in the brain that may allow us to answer questions that have remained total mysteries up until now."
- World Wide Mind: The coming integration of humanity, machines and the internet by Michael Chorost is published by Free Press.