Demand for increasingly powerful communications technology points to our future as a "techlepathic" species
By George Dvorsky, May 12, 2004
I recently read with great interest of researcher Chuck Jorgensen's work at NASA's Ames Research Center. It was the kind of news item that made the rounds among the cognoscenti that day, only to be forgotten the next. But it stuck with me for days afterwards.
Jorgensen and his team developed a system that captures and converts nerve signals in the vocal chords into computerized speech. It is hoped that the technology will help those who have lost the ability to speak, as well as improve interface communications for people working in spacesuits and noisy environments.
The work is similar in principle to how cochlear implants work. These implants capture acoustic information for the hearing impaired. In Jorgensen's experiment the neural signals that tell the vocal chords how to move are intercepted and rerouted. Cochlear implants do it the other way round, by converting acoustic information into neural signals that the brain can process. Both methods capitalize on the fact that neural signals provide a link to the analog environment in which we live.
As I thought further about this similarity it occurred to me that the technology required to create a technologically endowed form of telepathy is all but upon us. By combining Jorgensen's device and a cochlear implant with a radio transmitter and a fancy neural data conversion device, we could create a form of communication that bypasses the acoustic realm altogether.
I decided to contact Jorgensen and other researchers about the prospect of such "techlepathy." While I have always entertained the idea that we'll eventually develop telepathy-enabling technologies, the optimistic responses I received from these researchers startled me nonetheless. And as I suspected, the technologies and scientific insight required for such an achievement are rapidly coming into focus—an exciting prospect to be sure.
The dream of mind-to-mind communication and the desire to transcend one's own consciousness is as old as language itself. You could make a strong case that there's a near pathological craving for it, a tendency that manifests through the widespread belief in paranormal telepathy.
ESP aside, it seems that this craving will soon be satisfied. Several advances in communications technology and neuroscience are giving pause about the possibility of endowing us with techlepathy. As we continue to ride the wave of the communications revolution, and as the public demand for more sophisticated communications tools continues, it seems a veritable certainty that we are destined to become a species capable of mind-to-mind communication.
This prospect is as profound as it is exciting. Such a change to the species would signify a prominent development in the evolution of humanity—a change that would irrevocably alter the nature of virtually all human relations and interactions.
The shrinking planet
Our civilization's current postindustrial phase has often been referred to, quite rightly, as the Information Age. Moreover, the speed at which information is processed and exchanged is only getting faster. There's no question that humanity's collective clock-speed is steadily increasing. Indeed, as is Moore's Law, the communications revolution is still in effect and showing no signs of abating.
Thanks to the rapid-fire nature provided by such things as email correspondence and instant messaging, conversations that used to take weeks or days now only take hours or minutes.
In fact, as I recently read an archived exchange between Charles Darwin and his rival Louis Agassiz from the 19th Century, I realized that the entire exchange must have taken months if not years since their letters had to cross the Atlantic by boat. (Darwin lived in England while Agassiz was in the US.) Today when scientists converse, they debate, critique and collaborate at breakneck speed.
What's interesting isn't just the types of communication tools that now exist. It's also the way in which people use them—ways that hint at a desire for more intimate and open forms of communication.
Sitting at a red light the other day, I noticed a herd of pedestrians crossing the street—each and every one of them with a cell phone held tightly against their ear. These days, information transfer between people is nearly instantaneous, regardless of what they're doing and where they are.
Many people are also tapping into the power of instant messaging. Programs such as Messenger, ICQ and GAIM are immensely popular, changing the way in which people interact altogether. Family members converse with each other while in the same house (calling the kids down for dinner will never be the same again). Parents chat with their kids while at work. Coworkers, whether they're in the same building or offsite, can quickly exchange information and work in collaborative ways.
Social networking programs, such as Friendster, Tribe and Orkut, are also contributing to novel forms of communication. These programs are undoubtedly making the world a smaller place by steadily decreasing the number of so-called degrees of separation that exist between people. I'm continually stunned at the efficiency of how this works. I have only 19 immediate friends in my Friendster network, but it explodes out from there to 1,010 second-degree friends and 50,611 third-degree friends. I'm pretty much convinced that if you're on the Internet there's no less than four degrees of separation between you and anyone else on the Web, which is two complete degrees below the conventional six degrees of separation that is thought to exist for all people.
One of the most exciting and innovative ways to use the Web is found in the blogging ("Web logging") phenomenon. While bloggers chronicle the news, they also chronicle their own lives. Some bloggers use their sites to post personal journals and diaries. The difference with blogs, of course, is their public nature. What's fascinating is how many people want to make the most personal and private details of their life public. The largest segment of the population currently engaging in this are adolescents who use it to communicate with their friends, as an outlet to express their frustrations, anxieties and experiences and to provide each other with support. I'm both awestruck by and jealous of today's teens.
Bridging minds and machines
Needless to say, the communications revolution and the driving tendencies therein are not going to stop at cell phones, instant messaging and blogs. The work of research labs and universities around the world reveals that some of the most profound developments are still yet to come. It appears that the public's demand for ever more sophisticated communications devices will soon be met by supply.
We live in a day where neural interfacing technologies are enabling monkeys to move cursors across a computer screen with sheer thought alone and where paraplegics are able to type letters on a computer screen just by thinking about it. Recently, the FDA granted approval to Cyberkinetics in the US to implant chips in the brains of disabled people—chips that will map neural activity when they think about moving a limb. These signals will then be translated into computer code that could one day be fed into robotic limbs or applied to computer interfacing devices.
These advances in neural interfacing technology are now expanding from motor functioning to communications, an area that NASA's Chuck Jorgensen is actively exploring.
As I mentioned earlier, I contacted Jorgensen and asked him if he'd given any consideration to the issue of techlepathy. His answer was positive, noting that his next goal is to determine whether he can directly correlate auditory speech signals and subvocal signals recorded at the same time by learning nonlinear mapping equations to relate one to the other. Ideally, Jorgensen's team would like to develop a completely noninvasive process, starting initially with understanding highly intertwined surface measured signals. Such efforts would be in contrast to work focusing on embedded neural probes or surgical intrusions such as those used for highly disabled persons.
I also spoke with graduate student researcher Peter Passaro, a scientist pushing the envelope of human communications in the neural engineering lab at Georgia Tech. As is Jorgensen, Passaro and his team are trying to correlate mappings within a system, but in their case it's an in vitro system with no native structures. They are trying to determine general rules for how systems set up in response to sensory input and what the state space of their output will be. Once these rules are determined, says Passaro, it will become much easier to produce such things as cortical implants.
Passaro is fairly certain that all that's required to acquire sufficient neural information is an array of listening electrodes rather than interfacing with numerous single neurons. That being said, he believes incoming neural information is going to be a more difficult case because no one is sure how to use extracellular field stimulation to get information into cortical neural networks except in the simplest of cases. "Luckily," says Passaro, "cochlear information is the simplest of cases."
Passaro asserts that the technology required to create an implantable cell phone already exists—it's just a matter of someone getting around to doing it. He believes that such a device has the potential to be one of the first widely used nonmedical implants, what he dubs the world's first "killer app" implant.
The next progressive step as far as techlepathy goes, says Pasarro, is to tap into the brain's language centers, specifically the part of the motor cortex responsible for output for the region of the throat and mouth. With such a system in place muscular movement wouldn't be required at all to generate a neural signal. Instead, sheer thought alone will produce the desired language output.
Our telepathic future
Cybernetics pioneer Kevin Warwick also believes in the future of techlepathy. In fact, he's actively trying to communicate in such a manner with his wife by creating an implant that connects his nervous system with hers. "If I have to have a long-term goal for my career," says Warwick, "it would be creating thought communication between humans." Of significance, he sees this as a realistic goal within his lifetime.
But Warwick believes that signals other than thoughts or language are transferable as well. Humans will eventually be able to communicate all sorts of signals, he argues, such as "whether you are feeling bad, as well as where you are." He believes that the body produces an array of information that can be picked out and made to use in a variety of ways.
Indeed, humanity appears to be on the cusp of a rather remarkable development: We are, for all intents and purposes, about to become a telepathic species. Such a development will occur this century and it will likely happen in three major phases.
The first generation of telepathic devices will likely be of the subvocal variety in which communication travels one way, much like a normal conversation. The second phase will also involve unidirectional transmission, but consciousness (i.e. language center output) will be output instead of subvocalized speech. And the third phase will likely involve the seamless bidirectional transference of consciousness and emotions to one or more receiving persons—in other words, telepathy in the truest sense. It's highly probable that the medium of exchange for such communication will be the Internet, or its future form, the global mind or Noosophere.
Given such an endowment, human cooperation and performance, particularly in team environments, will be greatly enhanced—whether it be a search and rescue team or a prog rock band. Indeed, artists will undoubtedly exploit such advancements by creating unimaginably powerful expressions that involve the transference of conscious and emotive experiences.
While some might be perturbed by the ethical and practical ramifications of techlepathy, I am overwhelmingly in favor. Changes in communication and language have largely captured the human story, giving rise to not only technology and civilization, but also to our enhanced moral capacity and our ability to empathize. Undoubtedly, it is through communication that we learn to relate and understand one another.
As Robert Wright points out in Nonzero and Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, effective communications have historically been the crucial key for humanity's ongoing survival and progress. In fact, Wright meticulously chronicles how improving communication technologies steadily result in more and more positive sum games and enhanced cooperative social and interpersonal frameworks. This holds true, argues Wright, whether it be a freshly carved path that connects two tribes in the jungle or the Internet.
There's no reason to believe that techlepathy won't have a similar impact on individuals, social groups and society as a whole. Moreover, imagine how it will further strengthen the bonds of interpersonal communication and intimacy. As we all live alone in our own minds—forced to live near-solipsistic existences—I cannot think of anything more powerful than the prospect of sharing someone else's thoughts and experiences. It's been said that such unions will signify the next phase of not just human communications and social interactions, but of personal and sexual intimacy as well.
Many people complain about the dehumanizing and depersonalizing effects of technology. Personally, my usage of communications technology has only resulted in increased interactivity with the rest of the world.
Further, this tendency seems to be the driving force in the history of the development of communications technology. On the surface humanity appears to be spreading outward, venturing across continents and into space. Yet in actuality we are journeying towards one another. Our globe has never appeared smaller and our proximity to each other has never been closer.
This trend shows no signs of slowing down, pointing the way to a remarkable interconnected future.
Copyright © 2004 George Dvorsky
This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, May 12, 2004.
Tags: telepathy, techlepathy, foresight, futurism, posthumans, transhumanism, communications.
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