July 30, 2014


An internet of minds

Aldous Huxley in his book, The Doors of Perception, a travelogue of his mescaline-fuelled trip through the mental landscape, compares the mind to a reducing valve. Every sentient individual is in touch with and is aware of all that is happening anywhere else but to preserve sanity in the face of an intolerable information overload, the mind chokes off most of the information and restricts itself to the safety and comfort of his local environment. The concept of a universal mind or consciousness, the brahman, of which an individual or atman is but an image is also the foundation of Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta. Both Huxley and Sankara in their own way suggest that all “minds” in the universe are somehow connected together and are in a position to share information. Doesn’t this ring a bell somewhere ?
image Peace of Mind by Dokon taken from urbantimes.co

A telephone bell perhaps ? Since every telephone on this planet is connected, or certainly connectable, to every other telephone that exists. Then you have the internet where again every computer is a part of a gigantic computer network and by extension we are talking about the internet-of-things where domestic and industrial gadgets would be able to communicate among themselves and make a difference to our lives.

But can minds communicate with each other ? without the obvious intermediation of, say,  normal speech or the printed word ? Can we bypass the traditional sensory organs and establish a direct contact between two minds ? Strange as it may seem, this is no more in the domain of myth or even science fiction. It is something that is just around the corner in hospital and university labs.

It all began in 1998 with Kevin Warwick at the University of Reading, UK where he managed to open doors by simply thinking about it. It was no magic but pure science where signals from nervous system were picked up and transmitted through RFID enabled implant on his hand to a electro-mechanical device that opens doors. This technology was subsequently picked up by medical engineers who have now enabled paraplegics to control the movement of wheelchairs by thought -- similar in concept to what was proposed by Craig Thomas in his book Firefox, the thought controlled Russian fighter plane. At the retail and commercial level, Emotiv has developed an easy to use, non-intrusive cap that allows players in a computer game to make moves by simply thinking about them and many products -- devices and applications -- that allow thought control are now available at the retail level.

Outbound signals, from the brain to the world are interesting but what is even more useful are inbound signals of the kind that are processed in bionic eyes and allow blind people to “see” the world around them -- in a rather fuzzy manner, at the moment -- by delivering the feed from cameras directly into part of the brain that normally processes information received from nerves in the eye. Recently, both outbound and inbound signals have been hooked together at Harvard where it has been demonstrated that a rat can be made to wag its tail by a human being who simply thinks, or “wills”, about the action. The last lap from man to man has also been demonstrated at the University of Washington

The stage where we are today, when a man can make a rat move its tail by thinking about it, is roughly similar to the state of computer networking in the 1940s when George Stibitz sent a piece of data from a teletypewriter to a complex number calculator through a wire. That was how the internet, that we know today, started. Then of course there was TCP/IP, HTTP, the Mosaic browser, WiFi, bluetooth and the rest is history. Can this happen with human minds ?

Why not ?

Technically, there is nothing that stops us from picking up the electro-chemical signals in our brain, routing them out to an networking device that is attached to the body, then out through normal computer networking channels to another device attached to the body of another person and then delivering them into the appropriate point the recipient's brain. All the physical components are in place but what is missing, at the moment, is the ability to process a blizzard of signals, extract the wheat from the chaff, the needle from the haystack and then converting it into a signal that will mimic a real world situation and fool the recipient's brain. This means sophisticated signal processing and pattern recognition in real-time -- something that is very much  possible and conceivable in the current environment.

Assuming that this happens in the next ten or fifteen years how would the world change ? Privacy concerns would mean that even if we could, it is unlikely that anyone would be broadcasting his thoughts into the internet -- just as we do not make the contents of our hard disk public and accessible on the web. However thoughts and ideas from various designated sources could be pooled in a “thought server” -- similar to a web server -- and made available to anyone who has the “thought browser”. The Mosaic of the Mind ? Or it could be that two consenting individuals could allow themselves to be “paired” as in the Bluetooth devices that allow file transfer from one device to another.

The internet is no more about TCP/IP and the ability to send signals from one computer to another. The world-wide-web, an application that runs on the underlying infrastructure of the internet, has spawned a whole new global culture of eCommerce, collaboration, social media that has led to amazing uses and applications that the network engineers in the 1940’s could never even envision in their wildest imaginations. Unlike our ancestors who lived in caves, modern man has a great intimacy and dependence on the industrial world. We live in climate controlled homes, move around in motorized vehicles and eat food that is grown, or perhaps manufactured, in man-made and machine controlled environments. As a result our bodies no longer need the ability to run miles or survive extreme climates. Instead we have learnt to use our brains to do many things that were not possible in the past -- like write books, create music and do mathematics.

Going forward, as human brains get tied to digital devices and through them to other brains, new abilities and social constructs will emerge and define the contours of tomorrow’s world. Would that would be the next step in the ascent of man ?
this article was first published in indiaamericatoday.com