Anabel Quan-Haase and Barry Wellman describe hyperconnectivity as the phenomenon of technology enabling (some of) us to communicate almost instantly from practically anywhere. For now, a few layers separate us humans from our technology, but what happens when computers can directly read from and write to our brains?
Closing the Subjective Gap
Thomas Nagel, in his famous 1974 essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” outlines a gap between conscious beings. Each conscious being, at any given time, has a mental state (think cogito, ergo sum). Experiencing these mental states is subjective, and cannot be shared between conscious beings.
One person can describe to another what she is experiencing at any given time, but it is impossible for the other to experience it exactly the same way. Fictional characters sometimes use varying forms of telepathy to transfer their thoughts to each other; one famous example is the Vulcan mind meld. We humans, however, are biologically incapable of telepathy.
On the other hand, we are also biologically incapable of talking to each other over hundred-mile distances, but technology has helped us overcome that hurdle. Hyperconnectivity, anyone?
We’re not there yet, but Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) and Brain/Neuronal-Computer Interaction (BNCI) will someday enable computers to read our thoughts, feelings, and ideas and put other ones into our minds.
- If a computer can read our thoughts, it follows that such a computer could record our thoughts.
- If it can write thoughts, it follows that a user could have that computer write other people’s recorded thoughts onto her own mind.
Imagine asking yourself a question in your mind, and Wikipedia directly supplies an answer. Imagine wondering what Thailand is like, then you “download” your friend’s shared memories of her vacation there, directly into your own mind. Imagine that the recorded subjective experiences of the entire world are only a thought away.
If your consciousness is connected to that of the rest of the world, what does that mean for knowledge? What will make the knowledge that enters your mind from somewhere else different from the knowledge you’ve gained on your own?
Exploration of Experience
If a person has an experience, she will later have memories of that experience. If she has an experience implanted by a computer (think Total Recall), she will later have memories of that as well.
As per the rules of a Turing test, if we cannot distinguish artificial intelligence from real, human intelligence, then the artificial one must be considered “real” as well. Would the same heuristic apply to implanted experiences?
If all of our brains are hyperconnected, then we have instantaneous access to the knowledge of everyone else and the recorded experiences of the world. Would that make us a hive mind, assimilating all individuals into the collective?
Exploration of Identity
Even if are minds are connected to a worldwide collective, our physical bodies will still be present at different places, in different situations around the globe. That will make all the difference as to which information and memories we download from the cloud in all that exists within it.
The physical context in which each of us exists, at any given time, is the biggest influence on our needs, wants, desires, and goals at any given time. Even with the totality of post-internet human knowledge accessible with a thought, we still won’t all exist in the same place simultaneously.
Conclusion, for Now
When BNCI enables the minds of the entire human race to communicate with each other via computers in the cloud, it will tear asunder our concepts of knowledge and identity. The word “disruption” barely does the phenomenon justice.
The distinction between “real” knowledge and “downloaded” knowledge will disappear, but our individual identities will not. I can hardly wait to see if I’m wrong!