Reading Response: Andy Clark

Cyborg’s Unplugged

This article is interesting for the real-life challenges it poses. Many other articles ask the reader to imagine a scenario, and then say “See! This view of the mind must be wrong!” Yet so often they subtly assume the “proven” view of the mind while constructing their argument. This article, for once, presents real-life stories to you and forces you to deal with the implications. It too delves into the unknown future and presents you with scenarios, but they at least are anchored by real people and experiments with known results.

I will mention in passing that Clark’s attempt to equate the computer’s knowledge with our knowledge is flawed for exactly the same reasons that Otto (from the last reading) does not know the things in his notebook. Things known by the computer are available to the user, but they cannot be known by the user because they aren’t integrated into his subconscious; something known by the computer cannot be used to intuitively solve a riddle.

That said, the far more interesting part of this article is the presentation of actual experiments, and what they portend. The plasticity of the mind is something I’ve known about for a long time, but the implications in terms of self are staggering. Clark’s argument for a decentralized self scares me, even though I’ve long considered the mind to be decentralized without formalizing and exploring it so much. The ability to train our brains into handling extra limbs and sensory inputs[1] is astounding. Yet such experiments as these are actually better proof for a disembodied mind than an embodied one, since the actual form of our bodies apparently matters so little and our brains can extend to handle new inputs.

The real question is what happens when we try to integrate computers with our brains, not in a crude fashion by implementing a visual cortex-based HUD, but by fully integrating additional computing power into our brains by interlinking computers and our mind at the level of a neuron. I’ve seen papers which replace a few neurons in small animal minds with a computer simulating those neurons and allow the animal to function normally, but they are very small and very specialized in scope. Can we more generally add a computer processor that can act as a literal expansion to our subconscious, providing more and better intuitive leaps by letting our subconscious thought processes expand to fill more compute space? Can we offload visual memories into computer-driven storage and have those memories available to us not only at will but without will? This will be the ultimate test of our selves in a great many ways. If it turns out we can, we may need to redefine ourselves not in terms of Descartes’ thinking thing, but as a system of physical processes. If we can’t, the mystery of thought will continue and deepen.

[1]: One of my favorites, not discussed in Clark’s paper, is a belt with many vibrating motors programmed to always vibrate on the north side. Wearers acquired extremely good internal mapping abilities in unknown environments (always knowing which direction was home) and reported feeling like they’d lost an important sense when the belt was removed.