why we’re just not ready for a hivemind

August 24, 2012

wired cyborg girl

Unlike most skeptical podcasts, Skeptically Speaking isn’t new to tech skepticism and I’m glad to say that I played my small part in that, doing a segment on Kurzweilian Singularitarianism, and participating in a two-part debate on transhumanism thanks to hostess Desiree Schell’s interest in all things high tech. Last week, the show returned to the teach arena with tech writer Michael Chorost, whose work advocates the slow but seemingly inevitable emergence of a collective human hivemind connected over the web thanks to various computer implants and mind-reading devices. Unlike many tech writers who very casually talk about how the future will see cybernetic enhancements as commonplace, Chorost actually has some firsthand experience with this field. He has cochlear implants, and for his project, he interviewed experts who know a thing or two about how to put a chip into a human. As a result, his predictions when it comes to devices that may go into our brains or be worn on our bodies are uncannily plausible, if not already workable. However, the idea that we can integrate into a seamless collective consciousness is simply way too utopian to seriously consider. Why? Well, here’s a list…

Facebook would now require surgery. Certainly a device to tell your friends when you’re having lunch or post holographic pictures of yourself having a good time with just a simple thought sounds nifty. And sure, we could run some electrodes to your speech motor cortex and wire a few more to another cortex that would control when a picture gets taken, then send the request to your smartphone with the update’s contents. But are you really willing to undergo very invasive elective surgery? Not only that, but it will also be expensive, risky (it is your brain after all), and you can bet your retirement fund that insurers will do whatever they can not to cover this sort of medical procedure. Yes, this idea is far from new. Intel has been interested in hooking users up to all sorts of home electronics for years and computer scientist Kevin Warwick used himself as an experimental subject to prove the idea to be workable with a few simple implants. But devices designed to truly read your mind are relegated to Brain Gate which is intended for patients with severe brain or spinal cord damage for whom the risk of surgery is more than worth it. For them it’s a criticial quality of life issue that makes their existence more bearable. For a healthy social media power user? Probably not so much.

Who do you want in your hivemind? Humans may have evolved as social mammals whose psyche can suffer if they’re cut off from social interaction for a long period of time, but they also have strong opinions and ideas, and tend to separate into groups, cultures, and cliques. And to be really blunt about it, some people are really stupid and really damn obnoxious, which is why YouTube and Yahoo comment sections are widely considered places where rational discourse online goes to die a horrible death by a thousand partisan insults and racial slurs. So let’s say that somehow, there’s a way to inject you with nanobots that connect your mind to the internet via wi-fi. And you now have a few million YouTubers and the lowest rated Yahoo commenters screaming into your skull. Sounds about as fun as implosive diharrea, you say? Well, welcome to the hivemind. As a blogger, I already get the periodic UFO-obsessed lunatics hollering at me and if you excuse me, I wouldn’t necessarily like them to verbally vomit directly into my brain. Sure, I suppose we could create a way to block out those with whom you don’t want to interact but we’ll still have to start with them being able to dive into our minds first, otherwise, we’re sort of negating the entire point of having an open hivemind.

Say goodbye to the little white lies. While there are countless studies showing that humans lie to each other all the time, you probably don’t need to see all of them to know that’s true. And it’s not just the big lies like “the mortgage market is just fine!” or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” or “I am not a crook.” No, a lot of the lies we tell are really subtle and intended not to hurt each others’ feelings. Remember when you told her that she looked great in the tight-fitting dress? Or assured him that he could still party like he was in college despite the extra 20 years and 30 pounds? Or told you boss that you like his wacky golfing tie? Yeah, say goodbye to all that because people will now be able to know exactly what you’re thinking. She’ll know that she fills out her dress like a stuffed sausage, he’s way past his party prime, and that you think your boss’ ties are annoying and tacky. After all, they have access to your mind and if you share too much, maybe without realizing to filter your thoughts a little better, any private discussion or even emotional reaction can be sensed and registered. Even with great caution and really good self-censorship you’re still vulnerable to being found out because your mind is online and someone can simply hack his or her way into it to figure out what you really think for personal reasons or to collect blackmail material. Which brings us to…

Expect horrific security breaches. Some of the most depressing people in the IT industry are security consultants. Want to feel like a virtual nudist surrounded by peeping toms who aim their high powered telescopes at you every minute of every day? Just chat with them for a minute or two. Among all sorts of scary things, you’ll find that internet security is basically a joke, usually because it’s there as an afterthought, a quick, easily hackable hash of a password or a cheap SSL cert. Bad design, bugs, lack of foresight, and out of date software opens vulnerabilities and there are a lot of people who’d like to exploit them for fun and profit. People already share way, way too much on social media sites, so much so that the security paradigm of asking personal questions is virtually useless, and they have to use keyboards and click buttons. Imagine how much over-sharing there will be if you’re interfacing with the web via thought! Mind-hackers could get your PIN, the combination to your safes, your banking and work passwords, any useful things you may know, and juicy blackmail fuel mentioned in the previous section. Have you read about “sextortionists” blackmailing victims into sending them nude pics and sexual videos? Now imagine them hacking into your augmented brain, tapping into your optic nerves and watching you have sex or masturbate in the shower while you think you’re alone. Feel free to shudder. I’m doing that right now. The shuddering, the shuddering. Perverts…

Now, all in all, someone actually hijacking your brain isn’t very likely because the implants would probably be embedded in motor cortexes and trying to create some feedback would cause a twitch or a headache rather than allow for actual mind control. But is that sole protection you’ll have from the internet trolls messing with your mind, people reading into your thoughts to find out what you really think, opening gateways to let strangers steal your secrets, and opening yourself up for all sorts of embarrassing and mentally damaging security breaches, worth it? Despite the tech luminaries of the world preaching the Gospel of the Coming Homo Interneticus, we’re just not there as a society and it’s very likely that we may never be. Yes, more of us are now communicating with each other via the web than ever and more and more implants are coming in the near future. But we need our security, our alone time, and most implants will be medical in nature and intended to swap out bad joints, failing organs, or give mobility to those paralyzed by strokes or injury. Making sure that you can think your way to a Twitter update is a very, very low priority for the vast majority of computer scientists and doctors. And when you consider the downsides of sharing your mind with the entire world, that’s probably a good thing.

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  • Jordan

    Great post, Greg! I find your pragmatic approach to fututrism very refreshing.

  • Paul451

    Re: Surgery.

    There’ll be an interesting window where implants have become superior to the organ / sense / limb they are replacing, but surgery the surgery is still more dangerous than acceptable elective surgeries. So people with injuries/disabilities will be restored to better-than-human, while a small number of enthusiasts try to convince surgeons to cut out their perfectly healthy eyes to install Google Eyes…

    For me the bigger problem is tech lock-in. Will you have to get surgery every time the technology improves, or be left with a Betamax Brain that is incompatible with everything around it? (Or people who bought the Internet Fridge. And now have a $20k fridge with a ten year old computer bolted to it.)

    Re: Brain leak/hack.

    There’s a huge gap between a brain implant that lets you control a device, or acts as basic I/O, and anything that would reveal your thoughts. The first gazillion generations of implants would be no more unfiltered than your fingers while you type. And probably less unfiltered than your mouth when you speak (no that’s not an insult to you. I mean that controlling the implant will be a very conscious effort, much more than speaking.) It’s like talking about Roomba-type-devices, and someone worrying that they might achieve sentience. Whole different magnitude of tech.

  • Greg Fish

    Will you have to get surgery every time the technology improves, or be left with a Betamax Brain that is incompatible with everything around it?

    It would certainly be bad design to create implants that can’t easily be updated. One would think that you’d create a shell from which you can swap the actual hardware with a simple injection. So surgery for the shell and first implant, an IV for a swap.

    There’s a huge gap between a brain implant that lets you control a device, or acts as basic I/O, and anything that would reveal your thoughts.

    The problem here is how these devices would be set. Technically, your thoughts couldn’t just be a post in and of themselves because in your mind they’re fragments, emotions, etc. But you can use a combination of implants to detect one’s mood and the first strong feeling as the words bubble up to the motor cortex. Kevin Warwick already has an implant that transmits his mood to his wife.

    Again, the idea here is that we’re sharing one mind among many humans thanks to these implants so they should be able to pick up on your emotions. Otherwise there’s nothing interesting about the whole concept as you’re just making I/O more complex for the same end functionality.

  • Paul451

    “It would certainly be bad design to create implants that can’t easily be updated. One would think that you’d create a shell from which you can swap the actual hardware with a simple injection.”

    But the “shell” isn’t just a container, it’s an interface between the brain and the processor. At some point it will be incompatible with newer hardware.

    It’s bad enough when (to pick a completely random example that has nothing to do with my personal situation), your otherwise functional computer needs a new graphics card and it turns out your 5yr old motherboard is precisely one generation shy of the oldest standard that new cards are compatible with, but when that “motherboard” is inside your brain…

    And early interfaces are going to change fast, since we don’t actually know what is the ideal standard, even within the limits of current technology. Some will be proprietary, some will be technological dead-ends…

  • Greg Fish

    Paul, I think you’re confusing MP3 players and machine-neuron interfaces. You can’t invent your own data types, you can’t make your own protocols, all you can do is listen to the buzz from the neurons and that buzz isn’t going to change. So the shell would do the listening and then feed it to the new hardware. What the hardware is will be irrelevant. All the shell has to do is keep up with the brain and have high enough throughput.

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