Dyson on the Mind

Who is in charge here?
The European: That brings us back to the indeterminacy and complexity of the human mind. Can computers ever replace that?
Dyson: It could be. In, say, the 15th century, there was the archaic view that the human mind exists on one side of the spectrum and the mind of God on the other side, with nothing in between except maybe a few angels. But that is a very strange idea, since every other hierarchy in nature consists of many different layers. It think it is much more likely that there are others layers of mind, although they might not look like a desktop computer. People are already walking around—effectively participating in a vast distributed computation—doing what their iPhones tell them. And we’re generally quite happy with that domination. 
The European: I am still skeptical whether a computer can be more than an extension to the human mind.  It is hard to see how computers could emerge as creative and imaginative entities in the near future.
Dyson: We have to wait and see. But I am not sure whether computers are just tools. When you look at your iPhone to get directions, are you asking the phone where to go or is the phone telling you where to go?
The question becomes more interesting if you consider the degree to which subconscious decisions seem to inform our activities.  Let's say a subconscious decision gets made by your brain:  We shall have a cupcake.  A few seconds later, you find yourself typing into your iPhone to ask where a bakery is nearby.  The machine tells you, and off you go to buy and eat the cupcake.  You probably have the sense that you did something consciously, but in fact your subconscious is conspiring with Google Maps to have you do something you shouldn't really be doing.

We have always been subject to a certain amount of manipulation from the meat; now there is a kind of pincer movement between the meat and the metal.  The development of conscious virtue will not be easier -- but all the more important -- in such an environment.


douglas said...

I've always thought that I.E. concepts were going to be inherantly limited, or perhaps even impossible to a degree one could call sentience.

I think the concerns expressed in the quote-

"When you look at your iPhone to get directions, are you asking the phone where to go or is the phone telling you where to go?"

could just as easily be replaced with 'when you've a hammer in hand, all the world's a nail'. The tools we choose affect our decisions, be they iphones or hammers.

I used to have to explain this to architecture students, because they still tended to think that computers were great and there was no downside to working on a computer instead of on paper. The best explanation I could give, other than the obvious parallel in choosing a saw to cut with for instance, was the joke in our business about being able to play a game where you drive through the city, and call out what CAD software was used to design the various buildings. Each software having it's strengths and weaknesses tended to facilitate or even promote certain tendencies, and that would often become apparent in the products.

I don't see where getting directions from your iphone is any different. If you are thoughtless, the tool will prescribe a path it finds fitting, but if you are discerning and critical in the use of your tools, you'll know you should pull the path line in google maps around a little to investigate alternate routes, and make your own decision.

In some sense, wisdom is no different. God gave us plenty of brainpower, but if you don't bother learning to use and understand it, the results will speak for themselves.

DL Sly said...

"...have you do something you shouldn't really be doing."

What, exactly, shouldn't I be doing? Buying a cupcake? Searching for cupcakes? Or both? And why shouldn't I want a cupcake or search for where the nearest bakery is if I don't know the area?
Plus, how is Google conspiring to make me do anything? Am I not the one who opened the app on the phone and typed in the search parameters? I mean, it's not like the phone suddenly opened the app with the location of a nearby bakery without any prompting (assuming that *butt dialing* is not a factor here) on my part.

"When you look at your iPhone to get directions, are you asking the phone where to go or is the phone telling you where to go?"

I'm asking the phone where to go and the phone is showing me a map of the general area along with a path to follow to get where I want to go. At no time does the phone make me follow the exact line it's drawn on the screen. There aren't any punishment features to physically compel you to follow the exact path the phone has shown you on the map. Usually the route shown follows the most direct path to the desired location. Therefore most people will simply follow those directions for expediency (we are talking about a cupcake craving afterall! 0>;~}) as well as to avoid being lost in unfamiliar territory -- which can be a dangerous situation in some parts of the country.

E Hines said...

The question becomes more interesting if you consider the degree to which subconscious decisions seem to inform our activities.

I wouldn't limit it to the subconscious' role. Also, the layering alluded to earlier in OP might simply include the computer systems. Sherlock Holmes once said (per Doyle) that the reason he didn't know the planets of the solar system was because he considered that factoid sufficiently unimportant that he declined to commit brain matter to remembering it. In a similar way, with today's technology, we have the capability not to not commit brain matter and so lose the factoid, but instead to outsource that memory to external storage. Current computing systems are merely our conscious mind's external layers for rote computing and memory.

Will these systems continue to improve in capability? I think so, and we're continuing the evolutionary path that our brains have been following all this long time: we're beginning to add another layer of cortex to our brains, this time a layer made of silicon and rare earths rather than of organic sludge.

As this currently symbiotic relationship develops, are we not becoming, ourselves, a layer in a new entity, a distributed intelligence?

Separately, but related, ...why shouldn't I want a cupcake....

Who is it that really wants that cupcake: "you" or the meat, as Grim puts it? I think the two are the same. The meat influences the wet ware, and the wet ware returns the favor in a very tight positive feedback loop.

Eric Hines

Texan99 said...

I understand the new iPhone 4S will notice that you're driving by a grocery store and remind you out loud, "Didn't you want to stop and get a quart of milk on the way home?" I'll be in real trouble when the phone can order the cupcake and have it delivered to my doorstep without asking me first. "I just thought you might be ready to eat a little something. Chocolate cupcakes are your favorite, aren't they? These got good reviews." But can the day be far behind when it pipes up with "Do you really think seconds are a good idea? Your pants look a little tight."