Archive for the Divine Science Category

Your Mind is Now Undead!

Posted in Divine Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Teh ceiling cat is in ur machine, reading ur mind...

Teh ceiling cat is in ur machine, reading ur mind...

Less than a week ago researchers in Japan confirmed a way to extract images directly from brains. Yes, you read that correctly; in a nutshell: by hooking you up to this machine everyone can now see what you are thinking, because it will be shown in a monitor. I had this reply in my Twitter stream when I tweeted about it, and although I have not yet seen that movie it is nonetheless very easy to imagine this invention being taken right out of a science fiction gig. (Being the shameless otaku that I am, my personal memory that this news recalled is none other than Japan’s anime ambassador, Doraemon.)

I often have people asking me what I think of the newest mind-blowing inventions the world has to offer (which is one of the reasons why this blog was created). Perhaps surprisingly to some, I never throw out horrible paranoiac scenarios of nightmarish dystopias people commonly take as “critical” reviews of a certain technology. While I do acknowledge the potential new narratives of paranoia such technologies — and especially mind-reading technologies — will engender, I like to look at technology the way I look at bodies, Lacanian style — i.e., as the false representative, the lacking signifier of the subject.

Being able to record one’s thought into an image on the computer screen is one of the basic tenets of posthuman fluidity. After all, if video games can read your mind, why shouldn’t the computer be able to see your mind?

Here, however, I have a very basic question: will our mind, after being replicated into a computer screen, remain our mind? Will my mind not, rather, take the position of an “undead” mind, a mind that is both mine and not mine at the same time, giving me the uncanny experience akin to listening to a recording of my own voice, a voice both mine and not mine at the same time? In the domain of the voice, we have horror movies like The Exorcist, in which a ghostly intrusion is symbolized by the changing of the voice. Similarly, we also have scenarios like the Imperius Curse in Harry Potter, in which a Death Eater intrusion is symbolized by the changing of a victim’s mind.

What this implies, however, is a much more radical thesis: today, with neuroscience and other mind-reading technologies, the mind reveals its inherent split: my mind is not my mind. (Or, to put it in Hegelian tautology-as-contradiction: my mind is my mind.) It is no longer the age-old “Cartesian” split between the mind and the body — we are now forced to realize that even without the body, the mind is already inherently split from within. Yes, we can extract minds, read them, project them onto screens, record them and store them, build them from individual neurons, etc., but the fact remains that there is an irreducible kernel behind its presence, its irreducible (misrecognizing) reflexivity. After all is said and done, we still have a gaping void in the middle of the thinking mind, its “true” presence (compared to the “undead” simulation of the projections on the screen, which is not fully our mind, etc.), what Žižek calls “the unbearable lightness of being no one”.

It is here that we may come up with another definition of the posthuman subject: the posthuman subject is the subject whose mind is undead, a subject whose externalized mind as such loses its phenomenological vigor of living presence and turns into a zombie.

As an additional note, it is fun to imagine the birth of “mind art” in the future with this technology — far from needing any motoric skills, the artist would only utilize his sharp concentration to create stunning artworks. Like, you know, porn.

Now, replace the snowman with a nude chick.

The snowman is actually a nude chick.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Blue

Posted in Divine Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Courtesy of Dr. Pablo de Heras Ciechomski/Visualbiotech

A computer simulation of the upper layer of a rat brain neocortical column

OK, so perhaps this should have been the first post of this category, since it is arguably the top project at the intersection of cognitive science and artificial intelligence. Yes, by “Blue” I am referring to Henry Markam’s Blue Brain project, started back in 2005. What we encounter in the Blue Brain project is nothing less than a possibility of a simulated “consciousness” and other complexities of the brain (although only on the level of a rat’s at the moment, and at 1/10th of its speed), approached from the other side of computation, namely by creating individual neurons instead of the more common top-down approach in grammatical computing — the revolution of third wave cybernetics, as Katherine Hayles would have put it.

Even the strong AI skeptic John Searle in one of his lectures commented that [citation needed], even though the mind is not a software, and the brain is not a supercomputer, the computer may be constructed as such to simulate the brain. He denies by all means the grammatical approach to consciousness with his famous Chinese Room argument, but he never did deny semantic approaches, only stating that such approach is not yet possible. But with the Blue Brain — although this project leans towards cognitive science instead of AI — such an approach is, at least, on the horizon of possibility.

You can read more extensively about the Blue Brain and its progress here and here, but now let us continue on to our analysis. What do we have here with the Blue Brain is no less a science simulating the full complexity of a mind, right down (or, rather, up from) its neuron basis. How do we integrate this into our cognitive mapping? What we need to understand first and foremost is how this project requires an understanding that, 1) the mind comes from a whole, not of any one of its parts, and therefore, 2) non-localizable to any kernel whatsoever.

This, of course, is what Slavoj Žižek, in his The Parallax View, called “the unbearable lightness of being no one”. Are we not, today, with cognitive science, confronted with the fact, already acknowledged with Hume, that the subject does not exist? In today’s context, however deep we pry open the skull and dig the brain, we find nobody home, no kernel of the soul, no subject. This is the paradox of the 21st-century narrative of the subject.

What the Blue Brain project provides is no less than a common ground for us to think about silicon-based versus carbon-based life — whereas before, we see carbon-based life as evolving, as beings whose consciousness comes later, silicon-life were beings programmed through “consciousness” (grammatical understanding of the relations of objects, etc. — which is where I suspect the true “uncanny valley” lies). Artificial Life provided a change by introducing chaos and emergence into the foray, but did not necessarily look into complex nervous systems. If and when the Blue Brain project succeeds, what we will have is no less than a complete brain simulation of a species, a silicon-based brain, “comparable to the Human Genome Project,” as Markam put it on the link above.

While I remain an agnostic to the Moravecian idea of downloading minds into computers (and totally an atheist apropos the idea that the subject will remain the same), I do believe that the Blue Brain project and its completion will require us to rethink our subjectivity and humanity as a whole. Silicon-based and carbon-based life will have a fully similar grounding, and so many new spaces of cognitive science will open up, as well as new spaces of transhumanity and ubiquitous technology. All of us will have to confront not only the fact that there is nobody home, but also that home is temporary, shredding every last bit of our humanistic grounding — the unbearable lightness of being Blue.

If (and possibly when) the Brain is implemented into a body, then things will go much further. Thoughts? Feel free to comment away!

The Cyborg’s Implosion of Visual Space

Posted in Divine Science with tags , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Scleral Shell, Prosthesis designed by Dr. Danz. Photo by Jonathan James

Scleral Shell, Prosthesis designed by Dr. Danz. Photo by Jonathan James

Recently San Francisco-based artist Tanya Vlach made several headlines with her Call for Engineers to develop her a prosthetic eye that would be able to take still photos and video, use 3X optical zoom, be Bluetooth enabled and hold space for a 4GB SD card. Just below the blog title she quotes Donna Haraway’s definition of the cyborg. Shortly after the news my blogger/designer friend Atherton Bartelby told me of a similar artist, Rob Spence of Eyeborg (graphic images, NOT for the squeamish). One thing is clear: both are obviously aware of their being cyborgs.

What is our relationship to spatiality and the visuals today? Jean Baudrillard has introduced us to the postmodern implosion of the signifier and the signified, where our semiotic sphere loses its grounding and spins around in confusion. But, I think, with the birth of the cyborg — itself a being born out of implosion — as well as surveillance technologies and the evolution of HCI, things get a bit more complex. Here, we are witnessing not only the Baudrillardian simulacra that confuses the signifier with the Thing-in-itself, but also the implosion of the trompe-l’œil with the object. The field of vision itself is objectivized

(This, of course, can only happen qua a posthuman subject, a subject of modular organs: in the past few years, the seeing subject has changed from a subject with eyes to a subject with a nervous system and a camera. It is no longer the eye that sees; it is the brain.)

What does it mean, today, to see? There is nothing natural about sight — the vantage point, the subjective point-of-view is not merely this illusion that locates the existence of the subject, but also at the same time that which radically cuts the subject from within — my gaze is effectively not fully my own. Is this not the reason, the primeval trauma behind all those fantasies of an out-of-body experience? (We can recall here the same formula by Lacan of the voice, and its equivalent ghostly experience of being possessed by a voice.)

It is worth recalling Bourdieu’s famous claim — although ultimately the reference to any “natural” state is a false one — that perspective drawings are not the natural way to see things, but the educated painter’s way to do so. Today, what we take as “natural” comprise of the zoom, the image and video capturing capabilities, the memory in the eye, and so on (suffice it to recall how advertisements of HDTV always feature natural objects). But if the perspective drawing was a way to draw, what we are now effectively dealing with is a way to see — we are now not manipulating how we represent reality, but reality itself, insofar as what we take as reality is nothing but our perception of it (post-structuralism, quantum physics, autopoietic cognitive science, etc.).

And a second point: does not the elevation of the gaze into a cyborg’s render perfectly the notion that our gaze is never our own? Once that trauma is revoked, once the fantasy is realized qua networks and data transfers, it is easy to imagine the paranoia such technology will cause: what if the visions I am seeing is not the way things really are, but are in fact footages and animation transmitted from somewhere else? More ideals, more paranoia. Eyehacking, anyone?

Cultured Meat and Totem Culture

Posted in Divine Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
In Vitro Meat (c) DC Spensley/H+ Magazine

In Vitro Meat (c) DC Spensley/H+ Magazine

Let us now go on to discuss further on the issue on how to deal with life (in accordance to this Cat Bag post). It is interesting today to see the debate surrounding cultured meat: meat grown in labs, without any animal being sacrificed. The idea is of course to care more for the animals (which is why PETA would give $1 million to anyone who first come up with a successful way to cultivate the meat), less energy consumption and less pollution by decreasing the number of butcher houses… Basically following the fashionable standard of environmentalist use of science.

It is incredibly hard to miss the Žižekian logic of decaffeinated culture at work here: is not the meat without sacrifice the example of decaffeinated consumption par excellence? But now let us take a moment and look further into the response of society surrounding this very topic: do a quick search for “cultured meat” on the internet, and you will see that most people reject the idea. Why is this? Are we not supposed to celebrate the progressive development of this decaf ideology with joy? In the case of cultured meat, however, even the famed transhumanist RU Sirius commented, “Yuck!”

The answer is not that hard to find: people still find it strange and uncanny to eat meat that was not taken from a live animal. Why? Here we can clearly see the symbolic ideological dimension of a purely biological everyday act of eating, one that Freud has explicated in his Totem and Taboo. In eating meat, are we not also eating the other species’ death? The death of the sacrificed animal is more of a symbolic necessity than an unavoidable fact. This is the reason we have all those kinds of sacrifice rituals and forbidden meals.

What is very interesting, of course, is how this primitive logic of totemic rituals still turn out to play a large role in an age where we are supposed to no longer believe anything anymore. What is the state of affairs of totem and interspecies relations in the world today? Clearly, we are stuck between two conditions: novel technologies enable us to have capacities of which only God himself would be able to do just a little over a hundred years ago — the “divinity of science” that goes with the rapid advancements of quantum physics, bioengineering, and neuroscience — and ancient symbolic necessities, the totem and taboos of our primitive ancestors.

In the end, perhaps Paul Virilio was right: we are caught between the contradicting dromologies: the ecstatic high speed of cyberspace and the slowness of human minds. Or perhaps, Hayles and Haraway was right, that this is not a deadlock after all, and what we need is a new formulation of subjectivity itself. Or, perhaps, all of them are correct in a way, and we need to see — to put it in Kierkegaard’s terms — the primitive totem-and-taboo subject as this new posthuman subjectivity in-becoming instead of its enemy.

What about you? Would you eat meat grown in labs? More ideologies at work you find? Feel free to comment away!