Archive for cognitive science

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 State of Knowledge

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Quantum physics and consciousness

A common image depicting the wisdom of quantum physics revolution

In response to the increasing theoretical narcissism of my literary critic colleagues, I am suddenly tempted to give this topic another run over one more time. This post is pretty much Žižekian in nature, and you may have heard of it before, but I think it is one of those topics best to keep in mind if we are to maintain a good critical distance from the (rather unavoidable) temptations for the position of a pan-theory. So, what is our current state of knowledge today, compared to, say, half a century ago?

The first thing that comes to mind is obviously the standard one: the debate against capitalism. Half a century ago we are still doubting how society will be conducted in the future: we still have discussions of how communism or fascism may prevail instead. Today, event the majority of the Left does not even take the question seriously — instead, we hear all the shouts of how to make capitalism more human, and hardly ever any shout of subverting the ideology totally. We have all become Fukuyamaists, as Žižek would put it.

On the other hand, the exact opposite is going on in our biological and natural sciences. Today, we hear all the popular texts theorizing how we may end in the near future — sometimes shockingly near, as in the case of the infamous LHC, or perhaps half a century far, as in the case of global warming. What used to be a stable motherland of a generous, near-immortal planet has now become an object that is bound to give us fragile doom.

The same flip and opposition also happens in popular sciences. Half a century ago, the big topic was of course critical theory (in line with its subversive anti-capitalist political activism) — that of the so-called post-structuralism, deconstruction, French postmodern philosophy, and so on, are elevated to a level of some kind of pan-theory, an all-encompassing theory of theories and the full breadth of human epistemological experience. Today, such attitude does not prevail well beyond the all-too-often narcissistic boundaries of cultural studies and literary criticism, who, again all-too-often, engage in a pointless “deconstruction” of everything, fashionably reducing all to their historical relativity, and all the while absent from the real stage of global political activism.

Science, on the other hand, are becoming more and more popular, not only in the sense of better book sales, but also in playing the role of the pan-theorist, trusted to be able to explain human epistemology itself. I am of course talking about the increasing popularity of cognitive sciences and genetic research taken as the field that would be able to explain all nature of the human being, all their epistemological experience. Even quantum physics are now, with the likes of Fritjof Capra and films like What the Bleep series, taken as a jumping off point in the quest to legitimize science as philosophy itself — not the empirical proof of philosophy, but the transcendental return of science to ancient wisdoms, the leaving aside of the “Cartesian subject” by science.

It is indeed incredible how the entirety of our state of knowledge has progressed over the past half of the 20th century. It is never how science develops and how we gain better knowledge, closer to the truth, but how our entire notion of truth itself changes with time. Science and knowledge is not only never a neutral field, but also in itself stratified, split, and ideologically contested with one another of its parts in regards to which will play the role of the one-supposed-to-know.