19 March 2008

iPlant philosophy: a model of the singularity?

(Also available over on Future Blogger and on the iPlant website)

I sometimes feel that scientists have lost touch with the profound and the sublime, whereas transhumanists and philosophers have lost touch with science - with utility. Hume saw that causality cannot be articulated (Hume, 1739, 1748); he did not say it should therefore be reduced to a topic of rationalization and used only to cultivate one's social loci.

What happens when neruoscience dissolves the distinction between mind and body? What happens when the intimate, subjective and irrational human mind is fully integrated into the logic of science, and a stable, effective and lucid, yet decidedly neuroscientific model (M1) of the mind is realized? Eliminativists speak about the end of our common-sense understanding of the mind, but offer only vague speculations as to what might replace it (Churchland, 1981). Is this a technological singularity - a point in history so complex and fast-moving that we cannot see beyond it?

The iPlant can be used as an intellectual probe, to model and better characterize the social impact of M1. A critical aspect of scientific models is that they allow us to improve on the systems that they describe. The iPlant helps us improve on the strongest current candidate for M1: the cognitive neuroscience of monoamines, particularly the dopamine model of attention-allocation and learning (Lindskog et al, 2006; Djurfeldt et al, 2001). It is a self-help chip.

Monoamine modulation has given us profound social insight and change in the past; I'm thinking of drugs like Ritalin, coffee, Prozac and LSD, all strong modulators of the monoamines. But the iPlant introduces dynamics: the ability to shape monoamine modulation with an unprecedented temporal resolution. Suddenly, our minds become capable of functions such as rewarding brain stimulation, first demonstrated in rodents (Olds & Milner, 1954) and humans (Heath, 1963) half a century ago; and psychological concepts like motivation are reconceptualized as something closer to their true nature: as monoaminergic selection of corticothalamic and corticostriatal loops.

I challenge you to show me that the iPlant is not a good model for a technological singularity, or that the cognitive neuroscience of monoamines is not M1, by describing, with a reasonable level of certainty and detail, a time beyond the event horizon that a few hundred iPlants constitute. To quote the forum:

"Say the iPlant is made available in 2015-2020 but works only with a running machine, a rowing machine and a weight-lifting machine (qua Burgess et al, 1991, Garner et al, 1991). Initially you have to be clinically obese to get the surgery but as the procedure becomes routine all you really need to do is say the right things to your doctor (think Prozac or Ritalin). The implant motivates you to use the machines, but not for more than two hours per day. A few people hack it and screw themselves or others up but it's extremely rare. Within a few years 10% of people have an iPlant but although learning and research programs are being developed they're not yet available. What can we say about this situation?"

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Coming up: interviews with people and experts on their thoughts and feelings about the iPlant, with particular focus on philosophical hot-spots like free will, consciousness and the human condition.

For discussion, see the forum or the blog.


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