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Mar 2011

Endless possibilities: the Michael Chorost interview, part three.

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This is the third and final part of an interview. You can find the first two parts here, and here.

Chorost continues to broaden his search into the outer reaches of hive-mind theory, and hits on something I’d never thought about before. “But when you put humans together with the internet, like with Google, you do start to see the beginnings of hive-mind-like behaviour. So, you have Google, which is this incredibly powerful tool for getting answers to questions. You do a search for something, the answer pops right up on a different website.

“But that’s not because the computer’s smart – that’s because Google invented clever algorithms for aggregating human decisions on what’s important, and basically collecting human words on what’s important, and giving the results of those words to people.” The conversation then takes a turn towards SEO. “Google is almost a little bit like a hive mind that, has collected all of these individual decisions, and giving you very powerful abilities to search for information.”

This idea of the hive-mind reminds me of the way in which Twitter and the blogosphere acted almost like a single consciousness during the civil unrest in Egypt recently. By making use of the internet, they turned it into a tool that organised demonstrations against a political figurehead they felt was unsympathetic to their needs, and even their rights. But when the unthinkable happened – when the Egyptian government forced national ISPs to cut off net access across the country – the global online community acted like they’d lost a limb.

It’s not my chance to ask him about the “cyborg” stuff. I’m a huge fan of science fiction, and I think one of the best things about it is watching a highly technological society progress and slowly begin to realise some of the dreams of older writers as their ideas are transformed from the possible into the probable. I found a definition of cyborg that stated it is “one whose physical capabilities are extended beyond normal human limitations”. But is that what he would want? To have superhuman hearing? Or simply normal?

“I don’t really use the word ‘cyborg’ anymore,” he starts, and I feel a tad foolish. However, he expands on the distance he’s moved from that particular term. “I did use it back in 2005, and I did it partly just to answer the question of ‘what is happening to me? What’s happening to my body?’ It was almost like going through adolescence all over again. But calling myself a cyborg just doesn’t really help me do anything, in terms of writing. I think I used the word maybe once in World Wide Mind.

“As for the idea of physical enhancement, being able to hear in superhuman ways – well me personally, I’d be happy just to be able to hear as well as you hear, which is normally. And cochlear technology’s nowhere near close to that stage. So the whole idea of physical enhancement is really just kind of off the map, it’s just not possible to build technologies that actually improve what the body does. All you can really do is fix broken parts of the body, and kind of incompletely, at that.”

Although that means my sci-fi theory is out the window, Michael contends that although we might not be able to do things better, we can certainly enable ourselves, through the use of technology, to do them differently, to do something that hasn’t been possible for us before, biologically. The film title Planes, Trains and Automobiles immediately springs to mind. We chat about the word “cyborg” some more, and he posits that the word itself has become dated, and I agree. Before we part ways, talk turns once more to World Wide Mind.

“Like I said before,” he says, “World Wide Mind – it is a thought experiment. It’s not a prediction. It’s not even a claim that brain-reading technologies are a good thing. What I’m really trying to do is make it possible to talk about technology in a new way. To ask what would happen if there was technology that let us feel what other people were feeling, as opposed to simply knowing what each other is typing, and looking at.

“I think that’s a far more important question because I think today’s technologies tend to reduce empathy. There are actually a lot of studies about how people get into flame wars online because you lose that understanding when you’re not dealing with a real person, and people tend to get very depersonalised online. and that’s really my central concern.” His concerns definitely touch upon a lot of mine – that our methods of communication are rapidly distancing us from the familiarity we should have with other people, in person.

“That is the key message of this book. Not just using technology to make us into the Borg, but using it to help us become bigger people, and to realise that technology online is not going to be enough to do that.”

World Wide Mind is out now and available both in physical and ebook format. You can find Michael Chorost’s personal website here.

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Mar 2011

Endless possibilities: the Michael Chorost interview, part two.

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This is the second part of a three-part interview. You can find the first part here.

“I’d like to talk about communication and intimacy,” he says, taking our conversation in a rather surprising direction. I stay quiet in anticipation of his next words.

“As a deaf person,” he says, “I always struggle with communication. It is difficult for me to hear over the phone. It is hard for me to talk with people in noisy environments. That made it hard for me to feel connected to groups. So I’ve always struggled with communication as a deaf person. So, to me, getting my implant was only a way of getting sound. But I wanted something more. I wanted to be able to establish more intimate relationships with people.

“So in [World Wide Mind] I talk about the fact that I had turned forty and had never been in love. So for me to hear, it was only the first step. And maybe the most important step. So in the book I talk about trying to communicate with people. And so I went to communications workshops, and I learned how to sit down and really listen to someone, without running my own inner monologue in my head. And I paid attention to what they said, and I paid attention to what I felt.”

I can’t help but think that in a world where people exist without the ability to hear, those of us with working hearing sometimes never take the time to listen. Swamped with human noise, it’s sometimes hard to single out the voices we want to listen to. But one of the voices we’ve been listening to, especially on the topic of communication and cochlear implants, is Michael’s. Does he gain any sense of achievement or satisfaction from having brought the public’s attention round to the issues that affect him personally? Does he have any goals that extend beyond his attempts to restore his hearing completely?

“That’s never really been my ultimate goal as a writer,” he says. “It’s really been the medium by which I get there. What is my ultimate goal is to talk more about communication, and community. How people can feel more richly connected to the world and the people around them. Cochlear implants are only one way in which people do this. People like me.

“My experience with cochlear implants was a launching point for my second book, the World Wide Mind, because [the implant] made me aware that you really could augment the body with implanted electronics, and by ‘augment’ I mean really restore it, not improve it. My hearing is not as good as normal. It’s just good enough, as you and I can tell by the fact we’re having this conversation.”

It’s nice to have him touch on the one aspect of this interview that’s had me rooted to the spot since the moment he picked up the phone. The fact that machine-augmented human biology has enabled me to have a complex discussion about technology and communication with someone who cannot hear anything at all without their implant, still does not cease to amaze me, even as I write this, days after the interview took place.

It’s clear technology, and especially the internet, will dictate this era of human-manufactured evolution for our species. Does he think we’re ever destined for a group consciousness? Truly instant communication? Will the internet play a pivotal role in that?

“This is the hive-mind concept, am I right?” I respond in the affirmative, eagerly anticipating a response about the hive mind theory that doesn’t originate from a StarCraft or Warhammer 40,000 player, and allow him to continue.

“I start the book by talking about how evolution works. I talked about the fact that it often has the effect of making species become more complex and more capable. It doesn’t always do that, but it often does,” he says. “So we get sort of drive, towards complexity, and greater collaboration. So I say ‘how could this happen in the human world? Where’s the next step for human beings?’

“The fact that we are so obsessed with our own technologies, that there’s a huge limitation due to the fact that we have to type, and some of us are slow typers, we have to look at our screens, which means we’re forced to divert our attention to the object rather than the world around us. And so I think there is a kind of hunger to overcome that separation, between the human and the machine. And this is something I have personal experience with.”

I think his personal hunger to overcome that separation is, without a doubt, the most inspiring thing about him.

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Feb 2011

Endless possibilities: the Michael Chorost interview, part one.

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Michael Chorost, science writer.I’ve never been one for delving into science past my education, and an occasional interest when something significant comes along, or when the sysadmin throws me an interesting news link at PhysOrg (which he makes a habit of doing almost every working day). But when my editor linked me to an article on The New York Times website – namely, a review of a book called World Wide Mind, I was intrigued. More so after reading an excerpt involving something that wouldn’t look out of place in Minority Report, but which suggested radical possibilities for humanity’s technologically-dependent future.

These speculations were the work of Michael Chorost, who I went to hunt down. Even now, praise for the book still rolls in. Some call him a visionary. Some still call him by the name he gave himself – a cyborg, in reference to the merging of the Man (Chorost) and the Machine (his cochlear implant). Personally, I called him Mike, and as we sat down to chat on Skype, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards the scientists whose inventions had allowed me to verbally communicate with someone who was born deaf.

I have a huge pile of questions to ask him, so I start with asking him about his views on social networking, about whether or not he thinks we’re communicating more effectively now because of it. “I wonder,” he responds, “if words like ‘more’ effectively and ‘less’ effectively, are really that illuminating, because it’s clear that Facebook and Twitter are facilitating different kinds of conversation, and different kinds of communication. And some people are concerned that they’re actually deteriorating the quality of interpersonal communication.”

I can’t help but agree – it’s difficult to compare, say, a 140-character micro-blog-post to a lifestyle column documenting someone’s weekend back in the Fifties. The increased instantaneousness of communication is, I suggest, a sign that we’re evolving towards direct data input into the brain, much like the cochlear implant that has allowed him to hear again. But does he think this is something that will actually happen?

“I do write about technology that is now being developed, that will allow its users to observe neural activity, on a very intimate level.” He continues, but stops himself to clarify that his book is a thought experiment, and not a prediction of what may or may not happen in the next few years. “I’m pointing out that the history of evolution shows that civilisations and species often get more complex over time, and one way in which the human race could follow that evolution in turn, would be to merge physically with the internet it has created. That’s one possible route that evolution could take.”

I do wonder about his rather guarded approach to suggesting what could be possible in the future. Predictions, when made by an influential scientific mind like that of Chorost, can sometimes be taken extremely seriously, and it’s probably more appropriate to think about the possible rather than the probable. It certainly makes for more interesting reading, that’s for sure.

“What I’m trying to do,” he explains, “is, really, to create a new kind of conversation, where we talk about what it means to communicate with the great intimacy that technology can allow, and what good it can do us.” I nod, and bring up the Blackberry phone plugin that would read the BPM of the user, showcasing your heart-rate as a futuristic version of a status update. But is this crossing the line?

“We actually have those problems now. Technology has collapsed the distinction between work life and personal life.” He points out that the eroding of the two distinct spheres of the Personal and the Office has contributed, to some degree, to a loss of privacy. Listening to him again now, I’m strongly reminded of those who have suffered due to social updates that criticise companies or potential employers. He states that his book, World Wide Mind offers a metaphor for this problem. “We already have issues with privacy. What would happen if we envisioned the most radical invasions possible, and what can we learn from doing that?”

World Wide Mind contends that, although we risk a further loss of privacy, we may in fact be improving communication as a result. I agree vocally, and breach the subject that’s been on my mind the most – whether or not his cochlear implant has changed his view of technology as a whole.

“It really has, because when a surgeon operates on you to put a computer in your head, and you have to spend the next year learning to understand what it’s giving you, it certainly does make you think about technology differently. I’m very aware that I’ve got several hundred thousand transistors in my skull. I’ve had it for ten years, and it still blows my mind.”

I’m glad he thinks so, because it certainly blew mine.

Read part two of this interview here, and part three here.

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