Sunday 18 May 2003
The cyborg, that posthuman hybrid of flesh and machine, has long been fodder for futuristic Hollywood flicks like Terminator. Cyborgs make most of us nervous about what sort of future we're facing. But acclaimed philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark reckons all of us are already Natural Born Cyborgs, with minds made to merge with the material world - your watch, paper, computer. Our mind, he argues, extends well beyond our brain, beyond our ancient skinbag and into the world at large. The cyborgian future is here...and it always been.
Relevant links and references at the end of the transcript
Montage of excerpts from old brain flicks: Yes, it thinks, it knows we are here
There must be a way of finding out what it’s thinking, there must be.
Are you conducting some kind of experiment with me?
They tried to reprogram it’s mind and something went wrong.
Your brain will be electronically simplified.
The brain? - It's my second favourite organ.
I’ve never seen so many brains out of their heads before.
Look at it, a brain without a body, they’d think you were insane.
It seems that you have no body, you’re a disembodied brain kept alive by a scientist.
Natasha Mitchell: Consider this : “The human skin is an artificial boundary: the world wanders into it, and the self wanders out of it. Traffic is two way and constant”.
Those are the words from Bernald Wolfe’s classic 1952 book “Limbo” one of the great dystopian novels of our time. And hello there, Natasha Mitchell with you, welcome to All in the Mind – Radio National’s take on all things mental. Thanks for tuning in today.
In Wolfe’s story, set in 1990 neurosurgeon Dr Martine lives in a world where, amongst other strange goings on, men called “Queer Limbs” wander the landscape, their arms and legs are amputated and replaced by atomic-powered plastic prostheses. Well it’s not as far fetched a scenario as you might think. My guest today is Andy Clark – one of the world’s great contemporary philosophers of the mind. And he believes that we possess a mind that extends into the world well beyond the ancient skinbag that he calls our body and that contains our brain.
Clark’s new book is called “Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies and the Future of Human Intelligence”.
Andy Clark: You know some of us find it kind of exciting I think and I’m probably kind of one of those that thinks "oh, that might be nice you know, a bit of 'flesh-machine' merging". But I know a lot of people have an averse reaction to it and I think it must be this idea of something unnatural about it, that’s why I called the book “Natural Born Cyborgs”, the idea’s really supposed to be that this kind of tendency is absolutely second nature, or maybe even first nature to us.
Natasha Mitchell: The image of the cyborg makes many of us pretty nervous - this idea that we might one day merge our bodily flesh with machine and become something that we can no longer control.
Hollywood certainly loves the possibilities of a post human future, where characters like Terminator for example, part man, part silicon, roam the planet. Well Andy Clark, argues that the future is here now. That every one of us are indeed cyborgs and he doesn’t just mean those with a cochlear implant or a heart pacemaker either. Clark is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Well, let’s look at that tantalising argument that you present that in fact this post human future that’s suggested by the cyborg is in fact already here, we already are cyborgs. What are you getting at there?
Andy Clark: There are some things that are distinctive of the human race here. We’ve got a lot of cortical plasticity, a lot more than any other animal on the planet, we have a long childhood, longer than any other animal on the planet and in addition to that we’ve got language. And somehow I think the combination of those three things has set us on a track that no other animal has been able to go down. It’s a track of building worlds to think in, building worlds to think with and in the end, building worlds into ourselves and ourselves into our worlds.
Natasha Mitchell: So your suggestion is that our mind is a lot bigger than our body, that somehow we kind of incorporate the world around us into our mind.
Andy Clark: Yeah, I guess the thought is that we’re kind of set up to do that so here’s a kind of parallel.
Some animals, but not all, have a sense of what’s called haptic touch, humans have it, chimpanzees have it. Haptic touch is a kind of sense whereby you can take a tool, and you can very quickly come to treat it as if it was part of your body. For example, you can take a rake and during the raking motion, if they record from cells in the monkey’s brain the cells that would normally represent the fingers of the hand can very quickly come to map the area of the tines of the rake. So in a way, immediately on the spot the body mage of the monkey has been adapted to encompass the tool. But I think that unlike the monkey we do it for more cognitive things as well, our brains are just set up to kind of loop out and exploit the environment around them for cognitive purposes.
Natasha Mitchell: Your own story starts with the loss of your lap top computer a few years ago which you equate to the cyborg equivalent of having a stroke. I’m a bit worried about you Andy.
Andy Clark: It was not a happy day, let’s put it that way. And I’ve had both kinds of stroke actually you know, I had the other kind about 7 years ago. I woke up one morning with a little bit of my visual field missing and oddly enough that morning I woke up and I thought, "ah, bit of the visual field gone, probably had a stroke". I ignored it till later in the day hoping it would just go away and repair itself. Eventually told my wife, she rushed me to hospital, it never came back but the experience with the laptop was an awful lot worse at the time.
Natasha Mitchell: Really.
Andy Clark: I had an awful lot more stuff in the laptop, I was really a very unbacked up kind of person in those days. It was really rather awful. Now you know of course there are many worse disasters that can befall a human being than losing their laptop but I think that there is some sense in which we should begin to extend to some of our property just a little bit of the kind of concern that we normally have for ourselves, for our persons.
Natasha Mitchell: I mean you suggest that old technologies of pen and paper and indeed new technologies like the laptop have deeply impacted the shape and form of biological reason in our brains.
Andy Clark: Yeah, I think so, I think that’s happened certainly over individual learning time. I’m sure that being brought up with pen and paper typically in front of you when you’re trying to do philosophy for example is a completely different experience as a philosopher than being brought up in an oral tradition to do philosophy. And I bet that the biological brain as good and as lazy as it is just learns to factor that stuff in so that it’s kind of like half of the problem solving system. It sort of learns to lean on those properties of the environment, to expect them to be there.
Natasha Mitchell: I particularly Andy Clark love your image of the mind as a leaky organ that it leaks out beyond our skull and beyond what you call ancient skinbag. It’s a curious image and I guess is this what you’re getting at when you suggest that we are natural born cyborgs?
Andy Clark: Yeah, that’s exactly right but leakiness is really the issue. That we use strategies that are just deeply environment exploiting. Biologically evolution likes to use the environment where it can. Mississippi alligators determine the sex of their children by just laying eggs in rotting vegetation and according to the temperature of the rotting vegetation the sex of the off spring is determined. So they are off loading sex determination into the rotting vegetation and I think we, being more flexible, more dramatic, we just off load all kinds of things into a lot more fancy structures than vegetation.
Natasha Mitchell: You use the example of the wrist watch and also the artist’s palette I think they’re quite beautiful examples of describing this idea that you’ve offered to the world which is that of the extended mind, the mind that exists way beyond the brain and the body but incorporates both of those.
Andy Clark: Somewhat close to a joke isn’t it. You say to someone you know, do you know the time, and they say yes. And then they look at their watch. You can sort of challenge them well, did you really know the time when you said yes? They'll say "yeah, I knew how to get the time" and I think that’s often what we do mean when we say yes, we know things, we know how to get them from our long term memory, from some reliable environmental resource, from wherever.
The artist’s sketch pad is kind of more interesting I think because for certain forms of abstract art there’s actually some detailed psychological work out there showing how, if you like, looping your ideas out onto paper enables you to perform kinds of reorganisation on the ideas that you can’t perform in imagination. That’s a good case because the abstract artist certainly thinks that that their creation, they may be prone to commit what I call the "Naked Brain Fallacy", to create a nice piece of abstract art and then think hey, my brain did all that. But no, those loops into the outside world play a crucial role in the genesis of these products that we take to be just our intellectual products, expressions of ourselves.
Natasha Mitchell: So in a sense the naked brain as it sits in our body is only the incomplete mind, it’s not all of our mind?
Andy Clark: And I kind of think of the biological brain as something like the boot program of human intelligence, it kind of gets the thing going but it’s job is to pull in all this other structure, to load up all this other stuff and that’s when we really become fully human.
Natasha Mitchell: Well let’s come to some of the disputes around that idea of the brain. There is plenty of resistance to this idea that our mind somehow extends outside of our bodies. I mean you reply that it comes from an ancient western prejudice, what is that prejudice about the mind?
Andy Clark: I’m not sure how ancient it is but I think it goes back at least to Descartes, to the idea that mind is some kind of special stuff that’s associated very strongly with the biological individual, it’s kind of individualistic, it’s kind of stuck somehow either by some sort of trans-dimensional gateway in Descartes' case more or less, so that it somehow stuck to the biological organism.
One way to put it maybe is that we almost have the idea that there’s a "little us" inside of ourselves animating all the rest. So we can say something like you know, "well it’s my brain, it’s my hippocampus, it’s my arm" but of course there’s a clear sense in which you just are that mass of stuff. You know you don’t own your hippocampus, your hippocampus is just part of you.
And I guess the claim I’m trying to make is that when we co-evolve with our technologies in certain ways that’s the way that we should think of the relation between us and our technologies. Just like me and my hippocampus. It’s very, very hard to get rid of the idea of a wafer thin self that somehow is where the real action is, the final decider, the final chooser, but you go looking for that you in the brain and you can’t find it.
Natasha Mitchell: The evolution of the human brain is a very live debate, how is that we came to have such sophisticated brains with such large frontal lobes and capable of such unique rational thought, all that sort of stuff? And I just wonder how your idea of the mind extending into the world beyond the body taps into this whole question of how we came to have brains like ours. Because the evolutionary psychologists continually reach back into the past, back into the savannah to explain you know, why women wear lipstick, why all sorts of behaviours are hard wired into our brains. But you seem to really issue a challenge to this, you seem to have a much more forward looking take on the brain that sees it as much more plastic?
Andy Clark: There are debates in the sciences of evolution here about... and I’m drawn to a view that suggests that the human brain isn’t the sort of Swiss army knife just full of lots of individual adaptations to do specific, savannah related things, but that somewhere along the way we went through a period of rapid climatic change and that this rapid climate change favoured the development of a kind of organ of plasticity so that you could kind of in your individual lifetime keep up very well with unexpected alterations. You know I don’t want to see our cognitive horizons as limited by our ancestral past, I want to see that as just one of the factors on a rather busy stage that’s now heavily dominated by all of these designer environments that we built around ourselves. And because of those I think human minds are going where no other animal minds have gone before.
Natasha Mitchell: You’re listening to All in the Mind here on ABC Radio National and hello to our Radio Australia and web audience around the world as well. I’m Natasha Mitchell. And I’m speaking today with Andy Clark, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University. He’s the author of the new book “Natural Born Cyborgs”.
I mean in this idea that we are all natural born cyborgs you seem to suggest then that the pen is a bit of our mind, that the desk in front of me is a bit of my mind, that my computer is a big part of my mind it would seem. My pillow could be a big part of my mind - that you’re not really just talking about those sort of classical ideas of physically merging flesh with implants. That we don’t have to kind of penetrate our skin in order to become a cyborg.
Andy Clark: I’m not so sure about your pillow, it probably depends on what you do with it. But many technologies can do, it depends so much on the individual user. I certainly regard my mobile phone as a kind of a very, very important continual locationa resource, as if I couldn’t really expect to be able to find or recognise other people in a crowd without it, it’s become a kind of perceptual organ of some sort.
What I think will be really interesting in the near future is technology is less passive. So the thing about pen and paper, well, the paper never really adapted back to me, nor did the pens. Maybe in some very mild sense you know, you might find a particular kind of paper that you like better, or you might wear the edge of your pen down as you use it or something.
But now imagine near future technologies where you have software agents that are perfectly capable of learning about you, learning from your buying behaviours, learning from your choices, and so as you develop these things kind of adapt to you or to the biological you, at the same time as you’re adapting to them and I think that kind of co-evolutionary, or co-developmental dance is what eventually welds these things into a single system.
Imagine you know that you’re three years old when your software agents come on line and they watch what you like, the kinds of things that you buy, the kinds of images that you keep looking at and they give you a bit more of that. You know they are going to influence your choices, your choices are going to influence theirs. I think it will be very, very hard after a while there to tell where the person ends and the software agents begin. And deletion of those software agents at the age of 30 I think would surely be the equivalent of a fairly serious stroke, not just a mild one.
Natasha Mitchell: Or a lobotomy perhaps?
Andy Clark: Well let’s hope it’s not that bad but of course we could get ourselves into situations like that. I doubt it, I think that the on board sort of mother board in the head there is so, so powerful and so fancy in its way, that I don’t share the fear that some people have that we’ll become as it were so dependent on these other things that the loss of them would amount to a lobotomy rather than just a serious cognitive inconvenience.
Natasha Mitchell: But you do, really do consider the possibility of some fairly bizarre futuristic scenarios and your suggestion is that we shouldn’t be scared of these possibilities of merging with machine because we’re already doing it. So you contemplate things like you know surgically implanted cell phones, what are some of the other curious scenarios that you contemplate?
Andy Clark: Well you know I think you know we’ll probably have personal transport devices of one kind or another that we’re pretty well wired into that you kind of sit into them and you control them largely by thinking or just by sort of very, very low key motor commands. Those devices will just feel it’ll just feel like putting on a second skin when you go outside I think. Some people may already have relationships a bit like that with some of their transport devices. So I think we’ll see more of that and you know the military have had interest in this for a long time and there’s a big military endeavour in England called the Cognitive Cockpit I think and the idea there is to wire fighter pilots directly into the plane more of less.
Natasha Mitchell: Right, they control it neurologically?
Andy Clark: Yeah, when I give a talk on this kind of subject people often say yeah, but you know I control my arms directly, I just move them, whereas if I’m going to control a piece of equipment or something then I have to give a command to move my arm to move the piece of equipment and it’s much more indirect. But I don’t think this is quite the right way to think about it. The example I use for that is the Australian performance artist Stelarc who has sometimes performed with a third hand attached, the third arm attached to his biological arm and in order to move that what he has to do is to give commands to his abdominal muscles because you know they’re the muscles that are then wired up to control the electronic arm. But he says that now it doesn’t feel like giving a command to his abdominal muscles. It just feels like telling the electronic hand to move.
Natasha Mitchell: If we are so well merged with machines both now and even more curious merges in the future, a compelling question for me is where our "selves" sit in this idea. Because it strikes me that all this leads to something of an identity crisis that if my mind includes my pen, and my paper, and my keyboard then where does me end and the world begin, the notion of self to me feels so crucial to keeping ourselves kind of psychologically nice so to speak – distinct and intact?
Andy Clark: It is an important concern and you know I think there are things we can say that are just fairly pragmatic that you’re not going to feel that pieces of equipment that you very, very often leave behind and don’t really rely on etc. those aren’t going to feel like parts of you. Dave Chalmers and I in an old paper, he and I wrote this paper where we imagine someone with mild Alzheimer’s who always, always carries a notebook with them and they always write addresses and pieces of information like that in the notebook. After a while it becomes absolutely second nature of them to look at this notebook if someone asks them a question like, "where's the Museum of Modern Art?" A piece of equipment like that, that will be well poised if you like to count as part of the extended mind because it’s reliably there when you need it. Sure you could lose a notebook but then again you could lose a little bit of your biological cognitive competence either permanently or through sleep deprivation, or alcohol or whatever.
So the worry that you have I guess, is the worry most people have about the extended mind which is bloat, that it’s just going to get too big and it’s going to kind of be an unwieldy thing that doesn’t look much like a mind or a person at all. But as soon as you really try and stop that bloat so that you can’t seep even a little bit into your technological environment and we find that your mind is now shrinking and shrinking inside your head, maybe vanishing entirely on some accounts.
Natasha Mitchell: And you use the term soft selves, that somehow we should consider ourselves as soft?
Andy Clark: Yeah, by soft here I sort of mean you know not set in stone. There’s a sense in which I don’t think there is any user here you see, I think we’re just our best current assembly of tools.
Natasha Mitchell: I mean you use this idea of the soft self to issue a challenge for example to carers of people with Alzheimer’s, what is that challenge?
Andy Clark: Yeah well I was led to think about this because of a colleague of mine. She worked with inner city Alzheimer’s patients and they would give them one of the standard tests and on this standard test it transpired very often that old folk that were living quite successfully in an inner city environment according to the test you shouldn’t be able to do it at all. And they were kind of too cognitively debilitated to live on their own in that kind of way. So what Caroline Bowman and her colleagues did is they went and visited these people in their home environments to see what was going on and they just found that these people had managed to structure environments that really offset their biological cognitive deficits. So for example they would have memory books with pictures of people in, they would have important items left in open view instead of being hidden away in drawers. They would leave the doors open so you could see what room was what, just know where the bathroom was – that kind of thing. Now I guess the thought that I was having was that to take them out of that environment and put them in a home or something where they don’t have all of these things so neatly organised around them would actually be tantamount to imposing a kind of cognitive damage on them. So instead of helping them I think it would be more like giving them a mild lesion, or maybe a very severe lesion.
Natasha Mitchell: And in a sense it’s not respecting the cyborg within?
Andy Clark: It’s not respecting them as persons I think, it’s to fail to see that there’s a functioning mind here but that the mind isn’t entirely contained in the biological sub structure. And I’ve actually given talks where people who are carers of Alzheimer’s patients have come up to me afterwards and said you know I do think that’s exactly right, I really have noticed that you know in such and such an environment they’re just a different person.
Natasha Mitchell: I mean your argument then ultimately is that we should learn to love our inner cyborg it seems to me. You don’t deny though that being a cyborg of sorts comes with all sorts of baggage and that there are real fears of a kind of terminator like future. And some of them include you know the loss of identity or, as we kind of connect up to Big Brother through some sort of implant technology or we have a mobile phone in our brain that our service provider can kind of tap into or the computer knows what we’re purchasing, or the fridge knows what products we like, that there is a sense of loss of control.
Andy Clark: I think there’s a real sense of sort of possible loss of privacy. The price that we pay for an awful lot of these kinds of ubiquitous technologies that know where our biological body is, know what our biological body’s doing and can then provide added functionality. Well the price we pay for that of course is that someone else you know, your boss or worse the US government can know what you’re doing and when. And that I think is a very, very serious issue and one I think we just have to confront as a society head on. But I’m convinced that we can’t help but go down this route so I don’t see any point as it were fighting against the route, what we need to do is go down the route with our eyes open.
Natasha Mitchell: Don’t batten down the hatches so to speak in terms of our future attempts to meld brain and machine?
Andy Clark: Well that’s right, yes, some people think yeah, batten down the hatches, stop any of that leakage, seepage and so on. Well those barriers were breached so, so long ago with you know words, and text, and printing presses. If we really want to know ourselves we increasingly have to know our technologies, know thyself, know thy technologies.
Natasha Mitchell: Andy Clark your latest book is a wonderful read and very grounding but also very fantastical at the same time and I thank you for joining me on All in the Mind, it’s been a real pleasure to talk to you.
Andy Clark: Thank you so much Natasha it’s really been wonderful.
Natasha Mitchell: Philosopher and cognitive scientist, Professor Andy Clark there from Indiana University, Bloomington. His new book, just out this month, is called “Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies and the Future of Human Intelligence”. It’s published by Oxford University Press. Our email address for your comments and ideas is firstname.lastname@example.org
Many thanks today to producer Sue Clark and sound engineer Angus Kingston, I’m Natasha Mitchell and have a great week won't you amongst your fellow cyborgs. Bye for now.
Guests on this program:
Director, Cognitive Science Program
Professor of Philosophy
Natural Born Cyborgs: Essay by Andy Clark on the "Edge" website
The Extended Mind by Andy Clark and David Chalmers
Analysis 58 (1), 7-19, 1998
From Hyphen to Splice: Cybernetic Syntax in Limbo
Essay by N. Katherine Hayles, Professor of English, University of California - Los Angeles, about Bernard Wolfe's 1952 book, "Limbo"
Links compiled by Sydney based philosopher John Sutton about Andy Clark
With other readings from the field of 'Dynamicist Cognitive Science' generally, which Andy Clark works in the tradition of.
Review of Andy Clark's "Being There" by Melbourne based philosopher Tim Van Gelder
Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence
Author: Andy Clark
Publisher: Oxford University Press (USA), 2003
Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again
Author: Andy Clark
Publisher: MIT Press; Reprint edition (January 9, 1998)
ISBN: 026 253 1569
Author: Bernard Wolfe
Publisher: Random House, New York, 1952
Commentary on Andy Clark's "Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again".
Published in Metascience 7: 78-83 By Adelaide based philosopher Gerard O'Brien (PDF file)
Presenter: Natasha Mitchell
Producer: Natasha Mitchell