Thursday, September 29, 2022

How far have we come in reconciling mind and machine?

The possibility of expanding the natural capabilities of our bodies through machines has fueled humanity from the very beginning of civilization. However, never before has technology advanced enough to allow machines and minds to be integrated in such an intimate way.

Brain-machine interfaces of the future seek to read brain activity, generating predictive models of behavior with which external devices can be controlled. The world as we know it will change irreversibly.

But how disruptive are these changes? Are our species at risk as researchers venture? transhumanist?, or is this just a new technological revolution? We’ll discuss the science behind brain-machine interfaces, their dangers and opportunities, and we’ll identify the keys that ethics must embrace for the new times to come.

machine

Ortega y Gasset pointed out that man “begins when technology is in place”. This hybridization between the culture of tools and the individual necessarily modifies the biological culture that was given to us. Author Yuval Noah Harari offers in his booksapiens from animals to gods‘ Example of a modification of a chewing device by domesticating fire.

The Human Project involves integrating technology and culture into a cumulative process. We are, in the words of the Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of Málaga, a model in continual evolution, “the most important bio-artifact created by man”. Antonio Diguez: many people homo faber as a wise man,

Until now, Brain remained the stage director who conceived, promoted and directed these changes. Today the increasing interrelationship of human with machine takes a big step.

a brain-machine interface (or brain-machine interface, BMI, in English) is a device that can decode human intentions by reading the electrical activity of the brain. This is achieved by creating a closed loop in which a brain signal is associated with a specific action.

This loop follows several steps. First, the signal is captured and recorded, which is then processed by an algorithm that controls an actuator or robotic arm as if it were a natural effector (motor BMI) or provides information (sensory BMI). does. In both cases, the loop is closed with the result of the operation being evaluated by the subject (ie his brain).

A brain-machine interface for neurological rehabilitation. A helmet with electrodes captures brain waves which are then processed by a computer

Ars Electronica / Robert Bornhansel / Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Brain

The human brain is made up of over 85 billion neurons. Its coordinated activity allows it to sense stimuli and control body movement, as well as complex cognitive faculties such as imagination, rationality, and emotion. The amount of information processed and stored by our brain is greater than that of the most powerful computers today; An electrochemical dance determined by ionic impulses propagating along extensive neuronal circuits.

Brain functionality is refined throughout development and through learning. A mind is never what it was; We change and this is reflected in the structure and function of the brain. Nor is it possible to imagine the brain outside the body. The body and the brain form a unit, a system embedded in its environment, where it seeks to survive. Every human brain is unique and immutable.

The brain cannot be reproduced or copied. Computers, on the other hand, can be built in series, shutting down without emotion and returning to the same initial state as the factory configuration.

mind and machine

With such different characteristics, it is clear that the brain and machine cannot function in the same way. Their processes, capabilities and forms of action are so different that it can be said that neither the brain calculates nor the computer thinks.

Given the same input data, a computer will always produce the same result, which is not the case with a brain whose activity is influenced by context. Thus, while the brain works probabilistically, the computer is fundamentally deterministic. In the brain, data storage, processing and transformation constitute a single unit. It is these same neuronal groups that access memory registers in an integrated manner, combine information and generate conclusions and representations.

In the BMI system, the brain and the machine must learn to use each other. Machine learning is based on algorithms that modify calculation parameters, a process in which artificial intelligence has shown great utility.

Norwegian University of Science and Technology researcher Marta Molinas controls drone movements with brain-computer interface

Kai T. Dragland / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Learning in the subject follows the general brainstem with which he has come to manage the parts of the body. Responsible neural networks are refined through plasticity mechanisms, which reinforce the most commonly used connections. It has been proven that brain control of BMI devices uses representations of the same type as natural motor activities, activating neuronal groups capable of generating signals at the subject’s will. When the use of BMI is optimal, the brain representation of an external device can be integrated with natural representations of the body.

challenges of invention

In short, the brain and the computer are fundamentally different, although they are often compared. This confusion may come from a tendency to attribute human characters to inanimate objects, which leads to ambiguity in the use of terms such as thought, intelligence, and consciousness.

The transhumanist movement claims that, at the rate of advances in today’s disruptive technologies, particularly in artificial intelligence and robotics, we are approaching a singularity. At this point they give the impression of a superintendence that will replace humanity, or one that will replace it with a new reality. Although this assumption seems to disregard the energy dependence of any technology and its lack of replicative autonomy, it is worth reviewing its predictions.

The proposed scenarios seem to conjure a dystopian future dominated by strange entities, be they machines endowed with powerful intelligence or hybrid beings. Predictions range from radical beliefs, such as the extinction of our species, to a peaceful and satisfying coexistence between machines and the posthumous, to the many socio-economic and cultural complexities of an increasingly mechanized world to undergo.

Conversation

How irreversible is this scenario? To face the potential dangers of BMI, it is necessary to know its limitations, to understand its reality, and to reconsider existing ethics. It is worth remembering the fundamental humanistic ideal of improving people, transcending our limits while respecting the human condition. A technology that allows human dignity to be replaced would be going in the wrong direction.

A new ethic for disruptive times

Changes are so rapid and profound in any technological revolution that it requires a moral re-examination. Although historically there has been an attempt to base morality on some kind of solid and enduring foundation (whether it is religious, philosophical or political), each stage of civilization has forced a re-adjustment of the values ​​we instilled in ourselves. Huh.

An ethics attached to science and technology must necessarily be characterized by its rationality. Since there is no foundation on which to rely on understanding the unknown, consensus must begin with an active and reflective, informed and deliberate dialogue. This requires fostering a shared critical spirit. It is society as a whole that must define the rules of collective operation, create an agreement that respects the vision of minorities, without losing its universal business, because any disruptive technology spreads too easily, be global. She goes.

These ethical characteristics (relativism, consensus, rationality and universalism) will be necessary to overcome the risks inherent in a technology that is as profoundly disruptive as the brain-machine interface. Primatologist Jean Goodall reminds us: “Technology alone is not enough; You have to put your heart into it.”

*This article was originally published on The Conversation.

About the Author

Lysette Menendez de la Prida

Director of Neural Circuits Laboratory, Cajal Institute – CSIC

Nation World News Desk
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