Neurotechnology and the Future of Art

Originally published on Radical Science News

Deep_brain_stimulation_electrode_placement_reconstruction

 

Mind-machine interfaces, the decoding of the brain’s workings, and other unforeseen advances in neurotechnology will usher in a creative explosion unparalleled in all history. It has implications for music, literature, and how, on the most basic levels, reality is experienced. Through future apparatuses ancient questions about aesthetics can be resolved or, at the very least, be brought closer to resolution. In general humanity is guilty of overestimating the breadth of its knowledge and underestimating the depth of its intelligence. Cultures throughout history have reflected this habit by placing more emphasis on the former than the latter. In many ways humanity has failed to progress beyond its Paleolithic propensities because it runs in circles; it attacks the same problems in the same ways, mistakenly believing novel thoughts can spring from the same sorts of brains, underestimating the extent to which culture is a byproduct of biology. In the case of thinking one must throw out the baby, the mind itself, with the bathwater.

 

brainwaves

Miranda and Mathias describe an invention called the neurogranular sampler which “works by taking short segments (or sound grains) from sound files and triggering them when any neurons fire.” While this is somewhat primitive to what will spring from it, it demonstrates the basic principle behind playing an instrument without the strain of manual manipulation. It will be possible to record rich compositions and immediately disseminate them. This is stupendous, but this will seem like small potatoes compared to the coming culmination of neurotechnology’s strides. There is no reason we should have only two eyes or two ears or one tongue or even five senses. Likewise, we do not need to be limited to 100 billion neurons. The approaching era is one of unlimited customizability, unbounded imagination, and unfathomable experiments in transcendence. Like any machine the brain can be augmented, upgraded, and even completely overhauled. In a few decades you might be surprised to find specialists in fields as of yet unnamed will be able to transport, duplicate, or in any number of ways modify your mind.

“You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior…to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”

-Liane Young

In Young’s experiment Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) was delivered to the right temporo-parietal junction. Participants were then asked a question to test how the shock had affected their views on morality. In this instance they were given a situation, their girlfriend crossing a bridge unharmed, and asked whether its ethicality should be evaluated based solely on its outcome. This is an ongoing debate in the history of ethics. Consequentialists and utilitarians believe only the effects of an action matter, whereas deontologists, like Kant, place more emphasis on intention and principle. When the RTPJ was disrupted volunteers were more likely to deem a situation “good” based on its outcome. These seem like inalienable parts of ourselves, but they are not. It is possible predilections for horror, fantasy, science fiction, in one way or another, can be pinpointed and induced with comparable efficacy.  It is likely the process will be much more complex, but it is also likely seemingly minor tweaks will result in dramatic alterations to aesthetic sensibilities. Why is it some respond to angry music or Impressionist paintings or movies with talking animals? Neurotech will soon have the answers.

 

transc

 

If the sentence “hotels are horrifyingly existential” is repeated to different listeners very different feelings will be elicited based on their connectome, mood and the background (in the Gestalt sense) on which the message is being imposed. Maybe they think of Unamuno and then cannot help but think of Hemingway’s fondness for bullfights, absurd spectacles put on for empty amusement to delay confronting unpleasantness of everyday life. It may conjure impressions of sleepy Proustian insularity or familial Faulknerian madness or all-encompassing Lovecraftian angst over the limits of what can be known. The phrase “Tolstoy’s corpus” is a single qualia, albeit a very incomplete one to everyone besides Tolstoy scholars. Yet even they have drastically different views of that single picture. In the future perfect qualia clusters, complete and interweaving pictures with conceptual arms shooting out in every direction linking them to cousin clusters, will be readily accessible to all. For what purpose? The expansion of humanity through the enlargement of its constituents. This all sounds wonderful, but how shall it be done? Why should it be done?

Art for art’s sake, when taken too literally, implies there is something intrinsically valuable about a painting, book, or composition. What is intriguing is not sound waves upsetting the insensate air, processed wood material being tattooed with arbitrary symbols, or unwitting canvasses being smeared with pleasing colors, but the feelings they manage to imperfectly convey. The masters manage to more perfectly (or ambiguously) convey their message; this is what keeps them engaging long after their era has passed. While each of Shakespeare’s play has identifiable elements, themes, etc., his collected works present an endless playground to interpreters because of their depth and breadth. As Harold Bloom wrote, “he exists in all languages. He is put on the stage everywhere. Everyone feels that they are represented by him on the stage.” This is probably because Shakespeare did not endlessly revisit, reuse, and ultimately wear out the same set of devices. Ben Jonson was slightly jealous of his contemporary, who wrote, after some of his early abominations, masterpieces with enviable ease. The Bard was a waterfall of creativity. Yet he is not alone. For Mozart writing music by hand was a menial chore. The man, as Robert Greenberg said, carried music around with him the way modern mortals carry around flash drives. There is no chicken and egg problem here. Art is made to convey a message, but the message is there long before it materializes into something intelligible. In spite of its stupendousness and necessity, art today will be viewed in the future as laudable but laughable attempts at telepathic exchange.

 

VR

 

“MindMaze puts your brain into the game.  Never before have neuroscience, virtual reality, augmented reality and 3D full-body motion-capture come together in a games system.  Gamers will be able to see, feel and experience virtual gameplay with absolutely no delay or need for controllers.”

-Dr. Tej Tadi, founder and CEO of MindMaze.

MindMaze detects and accurately predicts brain and muscle activity to trigger in game movement. The technology can be used to train amputees and stroke victims to control prosthetic limbs. This is an impressive amount of precision! Until quite recently art has been passive. Yes, one can lose oneself in a story or piece of music, but one’s involvement does not ultimately change the content of the article itself. Oedipus will pluck his eyes out, Horatio Alger hero’s will be rewarded for his struggles, Mahler will break eardrums, and Spider-Man will save the day. The rise of expansive fictional universes large numbers of people wish to inhabit coupled with the rise of electronic games has lent further support for Hegel’s views on metaphysics and aesthetics. Immersion in these alternative cosmoses has already come of age in the form of video games, however, virtual food and sex are not nearly as satisfying as their corporeal counterparts. True immersion will involve the engagement of all senses. MindMaze is an achievement, and is hopefully a foreshadowing of even more momentous inventions. Immersive Reality will allow Being and Art to develop concomitantly by fusing them together.

It is possible the worlds we and our descendants will be spending portions of our waking hours within will be chess compared to checkers. Perhaps our universe is more appropriately dubbed Snakes and Ladders. Anything that can be perceived by whatever hardware our consciousness will be residing in will be comprehensible and inhabitable. The nasty parts of human nature have remained fairly static, but there is no doubt art has flowered and flourished in spite of all the dreadfulness that has transpired around it. Harold Bloom famously claimed Shakespeare had “invented” the modern world. The veracity of his statement is debatable, but it is clear art has changed and in the process has changed those who enjoy it. Like the sciences, but in a far more personal way, it forces us to rethink and reframe. Its benefits to health and well-being are legion and being attested to by a growing body of peer-reviewed evidence. Hegel’s “cognitivist” view of aesthetics, as it was deemed by later scholars, is broader and more flexible than the viewpoints of his contemporaries, predecessors, and even most of his successors. Art is about evolution, advancement, and enlargement on the personal, national, and global level. Coming back to some of the crudest formulations of aesthetics, those of mimesis, art as a whole mimics the natural world in a profound manner: it evolves.

The desire to complete this essay crystallized when a conversation with Chris Armstrong about poly-beings led to thoughts on the effects a vessel may have on its cargo. The cargo in this context is what is called, for lack of a more expansive term, mind. The vessel, for lack of a less anthropocentric word, is the body, although it needn’t be fleshy, humanoid, or even organic. I set aside the outline until a post by Maria Konovalenko, a well-known figure in life-extension circles, appeared in my feed. It was about the next unit of selection. After all, first there were genes, then organisms (assuming you do not subscribe to the hyper-reductionist view), and now memes. What will follow? How will selection take place? None of the units listed completely supplanted their predecessors, mind you, so will the next one truly dethrone the others? As a number of epistemologists and AI luminaries have said, ours is not the only possible kind of mind.

Thus, as one would expect, a common answer to her question was self-improving AI or AGI. Allegedly this will be final invention of our species. There are surely many other ways to construct a system that gives birth to the dreaded C word. In a world in which brains are interfacing more closely with hardware than ever it seems inevitable that familiar ways of relating to one’s “surroundings” will change. Interaction steadily will lead to increasingly intimate forms of symbiosis in the forms of AR, VR, and IR. One could call the next unit of selection memetic because it will be mentalistic, but both adjectives here fail to do it justice. To dwell on memes for too long distracts from a more important endeavor, which is learning how to bundle, tailor, and manage them to create better head space for ourselves. Selection will not only take place in forms of consciousness, but networks of entities possessing it, enormous arrays of multiple mega-clusters; not just in clumps of interconnected minds, but in the ways these sprawling swarms are managed. The final unit of selection will be Being itself. What this will mean in twenty or two hundred years can only be speculated upon.

Works Cited

Brady, Paul. “MindMaze Introduces Thought-Powered Virtual Reality Game System.” — SAN FRANCISCO, March 4, 2015 /PRNewswire/ —. PRNEWSWIRE, 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.

Graham, Gordon. Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics. London: Routledge, 1997. Print

Miranda, Eduardo R., and John Matthias. “Music Neurotechnology for Sound Synthesis.”

A.J. Rocke (1985). “Hypothesis and Experiment in Kekulé’s Benzene Theory”. Annals of Science 42 (4): 355–81. doi:10.1080/00033798500200411. Jump up ^

Young, Liane, et al. “Disruption of the right temporoparietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.15 (2010): 6753-6758.

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