Thursday, February 23, 2023

Like I've been saying all along, minds are built from the inside

Gary Lupyan and Andy Clark, Super-cooperators, Aeon. The lede: Clear and direct telepathic communication is unlikely to be developed. But brain-to-brain links still hold great promise

Definition: GOFT = Good Old Fashioned Telepathy.

The get off to a good start:

At the root of GOFT, however, is a problem. For it to work, our thoughts have to be aligned, to have a common format. Alice’s thoughts beamed into Bob’s brain need to be understandable to Bob. But would they be? To appreciate what real alignment actually entails, consider machine-to-machine communication that takes place when Bob sends an email to Alice. For this seemingly simple act to work, Bob and Alice’s computers have to encode letters in the same way (otherwise an ‘a’ typed by Bob would render as something different for Alice). The protocols used by Bob’s and Alice’s machines for transmitting the information (eg, SMTP, POP) also have to be matched. If that email has an attached photo, additional alignment must exist to ensure that the receiving machine can decode the image format (eg, JPG) used by the sender. It is these formats (known collectively as encodings and protocols) that allow machines to ‘understand’ one another. These formats are the products of deliberate engineering and they required universal buy-in. Just as postal systems around the world had to agree to honour each other’s stamps, companies and governments had to agree to use common encodings such as Unicode and protocols such as TCP/IP and SMTP.

But is there any reason to think that our thoughts are aligned in this way? At present, we have no reason to imagine that the neural activity constituting Bob’s thought – for example, I’m in the mood for some truffle risotto – would make any sense to anyone other than Bob (indeed, we are not even certain if Bob’s mental state could be interpreted by Bob himself in a year’s time). How then does Bob communicate his risotto desires to Alice? The obvious solution is to use a natural language like English. To be useful, these systems have to be learned. But, once learned, they allow us to use a common set of symbols (English words) to token particular thoughts in the minds of other English speakers.

It is tempting to assume that the reason why language works as well as it does is that our thoughts are already aligned and language is just a way of communicating them: our thoughts are ‘packaged’ into words and then ‘unpacked’ by a receiver. But this is an illusion. It is telling that even with natural language, conceptual alignment is hard work and drops off without actively using language.

Natural languages thus accomplish a version of what machine protocols and encodings do – they provide a common protocol that (to some extent) bridges the varied formats of our thoughts. Language on this view does not depend on prior conceptual alignment, it helps create it.

We can do this with language because we spend a great deal of time talking with one another and learning how to use language. We are continually negotiating the meanings of words. A bit later, they note:

Instead of viewing communication between people as a transfer of information, we can think about it as a series of actions we perform on one another (and often on ourselves) to bring about effects. The goal of language, thus understood, is not (or is not always) alignment of mental representations, but simply the informed coordination of action. On this picture, successful uses of language need not demand conceptual alignment. This view of language as a lever for coordination, a tool for practical action, can be found in research by Andy Clark (2006), Mark Dingmanse (2017), Christopher Gauker (2002) and Michael Reddy (1979).

That's what I've argued about music. I spelled this out in some detail in my paper, “Rhythm Changes” Notes on Some Genetic Elements in Musical Culture (2015).

They go on to speculate:

With this in mind, imagine now an alternative version of the sender-receiver setups used in Rao’s and Grau’s studies. Instead of instructing people to induce a particular mental state to communicate a predetermined meaning, there is simply a two-way brain-to-brain channel opened up between two or more individuals at a young age. The linked people then carry out various joint projects: they work on school assignments, move couches, fall in love. Might their brains learn to make use of the new channel to help them achieve their goals? This seems (to us, at least) to verge into more plausible territory. Something similar seems to occur when two people, or even a human and a pet, learn to pick up on body language as a clue to what the other person is thinking or intending to do. There, too, a different channel – in this case, vision – with a different target (small bodily motions) conveys an extra layer of useable information – and one not easily replicated by other means.

Setting aside the technical issues, could this work? Note that they stipulate that people be coupled together "at a young age" and that they "learn to make use of the new channel..." Learning is critical. Coordination would not be automatic through this new channel. It has to be learned, constructed.

My working paper, Direct Brain-to-Brain Thought Transfer A High Tech Fantasy that Won't Work (2020), deals with the same issues from a different perspective.

1 comment:

  1. People don't have anything better to do than imagine this? The researchers touting this are ridiculous. In the US people are shooting each other up, doing lethal drugs, and hooked on conspiracy theories. What kind of link up would fester in adulthood when people are structured into this in youth? The fantasy aspect should deal with all the Frankenstein aspects of this. Elon Musk? A man who couldn't stay married? Wants neural linking? Come on now. Get a grip!