Two items have caught my eye this week in the ceaselessly crashing waves of information and distraction also known as "being online".

Item the firsta new island has been identified off the coast of Greenland.  A new island?!?  Due, predictably to … (wait for it) … global warming.  Or "global climate change".  Or "the global struggle against our continued existence", or whatever we’re calling it now.  As it’s not possible to turn around recently without more articulation of the interesting times we live in with regard to climate, I’ll leave it at that:  new island.

Item the second: a bi-directional brain<->computer interface intended to (someday) serve as artificial memory. This is research in progress at USC, but has already achieved the ability to simulate 12,000 neurons and interact with real brain cells.  You need to read through the popular science hype like "reducing memory loss to nothing more than a computer glitch", but there’s some cool potential there.

I found the difference in my reaction to these stories interesting, as well.  With regard to the first, my reaction is along the lines of "oh, #$!^%", and "we’re totally screwed".  While I’m mostly not what I would call an emotional environmentalist, from a pragmatic point of view I’ve long thought our modern growth-driven world fails to understand and appropriately respect the complexity and interdependence of environmental systems.  Our inputs to the world’s systems (internal combustion, population growth, agriculture, etc.) have impacts that are both unpredictable and leveraged, and then before we know it, we’re staring at melting ice caps and waiting for submarine Miami.

Brain-computer interfaces, on the other hand, excite me a great deal.  With all due respect to those who differ in this regard, I’m not personally persuaded by literal interpretations of various mythologies of the origin or purpose of life.  I don’t think there is anything categorically off-limits about us working to modify our brains, or to use technology to enhance and extend our cognitive capabilities.

In fact, I’d argue strongly that we already have and depend on such enhancements and extensions (I just need this very low-bandwidth keyboard/screen interface and a few D/A converters to access my supplemental memories).  I think it’s theoretically difficult to identify a big bright line that separates the current state of our technological enhancement to human thought from a more capable, faster, wetter one we may have in the form of mid-21st century brain implants.

Of particular interest, I thought, was the mechanical focus of the USC researchers.  With regard to the not-yet-understood aspects of human cognition and consciousness and the impact such unknowns might have on his work, the lead researcher remarks: "A repairman doesn’t need to understand music to fix your broken CD player".

I like that approach.  It makes sense, and it’s an interesting avenue of approach to take towards a subject of such massive complexity as the brain, in that it doesn’t depend on an understanding of internal semantics, but rather just the observable mechanics.

On the other hand, part of me does wonder what the melting-ice-cap of brain implants we might be fretting about in the early 22nd century.


… is how BBC Radio 4 described the Edge 2005 “World Question”.

A cross-disciplinary group of 120 “science-minded thinkers” was asked to answer this question: “What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?

Despite the 60,000 word response limit, there’s a lot here.. I’ve just flipped around a bit more or less at random, and it’s been very interesting reading.

From the editor’s introduction:

This year there’s a focus on consciousness, on knowing, on ideas of truth and proof. If pushed to generalize, I would say it is a commentary on how we are dealing with the idea of certainty.

We are in the age of ‘searchculture’, in which Google and other search engines are leading us into a future rich with an abundance of correct answers along with an accompanying naïve sense of certainty. In the future, we will be able to answer the question, but will we be bright enough to ask it?

(via Bruce Sterling.)

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