Friday, September 14, 2018

Limbic Resonance

Humans are the biological boot system for AI, and other prescient statements from Elon Musk. (Illustrated by Joe Scordo)

Above we see illustrated the Tripartite Brain, a rudimentary understanding of different modules of brain activity, as told through an evolutionary development paradigm. Our brains evolve first to do movement and navigation – this is the limbic system. Note the word “limb” in there. It controls the limbs but it also contains the senses, which then control the limbs. (Illustrated by Joe Scordo)

On top of that, we have the animal brain, the monkey brain, or the social brain. This is the one that makes us drink alcohol and paint ourselves in the colors of our favorite football team, sort of. And then there’s the cortex. This is the one that lets us talk to each other, make art, and do things that calculators do. What you don’t see here is the exocortex. I will credit Jason Silva with that, but surely someone else was saying it before him.

In a recent interview between futurist-entrepreneur Elon Musk and entertainment personality Joe Rogan, Musk talks crazy talk about brains and computers and most importantly computer-brain interfaces.

I’m writing about it here because he spends a few minutes in this exchange talking about the Limbic System, and that doesn’t happen much in popular news.

The topic comes up as Musk is shedding a bit of light on another venture of his – a system that can connect a computer directly to your brain. Crazy as it may sound, there has already been such sorcery for a while now, from the straight-up plug-in-the-head to the more recent eyeborg who hears his colors instead of seeing them, to the pretty ubiquitous EPOC headset. These are called neural interface systems (NIS) and you’ll surely be hearing more about them in the coming decade.

This image is courtesy of WIRED magazine, circa 2005

The EPOC headset has gone through a few iterations so far. A point I must make here, I bought this circa 2011 with the intent to use in the classroom, so my students could play silly video games with their thoughts, and be inspired by a future of wonder, and I was hit with the reality of racial bias even in the future, because students with afro-curl hair, even close to their heads, could not get a good connection from the electrodes, and so it wouldn’t work for them. Racial bias can show up anywhere and we need to be vigilant against it, just saying.

Musk describes his reasons for wanting a high bandwidth, direct link from computer to brain. As humans, we have the cortex, this highest form of a biological computer that we know of. Sure, we can instead call a computer the highest form of a cortex that we know of; in fact, this is where the term exocortex comes in. Currently, we do not have direct access to this exocortex the same way we do the regular cortex.* And that sounds like a job for Mr. Musk. All we have are fingers, and nowadays our voices, and for some people eye movements or other gestures. These ways are too slow, not enough bandwidth.

Musk, in a roundabout way, blames this on the limbic system. Because we have to use our bodies to interact with computers, we have to go through this ‘archaic’ neural network first. Why can’t we just connect the cortex directly to the exocortex?

In the midst of this, he mentions how the internet today exhibits “limbic resonance,” meaning it has been essentially programmed by our collective limbic system. For example, social media is run partially by algorithms, but partially by us and our reptile brains. And according to Musk, as long as we still have these meatbodies in between us and the computers (read cortex and exocortex), then the internet will be an outward reflection of our inner reptile.

And so there you have it, the limbic system in the news. Appreciate it now because it doesn’t happen often.

*”Regular cortex” is called a retronym, or it will be when we come up with the name for it. There was no such thing as an “acoustic guitar” until the electric guitar came out. Might as well start thinking about it now – what will we call the ‘regular cortex’ once the exocortex becomes ubiquitous?

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