Melding Minds


Picture this scene: A large room with scores of computer monitors and equal scores of men and women working at them. After nearly a decade, a complex space craft fitted with equally complex instruments is about to send back to Earth, to these men and women, a stream of data about the most remote of our planets. Pluto is, by cosmic scales, a mere speck of dust, yet these men and women, and all the engineers and fabricators who worked with them, plus all the scientists whose decades of work paved the way, managed to precisely steer the space craft on its way over the course of its nine year journey.

Now consider this: According to a New York Times article, researchers at Duke University have been able to link together the brains of several monkeys by connecting them with electrodes, the linked monkeys then performing tasks more effectively than could individual monkeys on their own. The researchers suggest that these results might be replicated in human beings, allowing surgeons, for example, to “collectively operate on a single patient.”

Apparently these researchers have never observed a complicated surgery, in which not only surgeons but anesthetists, surgical nurses, and others coordinate a complex sequence of tasks to achieve the desired outcome–all without having to be wired together.

Why are surgeons able to do this already? Why were the NASA scientists able to coordinate a remote-controlled decade long flight to Pluto? Because human beings have already developed a means of coordinating their efforts, of making more brains better than one: through language, which creates the possibilities of culture, which makes human individuals massively more creative and effective than any one individual alone (regardless of how brainy any one individual is). Culture first created complex languages, then writing systems (including mathematical notation), the printing presses, telegraphs, telephones, etc., and now computers, the Internet, and smart phones. We already do much much more than “moving simulated arms”–we’ve created robots that can assemble most of an automobile and scanners that can recognize more than “simple patterns.”

While the researchers’ findings are of interest, I don’t see how hard-wiring brains together could in any way improve on language/culture as a way of coordinating brains–not just simultaneously but over time (days, years, centuries). And at any rate, each of the connected brains already needs to know what it’s doing. You won’t press the men in the street into performing open-heart surgery merely by linking a bunch of them together with electrodes.

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