Tinkering with Consciousness – The Great Ethical Precipice We Face

In the coming decades ahead, we’ll likely augment our minds and explore not only a different kind of “human experience”, we’ll likely explore the further reaches of sentience and intelligence itself, and it’s a process that I believe is starting now.

My TEDx video below is an attempt to encapsulate my argument for the inevitability of transhumanism in 15 minutes – including some of the forces that might most strongly encourage its adoption. My more complete thoughts (albeit drafted originally back in 2013) are in the full blog post that follows.

The article below is broken down into the following sections, feel free to zip ahead to what might interest you most:
  1. A Change in Our Nature, Not Just Our Gadgets
  2. The Cusp of an Era of Technology Plus Psychology
  3. The Highest Stakes Imaginable: Altering Sentience Itself
  4. How is This Sentient Transformation Beginning?
  5. How Far Will Tinkering with Consciousness Go?

1) A Change in Our Nature, Not Just Our Gadgets

There’s much to be said about how different we’ve become from the society of even 30, never mind 300 years ago. Hunkered over our desks or our iPhones, heads buried in a dozen screens per day, there’s plenty of research to suggest that we’re losing vital skills and capacities that our ancestors might have taken for granted (Discovery). Indeed, there’s evidence that search engines may be acting as a kind of crutch to much of our memory (NY Times).

On the other hand we very well may be freeing up cognitive “space” for more complex and varied tasks, and adapting to a world where handling a hundred data streams is hardly a choice anymore. In addition, technology might be argued to afford us more freedom to pursue our highest callings (as we see them), and explore new and rich elements of life. We may be putting up with a lot more “beeping” in our rooms and in our pockets, but no longer are we trapped on a provincial farm or in a hot and noisy factory to generate an income for ourselves.

We may be losing some faculty of memory by using a search engine as opposed to a library, but we also have the video, audio, and text information of the world at our very fingertips – making memory potentially less relevant. We probably have weaker shoulder muscles because we don’t harvest our own crops and wash our clothes on stones. Whether technology is influencing the human condition in a positive or negative way is in large part a topic that’s debatable – but where technology seems to be taking us in the future may not be.

The true overlap of technology and psychology isn’t something exogenous – that is, it is not about our external interaction with technology, or “tools” that we pick up and use. The actual overlap happens when technology and psychology literally intersect. When our technology becomes endogenous – or forms an inner part of us – we will have gone beyond an increase in our capacities aided by gadgets, to a literal change in our human condition itself. The technologies of brain-machine interface, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence (which humanity has just begun to explore) represent not just a new transition in how we live and work – but the beginning of a profound transition in life and consciousness itself.

I believe that we as a society are at a point in our development of consciousness-altering technology that mirrors the era of the Wright brothers’ first flight. We are surrounded by burgeoning technologies that may – sooner than we expect –  literally alter all aspects of our sentient experience.

2) The Cusp of an Era of Technology Plus Psychology

For a concrete example of the technology and psychology overlap, look no further than Institute for Brain Science at Brown University. Headed by Dr. John Donoghue, scientists at the IBS use a technology called BrainGate to connect tiny pads full of electrically sensitive spikes to the brains of paraplegic subjects. Using the patient’s own brain activity, hardware and software are used to translate thought into robotic or digital “action.” Brain activity  can move robot limbs to, say, bring a cup of coffee with a straw to the patient’s face for a drink – or, move a computer mouse on a screen to play a video game.

2008 – BMI used to control mouse / play video games:

2012 – Cathy’s famous use of BMI robotic arm:

Deep brain stimulation, another example, is a procedure involving pulse generators implanted under the skin near the clavicle.  Like a Pacemaker for the mind,  its electrodes run directly through small holes drilled into the skull and into specific brain regions that require stimulation. This procedure was approved for treatment of movement disorders like Parkinson’s and dystonia in the early 2000’s. Its applications in the the past half-decade however, have  broadened. Treating severe depression is one of the newer applications of deep brain stimulation, in addition to treating chronic pain and phantom limb pain. Future applications being explored now include treating obesity.

Across the Atlantic at Israel’s Tel Aviv University, rodent brain parts are being successfully swapped out with man-made replacements (New Scientist). It should be noted that the cerebellum of a rat – albeit not very large – is no simple piece of neurological equipment. Receiving sensory information and coding it to transmit to the rest of the brain is a complex task, but it’s one that scientists have been able to achieve through silicon in place of s. Without a cerebellum, a rat is unable to perform even basic motor reflex actions (in this experiment: blinking in response to noise signaling  that a harmless puff of air will blow in the animal’s face). With this new mental hardware, however, the rat is able to develop the reflex. “It’s proof of concept that we can record information from the brain, analyze it in a way similar to the biological network, and return it to the brain,” says lead scientist Matti Mintz of Tel Aviv. In the future this kind of technology may permit us to alter the memory of mammals – even to the extent of implanting memories, or drastically improving memory capacity and recall.

Optogenetics is another burgeoning technology, with research commencing all over the world, including at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Optogenetics involves the use of light – shined directly into the brain cavity – to trigger electrical activity in individual neurons or sets of neurons. How does light fire off neurons? It doesn’t… unless those brain cells have been genetically modified in by adding a piece of DNA from a photosynthesizing algae that responds to direct light (see the full explanation at Video.MIT). Led by Ed Boyden, the MIT team is using this technology to directly control the brains of rats to make them exhibit specific behaviors (such as running in circles), or even to recover eyesight by turning the right receptors on via optogenetics. This technology may allow us to experiment with turning on and off the many thousand different types of cells in the brain, and is intended to create better therapies for an entire host of psychological disorders which we do not fully understand today.

In the very least, these technological advancements seem to present interesting scientific horizons. Indeed, in media, news, and research publications, they are mostly portrayed as just that: “interesting.”

But there will in fact come a time (sooner than most expect) when we realize what we’re truly up to. There will come a time when we will recognize that we are not simply working on catalysts in a transition to a merely “better” or more technologically advanced human world – but that instead we are catalysts in a transition beyond “human” altogether. There will come a time when we grasp that we are in fact tinkering with the very bedrock of morality itself: sentience.

3) The Highest Stakes Imaginable: Altering Sentience Itself

We might refer to “moral gravity” as the relative importance of an act, occurrence, or event, based on weighing the various ethical factors at play. The practical application of the concept is (like so many other constructs) better explained by example than by purely conceptional reasoning.

For the sake of exploring our point, let’s use the relatively extreme example of a train conductor making a choice between the lesser of two evils:

Let’s suppose you’re a train conductor traveling down an open country stretch at 80 miles per hour, and ahead of you in the distance is a fork in the track. Getting closer to the fork you can see that each strip of track after the fork is occupied by different animals.  At this speed, there’s no way to stop the train before the fork, and one or the other path must be taken. You determine that – for whatever reason – the left track is overrun with gerbils and hamsters, and the right track is overrun with cats and dogs. Hardly believing how strange a situation this is – you get ahold of yourself and take responsibility for making an important ethical decision. So – what do you do?

For most of people asked this question, cats and dogs would be spared ahead of hamsters and gerbils. Why is this?  Because they hold a greater capacity for sentience  and intelligence. Cat lives represent a greater richness of conscious highs and lows, a greater grasp of the world and their experience than do gerbils. It is this inner world – this capacity for volition and rich conscious experience – which essentially determines ethical relevance.

On a practical level, it would appear to be a being’s capacity for rich experience, relationship, and emotional / cognitive range that dictates the moral value of a given entity – the weight of its life on an ethical scale. I say this not to be cold, nor to bypass the millennia of ethical thought which humanity is well off to continue exploring. I say this merely to make a practical point – a point made clearly with the example of the train.

Think about it, what weighs on an ethical scale? There are massive events of great physical significance all over the universe, happening every millisecond, and none of them registers on a Richter scale of morality as we are describing it. Think of a black hole, or the formation of an entire nebula of stars. These events involve some of the most intense forces in the known universe, concentrated and powerful, affecting matter and space around them for distances that we as humans would be almost incapable of comprehending. However, if no mind is there to experience or be affected by these events, what is their ethical gravity?

It’s the old “if a tree falls in the woods” question. I’d argue that things matter ethically if they matter to an experiencing agent. Consciousness, then, is the bedrock of positively all ethical relevance. For thousands and thousands of years, despite the advent of agriculture, or tools of modern society, and technologies of today, our perceiving, feeling awareness is what has allowed events to “matter” at all.

If you took a prehistoric newborn, and somehow swapped him at birth with a baby born today, both would have the same innate capacities, and both would grow into and adapt to their environments, despite the differences therein. Hence, through the ages, for somewhere between one tenth and one fifth of a million years, our innate mental faculties, our capacity to do, to feel, to learn… has been the same… but now that is changing. The significance of this change in our sentient and conscious potential itself represents a shift that cannot be understated.

I believe the creation of and tinkering with sentience itself – on a grand scale – entails greater ethical gravity than any other ability or event in the known universe.

Everything from the food we eat to the smartphones we carry around to the buildings where we work only “matter” because they “matter” to our conscious mind, they matter to us, the experiencer – and it could be argued that this “capacity to experience” alone grants ethical significance. Hence, we feel saddened by both the loss of a pet dog and accidentally losing our iPad, but only the former registers on the ethical radar itself (as the iPad only matters to the experiencer, while the dog is believed to be somewhat sentient). No “ticks” on the ethical Richter Scale exist outside the consciousness of a living being.

We feel worse when we see a dead squirrel on the road than when we see a dead bug on our windshield for the same reason. The bug may be conscious only at some very low level, while the squirrel, we imagine, can feel and even “think,” and as a mammal like ourselves, may have baby squirrels in a nest who depend on it.

Similarly, I believe that the world will come to see that technologies which tinker with conscious experience and conscious capacity are by far the most ethically important (IE: have the highest ethical weight) of all inventions. Sentience, indeed, is the highest currency.

Growing hamburgers in petri dishes will certainly be a convenience and a change in our way of life, but won’t affect our happiness or the essence of our human condition any more than the toaster oven does. What I’m referring to here would be an entirely separate level of impact on our actual sentient experience; that impact would be occur through developments like a technology allowing us to determine our emotional experience at will.

Developing a robot that could help with household chores would be a great benchmark achievement of human ingenuity, and would certainly matter in our day-to-day lives. However, unless these robot maids were built with awareness and sentience, they could hardly be argued to “matter” in comparison to – say – a brain implant that allowed for total recall of all memories, the addition of entirely new sensory perceptions, or a completely immersive virtual reality.

Both the “petri burger” and the robot maid are exogenous changes to our condition, external changes in our world that would potentially make life simpler with regard to handling manual tasks or labor. Volitionally controlling emotional experience or memory, however, would make endogenous changes to our actual human condition; they would be primary because they wouldn’t impact the world we live in… they would impact the world we live through – the very lens of our awareness – our conscious experience.

The possibilities of technology that has the potential to alter human potential goes beyond mere “adjustments” to our present condition. Oxford philosopher David Pearce believes that sentient life will be capable of transcenting suffering in all forms: “I predict we will abolish suffering throughout the living world. Our descendants will be animated by gradients of genetically pre-programmed well-being that are orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences” (hedweb.com/confile.htm). Other future thinkers like Google’s head of engineering Ray Kurzweil predict that humans will be able to upload the contents of their entire mind and potentially explore an infinite combination of euphoric and rich virtual experiences. No higher stakes exist than when building upon sentience itself.

4) How is This Sentient Transformation Beginning?

With so many transformative technologies in our midst today, which are most likely to bring us to what philosophers refer to as a “post-human” condition? In addition – what might be the time-frame in which this transition takes place?

Although I believe that brain-machine interface and the development of significant artificial intelligence will be the primary drive behind “tinkering” with sentience, I – like any other prognosticator – cannot make that statement with any degree certainty. Similarly, I cannot be certain of any succinct timeframes, though my inklings (and the educated guesswork of others like Kurzweil) tell me that irrevocable changes to the techno-human condition will occur within the coming 25 years.

Though we cannot look very far into the future, it’s interesting to analyze technological transitions of the past to glean insight into how technologies have historically made their way from ideation to global significance.

The Wright brothers first took flight in 1903, and by the first World War – hardly twelve years later – the entire civilized world had planes, and the first commercial flights  were available. Forty-four years after the first flight, the sound barrier was broken. Twenty two years after the sound barrier was broken, man stepped foot on the moon.

Are we to expect that our technological advancements will be any slower than those of centuries past? Could we possibly imagine what brain-machine interface, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence will be capable of in fifteen, never mind forty years time?

In an interesting example, modern jet aircraft are increasingly becoming some of the most advanced systems for human-machine interface. Already, pilots don helmets with spacial detection systems that augment their vision – permitting them to see “through” their aircraft with x-ray vision in literally any direction (aided by cameras placed on the outside of the jet itself – see the BBC article / video here). Similarly, experiments are being conducted now with drugs and even transcranial electric shocks to keep pilots awake and aware for long spans of time. Are we to assume that no efforts to permanently enhance our limited senses and abilities will be made? On the contrary, we ought to assume that research and experimentation (military or otherwise), will aim to bend our human capacities towards our ideals, and away from the “un-enhanced” biological limitations we are born with.

5) How Far Will Tinkering with Consciousness Go?

The chimpanzee shares over 90% of the same DNA base pairs with a human, but is a drastically different creature, physically and mentally. If a chimp had access to and basic command of a television remote control and a toaster oven, he could be said to be more “advanced” than his jungle-dwelling brothers, but not inherently different. His innate qualities would be the same, his core physical and mental faculties the same… and few people would argue that his moral status as a sentient being would be raised above that of his fellow chimps.

Alternatively, let’s say we have the opportunity to transform the chimp into a human being. Now, even without a cell phone, television, or any other technology, the chimp-turned-man is almost immeasurably more intelligent. Entire worlds of richer emotional experience, language learning, relationships, literature, art and science now open up – permitting a much greater change by a 1-3% genetic shift, than by all of the more complex technology in the world.

A chimpanzee with a television also is not inherently valued any more than a chimpanzee without television. Transformed just a few percentage points into a human being, the animal enjoys a drastically increased moral status  because we value human life in all it’s richness far above the life of any chimpanzee. This is not because of our dextrous thumbs, or our motor cars and skyscrapers; the “richness” derives from our intelligence and our awareness.

Let us suppose that a method could be developed for enhancing human minds to have twice the capacity to learn, or to have an essentially unlimited and flawless memory, or greater volitional control and mindfulness of deep virtues, and a vastly greater capacity for creativity, making Shakespeare and Da Vinci relatively boring in comparison. Assuming that the moral goodness of such  individuals remains at or above that of any given “un-enhanced” human being, would they then be rescued first from a burning building? If their industry, their art, and their superior methods of political governance were vastly superior to that of “un-enhanced” humans, then might we even be morally obligated to not just save them first from buildings, but create more of them, or to become enhanced ourselves?

Most people might cringe at the seemingly unrealistic thought of “enhanced” human beings holding some kind of moral weight that is superior to the humans from which they were created. After all – shouldn’t we feel a kind of reverence for our “ancestors” – or for a sense of equality between all sentient beings? But  if no “ticks” on the ethical Richter Scale exist outside the consciousness of a living being… then it might be argued that the more depth and intensity of that life experience, the more that being “registers,” ethically speaking.

I have an inkling that many of us would not choose to rescue an enhanced over an un-enhanced human from a burning building. Similarly, I do not believe that many chimpanzees would rescue a human before they rescued another chimpanzee. We like our own kind; they are like us, they represent us, we don’t want to turn our back on them, and we don’t want to look like a traitor when we go back to our domestic life (“Yeah, I felt like I had to rescue the enhanced guy and let the un-enhanced guy die – I know it’s a little weird but if you think about the moral underpinnings it’s really the right choice – can we still be friends even though you’re un-enhanced?”).

With our own kind, there is a sense of felt relatedness, an affinity, and the enhanced individual seems to bring with it the real fear of something better or more powerful than ourselves. So, who’s to say, maybe there will emerge an equality amongst us all, and the hard-won value of equality will stick with humanity and post-humanity long into the future. Why would it, though, when we are to enhanced humans as humans today are to chimps… or to mice?

My projection is that the continued dominance/acceptance our presently popular set of ethical values – though hard-won and functional in our present condition (with positively all due respect to Locke and many others) – will be about as predictable as roulette – or the post-human condition itself. I other words, it will be unpredictable to the highest degree.

If our values and capacities significantly shift and in the decades ahead, I can imagine that tinkering with sentience and intelligence itself might yield some unique permutations of what “values” and “virtues” even imply. These ideas themselves are constructs which are likely to be subject to much deeper probing and understanding by beings with 100x “regular” human intelligence.

Where might this transition eventually leave us? The answer to this question is positively unknowable, but a number of the world’s future thinkers – from fiction writers to philosophers to researchers – have contributed to the potential “snapshots” of the future that we might find ourselves in.

Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize Foundation and co-founder of Singularity University suggests that we will indeed become “God-like” in our capacity to access all knowledge and connect – possibly even merge – with one another into a kind of meta-intelligence.

The famous American inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil posits that humanity will conceive of full immersive virtual realities by the 2020’s. The “VR” that Kurzweil has in mind will not have it’s origins in a pair of goggles and a joystick, but in microscopic nano robots that will be able to enter the brain through the capillaries and provide direct stimuli, creating a virtual experience indistinguishable from physical experience.

Oxford philosopher David Pearce foresees the potential of a world where all biological life is genetically altered to experience no pain, and only “gradients of well-being” in a process he refers to as “paradise engineering.” Pearce even mentions that we likely should not stop at stimulating our current cognitive systems, lest we be “trapped in [a] local minimum,” unable to access “the richer states of consciousness or the more sublime states of wellbeing.”

With a brain-power a hundred times more powerful than that within our craniums today, would we expect anything about our world to be the same? Would we expect to only have the capacity of normal human eyes, or might we see infrared, or have nearly infinite zoom, or see through objects? Would there be a more effective mode of communication than speaking or writing? Wouldn’t some kind of system or connection emerge to replace this antiquated English, or indeed any language on earth? Would we expect to still feel jealousy, or to be subjected to the petty heuristics that plague our human decision-making processes? Would we still experience “boredom”?

Would we retain anything at all that is “human” – or would be eventually swim in an open pool of limitless experience? If an indistinguishably “real” virtual reality (maybe more “real” than anything we now know) can be ever-tailored to our desires and dreams, would we ever return to “reality?” Would we need “relationships?” In our present human condition, given our present “nature,” relationships are inherent to meaningful life and fulfillment at present (I’ve compiled some of them here) – but why would this have to be the case in a future of limitless conscious potential?

Indeed, the far-reaching implications are by definition outside the grasp of the human mind… and it may be the “far out” appearance of post-human realities that keeps them from being taken seriously by society at large.

6) Will it Be Too Late? A Trumpet Call

My fear is that the writing on the wall will not be seen as writing on the wall, and that the human forays into “tinkering” with consciousness itself will continue to be seen as little more than “interesting,” and that we might ignore the grandest ethical precipice of all time. I hope that shock or trauma will optogenetics not be required for more minds to grasp the eminent importance of these transitions toward our merger with technology.

At the time of this writing, scientists are able to control rodent and insect motion via brain-machine interface (and in the case of rodents, optogenetics). I often jest that it may not be until the emergence of remote-controlled cats that society “wakes up” to the tremendous potential of sentience-altering technology. Though I’m not one to prognosticate about technological trends, my gut tells me that feline cyborgs may be what catapults the consciousness revolution into general awareness.

I am no techno-pessimist, but I’m no techno-optimist, either. As much as possible, I think that we should be aware of the potential issues and possibilities of conscious enhancement, but that above all else we pool our resources to make sure that this transition of all transitions is one that makes the universe an aggregately better place. Though we cannot tell precisely what “better” will entail, our work to discern “better” as our technologies progress will be the most important ethical explorations that our race can embark upon.

I would argue that few efforts will be more important than an effort to unite the positive intentions and technological powers of humanity in a connected, guided front towards the future of our conscious experience.

The trumpet-call for this mission has not yet been sounded, and “writing on the wall” is yet to be seen as “writing.” I believe that it is in all of our best interests not only to unite those who ponder these issues today (from fields as varied as psychology, philosophy, economics, and beyond), but to bring these highest ethical concerns and all-important future considerations into the awareness of the many bright and well-intended minds as possible. To wait for a triggering event to occur on it’s own – whether “good” or “bad” – would put the all-important transition of consciousness in the hands of fate.

The United Nations was founded in 1945 in the wake of the horrors of World War II. Similarly, the founding fathers of the United States met together in order to discuss their own formation of a new government – and succession from Britain.

In both the above situations, there was a desire to unite in order to assess and come to an ideal conclusion for the people (in one case of the world, in one case of a nation). In both circumstances there was a “reason” strong enough to make the meeting happen. With consciousness and technology beginning to mesh already – what will be “reason” enough for our well-intended experts to pool their thoughts and explore their policies? The importance of this transition, I fear, may be grossly overlooked – relegated to private company labs or university studies until it’s impact catches the world off guard.

Our mastery over materials, the improvement of global living conditions and the myriad human inventions that have the potential to make life richer – none of these represent the potential ethical impact of tinkering with consciousness itself – with the bedrock of moral relevance itself. Our wielding of consciousness represents not just a higher impact on the ethical Richter Scale, but control of all the forces that move it’s needle in the first place.

Like our biological ancestors, we will develop into more aware and intelligent beings. The only difference between ourselves and our predecessors, is that we will – to some extent – direct this transition ourselves. Though we can’t possibly grasp all of the implications and possibilities, exploring our options and opportunities – and indeed exploring ethics itself – will be our most likely path to finding an aggregately “better” future ahead of us – while being caught off guard seems a most unfortunate circumstance.

For thousands of years, “Playing God” has been nothing but a metaphor. Now, the gateway to a Rosetta Stone of consciousness may lie within our grasp. If sentience and entire worlds of awareness can be captured, crafted, and created – shouldn’t we be more than obligated to guide this process towards the best ends that we can determine?

Considering who controls these technologies and transitions beyond the present human condition is of the utmost importance. What – for example – might be the next step past “Google Glass” in the augmentation of our senses? The horrors of animal experimentation in the cosmetic and medical fields seems to pale in comparison with potential ethical nightmares of experimenting with human consciousness itself. Would we have private company CEOs, ivory tower philosophers, government agencies, or silicon valley techies control this transition? I’d argue that because we don’t know where we’re headed – and because of how very complex this subject matter is – our best bet is from a well-intended contribution from all these groups.

The benefits of better vaccines seem to pale in comparison to the potential benefits of controlling or indefinitely extending our conscious experience. Who will run those most important experiments? How transparent will those companies, governments or entities be about the uses of those technologies? What could or should we be doing now to ensure that humanity’s initial steps forward in sentient potential are beneficial – and not tragically detrimental?

Any significant step forward in the technologies mentioned at the beginning of this article (optogenetics, brain-machine interface, hippocampus replacements, etc…) could imply drastic changes to our conscious condition. It is now that the writing on the wall must be read – and I argue that the uniting our intentions and expertise has never been more called for.