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Halfway to the Singularity
on March 22, 2011
In World Wide Mind, Chorost speculates on humanity's future as cyborgs.
Chorost himself is a cyborg of sorts: he has a cochlear implant, a computer embedded in his skull, that restores his hearing. When the implant was put in, he had to learn all over how to hear, to interpret the electrical signals of the sensors as sound and speech. A part of his mind is now shaped by and integrated with computation in a way that most of us are not (yet) familiar with.
Starting from this personal example, Chorost then delves into current research on the workings of the mind and our technologies for observing and influencing the cellular machinery in our brains. He then works through the implications of such technologies when carried to their logical ends, and imagines a future in which our brains are individual nodes in a world wide network of minds connected, mediated, and intimately embraced by computers.
At the same time, Chorost also tells a parallel story about his own journey to find intimacy, to connect with others, and to learn to know another person the old fashioned way -- by speech, gesture, physical contact, and intuition.
The two stories turn out to be flip sides of the same coin. The human yearning to know another, to become part of something larger and more complete than the lonely self, is ancient and deep. The technologies Chorost describes may be new, but they will be used to fulfill a desire as old as our species.
Chorost's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. The sense of wonder and joy fairly leap off the page. The reader can share his excitement as he first sees a computer respond to his thoughts: the mind is not some ethereal thing, but a concrete physical phenomenon. The sections about his personal life are intimate and honest, and give the book a deep humane center.
The future that Chorost imagines poses many challenges to our ideas about privacy, individuality, selfhood, and autonomy. And he may be wrong. The future that he writes of may never come to pass. But one comes away from this book thankful for having seen a great vision.
This is a wonderful book: informative, eloquent, interesting, and moving. Highly recommended.