Your Brain is Being Augmented, You Just Don't Realize It

The breakthrough innovation development of the year so far is the White House’s upcoming plan to map the entire human brain. By essentially enabling us to reverse-engineer the human brain, the Brain Activity Map proposed by scientists such as Harvard's George Church will forever change the way we think about artificial intelligence and potentially open up the door to new cures for mental illnesses. However, many of these developments may be a decade away -- or even several decades away. What’s less understood are all the myriad of ways that our brains are being augmented right now, today, in subtle ways that we may not even realize.


Slowly but surely, we’re moving our individual brains into the cloud, enabling us to know more, experience more and remember more -- all the while believing that it is our individual brain that is responsible for amazing feats of cognitive ability. On a daily basis, we're tapping into the accumulated knowledge of thousands - if not millions - of others with a simple tap or swipe on our mobile devices. Think about it – every day, each of us carries around in our pockets more computing power and access to more information than was available to our nation's scientists at NASA during the peak years of the lunar space program. And, as the amount of information on the Internet continues to grow exponentially, so does our access to this information.

The youngest generation, which grew up with all this technology, already recognizes this. They know that they do not actually have to learn anything - they just have to know where to find it in the cloud. Google, far from making us stupid, is actually making us smarter than ever imagined. This is especially true now that we've added geolocation tools to our mobile devices. Take, Google Maps, for example. In an interview with The Atlantic, Google's Michael Jones explained that Google Search and Google Maps may be worth an extra 20 points on your IQ:

"For instance, right now people walk around looking at directions on phones. In the future, the phone will signal you -- go left or straight ahead -- in words or sounds in your ear, or visually through your glasses, so you can just look where you're going and walk. It'll be like you're a local everywhere you go. You'll know your way through the back alleys and hutongs of Beijing, you'll know your way all around Paris even if you've never been before. Signs will seem to translate themselves for you. This kind of extra-smartness is coming to people. Effectively, people are about 20 IQ points smarter now because of Google Search and Maps. They don't give Google credit for it, which is fine; they think they're smarter, because they can rely on these tools. It's one reason they get so upset if the tools are inaccurate or let them down. They feel like a fifth of their brain has been taken out."

Google is already looking into ways that it can make its Android devices smarter by actually mimicking the structure and function of the human brain. When that happens, you will think of your mobile phone not just as a browser, but also as an adjunct brain available upon demand. That’s just the beginning, however. As Ray Kurzweil has explained before to believers in the Singularity, the future human of the mid-21st century will be a hybrid between man and machine, where the human-computer interface is largely invisible. The gap between animate and inanimate knowlege will be unrecognizable. Right now, every time you deal with a typical computer interface – like a screen or keyboard – you know that you are dealing with a computer. In the future, that won’t be the case. You will ask your friend a question, and you will have absolutely no idea where your friend got the answer. Nor will you care. Hewlett-Packard is already working on a personal avatar interface for the cloud -- a concierge that you can access at any time, across any platform or any device.

The really radical view of brain augmentation, however, does not come from the world of Silicon Valley - it comes from the world of chemistry, which is giving us an entirely new generation of designer DNA drugs. Just as athletes now rely on performance-enhancing drugs to achieve incredible new feats (yes, Mr. Armstrong, I'm talking to you) - everyday people may one day use designer drugs to enhance memory and cognitive ability. In Chapter 5 of their TED book Homo Evolutis, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans suggest several ways that that we may use drugs to change the chemistry of our brains in the pursuit of peak performance. When combined with breakthroughs in genetic engineering, we may even be on the cusp of creating a new species of human with vastly improved powers of cognition, learning and memory.

What it all means, of course, is that the Singularity may not be a single event, as we typically think of it. It will not be a Rapture of the Nerds, where we remind Siri to wake us up early to witness the blinding light of the Singularity during which we are all transformed into gods. Instead, the future augmentation of our brains will be much more gradual and nuanced. Once we started to consider our mobile devices to be extensions of our physical bodies - carrying them around with us wherever we go and imbuing them with characteristics such as personality - we set into motion a complex chain reaction of events that made the future hybrid of man and machine a certainty. 20 points on your IQ was just the start.

image: Short Circuit in Businessman Computer Brain / Shutterstock

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    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.