Archive for August, 2011

Computers, internet and our brain – the extended mind?

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

The history of the Internet started in the 1950s and 1960s with the development of computers. The beginning of the web was mainly point-to-point communication between mainframe computers and terminals and it was further expanded to point-to-point connections between computers. The internet has evolved since then and some even say that the web as we know it is dying or is already dead (see the Wired Magazine article about it – “The web is dead”). The web was very disorganized (and still is) until the launch of search engines with several links and lots of information spread all over the “cyberspace”. Search engines such as Google changed this by facilitating us in finding whatever we want in the web. If you want to search for a specific word or name, you just need to find a computer connected to the internet and type it. It is like magic and you get several webpages related to your query. The recent emergence of different types of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and others has made accessing information even easier and more organized. The web is evolving towards less entropy, and by entropy I mean disorganization. The information is becoming more detailed and the “socialization” of it is helping. Interestingly, the information stored in the web, especially in search engines such as Google and other databases has become our external memory source that we can eventually access at any time. Although the concept of knowledge seems to prime thoughts of computers, even when answers are known, we are becoming dependent on the computers and internet (see the article “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips” in Science, 2011). Studies have been showing that we are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools growing into interconnected systems to remember less by knowing information where it can be found; for example googling it. Another example of connection between our brains (or mind) and the computers are studies that the brazilian born scientist Miguel Nicolelis and colleagues at Duke University are conducting. They were able to taught monkeys to use brain signals to control the movements of a robot on the other side of the world (Nicolelis MA. Brain-machine interfaces to restore motor function and probe neural circuits. Nat Rev Neurosci. 4: 417-422, 2003). The researchers trained some of the monkey’s neurons to “adopt” the machine’s locomotion as its own. This is a strong and physical example on how we can become more and more connected not just to the information that computers provide us today but, to a further extent, hybrid systems of man associated to machines. Our society is becoming totally dependent on the computers and how they bring us the information we need at the exact moment we want. This unification of our brain with the machines (computers in this case) is slowly taking place and changing human evolution. I wish I could live for more than a century to see what is going to happen then…But I am just a human being like any other, not a machine-man.