Review: Book addresses man-machine boundary

'Supersizing the Mind' includes philosophising and practical accounts

The intimate inclusion of digital circuitry into the human body to form a “cyborg”, with enhanced senses and motor abilities, has long been a staple of science fiction. Though this is now happening with advanced prosthetic limbs and sensory implants.

Andy Clark says that we are already well down the road of incorporating mechanical and electronic devices into our mental functioning, so they can truly be said to have become part of — and expanded — the human mind.

Clark is professor of philosophy at Edinburgh University and the book is an expanded version of a paper called The Extended Mind he co-wrote with David Chalmers in 1998. The original paper sparked a good deal of objection and debate from fellow philosophers, and some of this is included in the book.

As such, there is a good deal of detailed abstract philosophical argument, but also many interesting accounts of practical experiments in mind-machine interaction (or incorporation). This suggests that a system consisting of a human working with a machine (or even a device as simple as a paper notebook), is not a simple matter of a “man-machine interface” of sense perception and muscle action at a well-defined boundary, as is generally believed.

Clark cites, among other examples, Stelarc, an Australian performance artist who operates a “third hand” with signals from his brain to muscle sites on his abdomen and legs, thence through a computer to the mechanical hand. Stelarc reports that, after some years of practice and performance, he no longer feels as if he has to actively control the third hand to achieve his goals. It has become “transparent”.

US defence personnel have been fitted with a vest that, as they pilot a helicopter, direct puffs of air onto their bodies reflecT the craft’s movement and attitude. “The suit allows even inexperienced helicopter pilots to perform difficult tasks such as holding the helicopter in a stationary hover in the air,” Clark says.

Such examples, he says, show that while human-machine interaction specialists might consider the ideal interface to be simple and clear — a matter of typing or moving a mouse while looking at a screen — a richer interface whose operation is almost unconscious and whose location is hard to identify precisely, may work more effectively.

At a simpler level, he considers a comparison between Inga, who finds her way to the museum by remembering its location, and Otto, who has Alzheimer’s disease and finds the museum by looking up the information in a notebook (or equivalently, a PDA). He presents an argument that there is no essential difference between the two processes.

Clark’s central argument in the book is summed up in what he calls the Parity Principle — “if a process in the world works in a way that we should count as a cognitive process if it were done in the head, then we should count it as a cognitive process all the same.”

The book’s publication has brought the critics out again. In a recent article in the London Review of Books, fellow philosopher Jerry Fodor insists, despite Clark’s examples, that there are fundamental differences between human and machine processes. For instance, Fodor’s Roomba vacuum-cleaner turns when it collides with his couch, he wrote, but it cannot conceive, as his mind can, a hypothetical situation in which the couch is not there; nor can its circuitry access the thought of the couch in his head. The debate will continue.

Meanwhile, I’d like to see a sequel tackling the question barely touched on in Supersizing the Mind; what effect is constant co-working with digital systems having on the way human minds go about their own internal processing?

Details: Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension, by Andy Clark. Oxford University Press. Available through Amazon at $US28; priced at $NZ70 in local bookshops.

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