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Blog: Talking GPSs, Implants, and Consciousness

September 3, 2013

After bringing my new GPS home (read more about that adventure here), I found it had the ability to follow voice commands. My old GPS talked to me in a sweet Aussie accent. But it wouldn’t listen to me. The new one did.

I was skeptical. On the way to the bank, I tried it out. It did surprisingly well. I felt like I was in Star Trek as I told it to find different locations and plot various routes. So I said, “Beam me up, Scottie.” It was smart enough to ignore me: after all, I was driving a car at that moment.

I pulled into the automated bank teller and began to say, “I want to make a deposit.” I caught myself before the words escaped my mouth. I glanced around to see if anyone was watching. It would be awkward to explain: “Sir, I’m not crazy. I had been talking to my GPS. But I really know bank machines don’t converse.”

As I punched in my password, I felt annoyed that the bank machine was so primitive as to require physical manipulation. I used to think of the gadget as a convenience. Now I felt grumpy that it was so dumb.

There’s a lesson in this about attachment. There are also subtler, more complex implications I can’t quite put my finger on. Consider:

The interface between computers and humans is becoming subtler than voice commands. Scientists placed an array of sensors on the motor cortex of a volunteer who had no use of her limbs. They hooked the sensors to a computer that operated a mechanical arm. She learned to operate the arm – even pick up an egg without breaking it.

A reporter asked her what she did to move the arm. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just kind of intend it.” If someone asked me how I moved my arm, I might say the same thing: “I don’t know; I just intend it.”

An external arm is one thing. But what’s next? An implanted computer chip interfacing with our thoughts? We think, “What’s the cube root of 37?” and the thought appears “3.33222185165.”

Or how about an implanted GPS? We think, “I want to go to the bank?”

A question arises, “Which one?”

“The one on the corner of Oak and 4th Street.”

“Take the second left.”

A friend in the front seat asks, “Why are you turning here?”

“Too much traffic the other way.”

“How do you know?”

“I just kind of do.”

“Intuition?” the friend asks.

“Something like that.”

What about chips that can store vast amounts of information, do even more complex calculations, or interface with the Internet?

One of the foremost philosophers on the evolution of human consciousness, Ken Wilber, says that the next higher levels of consciousness may be driven by computer-brain interface.

Now what are the implications of that?