The quest for self-awareness in our era
Can we unify philosophy and technology in order to understand ourselves?
This is an unfinished philosophical post. It’d been living rent-free on my drafts section so I just decided to publish it now.
In trying to understand where the world is going, I’m just one of those people trying to guess what is it that they’re in front of.
The world is like a teenage elephant undergoing lots of quirky changes, quite rapidly. We have to deal more with obesity than with hunger, mortality has dropped but so has fertility, machines have increased quality of life (mostly) in first world countries but we don’t even understand all the risks Artificial General Intelligence poses on the future our civilization.
Overall, it looks like this won’t be any different from previous challenges in the history of humankind. We create new technology to solve today’s problems, which in turn creates the problems of tomorrow and the cycle repeats.
The problem is that innovation, science and technological progress will not be enough to recreate Eden’s garden because:
We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology—Edward O. Wilson
Without equal advancements in philosophy, ontology, or simply emotional intelligence, we are first set to become unstable, purposeless and unhappy gods, later slaves to our own inventions and finally intrascendental to the course of the universe (if we ever get to that point).
I’ve written about this before. One could argue that the universe has never really cared too much about our existence. But even if that is true, even if consciousness is just a beautiful illusion, I hold the strong belief that this “something” in our minds is special and we shall use it wisely to truly bloom as humankind; to uncover the deepest secrets of ourselves and the universe.
Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? Who do I want to be with? —The quest for meaning seems to be common to every human being and civilization. We’ve tried to find answers through philosophy, religion, art, and science, each of which has helped us find common ground between us and create stability within us, so far.
These days, historians and futurists argue that religion as we know it is reaching obsolescence in our modern context with our modern problems. To my view however, many of the core life lessons found in religion are actually easily transferable across different situations, likely including our modern problems. It’s the rituals and stories that could be better adapted to our era.
If we are at risk of being surpassed in intelligence by our technology, then my question is: would it be stupid or smart to use the same technology in our advantage to gain a deeper, more holistic understanding of ourselves?
Creating the map
I find it staggering how much information goes through our bodies and minds that we are not aware about. All the inputs we receive through our senses, everything we consume either in the shape of food, images, sounds, smells, or touch and how we process it through biochemical reactions. Most of these inputs, processes and outputs go unnoticed, staying either in the form of biochemical reactions which we’re not aware of unless pain arises, which influence our state of being, ultimately making us who we are.
“You are what you consume” is not at all a new idea but it’s mostly only been applied in the context of food and lately in the context of online content. Still, there exists an innumerable amount of factors that we could be processing as human beings, whether we’re aware of them or not.
This starts to resemble the thought experiment of mapping the position of every atom in the universe in order to predict the future. The best model of the universe is the universe itself but that hasn’t stopped us from creating maps to use as guides. Is the same true for the human body?
Throughout all of history, we have been keeping track of our inputs. From paintings in caves to Instagram stories, human language as we know it has served as the bridge between our selves and others.
But these maps are not the territory. If we followed Descartes, we would only rely our own minds and math as the maps and territory of our own existence. For now, these two—the study of ourselves through introspection only and the study of ourselves through math and science—has remained separate overall. Yet if mathematics is the language in which the universe itself is written, then wouldn’t we want to understand ourselves through it? Wouldn’t that be less abstract and more reliable?
Given that most of us are not conscious of all of these biological stuff in ourselves, and it would take thousands of hours of practice to get to a deeper level of awareness of them, it follows that we turn to technologies like Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) to get a less abstract, more reliable and practical self-map.
Still, information alone is only potential power. No one takes a radiography and hopes the thing to spell out a diagnosis. Most of us go to the doctor and expect them to interpret that info and possibly make some sort of prediction based on that.
In that sense, it’s interesting to see how our use of maps has very recently evolved too, not only showing us the territory but also making predictions of the best routes to take based on the behavior of millions of other users through Artificial Intelligence (AI). Beyond that, AI is itself an emulation of the human brain and many of these algorithms used to predict traffic are modeled after biology too (insects were a main source of inspiration, I believe).
Perhaps the greatest concern we have is that, while those caves weren’t conscious of the stories we were painting on them but, we can’t say this is 100% true for everything Google knows about us.
The apparent paradox is that we’re living in a time when our technology is so advanced that it’s starting to understand humans better than we understand ourselves AND STILL we could use that same technology to gain awareness of ourselves?
No. The danger is not the technology itself but how it’s being used and who it’s serving. AI could be used through Facebook and for Facebook with users being both the product and raw material (data) OR…
We could have a personal third-eye that serves each of us only.
Sure, I went through all that kinda philosophical blurb to end up writing about AI for healthcare, privacy concerns, genomic technologies, the quantified self movement and BCIs.
Brain-computer Interfaces (BCIs)
collect and analyze brain signals, then translate them into commands to have a desired output
an electroencephalogram (EEG) alone is not a BCI because it’s not translating the signals into something useful
in theory, any kind of signal could be used for BCIs but the most common ones are neuronal postsynaptic membrane polarity changes
the main disadvantage of these signals is that they lose strength while passing through the scalp and skull
invasive BCIs face those challenges using intracortical microarrays. the disadvantages of those recording only individual neuron activity, needing surgery and not knowing the long-term effects
Brain Signal Recording Techniques to Control BCI systems:
Intracortical electrode array
Electrocorticography (ECoG): recorded from the cortical surface, requires implantation of an electrode array, records signals of higher amplitude than EEG and offers superior spatial resolution and spectral bandwidth, includes higher-frequency ( >40-Hz gamma band) activity up to 200 Hz, better signal-noise ratio,
Electroencephalography (EEG): ideally, they wouldn’t need conductive gel, poor spacial resolution, signals are lost in the skull, training can take months (slow cortical potential approach),
Patterns of P300 waves are generated involuntarily (stimulus-feedback) when people see something they recognize and may allow BCIs to decode categories of thoughts without training patients first
Functional magnetic resonance imaging
Functional near-infrared imaging
components of a BCI system
feature extraction: isolating only the signals that are highly correlated with the user’s intention
feature translation: translating those signals into the intended command for output. should be dynamic to allow for variations in brain signals at different times of use
non-recreational applications: vision, speech
technical challenges: batteries, material, size
partially invasive BCIs are inside the skull but aren’t implanted in gray matter
self-tracking of any kind of biological, physical, behavioral, or environmental information as n=1 individuals or in groups
also called everyday science - using empirical methods to explore personal questions. self tracking, self-knowledge through numbers
4 steps: questioning, observing, reasoning and consolidating an insight
The data are typically analyzed using traditional techniques such as linear regression to establish correlations among the variables under investigation
gamification: awarding points or monetary value to encourage people to compete with their friends (e.g. connected sports)
major component of big data science
‘quantified baby’ is a subset of the QS movement. tracking baby’s metrics
criticism: data fetishism is a phenomenon evolving when active users of self-tracking devices become enticed by the satisfaction and sense of achievement and fulfillment that numerical data offer. Data in this sense become simplistic, where complex phenomena become transcribed into reductionist data
"know thy numbers to know thyself"
“Information wants to be linked”
could be improved by involving more health literate experts
barrier to elders who aren’t as connected to tech
objective data, subjective reaction to it
first step is measuring, second is creating feedback loops to it
biological, physical, behavioral, or environmental information
weight, energy level, mood, time usage, sleep quality, health, cognitive performance, athletics, and learning strategies
both for pathology and enhancement
“The terms “quantified self” and “self-tracker” are labels, contemporary formalizations belonging to the general progression in human history of using measurement, science, and technology to bring order, understanding, manipulation, and control to the natural world, including the human body.”
it’s expanding to group data
psychological states and traits
Mental and cognitive states and traits
60% of U.S. adults are currently tracking their weight, diet, or exercise routine, and 33% are monitoring other factors such as blood sugar, blood pressure, headaches, or sleep patterns
27% of U.S. Internet users track health data online
more than 500 companies were making or developing self-management tools, up 35%
Tim McCormick's Information Diet, an investigation of media consumption and reading practices in which he developed a mechanism for quantifying the value of different information inputs (e.g., Twitter feeds, online news sites, blogs) to derive a prioritized information stream for personal consumption
some people even use their twins as controls!!
gene sequencing at SNP level is also used to pinpoint functional variants from association studies
Whole genome sequencing should not be confused with DNA profiling, which only determines the likelihood that genetic material came from a particular individual or group, and does not contain additional information on genetic relationships, origin or susceptibility to specific diseases
whole genome sequencing should not be confused with methods that sequence specific subsets of the genome – such methods include whole exome sequencing (1–2% of the genome) or SNP genotyping (< 0.1% of the genome)
Studies of genetic association aim to test whether single-locus alleles or genotype frequencies (or more generally, multilocus haplotype frequencies) differ between two groups of individuals (usually diseased subjects and healthy controls)
single cell genome sequencing
high-throughput (formerly "next-generation") sequencing technologies such as Illumina dye sequencing, pyrosequencing, and SMRT sequencing. All of these technologies continue to employ the basic shotgun strategy, namely, parallelization and template generation via genome fragmentation.
Nanopore technology. Though the sequencing accuracy of Nanopore technology is lower than those above, its read length is on average much longer
dna is cloned into an infected bacteria
use T-7 polymerase, short primer and 4 deoxynucleotides (dATP, dTTP, dGTP and dCTP)