2009 : WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?

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Theoretical Philosopher, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; Author, The Ego Tunnel
SOUL-TRAVEL FOR SELFLESS BEINGS

John Brockman points out that new technology leads not only to new ways of perceiving ourselves, but also to a process he calls "recreating ourselves." Could this become true in an even deeper and more radical way than through gene-technology? The answer is yes.

It is entirely plausible that we may one day directly control virtual models of our own bodies directly with our brain. In 2007, I first experienced taking control of a computer-generated whole-body model myself. It took place in a virtual reality lab where my own physical motions were filmed by 18 cameras picking up signals from sensors attached to my body. Over the past two years, different research groups in Switzerland, England, Germany and Sweden have demonstrated how, in a passive condition, subjects can consciously identify with the content of a computer-generated virtual body representation, fully re-locating the phenomenal sense of self into an artificial, visual model of their body.

In 2008, in another experiment, we saw that a monkey on a treadmill could control the real-time walking patterns a humanoid robot via a brain-machine interface directly implanted into its brain. The synchronized robot was in Japan, while the poor monkey was located thousands of miles away, in the US. Even after it stopped walking, the monkey was able to sustain locomotion of the synchronized robot for a few minutes—just by using the visual feedback transmitted from Japan plus his own "thoughts" (whatever that may turn out to be).

Now imagine two further steps.

First, we manage to selectively block the high-bandwidth "interoceptive" input into the human self-model—all the gut feelings and the incessant flow of inner body perceptions that anchor the conscious self in the physical body. After all, we already have selective motor control for an artificial body-model and robust phenomenal self-identification via touch and sight. By blocking the internal self-perception of the body, we could be able to suspend the persistent causal link to the physical body.

Second, we develop richer and more complex avatars, virtual agents emulating not only the proprioceptive feedback generated by situated movement, but also certain abstract aspects of ongoing global control itself—new tools, as Brockman would call them. Then suddenly it happens that the functional core process initiating the complex control loop connecting physical and virtual body jumps from the biological brain into the avatar.

I don't believe this will happen tomorrow. I also don't believe that it would change everything. But it would change a lot.