As your new scientific advisor, I would like to draw your attention to an important and perhaps surprising fact. The citizens of your country are not just flesh and blood. They are, increasingly, flesh, blood, and machine. Let me explain why, and then why it matters.
While the biological bodies of our fellow citizens remain (temporarily at least) much as they ever were, their minds are more and more the minds of hybrid beings. As thinking beings, as persons, they are constituted not just by the blood and guts contents of their ancient biological skinbags, but also by vastly transformative webs of social and technological structure.
To see what I mean, reflect that recent advances in genetics, cognitive science, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and cross-cultural studies are helping to paint a much fuller picture of the complex interplay between native skills and rich developmental plasticity that makes us who and what we are. Part of this picture involves native dispositions of various kinds. But another big part involves a vast and distinctive shot of cortical plasticity. This plasticity allows young (and older) human brains to factor surrounding culture, tools and technologies deep into their problem-solving practice. Brains like ours alter profoundly to fit the technologies and practices that surround them.
And there is more. In the past, this process of fit was mainly one-way. Human brains adapted to the devices that they had to work with. But new technologies are changing this one-sided profile. Our best devices now adapt to individual users according to patterns of use. They provide for fast, fluent, painless information retrieval that alters the tasks left to biological memory. They are mobile, portable, robust. Lose one and you feel impaired, as if afflicted by some transient neural trauma. The simple cell phone, with its ever-expanding range of functions, will probably one day be seen as the key transition technology that led humankind into a new hybrid age.
The level of productive debate and co-operation between the humanities and the sciences of the mind is also rising daily. At this critical historical moment, America can lead the world by taking the quality of human life seriously, and by devoting its impressive resources not to hopeless and misguided causes but to helping all its citizens lead full and rewarding lives. That means spending money on the kinds of education, training and research that will help us to understand ourselves as we are today, and to build better hybrid minds tomorrow. Such a project requires understanding both our biological roots and the socio-technological matrixes that take those roots and turn them into the hybrid intelligent systems we recognize as persons.
This project, the project of tracking the interactions between biology and the social and technological matrix itself, could be for the new century what sequencing the human genome was to the last. Done properly, it could mark a transformative moment in human history: the moment we put war and aggression aside, and tried to build better people by better understanding who and what we are.
Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Cognitive Science Program
Indiana University, Bloomington
Author of five books including Microcognition and Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again.