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FleshFactor: Replacing the body

A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"

I make my first post in this discussion with some trepidation for two
reasons: I have not had time to catch up on all that's been said before,
and I'm beginning by addressing Pat Churchland. Through my grad student
years and beyond, I've read much of Pat's (and Paul's) excellent work. I'm
used to the Churchland's work being thought of as stretching the limits
(especially the idea of eliminative materialism) so it's fun to see Pat be
the restraining force here!

>At this stage, there is no serious possibility of humans managing without
>their bodies; in particular, without that part of the body that is the
>nervous system. 

Even though I do expect one day to become postbiological (assuming we
discover how to extend life spans in the next few decades) I agree that
this won't happen anytime soon. I find the uploading scenario fascinating
-- mapping the brain's functions then re-embodying them in a faster
nonbiological device. However, I see that as a far off possibility. What I
do think we'll see (and I'm not sure Pat disagrees here) is the gradual
augmentation of the biological brain with nonbiological components. The end
result of this process might be the replacement of the natural brain with
synthetic parts.

Work is going on in this area, though with very specific goals. I talked at
length with Prof. Ted Berger at USC last year for an Extropy magazine
article. Ted is building analog VLSI chips and interfacing them with
neurons. He's currently building stacks of a couple of hundred artificial
neurons. He estimates that spinal cord injuries might be repairable in ten
years by using these devices to replace damaged sections of the spinal
nerves. Farther out than that, he thinks it should be possible to replace
parts of the brain, restoring motor activity, for example.

Now, this certainly is not "managing without our bodies". It does suggest
(along with other work such as by Stanford's Gregory Kovacs) that we will
replace some biological parts, and augment their functions. I do think
there is a serious possibility that we will replace our nervous systems
with technological analogs (working faster with higher bandwidth). When?
Predicting dates is a fool's game.

>It is quite possible that the dynamical biological
>system (body + nervous system) that has evolved to allow us to manage on
>this planet is much more capable of dealing with matters in real time, and
>with greater precision, than manufactured (nonbiological) devices can ever

Possible, but unlikely I think. Nature had no foresight and "designed" us
by accumulating small steps. Sometimes this led to design flaws (such as
Dawkins pointed out about the eye in The Blind Watchmaker), and always used
only the available materials. Vast amounts of work lie ahead to understand
the brain and "artificial" intelligences. Yet, we know that nerve impulses
work in milliseconds rather than nanoseconds. Given enough time and better
technologies, I find it hard to believe that we can't do better than
nature. Nevertheless, Pat may well be right that we will find it too
difficult and pointless to build machines capable of taking care of our

>So I wonder whether it is a bit too early in the game to worry too much
>about being replaced by manufactured brains.  I am afraid I have a very
>practical bent, and I worry more about things we really need to know but
>don't yet know: e.g. how to predict, prevent, and successfully treat
>schizophrenia -- and other diseases of the nervous systems, such as
>multiple sclerosis, Lou Gherig's disease, Alzheimer's, etc.

One reason that I don't worry too much about being replaced by manufactured
brains (apart from the difficulty of making them) is because I think the
us-and-them division will break down. Once we have understood and treated
these neuropsychological problems, I hope we will become more interested in
augmenting our cognitive and emotional functions. As computers get ever
smaller and come with more intelligent interfaces, as we learn to couple
brains to computers and information networks, we should see a deeper and
tighter functional connection between human brains and (non-biological)

In one paper that upset some people, Paul Churchland hypothesized that we
might one day intercept signals from the corpus collosum, sending and
receiving them through a transceiver, allowing us to communicate on a
non-linguistic level. I don't know if Pat shares Paul's view on this, but I
find it an eminently reasonable possibility for the future.


Max More, Ph.D.
Author: The Augmented Animal (Forthcoming: HardWired, 1998)
President, Extropy Institute: exi-info@extropy.org, http://www.extropy.org
EXTRO 3 CONFERENCE on the future: http://www.extropy.org/extro3.htm

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