Sunday, October 04, 2009

Our minds linked together: the case for being Borg

Those who've watched Star Trek: The Next Generation will know the Borg as a race of mindless cybernetic drones bound by a collective consciousness and lacking any trace of individuality. The Borg travel across the galaxy, forcefully assimilating any civilizations they encounter into their collective. As such, they must be mortal enemies of humanity, since our sense of self (and by extension our liberty) is a large part of what makes us human -- or so we believe.

What I find so intriguing about the Borg is the fact that they can communicate so efficiently. In essence, all their minds are directly connected to each other via some kind of super internet. The most optimistic among us believe that we might also achieve such an ability within our lifetimes.

I don't think anyone would argue that explosion of information made available by the internet is a bad thing. But humans are limited both by how much information we can send, receive and manage, as well as by the amount of computation or reasoning we can perform (not to mention all the inherent biases embedded in our neural hardware). It's why advertising companies and politicians care so much about marketing slogans and grabbing mind share. It's why we can benefit from playing games with indirect social and status signaling. It's essentially why we still have so much misunderstanding in this world.

While we shouldn't hope to completely eliminate our limitations (as that would violate our current understanding of physics), there's no reason to think that we cannot create a more efficient and freer society by making it easier and faster to communicate and organize information. In fact, we are already experiencing a change in attitude regarding what we take for granted communication-wise. For instance, I already have developed an intrinsic feeling of being connected to others through the internet. When GMail went down this past summer, I actually felt lonely (probably much like how Hugh felt in Star Trek episode "I, Borg"). Whenever I don't have my phone with me, I often feel somehow naked or incomplete.

Contrary to how the Borg are portrayed, expanding communication bandwidths will likely increase our diversity of thought rather than suppress it. I think the general principle of having robustness (e.g., promoting diversity) is a lesson that's been well learned (with notable exceptions). Forward thinking companies such as Google (where I interned this past summer) and Microsoft (3 summers ago) consistently emphasize diversity of thought and creativity in problem solving. Having a more connected society will make it easier for the good ideas to surface.

There are, of course, concerns over whether we could or should integrate our minds with "machines". One reason why we're supposed to find the Borg so repulsive is due to their cybernetic nature. Rather than debating what it means to be "human", I think it's sufficient for this discussion to note that such technologies can be a life-changer for people suffering from paralysis. In addition, there is still much left to accomplish with non-invasive interfaces (such as our phones), so we still have a ways to go before we need to cross that tricky bridge of having immersive virtual environments.


vraman said...

While my understanding of the Borg is pretty perfunctory, my view is the sort of “forced assimilation” of thought that comes with a hive-mind approach to knowledge is in stark contrast with the way we view diversity. I suppose I am getting at the difference between forcibly resolving conflicting viewpoints and allowing them to co-exist.

You say that expanding communication bandwidths will likely increase our diversity of thought rather than suppress it. I don’t think this is true. Once we have common knowledge, we cannot agree to disagree (I think I got this link from you, bee-tee-dubs). In the limit of communication, we will converge. So I see this as a serious threat to freedom of thought and belief/diversity/yada yada. Having a completely connected society will make it easier for the “correct” ideas to dominate, yes. But now we are entering philosophical territory -- is that what being human is about? Is that what we really want?

You also say that you envy the ability to instantly share information and thought. But aren’t you devaluing the *process* of communicating and evaluating opinion? I dread to think of a time when interactions such as the one we are having right now become obsolete, because we could simply “connect” our brains in some way and merge our viewpoints. Of course, since this is an experience I haven’t had yet, I cannot evaluate its merits. However, I already sometimes feel as though my opinions are no longer my own, but an aggregation of what I have seen and read on friends’ blogs, Facebook and other forums, and therefore less original. This is exactly the sort of thing I am afraid of – where we forget how to think for ourselves, simply because we are so used to having information and opinion spoon-fed us (this is already happening, to a very large extent). This sort of thing would completely kill original thought and any value placed on it.

Yisong said...

Interesting comments, I have a couple of responses.

First, even if we can communicate "perfectly" with each other, it's not clear that we'd know what the "correct" answers were. Perfect communication does not imply perfect knowledge. Just because I completely understand your interpretation of the data does not mean I agree with it. In the presence of uncertainty, a tried and true meta-strategy has been to hedge your bets (i.e., diversify).

Second, the scenario you're describing is admittedly difficult to reason about due to its extreme nature. My choice of phrasing probably evoked such imagery, but I'd also hoped to discuss what we can expect in the near-term. For example, I contend (from anecdotal evidence) that the internet has improved diversity of thought in the last 10-15 years. I also expect this trend to continue in the next 10-15 years.

Finally, I think concerns regarding lack of original thought are pretty overblown. Why would you want to re-invent the wheel when you could instead develop the first computer program to pass the Turing test? Technology and ideas build upon previous generations of progress.

Also, there would be nothing preventing you from experiencing those types of social interactions if you wanted to spend time doing that. Just because horse-riding is obsolete as a mode of transportation doesn't mean people don't do it for recreation.

I think my view on this issue revolves more around empowerment than anything else.