If you had a computer chip implanted in your brain that allowed you to perform complex mathematical computations just by looking at numbers and equations, like an onboard calculator, would you consider that genuine cognitive activity? How about if the computer chip was instead in your pocket? Answering “yes” to the former question is much more intuitive than a “yes” to the latter, but why should that be?

This are questions that occur in the fields of “embodied cognition” and “the extended mind”, and the topic of a recent article in the New York Times. The author of the article, Andy Clark, argues that we should view the theoretical brain-mounted computer chip as “bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull”. Importantly, he argues that iPhones and blackberries function in a similar way that a brain mounted chip would, and so they should be thought of likewise.

I’ve made similar arguments before, and I think that in the not-so-distant future we won’t need thinkers like Andy Clark to prompt us to consider these questions, as technology will place them front and center. Even if you find it absolutely clear that none of todays technologies should be considered cognition, or part of your brain, mind, or self, it will be much less clear as future technologies become more seamlessly integrated with our thought process.

For instance, consider the inevitable scenario I’ve laid out before: micro-computers, visual retinal displays, augmented reality, and neural input devices combined so that you’ve essentially got a brain-mounted computer on virtual floating screens in front of you that you control with your thoughts.   Whether or not using these future devices should be considered cognition and part of our minds will be much trickier than it is with today’s iPhones, especially considering that from everyone else’s perspective “organic thought”, as you might call it, will often be indistinguishable from “computer thought”. “Did he just remember my birthday when I asked if he knew it, or did he look it up?”

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