Plugging into ElfNet
“…we are separate entities with boundaries that collide…we are entities with boundaries that overlap.”
with Francis Jeffrey
Francis Jeffrey is a pioneer and forecaster on the frontier interface between communication technologies and neuroscience. He is a consultant on ethical applications of science and technology co-founder of civic and environmental organizations, and CEO of Alive Systems Inc., which is devoted to the application of biological principles in computer software design.
Francis devised the “Linguini code, ” an intercultural and human-computer communications “language. ” He originated the concept of “communications co-pilot, ” an electronic co-personality that works along with you while it learns to emulate and support your communication and computing activities. His magnum opus is a project-in-progress called ElfNet, an interactive network that will use telephones or interactive television to access global information resources in a personalized way, while building meaningful relationships and perfecting programs of action. A psychological theorist, his theory on the nature of consciousness in isolation was published in Woman & Ullman ‘s Handbook of States of Consciousness.
In 1973, after studying computational neurophysiology at the Berkeley and San Diego campuses of the University of California, Francis began studies with John C. Lilly, M.D. (interviewed in our first volume) on sensory isolation and on human-dolphin communication research, studies which continued over the years. Recently Francis helped dolphins gain civil rights, at feast in Malibu. His concept was first enacted as public policy by the Malibu city council on January 7, 1992–apparently the first legal recognition in the human world of dolphins as individuals. In 1986 Francis co-founded, with Richard B. Robertson, the Great Whales Foundation, an organization that has called upon the international community to recognize whales as “living cultural resources ” rather than consumables.
Francis is the author of the well-known biography John Lilly, So Far. His thinking has been provoked over the years by interactions with the twentieth century ‘s best and brightest innovators and nonconformist thinkers, including Timothy Leary, Carolyn Mary Kleefeld (both of whom are in our first volume), Herbert Marcuse, Gregory Bateson, Lawrence Stark, M.D., Heniz von Foerster, Roland Fischer, and Ted Turner.
In interview mode, Francis demonstrates an extremely quick mind that is knowledgeable about an extraordinary scope of interests, free-associating surprising connections among conventional topics. Keenly perceptive of the hidden structure of ideas and systems, he possesses a special gift for making complex scientific concepts easy to understand in essential terms. He is also very unny, in an off-beat sort of way. Dark, piercing eyes dart amid birdlike features in a combination that seems to personify the archetype of the alchemist-wizard. I conducted this interview with Francis at his Malibu Beach home on June 29, 1994, at sunset. As we began, just off the deck, dolphins slid through the waves of the Pacific.
David What inspired your interest in computational neuroscience? How did you become interested in the interface between the computer and brain science?
Francis: I started reading Carl Jung as a teenager and found him fascinating. By the time I was about fifteen, I had read just about everything he wrote. But it seemed to really lack any explanatory power, so I started looking for something that would help to better explain the mind. After reading Jung, I thought, “Well sure, maybe the mind does this, but how and why does the mind do this?” It became apparent that this had something to do with the brain, and I began looking into that in college.
When I was in college studying psychology, computers were just coming online in a big way. So you had the first transition from these very elite mainframe institutions that everyone had to schedule their time on and share. They were originally installed with money from the Defense Department and the Atomic Energy Commission to encourage research in physics, and virtually every university had one. Then minicomputers be-
came available, and we had laboratories that had some of the first minicomputers in them. So your lab actually had a computer, and it was obvious that the way to do experiments in psychology was to program them, because this was much more flexible than the old fashioned way of doing experiments.
I was fascinated with what cognitive science now calls the binding problem. What is it that holds a perception together as a unit? Behaviorism, which is the psychology that was widely being taught at that time, contributed absolutely nothing to this question. The stimulus-response perspective didn’t give you a clue as to what made a perception. A more universal spin on the question would be “What is consciousness?” There is somebody who is having an experience, and that experience seems to hold together. You’re not just little bits of a picture, like an insect eye, but there’s a whole thing going on that you’re involved in.
David That’s the Big Mystery.
Francis: You can analyze it in different ways, and it’s kind of like a quantum phenomenon. Depending on how you analyze it, what experiments you do, you conclude that perception is broken down into different units in different ways. Recently reputable academic scientists started saying that the binding problem–what holds a perception together–is something that they’re going to start looking at. But that’s just a way of getting the large question–”What creates a mind?”–in the door.
Well, there are a lot of ancient answers to that question from people who, without the benefit of any external technologies, just experimented on themselves. I think one of the best traditions of that would be The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. A contemporary roughly of Plate and Buddha, back more than 2,000 years ago, Patanjali is the legendary and perhaps actual author of The Yoga Sutras, which is a very concise presentation of the basic ideas of yoga. Of course, that is tied to all the Hindu philosophy, and on and on. But there’s something very crisp and concise about The Yoga Sutras, and a lot of scientifically minded people, including John Lilly, have gotten way into it.
There are a lot of scientists, such as Deepak Chopra, who have benefited from association with this yoga tradition. Now, Patanjali said–among a great many other interesting things–that artificial minds can be created by … how to translate it is difficult … “egotism.” Artificial minds can be created by the drive to selfhood. Okay, so I translate this as follows. “If you want to create an artificial mind”-which sounds very modern and technological, almost like artificial intelligence [AI], but he’s talking about how a yogi can project his mind into form and clone himself–”what makes it possible is that there is a universal tendency to create coherent consciousness.”
David To individuate?
Francis: To individuate, exactly. That’s the basis of the phenomenon. So I applied this in my recent thinking, and this insight guides the communication-software development I’m currently into. What you need if you want to create an artificial mind–now in the modem technological sense–is you must somehow capture that drive toward individuation, toward consciousness. But it’s not a matter of building up a bunch of rules on how some expert does things, which is how AI has turned out to be.
David How does your understanding of computer science give you insight into how the brain works?
Francis: It gives an insight in a negative sense, because computer science is a completely vapid subject. As far as I can tell, there isn’t any. There are departments of computer science at universities, but is it science? It’s like they’re studying the history of the evolution of computers or something.
David Well, it’s a systems approach to a certain type of technology.
Francis: That’s the problem. You see, a system is like an artificial framework that you build, and then you try to fit stuff into it. To again use the quantum theory paradigm, you know what you observe depends on the kind of experiments and measurements you make. There’s a certain complementarity there. You make certain measurements and observations, and you exclude others. So I think the hierarchical-systems approach is the
ultimate extension and reductio ad absurdum of that approach, because you end up with a created system that has no subject matter but its own constructs. It’s like what Wittgenstein said, “Can it be that in mathematics what I am studying and seeking … is to know that which makes it possible for me to create these things.”
David So then, the study of computer science can also be the study of the brain’s ability to model things in a way that creates powerful computational tools and digital technology. Francis: Well, in kind of a backdoor way. But that’s just psychology. The tool building is