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Francis Jeffrey

“unconscious,” driven by markets. I think you wanted to ask, “What de facto, in reality, is computer science?” It’s actually just studying the latest generation of personal computers, the latest generation of software, and teaching people how to use them.

David Does the understanding of computers give you any insight at all into how the brain functions?

Francis: Well, experientially it gives you some insight into how your brain functions. You can go to two extremes. One of them allows you to see what happens to your brain when you interact with very sophisticated technology. Today we have very sensory computers–the hot buzzword is “multimedia interactive computers.” Okay, so that’s one area where you can look at it, and that’s sort of what we were doing twenty to twenty-five years ago in experimental psychology–much simplified, because we didn’t have the big power computers we have today.

We were using computers to throw complicated stuff at the human mind and nervous system, watching what the reaction was, and then using a computer to analyze it. But if you want to be very elegant and mathematical, you have to really go back to the original insights that led to the computer as we have it today. And there hasn’t been much added on in the interim. With all the work done by all the artificial intelligence people and the so-called computer scientists, there really hasn’t been a bit added to that origin. And now we’re talking about forty to fifty years of “progress.” So it kind of contributes to the observation–which I think some historian made–that the farther science progresses, the slower it goes, because it gets bigger and more bureaucratic. So you want to go back to people like John von Neuman, Alan Turing, Kirt Godel, Warren McCullock, and Waiter Pitts.

David How about vice-versa? Does the understanding of the brain give you any insight into computer science?

Francis: Well sure, because it sort of sets the outer limit on what humans can achieve. I mean, humans will be doing very well if they can translate a high percentage of what they find in their brain into some kind of external technology, and so far they’ve translated just a little bit of that.

David I’m curious as to how you envision the future evolution of technology in regard to how it’s going to interface with the brain. Do you see specific types of technologies somewhere on the horizon that will interface directly with the brain?

Francis: Well, there’s the good news and the bad news. Obviously there are these monitoring technologies, like SQUID, with all kinds of refinements of magnetic resonance or nuclear magnetic imaging. This allows us to start getting a very detailed view of what’s going on in the brain. From the point of view of the brain, that’s an output technology; from the point of view of a computer, it’s an input of technology. So you can start having patterns from your brain going into the computer. The other side of it is that you can overwhelm the brain and the mind with the media technology, and of course we’ve already got that in a crude sort of way. Warfare and religion weren’t invented in the twentieth century, they just became more efficient and industrialized. Now we’ve had television for a long time, and I think most of what it does is put a lot of noise into the brains of a lot of people, which causes a lot of confusion, although there are obviously certain benefits.

I watch CNN a lot because I get a lot of information that way. I find it has most of the information that’s in the L.A. Times, only a day earlier, and just about as much depth. But it’s loaded with commercial advertisements, and those are extremely irritating. So I think unless you’re sitting there with a can of beer to kind of help you chill out, your impulse is to get up and turn those things off all the time. Maybe some people find them entertaining. But what’s happening is you’re jamming up the brains of millions and millions of people with messages that are pretty irrelevant to most of them most of the time, and are basically distorted or exploitive. So the danger and peril of this thing is that as you get more and more interactive and multimedia, you make a more compelling and more powerful medium that just basically surrounds people and drives them nuts–even more nuts than at present.

David Like interactive beer commercials.

Francis: Yeah, interactive beer commercials. You’ll have the spigot right on your TV, and you’ll go through this elaborate set of icons and menus, click somewhere, your already overdrawn bank account will be debited five dollars, and some beer will plop out. This is progress. (laughter)

David When you look at the history of technology and then project into the future, what new technologies do you think will have the greatest impact on the future evolution of humanity?

Francis: I think interactive technology is very big, and so is nanotechnology, which covers a span from drug technology to microfabrication techniques. This stuff has extremely profound implications. On the drug technology side, where you’re doing things like peptididometics or orthomolecular chemistry, you have the ability to fabricate all the molecules that are found in the human body and all those that interact with it in specific ways. So there you have the solution to all the ancient dilemmas of medicine, aging and so forth.

David How do you think it will affect the evolution of consciousness?

Francis: I think it’s going to create much more freedom, because the mind becomes decoupled from the usual deprivations of disease and aging. So there’s a real capacity to create a new objectivity there, to create a consciousness that’s less panicked and tied to immediate survival problems. Of course, again, there’s the dark side, in which things can be exploited. Most science fiction is focused on giving warnings about the dark side of all these technological possibilities. For example, with nanotechnology you could create killer viruses or chemical biological agents that can transfer ideas to people, and you can thereby control them.

David More than the interactive beer commercials?

Francis: Yeah, I think so. But there’s a real competition there. To go back to the other array, interactive technology, the point is to get as much real interactivity–which means stuff relevant to the individual–and as little exploitation as possible. The problem here, again, is like the paradox of CNN–it gives a lot of information at the expense of jamming up your mind with a lot of noise, because that’s what pays the bills. So you have the same problem going here–the economic engine that drives the thing is commercial advertising.

David What’s your personal technique for filtering signal from noise?

Francis: Well, obviously you focus on the things that are of the most interest to you, unless you’ve slumped into this kind of somnambulistic trance of addict television watchers, where everything goes in, probably. One thing you can say about the brain–or everything we’ ve learned about it–is that it’s driven by internal goals and expectations, and to some extent those are being shaped by external forces and interaction. But at any given moment, it’s running on autopilot, and that automatically filters everything that’s cominginto you. In some people it does so more or less efficiently.

So if you’re a real needle-nose, a real information picker, then you have a very fine filter that turns up your inputs when the stuff that’s potentially interesting comes along and turns it down when its not. But at the same time, that uninteresting stuff is work that’s imposed on you, if you’re to filter it out. I mean, you can’t go to a movie today or rent a video tape without having fifteen minutes of advertisement at the beginning. It would be much better to have a system in which you can actually zoom in on and assign your energy to new information depending on its relevance to you.

And that is the promise of interactivity. Interactivity means, for instance, if you want to buy a car, you have a system that will answer the questions you’re interested in rather than pitching various things to you. First of all, that assumes that you have some questions. So if you’re already completely brain-dead, that’s not going to be any help. But to say that the brain is run by its own priorities and expectations is also to say, if you take that to an extreme, that we’re completely paranoid, or that we’re capable of being completely paranoid, because a perception is largely projection, in the psychological sense of the word. So the questions is, to what extent is it

all just projection?

If it’s complete, 100 percent projection, then you’re having pure hallucinations, which you might have if you were in an isolation tank on ketamine or something, where you’re completely turned out of the physical body and the physical world. Well, that mimics and extrapolates a state that all of us get into to various degrees, and that’s the extreme side of the fact that the brain is run by its own priorities and expectations. So then you say, “Well maybe here is a hidden hazard of interactive technology. You can become so focused on a particular program that you lose touch with everything outside that, and it becomes a self-perpetuating and perhaps, eventually, a self-destructive pattern. There are obvious examples, such as various kinds of mental illness, various kinds of obsessions and drug addictions, that take on this

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