Extensions to our physical path... but what about mental power?

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In the film "McLuhan's Wake" there is a passage saying that we created tools to enhance the way we touch (bow, cup, fork), we see (binoculars, glasses), we feel... These tools are extensions to our physical path... But if we think about the information society in the next ten years, there will not only be extensions to our physical path, but most probably also to our mental path.

In this essay I would like to refer to one of the driving forces I discussed earlier: Artificial Neural Networks (ANN).


Tetrad of McLuhan for ANN

In the sense of enhancement, there is a loop. You shape things, and they shape you. Following the Narcissus myth, artificial neural networks (ANNs) have to be a success. They are an extension of ourselves in a material other than our human bodies. They extend our human mental power, our reasoning and learning, a trait that makes us -humans- different.

However, although a lot of research was already done, ANNs are not a big success nowadays. Seyle and Jonas claim that our extensions are attempts to maintain an equilibrium. So the stimulus for this invention should be the stress of acceleration of pace and increase of load. Indeed, with the snowball development of the internet and the catching waves of information, our human minds are being challenged increasingly. We are looking for extensions of our memory capacities through books, databases, CDs, etc. However, the snowball won't stop and we will look for additional tools that can help remove our limited mental resources. We will need to reinstall the equilibrium.

I am positive that ANNs will play a larger role in our information society in the next ten years. Increased technological power, simulation possibilities and attention will stimulate the next information revolution.


Is there an older technology, method, system or medium that ANNs will replace? Very complex systems, huge databases and a lot of security personnel are being engaged to ensure our security worldwide. Faces of terrorists in 3 dimensions are stored into databases and spread around the world. However, faces change and recognition is difficult. This is one of the reasons why we humans are still involved in this process.

Complex iterative computer programs are trying to calculate physical characteristics in order to compare and judge the probability of someone being a terrorist... or not. ANNs can recognize patterns and learn through simulation and practice. ANNs can handle this job and obsolesce the system of computers, databases and human beings.

ANNs partially already replace our pets. The example and success of Tamagotchi [1] and the ongoing development of cats and dogs with artificial intelligence [2] [3]proove that the urge for this extension is alive.


The link between the brain and electronics

It is not easy finding marginalized or repressed ideas, practices or artefacts that are brought back to the frontstage through ANNs. That was before I thought of education. The increased interconnectivity and the possibility of finding anything everytime on the internet through "efficient" search mechanisms has opened an opportunity for us to learn anything at any time. The internet has taken over the task of education in some way. Respect and awareness of the art of education has deterioted over the last couple of decades. Knowledgable people are not receiving the same respect as they used to gain. Through ANNs however, we rediscover the importance of learning and teaching. How to teach an artificial brain has become a science "an sich".

Thus, in my opinion ANNs retrieve the practice of teaching and of learning how to teach.


Fully pushed to its extreme, the world of ANNs will reverse into mental laziness. Creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, fantasy and our capability to relate unrelated things will be marginalized and repressed. Take the example of the car. It enhanced our mobility, but reversed into traffic jams. Our mobility was turned into personal physical laziness. And although we know that we will be faced with this freedom restricting consequence, we still take that car everyday, waiting for our traffic jam to come.

A similar thing will happen to our brain, if we do not try to escape the vortex and jump out of the sailor's boat.

- Frederik De Meyer -

Back to McLuhan critical overview: [4]