Exocortices: A Definition of a Technology

By The Doctor

A common theme of science fiction in the transhumanist vein, and less commonly in applied (read: practical) transhumanist circles is the concept of having an exocortex either installed within oneself, or interfaced in some way with one’s brain to augment one’s intelligence.  To paint a picture with a fairly broad brush, an exocortex was a system postulated by JCR Licklider in the research paper Man-Computer Symbiosis which would implement a new lobe of the human brain which was situated outside of the organism (though some components of it might be internal).  An exocortex would be a symbiotic device that would provide additional cognitive capacity or new capabilities that the organism previously did not posses, such as:

  • Identifying and executing cognitively intensive tasks (such as searching for and mining data for a project) on behalf of the organic brain, in effect freeing up CPU time for the wetware.
  • Adding additional density to existing neuronal networks to more rapidly and efficiently process information.  Thinking harder as well as faster.
  • Providing databases of experiential knowledge (synthetic memories) for the being to “remember” and act upon.  Skillsofts, basically.
  • Adding additional “execution threads” to one’s thinking processes.  Cognitive multitasking.
  • Modifying the parameters of one’s consciousness, for example, modulating emotions to suppress anxiety and/or stimulate interest, stimulating a hyperfocus state to enhance concentration, or artificially inducing zen states of consciousness.
  • Expanding short-term memory beyond baseline parameters.  For example, mechanisms that translate short-term memory into long-term memory significantly more efficiently.
  • Adding I/O interfaces to the organic brain to facilitate connection to external networks, processing devices, and other tools.

What I consider early implementations of such a cognitive prosthetic exist now and can be constructed using off-the-shelf hardware and open source software.  One might carefully state that, observing that technologies build on top of one another to advance in sophistication, these early implementations may pave the way for the future sci-fi implementations.  While a certain amount of systems administration and engineering know-how is required at this time to construct a personal exocortex, system automation for at-scale deployments can be used to set up and maintain a significant amount of exocortex infrastructure.  Personal interface devices – smartphones, tablets, smart watches, and other wearable devices – are highly useful I/O devices for exocortices, and probably will be until such time that direct brain interfaces are widely available and affordable.  There are also several business models inherent in exocortex technology but it should be stressed that potential compromises of privacy, issues of trust, and legal matters (in particular in the United States and European Union) are also inherent.  This part of the problem space is insufficiently explored and thus expert assistance is required.

Here are some of the tools that I used to build my own exocortex:

Ultimately, computers are required to implement such a prosthesis.  Lots of them.  I maintain multiple virtual machines at a number of hosting providers around the world, all running various parts of the infrastructure of my exocortex.  I also maintain multiple physical servers to carry out tasks which I don’t trust to hardware that I don’t personally control.  Running my own servers also means that I can build storage arrays large enough for my needs without spending more money than I have available at any one time.  For example, fifty terabytes of disk space on a SAN in a data center might cost hundreds of dollars per month, but the up-front cost of a RAID-5 array with at least one hotspare drive for resiliency was roughly the same amount.  Additionally, I can verify and validate that the storage arrays are suitably encrypted and sufficiently monitored.

Back end databases are required to store much of the information my exocortex collects and processes.  They not only hold data for all of the applications that I use (and are used by my software), they serve as the memory fields for the various software agents I use.  The exact databases I use are largely irrelevant to this article because they all do the same thing, just with slightly different network protocols and dialects of SQL.  The databases are relational databases right now because the software I use requires them, but I have schemes for document and graph databases for use with future applications as necessary.  I also make use of several file storage and retrieval mechanisms for data that parts of me collect: Files of many kinds, copies of web pages, notes, annotations, and local copies of data primarily stored with other services.  I realize that it sounds somewhat stereotypical for a being such as myself to hoard information, but as often as not I find myself needing to refer to a copy of a whitepaper (such as Licklider’s, referenced earlier in this article) and having one at hand with a single search.  Future projects involve maintaining local mirrors of certain kinds of data for preferential use due to privacy issues and risks of censorship or even wholesale data destruction due to legislative fiat or political pressure.

Arguably, implementing tasks is the most difficult part.  A nontrivial amount of programming is required as well as in-depth knowledge of interfacing with public services, authentication, security features… thankfully there are now software frameworks that abstract much of this detail away.  After many years of building and rebuilding and fighting to maintain an army of software agents I ported much of my infrastructure over to  Andrew Cantino’s Huginn.  Huginn is a software framework which implements several dozen classes of semi-autonomous software agents, each of which is designed to implement one kind of task, like sending an HTTP request to a web server, filtering events by content, emitting events based upon some external occurrance, sending events to other services.  The basic concept behind Huginn is the same as the UNIX philosophy: Every functional component does one thing, and does it very well.  Events generated by one agent can be ingested by other agents for processing.  The end result is greater than the sum of the results achieved by each individual agent.  To be sure, I’ve written lots of additional software that plugs into Huginn because there are some things it’s not particularly good, mainly very long running tasks that require minimal user input on a random basis but result in a great deal of user output.

Storing large volumes of information requires the use of search mechanisms to find anything.  It can be a point of self-discipline to carefully name each file, sort them into directories, and tag them, but when you get right down to it that isn’t a sustainable effort.  My record is eleven years before giving up and letting search software do the work for me, and much more efficiently at that.  Primarily I use the YaCy search engine to index websites, documents, and archives on my servers because it works better than any search engine I’ve yet tried to write, has a reasonable API to interface with, and can be run as an isolated system (i.e., not participating in the global YaCy network, which is essential for preserving privacy).  When searching the public Net I use several personal instances of Searx, an open source meta-search engine that is highly configurable, hackable, and also presents a very reasonable API.

I make a point of periodically backing up as much of my exocortex as possible.  One of the first automated jobs that I set up on a new server or when installing new software is running automatic backups of the application as well as its datastores several times every day.  In addition, those backups are mirrored to multiple locations on a regular basis, and those multiple locations copy everything to cold storage once a day.  To conserve mass storage space I have a one month rotation period for those backups; copies older than 31 days are automatically deleted to reclaim space.

In future articles, I’ll talk about how I built my own exocortex, what I do with it, and what benefits and drawbacks it has in my everyday life.  I will also, of course, discuss some of the security implications and a partial threat model for exocortices.  I will also write about what I call “soft transhumanism” in the future, personal training techniques that form the bedrock of my technologically implemented augmentations.

After a talk given at HOPE XI.

This is the first in a series of articles by The Doctor

The Doctor is a security practitioner working for a large Silicon Valley software-as-a-service company on next-generation technologies to bring reality and virtuality closer together.  His professional background includes security research, red team penetration testing, open source intelligence analysis, and wireless security.  When not reading hex dumps, auditing code, and peeking through sensors scattered across the globe he travels through time and space inside a funny blue box, contributes designs and code to a number of open-source hardware and software projects, and hacks on his exocortex,a software ecosystem and distributed cognitive prosthesis that augments his cognitive capabilities and assists him in day to day life collecting information and by farming out personally relevant tasks.  His primary point of presence is the blog Antarctica Starts Here.

 

Steal This Singularity Part 3: Bean Counters in Paradise

 

It was 2008 — maybe a week or two into my first experience working with “official” “organized” (as if) transhumanism as editor of h+ magazine. I was being driven down from Marin Country to San Jose to listen to a talk by a scientist long associated with various transhumanoid obsessions, among them nanotechnology, encryption and cryonics. As we made the two hour trip, the conversation drifted to notions of an evolved humanity; a different sort of species — maybe disembodied or maybe not — but decidedly post-Darwinian and in control of its instincts. I suggested that a gloomy aspect of these projections was that sex would likely disappear, since those desires and pleasures arose from more primitive aspects of the human psyche. My driver told me that he didn’t like sex because it was a distraction — a waste of brain power… not to mention sloppy.

I arrived at a Pizza Hut in an obscure part of the city. This gathering of about 15 – 20 transhumanoids would take place over cheap pizza in the back room that was reserved for the event. There was even a projector and a screen.The speaker — a pear shaped fellow clad in dress pants held up by a belt pulled up above his stomach — started his rap. As I recall, he predicted major nanotechnology breakthroughs (real nanotechnology i.e. molecular machines capable of making copies of themselves and making just about anything that nature allows extremely cheaply) within our extended lifetimes, allowing us, among other things, to stay healthy  indefinitely and finally migrate into space.

I recall him presenting a scenario in which all of us — or many of us — could own some pretty prime real estate; that is, chunks of this galaxy, at the very least that we could populate with our very own advanced progeny (mind children, perhaps.) I’m a bit sketchy on the details from so long ago, but it was a very far out vision of us united with advanced intelligences many times greater than our own either never dying or arising from the frozen dead and, yes, each one getting this gigantic chunk of space real estate to populate. (That these unlivable areas can be made livable either by changing it or ourselves or both with technology is the assumption here.)

Once the speaker had laid out the amazing future as scientifically plausible, he confessed that he was mainly there to make a pitch.  Alcor  — the cryonics company that he was involved in — needed more customers. As he delineated how inexpensively one could buy an insurance policy to  be frozen for an eventual return performance, he began to emphasize the importance of a person in cryonics not being considered legally dead… because that person could then build interest on a savings account or otherwise have his or her value increase in a stock market that was — by all nanocalculations — destined to explode into unthinkable numbers (a bigger boom).

For the bulk of his talk, the speaker dwelt on the importance of returning decades or maybe even a century or so hence to a handsome bank account. It was one of those “I can’t emphasize this enough” sort of talks that parents used to give to their 20-something kids about 401ks. Read more “Steal This Singularity Part 3: Bean Counters in Paradise”

The Invention of Reality Hackers – A “Mutazine” (1988)

Something was starting to surface. Several small subcultures were drifting together, and some of these esoteric groupings included those who were creating the next economy. Clearly, we were positioned to become the magazine of a slow baking gestalt.

 

From Freaks In The Machine: MONDO 2000 in Late 20th Century Tech Culture

by R.U. Sirius

Some time in 1988, we made a rash decision. Despite High Frontiers relatively successful rise within the ‘zine scene (where 18,000 in sales was solid), we decided to change the name of the magazine itself to Reality Hackers.

It was my idea.

We’d been hipped to cyberpunk SF and I’d read Gibson’s Neuromancer and Sterling’s Mirrorshades collection. Sterling’s famous introduction for that book, describing what cyberpunk was doing in fiction — seemed to express precisely what a truly contemporary transmutational magazine should be about. Here are some parts of it:

“The term, (cyberpunk) captures something crucial to the work of these writers, something crucial to the decade as a whole: a new kind of integration. The overlapping of worlds that were formerly separate: the realm of high tech, and the modern pop underground.

“This integration has become our decade’s crucial source of cultural energy. The work of the cyberpunks is paralleled throughout the Eighties pop culture: in rock video; in the hacker underground; in the jarring street tech of hip hop and scratch music; in the synthesizer rock of London and Tokyo. This phenomenon, this dynamic, has a global range; cyberpunk is its literary incarnation…

An unholy alliance of the technical world and the world of organized dissent — the underground world of pop culture, visionary fluidity, and street-level anarchy…

For the cyberpunks… technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.

Certain central themes spring up repeatedly in cyberpunk. The theme of body invasion: prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, genetic alteration. The even more powerful theme of mind invasion: brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, neurochemistry — techniques radically redefining — the nature of humanity, the nature of the self. Read more “The Invention of Reality Hackers – A “Mutazine” (1988)”

Some Comments About The Transhumanist Project (2014)

by R.U. Sirius

One problem is the underlying philosophical assumptions that enhancement is always enhancement or is just enhancement. And I always think of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that our extensions come with amputations.

 

 

These are some comments that I wrote in response to some questions from Peter Rothman on the h+ website in 2014

 

Transhumanism as an ism — or a belief system — is probably about the right of individuals and, possibly, the human species as a whole (or large groups therefrom) to self-enhance and to engage in an experiment in self-directed evolution, in a literal sense. In other words, not that we merely have glasses and cell phones but that we might become something other, in a biological and/or perceptual sense.

 

I don’t think it’s necessarily optimistic and I don’t think it’s necessarily rationalist, (particularly when we’re talking about people who think they’re pretty darn rational, who can only really be responded to with satire). I do think rationality and technology — stuff that actually works — are the fundamental tools for attaining an increasingly transhuman or posthuman condition. But tools are not, in and of themselves, paradigms. So individual transhumanists may feel like rationalism is a fine tool for living well but not the essential factor in actually living or even in apprehending what life is about… to the degree that can even be done, or in having social relationships.

 

My ongoing support for the idea of transhumanism is partly a rare acquiescence  to foolish consistency. I’d like to see if the project of a positive radical mutation of the human condition suggested by people like Timothy Leary can somehow win the day; whether, with the engineers and scientists in the vanguard of making it possible, we alternatively minded mutant types can pull a few aces from the bottom of the deck and actually somehow transform this pinched, mean, surveilled, existentially barren and risky 21st civilization into something that feels like liberation, generosity and heightened awareness. At this moment, the tools that could be applied to such a state of affairs are gathering, but the memetic and environmental thrusts lean towards epic failure.

Read more “Some Comments About The Transhumanist Project (2014)”