The World Beyond Boundaries

360 The Virgin Oil Painting by Gustav Klimt


I  first came across Miguel Nicolelis in an article for the MIT Technology Review entitled The Brain is not computable: A leading neuroscientist says Kurzweil’s Singularity isn’t going to happen. Instead, humans will assimilate machines. That got my attention. Nicolelis, if you haven’t already heard of him, is one of the world’s top researchers in building brain-computer interfaces. He is the mind behind the project to have a paraplegic using a brain controlled exoskeleton make the first kick in the 2014 World Cup. An event that takes place in Nicolelis’ native Brazil.

In the interview, Nicolelis characterizes the singularity “as a bunch of hot air”. His reasoning being that “The brain is not computable and no engineering can reproduce it,”. He explains himself this way:

You can’t predict whether the stock market will go up or down because you can’t compute it,” he says. “You could have all the computer chips ever in the world and you won’t create a consciousness.”

This non-computability of consciousness, he thinks, has negative implications for the prospect of ever “downloading” (or uploading) human consciousness into a computer.

“Downloads will never happen,” he declares with some confidence.

Science journalism, like any sort of journalism needs a “hook” and the hook here was obviously a dig at a number of deeply held beliefs among the technorati; namely, that AI was on track to match and eventually surpass human level intelligence, that the brain could be emulated computationally, and that, eventually, the human personality could likewise be duplicated through computation.

The problem with any hook is that they tend to leave you with a shallow impression of the reality of things. If the world is too complex to be represented in software it is even less able to be captured in a magazine headline or 650 word article. For that reason,  I wanted a clearer grasp of where Nicolelis was coming from, so I bought his recent and excellent, if a little dense, book, Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines—and How It Will Change Our Lives. Let me start with a little of  Nicolelis’ research and from there flesh out the neuroscientist’s view of our human-machine future, a view I found both similar in many respects and at the same time very different from perspectives typical today of futurists thinking about such things.

If you want to get an idea of just how groundbreaking Nicolelis’ work is, the best thing to do is to peruse the website of his lab.  Nicolelis and his colleagues have done conducted experiments where a monkey has controlled the body of a robot located on the other side of the globe, and where another simian has learned to play a videogame with its thoughts alone. Of course, his lab is not interested in blurring the lines between monkeys and computers for the heck of it, and the immediate aim of their research is to improve the lives of those whose ties between their bodies and their minds have been severed, that is, paraplegics. A fact which explains Nicolelis’ bold gamble to successfully demonstrate his lab’s progress by having a paralyzed person kickoff the World Cup.

For how much the humanitarian potential of this technology is inspiring, it is the underlying view of the brain the work of the Nicolelis Lab appears to experimentally support and the neuroscientist’s longer term view of the potential of technology to change the human condition that are likely to have the most lasting importance. They are views and predictions that put Nicolelis more firmly in the trans-humanist camp than might be gleaned from his MIT interview.

The first aspect of Nicolelis’ view of the brain I found stunning was the mind’s extraordinary plasticity when it came to the body. We might tend to think of our brain and our body as highly interlocked things, after all, our brains have spent their whole existence as part of one body- our own. This a reality that the writer, Paul Auster, turns into the basis of his memoir Winter Journal which is essentially the story of his body’s movement through time, its urges, muscles, scars, wrinkles, ecstasies and pains.

The work of Nicolelis’ Lab seems to sever the cord we might thinks joins a particular body and the brain or mind that thinks of it as home. As he states it in Beyond Boundaries:

The conclusion from more than two decades of experiments is that the brain creates a sense of body ownership through a highly adaptive, multimodal process, which can, through straightforward manipulations of visual, tactile, and body position (also known as proprioception) sensory feedback, induce each of us, in a matter of seconds, to accept another whole new body as being the home of our conscious existence. (66)

Psychologists have had an easy time with tricks like fooling a person into believing they possess a limb that is not actually theirs, but Nicolelis is less interested in this trickery than finding a new way to understand the human condition in light of his and others findings.

The fact that the boundaries of the brain’s body image are not limited to the body that brain is located in is one way to understand the perhaps almost unique qualities of the extended human mind. We are all ultimately still tool builders and users, only now our tools:

… include technological tools with which we are actively engaged, such as a car, bicycle, or walking stick; a pencil or a pen, spoon, whisk or spatula; a tennis racket, golf club, a baseball glove or basketball; a screwdriver or hammer; a joystick or computer mouse; and even a TV remote control or Blackberry, no matter how weird that may sound. (217)

Specialized skills honed over a lifetime can make a tool an even more intimate part of the self. The violin, an appendage of a skilled musician, a football like a part of the hand of a seasoned quarterback. Many of the most prized people in society are in fact master tool users even if we rarely think of them this way.

Even with our master use of tools, the brain is still, in Nicolelis’ view,trapped within a narrow sphere surrounding its particular body. It is here where he sees advances in neuroscience eventually leading to the liberation of the mind from its shell. The logical outcome of minds being able to communicate directly to computers is a world where, according to Nicolelis:

… augmented humans make their presence felt in a variety of remote environments, through avatars and artificial tools controlled by thought alone. From the depths of the oceans to the confines of supernovas, even to the tiny cracks of intracellular space, human reach will finally catch up to our voracious appetite to explore the unknown. (314)

He characterizes this as Mankind’s “epic journey of emancipation from the obsolete bodies they have inhabited for millions of years” (314) Yet, Nicolelis sees human communication with machines as but a stepping stone to the ultimate goal- the direct exchange of thoughts between human minds. He imagines the sharing of what has forever been the ultimately solipsistic experience of what it is like to be a particular individual with our own very unique experience of events, something that can never be fully captured even in the most artful expressions of,  language. This exchange of thoughts, which he calls “brainstorms” is something Nicolelis does not limit to intimates- lovers and friends- but which he imagines giving rise to a “brain- net”.

Could we one day, down the road of a remote future, experience what it is to be part of a conscious network of brains, a collectively thinking true brain-net? (315)

… I have no doubt that the rapacious voracity with which most of us share our lives on the Web today offers just a hint of the social hunger that resides deep in human nature. For this reason, if a brain- net ever becomes practicable,  I suspect it will spread like a supernova explosion throughout human societies. (316)

Given this context, Nicolelis’ view on the Singularity and the emulation or copying of human consciousness on a machine is much more nuanced than the impression one is left with from the MIT interview. It is not that he discounts the possibility that “advanced machines may come to dominate and even dominate the human race” (302) , but that he views it as a low probability danger relative to the other catastrophic risks faced by our species.

His views on prospect of human level intelligence in machines is less that high level machine intelligence is impossible, but that our specific type of intelligence is non-replicable. Building off of Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of the “life tape”  the reason being that we can not duplicate through engineering the sheer contingency that lies behind the evolution of human intelligence. I understand this in light of an observation by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, that I remember but cannot place, that it may be technically feasible to replicate mechanically an exact version of a living bird, but that it may prove prohibitively expensive, as expensive as our journeys to the moon, and besides we don’t need to exactly replicate a living bird- we have 747s. Machine intelligence may prove to be like this where we are never able to replicate our own intelligence other than through traditional and much more exciting means, but where artificial intelligence is vastly superior to human intelligence in many domains.

In terms of something like uploading, Nicolelis does believe that we will be able to record and store human thoughts- his brainstorms- at some place in the future, we may be able to record  the whole of a life in this way, but he does not think this will mean the preservation of a still experiencing intelligence anymore than a piece by Chopin is the actual man. He imagines us deliberately recording the memories of individuals and broadcasting them across the universe to exist forever in the background of the cosmos which gave rise to us.

I can imagine all kinds of wonderful developments emerging should the technological advances Nicolelis imagines coming to pass. It would revolutionize psychological therapy, law, art and romance. It would offer us brand new ways to memorialize and remember the dead.

Yet, Nicolelis’ Omega Point- a world where all human being are brought together into one embracing common mind, has been our dream at least since Plato, and the very antiquity of these urges should give us pause, for what history has taught us is that the optimistic belief that “this time is different” has never proved true. A fact which should encourage us to look seriously, which Nicolelis himself refuse to do, at the potential dark side of the revolution in neuroscience this genius Brazilian is helping to bring about. It is less a matter of cold pessimism to acknowledge this negative potential as it is a matter of steeling ourselves against disappointment, at the the least, and in preventing such problem from emerging in the first place at best, a task I will turn to next time…


27 comments on “The World Beyond Boundaries

  1. whitefrozen says:

    AI and the cognitive sciences are the things to watch right now.

      • jeff says:

        I am putting together a project on machine ethics (especially AI and related) and wonder if you would like to paste a couple of your posts here together into a chapter? I liked the stuff on dark enlightenment and new dark ages and especially the one on Present Shock from last summer and, of course, this most recent… All would serve as valuable contributions to the text. Please consider replying asap if you are interested.

      • Rick Searle says:

        Sure, Jeff I might be interested. Please provide me with some contact info and we’ll communicate as to the nature of your project so I can discern if I am interested.

        Thank you for the offer,


      • jeff says:

        Sorry, I thought that you were able to view the email address through which I had posted the invitation. Try drwhite at

      • Rick Searle says:

        Hello Jeff, I just sent you an email.

  2. James Cross says:

    Thanks for bringing this to attention.

    There is a great Wired article that makes some of the same points about how unlikely (probably impossible) it will to replicate human consciousness with a machine.

    I link to it here:

    A key part of Penrose’s argument for a quantum basis of consciousness is also based on the non-computability of consciousness.

    I would also argue that a key aspect of life is information incarnating in matter. Mind and consciousness just extends this. Consciousness is in the upper tiers of a scaffold. At the bottom tier are the almost magical properties of carbon molecules that allow them to be basis of the complex and varied structures that compose life. It is the shape and arrangement – almost the physical structures of the molecules – that allow information to accumulate and act on matter. As we go up the scaffold, we find one celled organisms, colonies of organisms (for example slime mold) acting in concert, multicellular organisms, then increasing complexity with eventually organisms with specialized neural cells and eventually brains. Culture itself becomes a tier above consciousness. It already allows a sharing of consciousness across individual organisms.Each level of the scaffold is built upon the structures which lay beneath them and in many replicate in form the patterns of the lower levels. I have little doubt that machines – the product of human culture – will continue this path of increasing complexity and joining life into larger and larger units.

    • Rick Searle says:

      For me, I think this quote from the Wired article gets to the core of the issue:

      “An algorithm is only a set of instructions, and even the most sophisticated machine executing the most elaborate instructions is still an unconscious automaton.”

      Still, even if machines are unlikely to be conscious in the human or even animal sense I do not think this means that we will not be able to reduce many of the things human beings now do via their intelligence to algorithmic processes to be performed by less than conscious machines. This in some ways is a great danger to us, though not in the form sigulartarians suppose.

  3. hannahgivens says:

    Singularity scaremongering has happened several times in recent technology-based classes I’ve taken. Thanks for this different perspective, interesting stuff!

  4. jjhiii24 says:


    This is an interesting take on the subject of “conscious machines,” and whether or not the proposed “singularity” will ever actually take place, and Miguel Nicolelis has my vote as a voice of balanced reasoning on the subject.. I’m not sure if we can be all that certain about what might happen in the world of AI in a hundred years, and there may well be extraordinary simulations of the human brain, and maybe even some kind of interactive intelligent machines like those we see in the movies by then, but no matter what the AI experts are able to eventually accomplish in the recreating the mind-boggling complexity of the brain, the non-computability of consciousness isn’t simply a matter of not being able to figure out how even the brain allows us access to such an astonishing phenomenon as consciousness. It’s not computable precisely because consciousness is not simply the result of brain physiology alone in the first place!

    Even with an exact replica in silicon or carbon atoms or whatever conduit becomes available in the future, the human brain is a vessel through which consciousness is made manifest, but it does not generate consciousness. The assumption seems to be that because humans have consciousness and since the human brain has a specific level of complexity, all we have to do is to match it or exceed it and voila!….consciousness.

    Whether or not we eventually are able to produce a machine capable of interacting with us in a way that mimics our own interactions with other conscious humans well enough to be convincing as having an interaction with another sentient being remains an open question. Human evolution took hundreds of millions of years to utilize that same level of complexity to gain access to a level of conscious awareness which became what we possess today. Whatever developmental progress in brain physiology and cognitive functioning was necessary for the first conscious humans to finally realize that they existed, simply possessing (or recreating) that level of complexity is only ONE of the components necessary for the development of consciousness.

    I wanted to congratulate you also because I found the length of this posting to be just about right for reading all the way through without skipping over anything….just sayin’….

    Regards…..John H.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hi John, hope all is well.

      The thing is your point:

      … the human brain is a vessel through which consciousness is made manifest, but it does not generate consciousness.

      Is almost exactly the same as that who hold onto the prospect of Strong AI. For them consciousness is just “software” the brain or “vessel” itself doesn’t matter.

      I am not a proponent of strong AI, but from your point of view I wonder why if the “soul” can inhabit the human body what keeps it from moving into a new type of vessel in the form of a very complex machine?

      • jjhiii24 says:

        You are mistaking what the Strong AI proponents call “software,” for the “soul,” and they are NOT the same thing at all. Software in a computer is a set of instructions encoded and read by the computer. The signals are all zeros and ones which when loaded into the machine, direct it to perform functions. The software in that instance is a component of the machine, a physical component. The soul is not a download, or a set of instructions based on algorithms.

        The “soul,” (or whatever word suits the speaker,) is a non-physical entity which does not “inhabit” the vessel in any sense that the word can be used. It is not measurable or quantifiable in the same way that “software” can be, and using the word “software” is an inappropriate metaphor for the soul.

        Consciousness probably exists outside of our current abilities to detect it physically, and it is clearly beyond our capacity to measure it in the same way that we can detect and measure and describe software.

        Consciousness is like electromagnetism, gravity, and the nuclear forces in the sense that it exists and acts upon the temporal universe in ways that infer its existence, but it is only measurable by inference, by the results of observation. We calculate the strength of those forces by their measurable effects as they are observed. Sensors detect their presence, but they do not GENERATE those forces. Those forces simply exist.

        The biggest difference between all other forces or elements of “software” that run the universe and consciousness, in my view, is that consciousness is a component of LIFE–living matter. Sentience has a biological substrate–the brain–but consciousness is not just a brain function–it has a holistic relationship to a non-physical realm which utilizes living tissue in the brain to become manifest in temporal terms. The brain is like a radio receiver and consciousness is the signal that is produced when the two interact, but it is not quantifiable or measurable because it does not exist temporally in the same way that radio waves do.

        No one knows how it is that humans are able to access the realm of consciousness. None of the science of the brain can explain it, and reducing it to “software,” is a gross error. The vessel matters. Whatever manufacturing process they may, at some point, invent to produce a machine as complex as a brain, will never BE a living human brain. It may be marvelous and do wonderful things but it will not be alive or consist of living tissue.

        That is my point…..

      • Rick Searle says:

        You seem upset John.

        The point is you share the same dualism. Software is just thoughts after all.

        Defining the soul or consciousness as something undefinable isn’t all that helpful, and how can you truly know? There are many things we did not understand before and now understand them,

        How can you establish some arbitrary line between the consciousness of the living and the not living? If we ever made something that appeared to us to truly think and feel and create we should treat it as sharing the same realm of consciousness, whatever it is, as we do. And if there is an afterlife they should be allowed entry.

      • jjhiii24 says:


        I’m not upset. You seem willing to suppose that just because we understand more now, that it somehow means everything can be understood in the same terms. This is not the case at all.

        It seems very likely to me that there are still aspects of existence, phenomena in the universe, and dimensions or realms that exist which are all beyond our ability to detect them or comprehend them presently, and without a clear temporal reference point or a defined context in which we might discuss and describe such phenomena, attempting to describe them or attribute them to known phenomena isn’t all that helpful either.

        It’s completely obvious to ME, by common sense reasoning and also considering every known scientific principle, that consciousness has only been established as being available in living tissue. I do not think that this is a coincidence. LIFE, Rick, living tissue, DNA, chromosomes, primates, the evolution of life, is what produced creatures who clearly have access to consciousness. It’s not arbitrary.

        And software is NOT just thoughts after all. That is an arrogant and narrow-minded way of looking at a profoundly important and unique aspect of humanity. Thoughts are not simply electrical signals in the brain. Thoughts ALSO become manifest, and at times they burst out into the world as innovations and new ideas that change the world. They become visible consequences of an invisible phenomenon. They are an unseen aspect of existence that has a direct effect on the seen. You cannot hold a thought in your hand. You can only hold the RESULTS of a thought.

        Your suggestion that artificial intelligence might produce something that APPEARS to think and feel is a clear possibility. Your suggestion that such a device should be granted entry into the afterlife is absurd.

        David Chalmers is a philosopher who has written extensively about how he supposes that consciousness might be explained by what he calls. “naturalistic dualism.” Since it seems that NONE of the avenues currently available to us temporally can explain consciousness satisfactorily, it MAY be that it is a natural component of our existence in very much the same way that gravity is a natural component of items with sufficient mass. Without being able to say definitively why it is that way, we are still forced to acknowledge that it IS that way.

        I KNOW that I am conscious, and without being able to say that I DEFINITIVELY know what accounts for the existence of consciousness, subjectively I EXPERIENCE consciousness, and from my experience I INFER that it exists, and that it currently has no clearly defined temporal reference point, which leaves very little alternative than to suppose that some OTHER explanation must be correct.

        It is presumptuous at best to say things like “it’s only software anyway,” and those sorts of assumptions are not all that helpful either…

        John H.

      • Rick Searle says:

        My comment on thought being “just software” is something I don’t really believe. But I don’t believe mind is just thought either, (which is where the confusion that we could replicate a mind if we just copied the thought structures “software” behind them came from) Rather, mind has to do with the physical organization of the brain and its activity. Will we ever be able to replicate that in some substrate other than carbon? Don’t know, but over the very long haul, I would guess that we can.

        Our fundamental philosophical disagreement is on your view that consciousness must not be a purely material phenomenon because we have yet to fully explain it I think this is a risky strategy for anyone to follow who wants to preserve belief in the transcendent, not the other way around,

        At one time it was thought that the complexity of life could not be explained by natural processes, same goes for the existence of the universe, These are pretty big things, indeed they SUBSUME, consciousness under them, so I’d hedge my bets that someday consciousness will be explained in reference to merely physical phenomenon.

        For me, just because we have a material explanation of something doesn’t make it any less miraculous or wonderful. We have a pretty good understanding of the biochemistry behind love, but knowing this doesn’t make love any less awesome.Same would go for mystical experiences or self-awareness. The very fact that we exist at all and are aware enough to argue about it is miracle enough for me, if scientists someday fully explain it,I will still think it holy.

      • jjhiii24 says:

        It’s actually quite reassuring to me that we have a few philosophical differences on this subject, and it is a benefit to everyone when differences are discussed openly and with vigor.

        A definitive explanation or comprehensive theory for consciousness will not be likely to appear for some time, in my view, since it is my feeling that without a transcendent aspect being considered, we will be missing a fundamental component of any such theory. While there may be a greater role for the material side than the one of which we are currently aware, even using a word like “merely,” when referencing physical phenomena, frames the physical aspects as being unable to encompass such a complex and “miraculous” part of our existence. You may be satisfied to attribute material explanations for everything and that is your prerogative, but my belief in the transcendent is preserved just fine, thank you, regardless of your mistaken belief that it is a risky proposition.

        The biochemistry of love, by the way, is not love itself. It is an explanation for the way in which love is made manifest through the physical body. Love does not require biochemistry in order to exist. It only needs it to be expressed in the temporal body. Without a functional system of biochemistry in the body, love cannot be expressed or demonstrated physically, but it still exists whether we express it or not.

        You may experience love only in a physical sense, but it has a transcendent component that cannot be expressed in temporal terms. I’m glad you think that it’s awesome, since AWE is defined as:

        “…an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.”

        Biochemistry is great for explaining a physiological response to love, but it does not explain what love is really all about in the first place. Love is awesome, sublime, and inspires reverence, and the source of love is not “merely,” biochemistry, but something much grander still.

        Just sayin’…

      • jeff says:

        Try CS Peirce’s late writings on “evolutionary love” as universal force, effectively a final-causal truth-bearing ‘pull’ of all things together in synthetic concrescence … Material basis, material vehicle, material realization, very much felt by material things, and recognized by human beings as a motivational aspiration to unity through autopoietic self-expansion. Of course, I take some liberties – e.g. Peirce never explicitly references auotpoiesis – but an explanation is nearer than you might think as an extension of this tradition to current formulations of the same problem with which the greatest minds in history had dealt, and which is too often sadly enough now left to tourists, mostly.

      • Rick Searle says:

        Peirce is a fascinating thinker I need to devote some time to. Self-organization and agapism is certainly an attractive option if one wants to take a wide angle view of meaning, though, I have not thought this through, and have doubts as to how this fits with our cosmology which keeps (theoretically) making existence bigger and more multiple e.g our universe as only one region of an extended universe where the laws of physics themselves may vary, and the conditions of self-organization and ripeness for life not hold.

  5. Rick Searle says:

    John, there is actually more agreement between us than you might think, our differences are ones of framework. I have always thought that any description of reality that lacked the poetic was woefully inadequate.Love is an emergent poetic reality as is wonder and morality and much else besides,But I am not wired to believe in spirits or spirit worlds as explanatory frameworks, These emergent properties are miracles in a sense, but that they exist remains a deep and likely forever impenetrable mystery,

    • jeff says:

      As a rule, I distinguish between explanations and accounts.
      One can account for things in many different ways.
      An explanation, however, aims to lay out the most points of observation (all)
      through the least number of dimensions,
      so that these things and their relationships can be seen clearly by anyone standing in the middle of the field from within which these observations are made –
      ex-plain = put out on a plain (plane)
      with ‘plane’ here taken to be some surface, of some dimension, and not simply a “flat” surface with 2 .
      After all, to expect so of ‘plane’ would be so ‘flat-landish’ of any serious scientist…
      Anyways, in this spirit, sure, felt love in all of its manifestations must be part of an explanation, but is only one account, amongst many.
      An explanation, on the other hand, makes consistent and easy sense of this account, and of all (possible) others at the same time.
      Here, I am reminded of Socrates’ speech in the Symposium, for anyone who still studies Plato out there.
      One account of love to rule (measure) them all.

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  7. […] Somewhat above this level due to the cost for the required AI were so-called “ghost-rooms”. In all prior centuries some who suffered the death of a loved one would attempt to freeze time by, for instance, leaving unchanged a room in which the deceased had spent the majority of their time. Now the dead could actually “live” in such rooms, whether as a 3D hologram (hence the name ghost rooms) or in the form of an android that resembled the deceased. The most “life-like” forms of these AI’s were based on the maps of detailed “brainstorms” of the deceased. A technique perfected earlier in the century by the neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis. […]

  8. […] Somewhat above this level due to the cost for the required AI were so-called “ghost-rooms”. In all prior centuries some who suffered the death of a loved one would attempt to freeze time by, for instance, leaving unchanged a room in which the deceased had spent the majority of their time. Now the dead could actually “live” in such rooms, whether as a 3D hologram (hence the name ghost rooms) or in the form of an android that resembled the deceased. The most “life-like” forms of these AI’s were based on the maps of detailed “brainstorms” of the deceased. A technique perfected earlier in the century by the neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis. […]

  9. […] growth of human power has been based not on individual intelligence, but collective organization. New forms of organization using technologies like brain-nets might become available at some future date, and based on the scalability of these technologies […]

  10. […] It is as a work of philosophical clarification that Posthuman Life succeeds best, though a close runner up would be the way Roden manages to explain and synthesize many of the major movements within philosophy in the modern period in a way that clearly connects them to what many see as upcoming challenges to traditional philosophical categories as a consequence of emerging technologies from machines that exhibit more reasoning, or the disappearance of the boundary between the human, the animal, and the machine, or even the erosion of human subjectivity and individuality themselves. […]

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