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Out of Control
Chapter 2: HIVE MIND

The most inexplicable things will brew in any mind.

Because the body is plainly a collection of specialist organs-heart for pumping, kidneys for cleaning -- no one was too surprised to discover that the mind delegates cognitive matters to different regions of the brain.

In the late 1800s, physicians noted correlations in recently deceased patients between damaged areas of the brain and obvious impairments in their mental abilities just before death. The connection was more than academic: might insanity be biological in origin? At the West Riding Lunatic Asylum, London, in 1873, a young physician who suspected so surgically removed small portions of the brain from two living monkeys. In one, his incision caused paralysis of the right limbs; in the other he caused deafness. But in all other respects, both monkeys were normal. The message was clear: the brain must be compartmentalized. One part could fail without sinking the whole vessel.

If the brain was in departments, in what section were recollections stored? In what way did the complex mind divvy up its chores? In a most unexpected way.

In 1888, a man who spoke fluently and whose memory was sharp found himself in the offices of one Dr. Landolt, frightened because he could no longer name any letters of the alphabet. The perplexed man could write flawlessly when dictated a message. However, he could not reread what he had written nor find a mistake if he had made one. Dr. Landolt recorded, "Asked to read an eye chart, [he] is unable to name any letter. However he claims to see them perfectly....He compares the A to an easel, the Z to a serpent, and the P to a buckle."

The man's word-blindness degenerated to a complete aphasia of both speech and writing by the time of his death four years later. Of course, in the autopsy, there were two lesions: an old one near the occipital (visual) lobe and a newer one probably near the speech center.

Here was remarkable evidence of the bureaucratization of the brain. In a metaphorical sense, different functions of the brain take place in different rooms. This room handles letters, if spoken; that room, letters, if read. To speak a letter (outgoing), you need to apply to yet another room. Numbers are handled by a different department altogether, in the next building. And if you want curses, as the Monty Python Flying Circus skit reminds us, you'll need to go down the hall.

An early investigator of the brain, John Hughlings-Jackson, recounts a story about a woman patient of his who lived completely without speech. When some debris, which had been dumped across the street from the ward where she lived, ignited into flames, the patient uttered the first and only word Hughlings-Jackson had ever heard her say: "Fire!"

How can it be, he asked somewhat incredulous, that "fire" is the only word her word department remembers? Does the brain have its own "fire" department, so to speak?

As investigators probed the brain further, the riddle of the mind revealed itself to be deeply specific. The literature on memory features people ordinary in their ability to distinguish concrete nouns -- tell them "elbow" and they will point to their elbow -- but extraordinary in their inability to distinguish abstract nouns -- ask them about "liberty" or "aptitude" and they stare blankly and shrug. Contrarily, the minds of other apparently normal individuals have lost the ability to retain concrete nouns, while perfectly able to identify abstract things. In his wonderful and overlooked book The Invention of Memory, Israel Rosenfield writes:

One patient, when asked to define hay, responded, "I've forgotten"; and when asked to define poster, said, "no idea." Yet given the word supplication, he said, "making a serious request for help," and pact drew "friendly agreement."

Memory is a palace, say the ancient philosophers, where every room parks a thought. Yet with every clinical discovery of yet another form of specialized forgetfulness, the rooms of memory exploded in number. Down this road there is no end. Memory, already divided into a castle of chambers, balkanizes into a terrifying labyrinth of tiny closets.

One study pointed to four patients who could discern inanimate objects (umbrella, towel), but garbled living things, including foods! One of these patients could converse about nonliving objects without suspicion, but a spider to him was defined as "a person looking for things, he was a spider for a nation." There are records of aphasias that interfere with the use of the past tense. I've heard of another report (one that I cannot confirm, but one that I don't doubt) of an ailment that allows a person to discern all foods except vegetables.

The absurd capriciousness underlying such a memory system is best represented by the categorization scheme of an ancient Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, as interpreted by the South American fiction master J. L. Borges.

On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

As farfetched as the Celestial Emporium system is, any classification process has its logical problems. Unless there is a different location for every memory to be filed in, there will need to be confusing overlaps, say for instance, of a talking naughty pig, that may be filed under three different categories above. Filing the thought under all three slots would be highly inefficient, although possible.

The system by which knowledge is sequestered in our brain became more than just an academic question as computer scientists tried to build an artificial intelligence. What is the architecture of memory in a hive mind?

In the past most researchers leaned toward the method humans intuitively use for their own manufactured memory stashes: a single location for each archived item, with multiple cross-referencing, such as in libraries. The strong case for a single location in the brain for each memory was capped by a series of famously elegant experiments made by Wilder Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon working in the 1930s. In daring open-brain surgery, Penfield probed the living cerebellum of conscious patients with an electrical stimulant, and asked them to report what they experienced. Patients reported remarkably vivid memories. The smallest shift of the stimulant would generate distinctly separate thoughts. Penfield mapped the brain location of each memory while he scanned the surface with his probe.

His first surprise was that these recollections appeared repeatable, in what years later would be taken as a model of a tape recorder -- as in: "hit replay." Penfield uses the term "flash-back" in his account of a 26-year-old woman's postepileptic hallucination: "She had the same flash-back several times. These had to do with her cousin's house or the trip there -- a trip she has not made for ten to fifteen years but used to make often as a child."

The result of Penfield's explorations into the unexplored living brain produced the tenacious image of the hemispheres as fabulous recording devices, ones that seemed to rival the fantastic recall of the newly popular phonograph. Each of our memories was delicately etched into its own plate, catalogued and filed faithfully by the temperate brain, and barring violence, could be retrieved like a jukebox song by pushing the right buttons.

Yet, a close scrutiny of Penfield's raw transcripts of his probing experiments shows memory to be a less mechanical process. As one example, here are some of the responses of a 29-year-old woman to Penfield's pricks in her left temporal lobe: "Something coming to me from somewhere. A dream." Four minutes later, in exactly the same spot: "The scenery seemed to be different from the one just before..." In a nearby spot: "Wait a minute, something flashed over me, something I dreamt." In a third spot: further inside the brain, "I keep having dreams." The stimulation is repeated in the same spot: "I keep seeing things -- I keep dreaming of things."

These scripts tell of dreamlike glimpses, rather than disorienting reruns dredged up from the basement cubbyholes of the mind's archives. The owners of these experiences recognize them as fragmentary semimemories. They ramble with that awkward "assembled" flavor that dreams grow by -- unfocused tales of bits and pieces of the past reworked into a collage of a dream. The emotional charge of a dj vu was absent. No overwhelming sense of "it was exactly like this was then" pushed against the present. The replays should have fooled nobody.

Human memories do crash. They crash in peculiar ways, by forgetting vegetables on a list of things to buy at the grocery or by forgetting vegetables in general. Memories often bruise in tandem with a physical bruise of the brain, so we must expect that some memory is bound in time and space to some degree, since being bound to time and space is one definition of being real.

But the current view of cognitive science leans more toward a new image: memories are like emergent events summed out of many discrete, unmemory-like fragments stored in the brain. These pieces of half-thoughts have no fixed home; they abide throughout the brain. Their manner of storage differs substantially from thought to thought-learning to shuffle cards is organized differently than learning the capital of Bolivia -- and the manner differs subtly from person to person, and equally subtly from time to time.

There are more possible ideas/experiences than there are ways to combine neurons in the brain. Memory, then, must organize itself in some way to accommodate more possible thoughts than it has room to store. It cannot have a shelf for every thought of the past, nor a place reserved for every potential thought of the future.

I remember a night in Taiwan twenty years ago. I was in the back of an open truck on a dirt road in the mountains. I had my jacket on; the hill air was cold. I was hitching a ride to arrive at a mountain peak by dawn. The truck was grinding up the steep, dark road while I looked up to the stars in the clear alpine air. It was so clear that I could see tiny stars near the horizon. Suddenly a meteor zipped across low, and because of my angle in the mountains, I could see it skip across the atmosphere. Skip, skip, skip, like a stone.

As I just now remembered this, the skipping meteor was not a memory tape I replayed, despite its ready vividness. The skipping meteor image doesn't exist anywhere in particular in my mind. When I resurrected my experience, I assembled it anew. And I assemble it anew each time I remember it. The parts are tiny bits of evidence scattered sparsely through the hive of my brain: a record of cold shivering, of a bumpy ride somewhere, of many sightings of stars, of hitchhiking. The records are even finer grained than that: cold, bump, points of light, waiting. They are the same raw impressions our minds receive from our senses and with which it assembles our perceptions of the present.

Our consciousness creates the present, just as it creates the past, from many distributed clues scattered in our mind. Standing before an object in a museum, my mind associates its parallel straight lines with the notion of a "chair," even though the thing has only three legs. My mind has never before seen such a chair, but it compiles all the associations -- upright, level seat, stable, legs-and creates the visual image. Very fast. In fact, I will be aware of the general "chairness" of the chair before I can perceive its unique details.

Our memories (and our hive minds) are created in the same indistinct, haphazard way. To find the skipping meteor, my consciousness grabbed a thread with streaks of light and gathered a bunch of feelings associated with stars, cold, bumps. What I created depended on what else I had thrown into my mind recently, including what other thing I was doing/feeling last time I tried to assemble the skipping meteor memory. That's why the story is slightly different each time I remember it, because each time it is, in a real sense, a completely different experience. The act of perceiving and the act of remembering are the same. Both assemble an emergent whole from many distributed pieces.

"Memory," says cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, "is highly reconstructive. Retrieval from memory involves selecting out of a vast field of things what's important and what is not important, emphasizing the important stuff, downplaying the unimportant." That selection process is perception. "I am a very big believer," Hofstadter told me, "that the core processes of cognition are very, very tightly related to perception."

In the last two decades, a few cognitive scientists have contemplated ways to create a distributed memory. Psychologist David Marr proposed a novel model of the human cerebellum in the early 1970s by which memory was stored randomly throughout a web of neurons. In 1974, Pentti Kanerva, a computer scientist, worked out the mathematics of a similar web by which long strings of data could be stored randomly in a computer memory. Kanerva's algorithm was an elegant method to store a finite number of data points in a very immense potential memory space. In other words, Kanerva showed a way to fit any perception a mind could have into a finite memory mechanism. Since there are more ideas possible in the universe than there are atoms or minutes, the actual ideas or perceptions that a human mind can ever get to are relatively sparse within the total possibilities; therefore Kanerva called his technique a "sparse distributed memory" algorithm.

In a sparse distributed network, memory is a type of perception. The act of remembering and the act of perceiving both detect a pattern in a very large choice of possible patterns. When we remember, we re-create the act of the original perception; that is, we relocate the pattern by a process similar to the one we used to perceive the pattern originally.

Kanerva's algorithm was so mathematically clean and crisp that it could be roughly implemented by a hacker into a computer one afternoon. At the NASA Ames Research Center, Kanerva and colleagues fine-tuned his scheme for a sparse distributed memory in the mid-1980s by designing a very robust practical version in a computer. Kanerva's memory algorithm could do several marvelous things that parallel what our own minds can do. The researchers primed the sparse memory with several degraded images of numerals (1 to 9) drawn on a 20-by-20 grid. The memory stored these. Then they gave the memory another image of a numeral more degraded than the first samples to see if it could "recall" what the digit was. The memory could. It honed in on the prototypical shape that was behind all the degraded images. In essence it remembered a shape it had never seen before!

The breakthrough was not just being able to find or replay something from the past, but to find something in a vast hive of possibilities when only the vaguest clues are given. It is not enough to retrieve your grandmother's face; a memory must identify it when you see her profile in a wholly different light and from a different angle.

A hive mind is a distributed memory that both perceives and remembers. It is possible that a human mind may be chiefly distributed, yet, it is in artificial minds where distributed mind will certainly prevail. The more computer scientists thought about distributing problems into a hive mind, the more reasonable it seemed. They figured that most personal computers are not in actual use most of the time they are turned on! While composing a letter on a computer you may interrupt the computer's rest with a short burst of key pounding and then let it return to idleness as you compose the next sentence. Taken as a whole, the turned-on computers in an office are idle a large percentage of the day. The managers of information systems in large corporations look at the millions of dollars of personal computer equipment sitting idle on workers' desks at night and wonder if all that computing power might not be harnessed. All they would need is a way to coordinate work and memory in a very distributed system.

But merely combating idleness is not what makes distributing computing worth doing. Distributed being and hive minds have their own rewards, such as greater immunity to disruption. At Digital Equipment Corporation's research lab in Palo Alto, California, an engineer demonstrated this advantage of distributed computation by opening the door of the closet that held the company's own computer network and dramatically yanking a cable out of its guts. The network instantly routed around the breach and didn't falter a bit.

There will still be crashes in any hive mind, of course. But because of the nonlinear nature of a network, when it does fail we can expect glitches like an aphasia that remembers all foods except vegetables. A broken networked intelligence may be able to calculate pi to the billionth digit but not forward e-mail to a new address. It may be able to retrieve obscure texts on, say, the classification procedures for African zebra variants, but be incapable of producing anything sensible about animals in general. Forgetting vegetables in general, then, is less likely a failure of a local memory storage place than it is a systemwide failure that has, as one of its symptoms, the failure of a particular type of vegetable association -- just as two separate but conflicting programs on your computer hard disk may produce a "bug" that prevents you from printing words in italic. The place where the italic font is stored is not broken; but the system's process of rendering italic is broken.

Some of the hurdles that stand in the way of fabricating a distributed computer mind are being overcome by building the network of computers inside one box. This deliberately compressed distributed computing is also known as parallel computing, because the thousands of computers working inside the supercomputer are running in parallel. Parallel supercomputers don't solve the idle-computer-on-the-desk problem, nor do they aggregate widespread computing power; it's just that working in parallel is an advantage in and of itself, and worth building a million-dollar stand-alone contraption to do it.

Parallel distributed computing excels in perception, visualization, and simulation. Parallelism handles complexity better than traditional supercomputers made of one huge, incredibly fast serial computer. But in a parallel supercomputer with a sparse, distributed memory, the distinction between memory and processing fades. Memory becomes an reenactment of perception, indistinguishable from the original act of knowing. Both are a pattern that emerges from a jumble of interconnected parts.