Science, Philosophy, and Human Enhancement: An Interview with Brian Clegg, Scientist and Author
Learn more about Clegg's ideas on the written word, human memory, and the future of implants.
By Douglas L. Beck, AuD
Academy/Beck: Good Morning, Brian. It’s an honor to meet you.
Clegg: Thanks, Doug. Nice to meet you, too.
Academy/Beck: If you don’t mind, can we start with a brief overview of your education?
Clegg: Sure thing. A fun place to start is my grammar school up near Manchester, England, as it’s been there since the 1500s! But more to the point, I studied natural sciences at Cambridge specializing in experimental physics. After that, I went to the University of Lancaster where I earned a master’s degree in operations research. So my science background is broad-based and includes a great deal of work in industry and consulting with a number of firms and corporations.
Academy/Beck: Thanks, Brian. As I was reading through Upgrade Me, I was struck by the fact you’ve written so many extraordinary books addressing fabulously intense and interesting topics, and so before we get to the task at hand, may I ask, how long does it take you to write a book?
Clegg: From concept to completion is about nine months or maybe a little more. And then once I send it to the publisher, it may take another year or so until it’s in print. So I probably started writing Upgrade Me about two and a half years ago.
Academy/Beck: Brian, I promise we’ll get into some issues related to sound and hearing over the next few moments, but as long as we’ve got some time to chat, I’d love to discuss some general science issues with you. For example, what is it that separates humans from other primates?
Clegg: Well, genetically speaking, the answer is very little. Nonetheless, there is something very different about humans when compared to all other animals. Perhaps it comes down to the capability to think beyond the here and now. In other words, we can think about “What if this or that…” and more importantly, we know we’re going to die and therefore we assess risk and consider our own mortality all the time. We think about what we want to get done before we die and we think about how to make ourselves safer. So I think these components of human thought processes are part of what separates us from all other animals.
Academy/Beck: So humans can envision themselves in the future, into a psychologically derived time and space that has yet to occur, and the evidence is that other animals don’t, or perhaps cannot envision the future?
Clegg: Yes, that’s correct. The key is we act on the anticipation of the future, whereas other animals appear to just go on as if the present will continue.
Academy/Beck: Right, yet animals do seem to recall the past and can learn based on knowledge acquired from experience. For instance, if I find my dog chewing on my boots, if I say a cross word or tweak her nose, she’s not likely to do that again! At least not while I’m looking! And of course we can train animals by capitalizing on their behaviors with regard to reward and punishment for good and bad behaviors.
Clegg: That’s right. I have no doubt about their ability to learn, in fact, that’s a given. You’re right they do recall knowledge gained from the past. But the key here is their inability to take that knowledge forward and say “What if…” and apply it to a new situation. That’s where the road forks. We can put ourselves beyond the present.
Academy/Beck: In Upgrade Me, despite dozens of human accomplishments, you address three key human achievements, or enhancements as you referred to them…would you review those, please?
Clegg: Sure thing. One odd place to start with respect to human enhancement is to consider that we’ve domesticated dogs. Of course, I’m a dog lover—but it’s more than that. Dogs were originally wolves. Perhaps one cold evening they came to get warm around the campfire and maybe our ancestors threw them a scrap of food or two and over time we gradually developed a co-dependence. We essentially made them into domestic animals and workers, so in that sense, they can be thought of as a technology that serves us.
They protect us, they serve hearing impaired, blind and physically challenged people, too, they herd other animals and so much more. So the dog is an enhancement, or a “technology” of sorts that we started using well over 30,000 years ago and we’re still using it today.
The second thing is artificial light. Because we’re vulnerable to predators in the dark and because we as a society cannot interact or be productive without light after sundown, artificial light has allowed us to change the way we interact with the environment and the world around us, allowing us to control what we do and when we do it, rather than having sunrise and sunset dictate our behaviors.
The third thing would be flight. The Wright Brothers first set us off in this direction in 1903 and flight has come a very long way in a very short time. When you consider birds and insects, it took millions of years to develop wings and flight. What’s more, birds and insects are relatively weak as they need to be light weight. Humans developed artificial flight while maintaining our strength and physical abilities and while being able to travel farther and more quickly than other animals. So flight is a major enhancement that humans have developed.
Academy/Beck: Very interesting perspective; dogs, light, and flight as human enhancements. I certainly would not disagree, but frankly, I hadn’t considered them as such previously. Another thing you wrote about in Upgrade Me was the idea that the written word transcends time and space. Can you tell me a little about that?
Clegg: Sure. The idea is that writing allows language to travel beyond the constraints of time and physical space. For example, in my library here at home, I have words written by authors 2,000 years ago. I can take a book off the shelf and read their exact thoughts and words and get to know their ideas and mind-set. These words are not only thousands of years old, but were written on different continents. So humans can use the written word to transcend time and space and we can record our knowledge so as to build on that foundation in the future. So the written word does extend communication beyond the here and now. Words written thousands of miles away and thousands of years earlier can still reach and influence me.
Academy/Beck: And I suspect the same is true with respect to visual arts through photography and of course, recorded music. I can listen to the original recording of “Meet the Beatles” from some 45 years ago and the sound and energy has been preserved. Whereas the original sounds from the first tens of thousands of years of human-made music is gone forever.
Clegg: Yes, that’s right. Of course audio and video now can be stored, at least for the short term on discs. Nonetheless, I’m not certain that DVDs and CDs will be able to be played back in 50 years time, but that’s a discussion for a different day.
Academy/Beck: Okay then…I’ll switch topics a bit. What about short- and long-term human memory, with respect to computer memory?
Clegg: One thing I like to point out regarding memory is that human brains and computers have little in common. The starting point is human short-term memory can typically only hold seven items or so, in chunks and bits, but you can clearly hold and access many more items if they’re broken up into chunks and bits much like the old standard telephone numbers. Recall the days of the area code being associated with geographic areas? Before cell phones, if I wanted to phone you in San Antonio and I knew the area code was 210, then I wouldn’t actually have to remember that as part of your phone number. In other words, another part of my brain stores and accesses area codes in small blocks of information and I retrieve them as a separate item, perhaps from a different location within my brain. So my memory had an easier task performing two simple functions; retrieve the San Antonio area code and to apply your direct phone number. Of course it’s all different now in the United Kingdom. The cell phones are just streams of long numbers and no one can remember them at all!
Academy/Beck: That’s why we have speed dial!
Clegg: Yes, that’s the only way I can phone my wife. Nonetheless, human short-term memory resides in the pre-frontal cortex, i.e., the block of brain behind your forehead while long-term memory seems to reside scattered across and throughout the brain. The hippocampus is critically important for forming new memories and perhaps for accessing existing ones. Interestingly, human brains can use multiple links and triggers to locate memories such as words, sentences, visual images, sounds, smells, feel, and taste to recall a memory; this is often called “associative memory.” Computers are quite literal and can only recall exactly what was entered, pretty much in the terms entered. For example, if I recall a famous speech or this conversation, I don’t recall a sequence of letters and punctuation, I recall the sounds or perhaps the meaning, maybe the voice…but a computer is stuck with the linear sequence of characters. So human memory is fairly unrelated at this time to computer memory and human memory is much more dynamic. However, computer memory is terrifically accurate and detailed and extraordinarily fast.
Academy/Beck: In audiology, and I suppose in most professions, while counseling patients and perhaps while working in aural rehabilitation, we often say that if you want the patient to really remember something, such as their diagnosis or treatment plan, you must “engage the brain.” In other words, you’ve got to write it down, or give them a copy of the results, or discuss it from other angles, give them handouts and take home materials…anything to avoid them passively listening will help them recall the information later.
Clegg: Exactly right. Human memory works on many levels with respect to storage and recall, and has many storage tricks, signals and prompts it can respond to.
Academy/Beck: Brian, what are your thoughts on neural implants and neural prosthetics? Of course, we already have implants for electrical stimulation and magnetic stimulation for chronic headaches and tinnitus and Parkinson’s, and we have brain stem, cochlear, and visual implants; how close are we to “cerebral” implants?
Clegg: Well, memory implants and academic expansion implants may be quite a ways out there, still. In Upgrade Me, I tried to bring out that it’s not all necessarily about high-tech cutting-edge stuff. For example, a cheap plastic bottle filled with clean and cold drinking water is a simple but very important human enhancement that allows me to walk across the arid desert. Beyond that, as we discussed earlier off the record, we have medicines that stimulate thought and cognitive powers etc., and so the idea of a cerebral implant is not that strange, but understanding how and why it works, that is, designing and understanding the contents of the black box—that’s the trick. When I think about brain stem, cochlear, and retinal implants, they are absolutely fantastic. In fact, Doug, as you know, the cochlear implant is the most successful sensory implant ever developed. It’s only been approved for some 25 years and more than 100,000 people have them across the globe and they allow deaf children and adults to hear quite well. In fact, let me turn the table and ask you a question—What are the current expectations for children receiving cochlear implants? What do you quote as the general outcome?
Academy/Beck: If the child is implanted between 12 and 24 months, preferably closer to 12 months, the expectation is that by the time the child is in the first grade, they will be mainstreamed, interacting and learning using audition as their primary communication mode.
Clegg: That’s simply amazing, and inspiring.
Academy/Beck: Yes, it really is. We get used to it and it becomes quite well accepted and common, but it is truly amazing. Brian, before I let you go, please tell me your thoughts about modern hearing aids?
Clegg: Well Doug, this is your area of expertise, not mine, but I must tell you, it’s almost to the point where people wearing hearing aids have a bit of an advantage over those with normal hearing. In other words, through magnetic induction telecoils and while using Bluetooth connectivity, people using modern hearing aids can actually be more well connected to the world around them than those without hearing aids! Of course, I’m not advocating that we’d be better off with hearing loss, but the point is these new products do enhance human beings and provide an improved quality of life. In fact, for those of us that don’t wear hearing aids, we get reverberation and background noise, and we get a natural signal that degrades with distance, but for those using Bluetooth connectivity or telecoils to send the signal directly into their hearing aids, they get a constant signal, optimized for their degree of hearing loss.
Academy/Beck: Yes, I agree. Brian, you’ve been very generous with your time, and it’s delightful to chat with you. Thanks very much.
Clegg: My pleasure, Doug. We’ll do it again one of these days.
Brian Clegg is a well-known scientist and author. Some of his books include Upgrade Me, The Global Warming Survival Kit, Light Years, The Man Who Stopped Time, The God Effect, Infinity Getting Science, and The First Scientist. For more information, visit his Web site: www.brianclegg.net and blog: http://brianclegg.blogspot.com.
Douglas L. Beck, AuD, Board Certified in Audiology, is the Web content editor for the American Academy of Audiology.