The job of a {broader, more inclusive set of design} brain{s} is to “produce {decolonised} future{s}”

Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps (my emboldening, below)

How can meaning make a difference? It doesn’t seem to be the kind of physical property, like temperature or mass or chemical composition, that could cause anything to happen. What brains are for is extracting meaning from the flux of energy impinging on their sense organs, in order to improve the prospects of the bodies that house them and provide their energy. The job of a brain is to “produce future” in the form of anticipations about the things in the world that matter to guide the body in appropriate ways. Brains are energetically very expensive organs, and if they can’t do this important job well, they aren’t earning their keep.

Matt Ward, interviewed by SpeculativeEdu

Colonising the future: If Speculative Design builds competency in thinking about future alternatives, the design community needs to ensure that it is aware of the structural inequalities that allow for a privileged voice. I think it’s become painfully obvious that we don’t need any more white male billionaires telling us how the future looks, therefore by moving Speculative Design outside of the “academy” we need to make sure it’s reaching people who don’t normally have say over the future. We should aim to empower alternative views about how the world could be.


It’s a great interview. Read the lot.

Speaking my brains about future brains this year

Got some fun speaking gigs lined up, mainly going to be talking (somewhat obliquely) about my work at Google AI over the last few years and why we need to make centaurs not butlers.




Then I’ll probably shut up again for a few years.

Station Identification

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions. As we shall see, “empathy” in the sense of adopting someone’s viewpoint is not the same as “empathy” in the sense of feeling compassion toward the person, but the first can lead to the second by a natural route. Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own.

– The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker.

Anaesthesia and embodied interaction

Went to the dentist last friday.

I fully comply with the rest-of-the-world’s view of the British relationship with the dental arts, and am completely terrified of going to the little room with the cup of pink rinse.

I asked for recommendations from friends for a dentist who specialised in making people who hadn’t been to the dentist in… a long time… feel more relaxed and happy about the experience.

Mr. Webb told me about his dentist, Dr.Bashar Al-Naher who uses a combination of mild anaesthetic and NLP to induce relaxation and a feeling of security in his patients.

I’ve been lucky enough never to have to have surgery or be in another situation where anaesthesia was employed, so this was a novel experience for me.

Once I’d reached the state of both local and mild general anaesthesia, I had a curious feeling of distance from my body.

I felt as if my conscious mind (in which I seemed together enough to start dissecting the experience) was ‘up on a balcony’ somewhere in my head. I had a distinct feeling that I had retreated to an observation gallery, compartmentalised from my body itself, and even the lower part of my head/face where the action was.

Whilst feeling removed from ‘where the action was’, I started reflecting on ‘Where the action is’, and my previous work with Chris on embodied interaction. I even started thinking about writing this post.

Sometime during this, a small daemon system running somewhere sidled into the balcony where “I” was, and started fretting about all the dissection of the experience I was doing – perhaps fearing the degree of conscious thought going on would let the body (and the pain) in through the back door.

I went back to (un)concentrating on my breathing, and the visualisation that Dr. Al-Naher was leading me through. Happy again, I let the drilling and filling continue…

After the work had been done and I was coming out of the state of anaesthesia I was talking with the dentist, probably quite slowly and deliberately – but definitely ‘back in the room’.

There was a moment where I was aware that my foot was in an uncomfortable or precarious position. Most of the time we wouldn’t give this a microsecond’s conscious thought, and we would just effortlessly readjust the position of our foot.

I felt I had to send a discrete set of instructions down my body to my foot, almost like Flesh-Logo in order to move it.

Of course there are all sorts of flaws with this interpretation, but the temporary compartmentalising of ‘body’ and ‘mind’ that I felt just reinforced the fact that most of the time there is no separation at all.

The experience (apart from making my teeth better) has left me with real conviction the train of thought in Paul Dourish’s book – about the power of embodied interaction to improve our interfaces with technology.

And also, of course, how good my new dentist is – but he probably mindhacked me to say that…


Demetri Martin:

“Lately I’ve been waking up at 8:32. The weird thing is that I don’t have an alarm clock. I just open my eyes when I’m done sleeping. It doesn’t matter when I go to sleep, when I wake up and look at my watch it almost always says “8:32.” I’ve been trying to switch up my wake-up style (to get a different time) by waiting a few minutes before I look at my watch. But it’s still 8:32. So, I guess it’s not that I’m necessarily waking up at 8:32. It’s more that I look at my watch for the first time every morning at 8:32. (When I say “almost always” above, I mean 19 out of the last 23 times I’ve woken up in my bed my watch has said “8:32.”) I’m not showing off, I’m just saying that there is something precise about me in the morning.”

Chemical carrots

Monkeymagic has been listening to Dr. Robin Dunbar:

“Dunbar was talking about his new book, The Human Story. One of the ideas in it was that religion, myth and story-telling are cohesive forces – they offer ways to help us make the trade-off between short-term desires and long-term gains, and they oil the wheels in our social machinery.

Religious ecstasy, feeling at one with the (socially constructed) world, and that buzz of being in an audience watching something good all seem to be signs that opiates are beginning to float round our circuitry.

These chemical carrots exist as an aid to group-forming. But here’s the rub. These same carrots might also ensure that the group acts against any individual who might take away their high. The bigger the high, the bigger the aggression.”

The internet must be such a great petri dish for scientists like Dr. Dunbar. I met him once at a Cap-Gemini event examining how religions are built, but I forgot to ask him if he took note of online groupthink and flamewars.

» MonkeyMagic: The Flipside of the Collective is War.


The Guardian interviews people on their experience of Improbable Theatre’s Lifegame, “in which a show is improvised around an interviewee’s life story”

“In some cases, Improbable’s versions of my memories have almost replaced my actual memories: the way they did my mother singing around the house; the way they described how I came to read drama at university, creating puppets out of newspaper. They asked me how I would like to die; it wasn’t something I had particularly thought about, but I said dying on a limestone ridge in the Mediterranean would suit me fine. Now every time I go on holiday and go walking on high limestone ridges, I remember their depiction of that scene. “

If someone tells a better story of your life to strangers than the one you actually lived, it may lodge itself in the spotless mind…

The philosopher and the thermostat


Daniel Dennett profile in today’s Guardian

“He’s famous among philosophers as an extreme proponent of robot consciousness, who will argue that even thermostats have beliefs about the world. This argument turns out to be more about what constitutes our own beliefs than about the inner life of a thermostat. Part of this is because he uses the term “opinions” for the kind of conscious and considered ideas about the world that many people would mean by beliefs. He doesn’t think a thermostat is conscious. But he thinks its behaviour embodies assumptions about the world, and these can’t be distinguished, in their effects on the world, from beliefs: “Intentional systems have beliefs, or as-good-as beliefs. I use the word beliefs for the intentional states of all of them, including the notorious thermostat. But we have opinions as well as beliefs.”

Hippo campus rock

Prompted by conversations last night with Marko about Steely Dan, I listened to some this morning on the way into work, and my state of ‘zeitgeist distance’ at the moment was elegantly reflected back to me all the way from 1972.

You been tellin’ me you’re a genius
Since you were seventeen
In all the time I’ve known you
I still don’t know what you mean
The weekend at the college
Didn’t turn out like you planned
The things that pass for knowledge
I can’t understand

College, knowledge, campus, hippos… Had a great, though brief, conversation last night with Sanjay Khanna about the importance of forgetting, which led me to dig out some wikipedia stuff on the brain.

From the entry on the hippocampus:

“There is some controversy in psychology and the neurosciences about the precise role of the hippocampus, but it is generally agreed that it is essential for the formation of new memories about personally experienced events (episodic or autobiographical memory). Some researchers prefer to think of the hippocampus as part of a larger medial temporal lobe memory system responsible for general declarative memory (memories which can be explicitly verbalized – these would include e.g., memory for facts in addition to episiodic memory).

There is some evidence that, although these forms of memory often last a lifetime, the hippocampus ceases to be crucial for the retention of the memory after a period of consolidation. Damage to the hippocampus usually results in profound difficulties in forming new memories (anterograde amnesia), and normally also affects access to memories prior to the damage (retrograde amnesia). Although the retrograde effect normally extends some years prior to the brain damage, in some cases older memories are spared – it is this sparing of older memories which leads to the idea that consolidation over time involves the transfer of memories out of the hippocampus to other parts of the brain.”

When Nokia announced Lifeblog, Anne Galloway juxtaposed it against the idea of “forgetting machines”. If our life recording devices are ‘outboard-hippocampi’ then perhaps balance and consolidation processes are the natural progressions.

Hopefully Anne will reveal more about her “forgetting machine” in due course.

One other gem for the psychogeographically-inclined from the wikipedia entry on the hippocampus:

“The hippocampus is believed to be particularly important for finding shortcuts and new routes between familiar places. Some people are better at this than others, and brain imaging shows that these individuals have more active hippocampi when navigating.

London’s taxi drivers are required to learn a large number of places — and know the most direct routes between them (they have to pass a strict test, the Knowledge, before being licensed to drive the famous black cabs). One study showed that part of the hippocampus is larger in taxi drivers than in the general public, and that more experienced drivers have bigger hippocampi. It may be that having a bigger hippocampus helps you to become a cab driver. It also seems that finding shortcuts for a living may make your hippocampus grow.”

How one gets an MRI scanner in the back of a Black Cab is anyone’s guess.