Spring 2013 Magazine

The Brain

Faculty Perspective: Consciousness-Enhancing Technologies

Sustainability meets design


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Malcolm MacIverFaculty Perspective offers a space for McCormick professors to comment on issues facing their fields of research. In “Consciousness-Enhancing Technologies,” Malcolm MacIver explores how technological innovation can be used to shape health and sustainability.

G. K. Chesterton wrote that “the whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” Anyone who has traveled has had the peculiar experience of realizing that a whole host of things you had taken for granted—from the geometry of toilets to interpersonal distance during casual conversation—are far from universal. In that discovery comes the insight of just how strange our own customs can be.

But how do you appreciate the nature of something when you’ve never experienced life without it? That’s one of the puzzles of consciousness. The only times we lose consciousness are either with a one-way ticket to a place where we are forever unreachable, or with a round-trip ticket to a place where the Internet and phone lines are perpetually down. The hallmark of these two states, death and sleep, is a lack of consciousness. While we can never appreciate consciousness “from the outside,” we can gain some perspective by traveling back in time and thinking about why consciousness might have evolved in the first place.

Consciousness is a capacity our single-celled ancestors did not have 1.6 billion years ago, yet we do—so there must have been some advantage to it besides creating a make-work program for future academics. I’d like to suggest what that advantage might have been and propose that some of the big problems humanity is grappling with today might be traced to weaknesses in how this capacity evolved. Finally, I’ll claim that a certain kind of technology can help us with those weaknesses, one that is an excellent fit with many of our research programs at McCormick and the goals of Northwestern University’s Strategic Plan.

Single-celled eukaryotic animals emerged around 1.6 billion years ago. About half a billion years ago, multicellular aquatic life blossomed. Multicellular aquatic animals ruled the roost until 380 million years ago, when the fossil record tells us the first half-fish, half-land animals started to appear. With the emergence onto land, a singularly important change occurred: animals could see much farther. My lab’s work on the science of biological sensing has highlighted the importance of this change, which came about because air is much friendlier to the transmission of light than water is. In fact, the photons that guide visual animals like us can travel 10,000 times farther in air than in water before a significant fraction of the photons get absorbed.

Why was this change so important? Because water absorbs light so quickly, the first animals that lived in water were essentially driven by their immediate sensations, just as we are when driving in a thick fog. They had to react rapidly on pain of either losing their dinner or becoming dinner. But once on land, they were better positioned for natural selection to work its magic: because land animals could see farther ahead in space, the ability to plan ahead could pay big dividends. Instead of bumping into a predator or prey and having to react immediately, they might spot one in the distance and contemplate various courses of action. When there’s a way to sense things without responding immediately, it’s possible to deliberate—to judge the relative merits of different approaches and pick the one most likely to succeed. Not easy, but most importantly, not worth the bother until you’ve emerged from the fog.

One can argue that the shift from being reactive to being deliberative— from being driven by immediate environmental contingencies to being able to formulate plans and act accordingly—was momentous in the evolution of complex cognition. Deliberating is an ability that humans have in common with other mammals (and likely some birds, as well). Lab tests of rat brain activity have detected deliberation in action as the animal pauses at branch points before choosing a path, a phenomenon called vicarious trial and error.

Clearly, consciousness encompasses more than deliberation. But for the sake of argument, let’s equate the two. In mechanistic terms, this definition has enough concreteness and specificity to serve as a basis for asking if some of humanity’s current problems can be traced to problems of consciousness. After all, consciousness evolved under conditions vastly different from today’s.

As freed from immediate reflexive action as we’ve become, there are growing signs that our systems of awareness may be ill-adapted to 21st-century conditions. Despite the flood of media from places far away, we are still essentially parochial in our concerns: we care about our kith and kin and mostly about the here and now, and we have limited motivation to act on concerns for future problems that don’t immediately affect our own lives. The looming climate crisis is a case study: caused by odorless, colorless gases whose effects take decades to be felt, the global-warming threat is like an 18-wheeler custom-engineered to stay in the blind spot of our awareness.

Climate change is just one species among an entire genus of problems consigned to the negative space of our consciousness. Any problem that is far away in time or space, or has many steps in a long chain of causation, will have limited impact on our consciousness. This explains how that tempting cheeseburger gets eaten while we’re trying to lose weight, as well as why a nation burdens future generations with debt. The future that evolution enabled our earliest land-based ancestors to manipulate seems several sizes too small to fit the globally interconnected species with insatiable appetites that we are today.

What can be done? Perhaps we will reach a higher level of consciousness in another billion years of biological evolution. But why would we wait? Technology operates on much faster time scales. I have become cautiously optimistic about approaches that use new Internetenabled tools that allow us to sense the distant consequences of our decisions. I first heard of these tools during a visit to the University of Washington, which is very active in the area. There is no single, commonly accepted name for the approach, although “persuasive technology” is sometimes used as an umbrella term. In the realm of energy use, it goes by “energy-feedback technology” or “eco-feedback technology”; in personal fitness and health, it can be called the “quantified self.” The goal of these technologies is to provide people with instant, persuasive feedback from real-time networked measurements of their behavior. Anyone who has noticed how a hybrid-vehicle driver pays close attention to the dashboard’s instantaneous miles-per-gallon display has seen this approach in use. In the quantified-self space, an example is FitBit, a wearable device that measures your daily physical activity, with weekly infographics showing progress and comparisons with peers.

A public housing program in Pittsburgh was a recent setting for the inspired application of energy-feedback technology. Participants in a study—all public housing residents—were given tablet computers that displayed animated polar bears and other animals. When a participant’s energy consumption went down, the animals would flourish and multiply; when it went up, they would do less well. As it turned out, although many did not have to pay for their energy, participants were motivated by the feedback to alter their energy use. A 2008 metastudy of feedback approaches to electricity conservation suggested that 5 percent to 12 percent decreases in use are typical (C. Fischer, “Feedback on Household Electricity Consumption: A Tool for Saving Energy?” Energy Effciency, vol. 1, no. 1, 2008, pp. 79–104).

McCormick is proving innovative in this area. Michael Horn, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of education and social policy, has a design initiative that uses similar principles to help families reduce consumption of water, electricity, and natural gas. Darren Gergle, associate professor of communication studies and of electrical engineering and computer science, has devised a mobile phone application that uses artificial intelligence for processing 38 automatically collected parameters of user activity to generate an alert when someone shows signs of clinical depression. The system warns the user or caregivers to help arrest the depressive’s downward spiral before hospitalization is needed.

Horn’s and Gergle’s initiatives are just two of several McCormick projects that are advancing consciousness-enhancing technologies, which I believe will be key as we better appreciate the limits of human awareness and design tools to fill the gap. The Segal 2.0 Design Cluster—a transdisciplinary initiative that Gergle, mechanical engineering professor Wei Chen, and I codirect—is an ideal home for some of this work. The Northwestern University Strategic Plan, with its emphasis on design, sustainability, health, and energy, resonates well with the vision of enhancing consciousness through feedback. Through the work of retooling our awareness, we can improve the chances that our species will have a good home for millennia to come.