Distributed Intelligence & Octopus Smarts

August 10, 2011
This macro photograph of an octopus tentacle is brought to you by Octa, the creators of the Whale Kit iPad handle and the Monkey Kit ipad stand.

(Photograph Courtesy of Sarah Faulwetter)

“To understand ourselves, we must embrace the alien.”
–  PZ Meyers, octopus neuroscientist


As discussed in Biomimicry and the Design Revolution, our species is learning to consult the natural world for evolved solutions to contemporary human problems.  This paradigm shift – commonly referred to as “biomimicry” – has inspired everything from tailfin-shaped tidal energy generators to new adhesives based on the pads of gecko feet.  Now designers have turned it on one of our era’s unique dilemmas:  the growing demand for extended memory and cognition in an accelerating technological society.

Whereas once we only needed to remember the faces and names of a few hundred people, today we are saturated by a world of exponentially expanding “contacts.” A few hundred years ago, our environment only necessitated the transmission of limited vocational and ritual knowledge.  Now, an average first-world education lasts longer than the lifespan in earlier ages.

This process is driving us ever closer to the limits of the brain’s capacity for memory.  A more intricate mind is required.  In an attempt to adapt, some people supplement their native intelligence with mobile technology, like tablets, smartphones, and multimedia devices.  Microsoft’s Gordon Bell, who uses always-on digital video to archive his life, leverages sophisticated search algorithms to learn his own associative patterns, creating an externally-grown circuit memory.

This is, in a way, how the octopus brain works: research shows that their tentacles are dense with clusters of neurons, leading to the speculation that they experience a more distributed consciousness than our own. However, with computers carrying more of the load, human consciousness might be heading in the same direction.

Cyborg augmentation exists today in the form of smart phones and tablets.  In a few years, it could evolve into the “exocortex” of Charles Stross’ novel, Accelerando. Embedded in his glasses, the exocortex shares the responsibilities of his mind and allows Stross’ protagonist Manfred Macx to absorb and synthesize profound amounts of information.  Outsourcing the effort to remember, he dedicates his brain to higher-level thought.  Connected to the internet at all times, his mind is more than half digital.  Then a hoodlum steals his glasses.  Macx wanders the streets in a cloud of amnesia.  Suddenly denied access to a life of saved memories, his mind becomes rootless, lost.

Many indigenous cultures refuse the basic technology of written language–warning that by externalizing memory, we forget who we are.  It is for reasons such as this that eminent media theorist Marshall McLuhan calls technology an amputation.  However, critics of technology rely on digital tools like computers and servers to broadcast their critiques. The most righteous Luddite cannot stymie the process of automation and computerization. Even those living without internet access are interdependent with a global infrastructure that relies on this thin layer of electrical current lighting up our planet with mind.

We are losing one way of being, as our species undergoes a transformation toward augmented selfhood.  We are gaining another.  Even now, people are developing emotional attachments to learning, personal robots.  Personal computing is less prosthesis and more companion.  Brain scans show that when someone holds a tool, the brain effectively considers that tool to be a part of the body.  Because our minds adapt so readily to the “objects” in our lives, we relate to our tools emotionally.  Our gadgets are an extension of who we are, especially when they amplify our memory and thinking.

How we design our tools reflects who we are – and our new tools tell the story of an accelerating human mind living in partnership with intelligent technology. As our world becomes increasingly complex, these technologies help us meet the cognitive demands of modern life. The human mind is growing, changing, spreading tentacles into a whole new way of being…and the once-alien octopus looks more recognizable every day.

Comments (6)

  1. Nikki Braziel replied on August 10, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    I love that octopus photo by Sarah Faulwetter (http://www.flickr.com/photos/sarahfaulwetter/). I also really liked the TED video talking about learning personal robots. Go women in science!

  2. Prometheus replied on August 14, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    Awesome article! I wold love to learn more about how the cyber mind mimics the human brain. What is similar and what is different about neural nets and the internet?Now that I offload my remedial information, like my parents cell’s and sister’s new home numbers (stuff I used to commit to memory), am I really using that space for more “important” stuff? Or am I am becoming more and more dependent on technology to think and more vulnerable to a amnesia should something happen to our data. How at risk are we to a sun storm erasing all the digital data on earth?

  3. Ash Cook replied on August 15, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Another important angle to this new level of integration is the way our social consciousness is growing in a way that mimics the growth of consciousness in a child’s mind. Initially the various centers of the brain are loosely connected. The motor control exists isolated from the speech center in an infant, for example. Then as we reach maturity, we end up with millions of dendritic connections between the various centers of our brains. The internet is allowing humanity to achieve that a comparable increase in complexity. Social memes that once took decades to permeate the whole of a continent now take days to reach across the globe. We are functioning on a social level more and more like a maturing brain and less like that of a child.

    With that said, perhaps this will allow nations to evolve further from behaving like children and using violence to resolve conflicts, to using complex communication and empathy to relate and cooperate with other nations, just as more highly evolved adults are able to do. Clearly this has already begun on various levels through diplomacy, but as we add connections along additional routes, our interdependence is allowed to increase.

    Thank you for a really thought provoking article, I’ll be checking in again soon for the next one!

  4. Michael Garfield replied on August 18, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    That’s a great point, Ash! Similar also to how new genetic lineages and ecosystems begin by a freewheeling adaptive radiation in every direction, then eventually prune the thicket of creative exploration down to a few robust branches in metastable ecological equilibria…as above, so below.

  5. Abbey replied on August 19, 2011 at 10:38 am

    Another interesting post. In some ways I see the rapid growth of technology as a danger to our collective knowledge. With so many different types of technology for transferring information, how can we ensure that future generations will be able to access our knowledge? In 100 year a book will still be a book–it will still be readable; however, in 100 years how will we get information from a CD, a hard drive, or even an outdated file format? Even if these technologies still exist, much of this information will become the victim of digital rot. Are we on the verge of an exciting new intelligence or the breakdown of our collective intelligence?

  6. Michael Garfield replied on August 19, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Abbey, Charles Stross addressed this very concern with his excellent posthuman espionage thriller Glass House. Check it!