Home » David Chalmers: Is Your Phone Part of Your Mind? at TEDxSydney (Full Transcript)

David Chalmers: Is Your Phone Part of Your Mind? at TEDxSydney (Full Transcript)

David Chalmers

David Chalmers – TRANSCRIPT

Hi, everyone! I want to talk to you about a new way of looking at the mind. What I call the extended mind is the idea that the technology we use becomes part of our minds, extending our minds and indeed ourselves into the world. We’ll start with something that might be a little bit more familiar: the extended body.

We are used to the idea that we can extend our bodies with technology. We know about prosthetic limbs. Here is the athlete Oscar Pistorius running on his prosthetic legs. You don’t need prosthetic limbs to extend your body. Blind people say that their canes serve as an extension of their body. You know, it feels exactly like a body from the inside, or in more mundane everyday experience, a car can feel like an extension of your body, a bike, or indeed, a musical instrument. You saw a great illustration of that a few minutes ago with Tjupurru with his didjeribone, a real extension of his body.

Well, so it is with the body, so it is for the extended mind, where technology gets incorporated into our human minds. You might think that to incorporate technology into your mind you’d have to turn yourself into a cyborg. Something like that! A whole bunch of, you know, of pipes and tubes inside your head, or at least you need a whole bunch of fancy technology like this on your head, but I actually think there’s a more ordinary kind of mind extension, which is happening to us right now, all the time, as we move into the technological future.

So take our friend the iPhone. I’ve had one of these now for maybe three or four years, and it’s basically started taking over a whole bunch of the functions of my brain. Things my brain used to do are now done by my iPhone. I mean, there’s a million examples, take memory: How many people use their brains to remember phone numbers anymore? Not me! You know, my iPhone does all the work. It used to be, the biological memory used to carry the load, now the iPhone is carrying the load for me, acting as my memory. The iPhone serves to control planning functions that my brain used to do. Spatial navigation, offloaded from my brain into Google Maps.

The iPhone even stores as the repository of my desires. I’ve got a program on the iPhone that tells me my favorite dishes at the local restaurant. I go there and just look it up and say this, this, this. The iPhone is controlling my desires for me. It even makes decisions for me. Here’s the executive decision maker. Am I going to go speak at that TED conference? Oh, definitely! You might say, “Okay, well, this is all a big metaphor, and it’s a little bit like a mind in someways.”

But I think there’s actually an interesting philosophical thesis here that I want to defend, that in some sense the iPhone is literally becoming part of your mind. Your mind is extending from your brain into the world, so the iPhone is actually part of it. The iPhone hasn’t been implanted into your mind, but you might think it’s as if it were in.

Here’s an iPhone implanted into your mind, it’s as if it was implanted into your mind, although it’s actually out there in the world. That’s the extended mind thesis. So the iPhone’s memory is basically my memory. The iPhone’s planning or navigation is basically my planning and navigation as if it had happened inside the brain.

Now for me as a philosopher, this is really interesting because one of the central philosophical problems about the mind, maybe the central philosophical problem about the mind, is what we call the mind-brain problem. How does the mind – your thinking and your feeling – relate to your brain, this bunch of mushy neurons you have inside your head? Is it something more or is it something less? If you ask most people, “Where is your mind?” they’d point and say, “Well, it’s somewhere in there.” This extended mind thesis, I think it’s some transformed vision of the mind, but the mind is not just in the brain, it’s partly in the world around us, in the environment that we interact with.

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Now, I don’t know. You might think this is kind of crazy or even totally mad. When my collaborator, Andy Clark, and I first put this thesis forward back in the mid 1990s, we came across a bit of resistance then; a lot of people made objections. Back then, we didn’t have iPhones. Our central example was a notebook. People writing stuff down in the notebook and using that as a memory. And indeed, you don’t need high-tech to get the idea of the extended mind going.

The very first time somebody counted on their fingers, that was a kind of mind extension. A kind of addition that could have been taking place in your head is happening on your fingers, but technology really amplifies this extension of our mind. And I think it’s made the thesis ring true for more people as well, because we experience this actually happening to us. But still you might object in various ways. This iPhone is just a tool, it’s not really part of your mind. For it really to become part of your mind, you’d have to implant it like this. To be in your mind it’s got to be on the inside of your skull. Or maybe, it can’t be part of your mind: it’s metal. Minds are biological. They involve a soul or something.

Now, I think it’s a tricky issue, but I think this kind of reaction which you get involves a kind of a brain chauvinism. It’s like a gender chauvinism, or race chauvinism, or species chauvinism. What’s so special about the brain? What’s so special about the inside of the brain, compared to the outside? For a start, it’s like, if you’ve got stuff that’s going on on the inside of the brain, the same stuff could in principle go on on the outside of the brain. We want to say there’s no difference in principle as long as it’s driving the processes inside the brain, the action, the consciousness, in the same way that would happen otherwise. There’s no principle barrier about the skull; that would be skull chauvinism.

Likewise, metal versus biology. If the metal does the same job the biology is doing, that would also count as part of the mind. Otherwise it would be biology, DNA chauvinism. So I think that objection can be rejected. You might think that – Somehow consciousness is at the very center of the mind, and I’ve got some sympathy with this. Consciousness is this deeply internal state. But I think what we’re thinking, what we’re feeling right in the present moment is at the core of the mind, but there’s always a whole lot to our minds which is outside our consciousness. What we think, our innermost desires, our hopes, our fears, our personality traits, most of this is not passing through your mind at any given moment. Any given moment is just a tiny little snapshot. What makes you you is a whole bunch of stuff which is outside your consciousness available to affect us.

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So your memories are mostly outside your consciousness. The view here is it doesn’t matter whether it’s stored somewhere deep in your brain or out there in the world. If it’s out there, accessible to you, driving your state, then it counts as part of your mind. There is still a brain at the core of all this. I’m not saying the iPhone is itself a mind. You are still the mind with your brain and your consciousness at the core. But the iPhone is part of it. It’s kind of an extension, if you like. What was that? That’s right, my iPhone begs to differ. It thinks it’s the mind and I’m the extension.

So this thesis I think is not just – it’s a new way of looking at the world, a new way of looking at the mind. But I think it actually makes a difference to some of our practices. In Alzheimer’s disease, when people describe themselves as losing their minds. And one thing we found works really well in handling people with Alzheimer and slowing the decline is the use of mind extension technology. People use notes in the environment, for example, to act as a kind of memory, external memory, with labels everywhere. This really serves to slow down the loss of mental function, keeping some aspect of their minds out there in the world. There are issues about – It makes a difference to education.

There are debates about open book examinations and the use of calculators in exams. Well, if you take the extended mind thesis, you ought to be testing the whole extended self. If a calculator or a computer is going to be with you, coupled with you, reliably available in the future, it is part of your extended self, and you ought to be testing the whole extended self.

Here’s a case of extended perception. A blind person who starts using his iPhone as a vision tool. This is the color identification program, Color ID. You can download it. It basically reads out colors. You point it at something and it reads it out. He said he used this to see a sunset for the first time. He held it up and it said, “Red, orange, yellow, azure, crimson.” He was moved to tears. It felt like he was seeing the sunset for the first time using this as an extended vision mechanism, extended perception mechanism. And as wearable computing becomes more and more ubiquitous in our lives, this is just going, I think, to become more and more common.

Here we’ve got glasses that compute stuff for us through extended perception. There’s also the socially extended mind. We all know when other people become extensions of your mind. We all know long-term couples where one person acts as another person’s memory. You know, reminding them things at the right time, or when they finish each other’s sentences or speak as a single individual in a conversation.

In effect, what’s happening now is one person is becoming part of, an extension of another person’s mind or vice versa. I’ll be in my mind if – I’ll be in your mind if you’ll be in mine. I think Bob Dylan said that. Also, social networking is really amplifying this.

So, when I was preparing this talk about a month ago, I sent a note out to Facebook. “I’ve got to give a 15 minute TED Talk in Sydney next month, on the extended mind. Any ideas on how to approach it?” And I got a whole lot of responses, some pretty useful responses from this social network, which is kind of surrounding us, becoming part of our extended mind. There were more, and there were more, and there were more, including of a whole bunch of useful suggestions, I stole a bunch of them. Not least of them, this one, “Exciting, maybe you could work Facebook in?” Or, “Well you could start by mentioning you crowdsourced the whole talk …” Thanks guys, that was handy.

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Now there are some downsides and dangers to this whole extended mind thesis. And one is that as our minds move into the world, we become more vulnerable to their loss than when they are protected on the inside of the skull. This is already something familiar from things like the floods in Queensland or there are bushfires in Victoria. We often talk about the greatest tragedy being that people lose their memories. Their houses and their possessions and so on have basically become part of them. The loss of them really feels like the loss of one’s self. And as more of one’s mind gets extended, the more there is vulnerability. Just say somebody steals my iPhone.


You might think that’s a form of theft and they should be punished for this. But if I’m right, that should actually be reconceived as a really vicious form of assault. Like getting into my brain and messing with my neurons. And that really does kind of capture the attitude I have to my iPhone. You might worry this is going to turn us into robots. Remember the guy from Lost in Space? “Danger,” Will Robinson!

But I think we have to remember we still always have consciousness at the middle of this, and judgement, and the extension of our minds doesn’t abrogate us from using our judgement. With better and better technology, which becomes more and more flexible, there’s the hope that the interplay of judgement and technology might move us forward in interesting ways. So, I actually think then, to conclude, this extended mind thesis offers us some hope of an optimistic worldview. People say, “Is Google making us stupid?” This is a debate which has been out there in the media.

Well, if I’m right about the extended mind thesis, there’s a sense in which Google is actually making us smarter. Google is getting inside our minds. And I don’t know about you, but I heard someone saying, “When I sit down and Google, I feel like my IQ goes up 30 points.” It’s like all that knowledge – and they say knowledge is power of a kind, so it leads to a kind of potential democratization, too, of the powers of the mind.

As technology becomes cheaper and available to more, and more advanced, it’s going to spread. Phones are already spreading. Google is spreading. With time, this becomes available to everyone. In a way I think what’s going on here is a trend which is in the very early stages of turning us into superheroes of the mind. Technology is gradually giving us these superpowers, turning us into cognitive super geniuses, if you like, and it is going to go more and more this way in the future.

The question is, will we use these powers for good or for evil? That’s the gift of the extended mind and the challenge it presents as we move into our extended future. Thank you very much.

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