Space Neotopia, Countdown Plaza by Tony Nippel, 2007

Art is our only hope

Brain and cognitive science expert Tatyana Chernigovskaya discusses how communication with art can prepare humanity for a symbiosis with gadgets

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An interview with Tatyana Chernigovskaya

An interview by Mikhail Shiyanov

Professor Tatyana Chernigovskaya, a brain and cognitive science expert, sees more problems than opportunities in the future. Considering the increasing immersion of people in virtual worlds, how will they interact with each other? How will they manage their work and free time? Where is evolution going and should humanity be prepared for a symbiosis with gadgets and mechanisms? Tatyana believes that in any case we need to engage in the training of our brain – particularly through communication with art.

Tatyana Chernigovskaya, Ph.D., Sc.D., is a professor at St. Petersburg State University and the Head of the Laboratory for Cognitive Studies. She is a member of the Board of Science and Education under the President of the Russian Federation. She is a specialist in the field of psycho- and neurolinguistics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, origins of language, evolution, artificial intelligence and other topics. She has published over 300 scientific papers in Russian and international journals.
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From the perspective of brain science, how is a person’s life changing now and how it will it change in the future?

We have already entered into a new type of civilization. But our world has been changed not by a philosopher, nor the historical events or discoveries of science – the mobile phone has changed it. Because it’s not just a phone, it’s the whole world in your pocket. Our relations with geography have changed because now you can easily reach any distant place just in a second. We have gained access virtually to any information. All the talks about human symbiosis with smart technology is not about the future, it is about now. The only difference is that still nothing inserted inside our heads in a physical sense. In the end, is that important?

What does this mean to us? Of course, the type of reading has changed. Reading as a process ceases to be linear because of hypertexts. It is no longer like riding on the road, it’s more like diving into the ocean – including its deepest part. The situation has greatly changed in the sense that obtaining information has become an easy task. But it is so only at first glance. I mean, it’s not difficult to find simple information. But serious scientists would still not trust Google. If I need deep and rare information, I would look for consultant who tells me where to search. In other words, if I’m looking for a guacamole recipe, I’ll get it in a couple of clicks, but if I want to find out who translated some Sumerian texts, that’s completely different task.

So if couple of decades ago the main question was where to get information, now it sounds exactly the opposite way – how to reduce the data flow. In the future, the amount and the rate of information will continue to rise, and gadgets will become smaller. Apparently this will affect people dramatically.

Learning things physically improves the quality of your brain

We communicate via social networks where we feel comfortable, because at any moment they can be turned on or off, and in no way it can violate our physical safety. But in fact, these parallel worlds make people much more lonely because they are deprived of real social interaction. As my colleague, psychologist Sergei Yenikolopov, says: ‘Nothing can replace a good kick’. This is the actual real-​life moderation of human behavior.


Modern science still seeks to fulfill popular prophecies of 1950-​1960s sci-​fi © Smith​son​ian​.com

And how will technologies affect city dwelling?
We can now observe how intelligent technology penetrates life at the everyday common level. There are unmanned vehicles already. Robots are increasingly used in surgery: for example, a doctor is in Moscow, and the patient is in a completely different city, and first gives commands to machine, which obeys these orders. And it’s good if it obeys. But what if the robot decides somehow it knows how to do this operation better?

Sooner or later this will happen and we will have to deal with it. That means that the boundary between the living and non-​living is increasingly blurring, especially because the development of modern NBIC technologies [nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science] is very much connected to the merging of organic matter with mechanics. This also refers to new types of prostheses, giving people substituted vision, substituted hearing, expanded memory, etc. This is the next stage of human evolution, the development of the very biological kind in the new kind of Homo Sapiens Autocreator. This creature will have a new consciousness – but how exactly should it be aware of itself, if its hands and feet are mechanical, it has artificial eyes and ears, and operates brain chips, which allow to make faster decisions, remembers things better and so on? We have to deal with the fundamental question of the boundaries of the individual.

If we are talking about the future of cities, most likely they will be inhabited by some kind of humans. But for example we have to decide at first if these people would occasionally go out or not. Or they will just use technically perfect device that would show them some paradise island on the ocean shore with all its sounds, smells, completely indistinguishable from reality? After all, we still do not know how our brain distinguishes between the impulses it receives from the real and the virtual world. I’m not sure that the brain reacts to them differently. This is an occasion to think about why we react so strongly to the cinema, music or books – which generally do not show anything. Yet they produce a strong impressions in our heads, which could determine the rest of our lives. More than a hundred years ago a great Russian scientist Ivan Sechenov wrote that the brain doesn’t care whether it receives something from the real world or just recalls things. That’s correct and now proven, although it’s quite a scary thought. Especially mysterious is how Sechenov came to it. Now we have powerful scanners that can show if it is true or not, but a hundred years ago such technologies didn’t exist.

How do you think the division of labor and leisure time could develop in the future?

Apparently more and more machines will replace people in terms of hard labor. There are already entirely automated factories, but there will be more and they will become increasingly complex. What people are supposed to do in that case? If they have 24 free hours in a day, and they would not depend on money, which machines would provide? Obviously, not all of us are creative persons, just waiting for an opportunity to create. What should all the others do? Will they quarrel and drink vodka? Or dig a canal along the equator? What do they do with their endless leisure? Imagine the city, filled with wandering bums, waiting only for their lives to end. Very much likely some people would say ‘Well, I’m tired of your technologies, I am going to the village. I will buy a cow, some goats, chickens, and I will deal with them all day’. I think a lot of people may follow that strategy. Now it is an exotic way to rest for intellectuals who lack simple life. In the future this trend may gain more power.

Imagine the city, filled with wandering bums, waiting only for their lives to end

However, if things continue as they are now, we could have no future at all – we would just blow ourselves with the planet, and that would put an end to our sufferings. But if people would somehow manage to come out of the unconscious state in which they are now, the new times have to be times of thinkers. We really need people who are able to think well. I want to say that we, the people, in recent years are overclocked. Things that used to take several years now take just a week. At the same time I look at the leaders of different countries and do not see in them neither responsibility, nor lack of hysteria, nor clarity of mind. Without this combination of qualities, our future is under great threat.

In addition to brain studies themselves, researches are actively trying to improve human race at the genetic level. Do we have any prospects on this front?

Unfortunately, we are not arranged that simply so that a single gene is responsible for reading and another for singing, the third for the friendship, and the fourth for the platonic love. We and many elements of our bodies are multifunctional and lots of things are going on at the same time within us. Our body is much more complicated, and our opportunities are still very far from unraveling the easiest of its secrets. But we must try, because it is obvious that if we understand at least a small part of our brain, that would change everything. Education, health, communication, technology – we can rebuild them on a fundamentally new principles. This game is worth the candle. But the question is whether the brain would allow us to its depths.


The last step for humanity on a way to the human-​machine symbiosis is a physical implanting of gadgets © Random house

Another important point: the brain evolves, it has been proven many times. Genes are important, but if people want to wake and use them, they should give themselves some intellectual food. Many things are considered, your neural networks, which are formed by the connection of your genetics and experience, depend on what you are doing and with whom are you talking, how complex is the life you live. Experience is writing the story on these networks. Education physically changes the brain – improving the quality of nerve fibers, their length, thickness, myelination. In short, the process of learning things is useful not only because it is better to be smart than stupid, but because it improves the quality of the brain. And this is a purpose that worth some sufferings.

So what is useful for a person to study, what to do?

I would say that it is very important to take up the arts somehow. Actually this is our only hope. Because the computers that we have constructed and with which we work, they simply arrange numbers – that’s all. And although their rates are rising, machines are not able to do anything more complex. After Aristotle all our thinking develops a line of causation. Anyone who has strong formal logic skills is a winner. But the great discoveries have never been made in this way. Discoveries are more likely to come as a sudden insight – either like a dream, or even as something that does not fit into the laws of logic. Where do they come from?

Machines don’t make discoveries

Or, can you tell me what music is? The sound wave that is hitting your eardrum. But why does it cause such an intense emotions? It has nothing to do with decibels, and it’s still a mystery to us. I believe that all people should be associated with art – or they just impoverish themselves. The most important zones of the brain will not function if you deprive yourself of art. I think that art in the foreseeable future will no longer be a dessert, something optional; otherwise, computers will make the discoveries instead of us. So far, machines are not able to do such things.