ON VIEW | INTERVIEW
"Mental Work" by Jonathon Keats at EPFL, Switzerland
MENTAL WORK: AN OVERVIEW
by Jonathon Keats
I. The Context
II. The Concept
III. The Experience
IV. Some Implications
Julia Buntaine, SciArt Magazine: Your exhibit proposes, in essence, to abandon the body and use the power of the mind as a means of remaining useful as machines automate away our jobs. This naturally leads to the thought of the cyborg, or biological mergence with technology. If the opportunity arose, what would be your dream cyborg-enabled attribute?
Jonathon Keats: It's easy to think of ways in which a cyborg future might make life easier. For instance, I'm a very slow typist, and I could easily be seduced by a brain-computer interface that would automatically transcribe my thoughts. But I am wary of this way of thinking about cyborg enablement, because it's also disabling in the sense that my machine-enabled self would merely diminish whatever was human in me. One way around this would be to completely abandon the distinction between my biology and technology. In that case, I might imagine how my cyborg self might be more creative for the fact that menial tasks like typing would be made more efficient, no longer requiring the roundabout transfer of my thoughts through finger muscles and the spring-activated electrical contacts on my keyboard. But there are a lot of questionable assumptions in that proposition. (For instance, might creativity actually emerge from inefficiency?)
So while I am open to experimenting with technologies – and am convinced that we've been cyborgs since the invention of the handaxe – I'm actually more interested in considering how a cyborg future might make life more challenging, enhancing my humanity. What I mean by this is that our technologies have already vastly augmented our abilities. Our technological capabilities have progressed at a rate well beyond human evolution, and we're simply not evolved cognitively to use the powers we have at hand with adequate responsibility. I believe this is one of the principal reasons why the world we've built is so precarious. Therefore I'd like to explore technological prostheses that make us reexamine ourselves, and by those means make us less certain, less decisive, less efficient. In a sense that is my motivation for enlisting brain-machine interfaces to operate philosophical instruments in the Mental Work facility. This is a step in the direction of a cyborg future, but these are machines to make you stop and think.
JB: In the science fiction future where money may be done away with altogether (as seen in the positivist vision of Star Trek), it seems to me that Mental Work could have a nice partnership with your Spacetime Industries - paying workers in ingots of time. For now, however, your viewers will get the satisfaction of "being ahead of the curve" in the creation of their Mental Work. Do you have plans to collect or record the work that is made?
JK: Mental Workers are not paid in cash. Their compensation for their work is cognitive. The machines induce thought, and workers' thoughts belong to the workers to do with as they choose. Workers will not be required to reveal anything. However, in my opinion, thoughts increase in value when they're shared. (In that sense, they're manifestly unlike cash, even if this difference tends to get overlooked by intellectual property law.) So sharing will certainly be encouraged, whether through voluntary surveys or spontaneous conversations (which may be first- or second- or third-hand). Ultimately my ambition with the Mental Work facility is that it becomes a hub for contemplating, discussing and debating possible approaches to the cognitive revolution, enriched by the experiences of all participants and their encounters with people who may never have the chance physically to be connected to our machines.
In tandem with the mental work undertaken by machine operators, scientific data will be collected by José Millán, my scientific partner. His lab will systematically analyze human interactions with the machines, and the raw data – which will be completely anonymous – will eventually be made available to researchers worldwide. Given the sheer number of workers expected to pass through the factory, and their diversity, the data set will be unprecedented in the field of brain-computer interfaces. The research will open up new possibilities for the technology at the same time that public debate about the technology will increase.
JB: I personally find the idea of artificial intelligence making art fascinating, and am intrigued by how your exhibit subverts this notion. So, can we paint in the Mental Work facility?
JK: While the Mental Work facility is not outfitted for painting, there is no reason why one could not paint with a brain-computer interface. A robotic arm could hold the brush, and commends could be sent via an EEG headset. That said, BCI control is very rudimentary at this stage. It would take an extraordinary amount of effort to paint a nude or a bowl or fruit or even a simple black square. The process would be highly inefficient. However, as I suggested above, creativity might well emerge from inefficiency. The struggle of painting with brain signals might lead to new aesthetic discoveries, much as the challenge of operating machinery in the Mental Work facility may generate novel thoughts.