15 May 2009

Andy Clark's Cyborgs and Deleuze's Restructive Element

Andy Clark's Cyborgs
Deleuze's Restructive Element

To elaborate the notion of Deleuzean selfhood, I will explore Andy Clark's vision of human plasticity. He offers very compelling evidence for his claim that we naturally extend our nervous systems through our technological apparatuses. This fits our image of a body without organs, a machine without mechanisms, a computer without programs, a cyborg without systems. But to make it illustrate our more Deleuzean vision, I will emphasize something implicit in Clark's thinking. His claim that our selfhoods are continually plastic implies that chaotic change is essential to who we are.

First I summarize his paper. Afterwards I comment.

Andy Clark

Re-Inventing Ourselves:
The Plasticity of Embodiment, Sensing, and Mind


New technologies and scientific advances will radically change the way we interact with machines and computers. We can expect soon new interfaces between our brains and machines. Yet the notion of such machine interfaces has not been adequately explored. We have already considered using machines as tools. But we still need to discuss a more radical machine use where the human agent himself is literally extended or augmented. Clark will argue for this radical version of interface. And, we can expect it. For, we are biologically disposed to "literal (and repeated) episodes of sensory re-calibration, of bodily re-configuration and of mental extension." There is a "profoundly embodied agency" that we need to consider, instead of merely looking at a weaker sense of human embodiment. Clark ends by addressing questions and concerns regarding converging technologies.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Fear of robotic enhancements is rooted in our misconception of humanity. We are not "locked-in agents" whose minds and physical capacities are fixed quantities that can only be compensated-for with technology. Rather, Clark argues, our minds and bodies are
essentially open to episodes of deep and transformative restructuring, in which new equipment (both physical and “mental”) can become quite literally incorporated into the thinking and acting systems that we identify as minds and persons.
Our embodied agencies contact the outer world (where the rubber meets the road) in our sensations and motions. We are born with our natural sensory tools. However, simple tools extend these faculties. Even a stick can serve this end.
It is a commonplace observation, however, that the use of simple tools can lead to alterations in that local sense of embodiment. Picking up and using a stick, we feel as if we are touching the world at the end of the stick, not (usually) as if we are touching the stick with our hand. The stick, it has sometimes been suggested, is in some way incorporated and the overall effect seems more like bringing a temporary whole new agent-world circuit into being, rather than simply exploiting the stick as a helpful prop or tool. (emphasis mine)
When using the stick, there seems to be two interfaces:

1) where the hand meets the stick, and

2) where the stick meets the road ("the place where the extended system 'biological-agent-stick' meets the rest of the world.")

Our given bodies place us into an "agent-world circuit." The stick places us in a new one. When we discover new technologies that extend our interaction with the world, we sense the tension between the two types of interface, between us and tool and between tool and world. However, if the technology is successful, we stop feeling our separation from the tool.
the new agent-tool interface itself fades from view, and the proper picture is one of an extended or enhanced agent confronting the (wider) world.

II. What's in an Interface?

Clark agrees with Haugeland that "we discern an interface where we discern a kind of regimented, often deliberately designed, point of contact between two or more independently tunable or replaceable parts." However Clark does not agree that flow across the interface is simple. But indeed, there is "intimate intermingling of mind, body and world" (qtd).

Gibson distinguishes two ways we might conceive our natural sense systems.

1) The standard (non-Gibsonian) view. [Digital]:
The sensory interface is the location where for example visual input is transformed into representations which may guide our actions. Such an interface is "a kind of fixed veil between an agent and a represented world."

[This version is digital, because sensory information about the world is communicated by means of a representation that 'codes' for discrete entities.]

2) The task-specific agent-world circuit. [Analog]:
In this view, there is not a representative medium that stands between us and the world around us. Rather, there is "an open conduit allowing environmental magnitudes to exert a constant influence on behavior." Consider this example. We are outfield, playing baseball. Crack. The ball flies our way. We cannot just know where the ball is at any given moment. More importantly, we need to know where it is going, so we may be there to catch it. Does our visual system first represent images of the ball's location; and then does our mind subsequently deduce where the ball will go? Most likely not. We do not "throw away the world" so to internally solve the problem of where to run. Rather, our visual sensors are more like an open channel. The magnitudes of the visual information, the ball's location and speed for example, have a direct modifying influence on the direction and speed of our running.
Sensing is here depicted as the opening of a channel, with successful whole-system behavior emerging when activity in this channel is kept within a certain range. What is created is thus a kind of new, task-specific agent-world circuit. As Randall Beer recently puts it,
The focus shifts from accurately representing an environment to continuously engaging that environment with a body so as to stabilize patterns of coordinated behavior that are adaptive for the agent (in press, ms. p. 13). (qtd)
[This version is analog, because there is a direct and continuous modulation from incoming information.]

So there seems to be no mediation between agent and world in this second sort of interface. For this reason Haugeland considers it to not involve an agent-world interface.

Clark disagrees. Consider when we connect many computers together to perform a common task. We know that there must be interface between them. However, while solving a problem, they all work together and "function as a single unified resource. Nonetheless, we still think of it as a web of distinct-but-interfaced devices."

III. New Systemic Wholes

"Biological systems, from lampreys to primates, display remarkable powers of bodily and sensory adaptability."

There is a performance artist with a robotic third arm. Electrode sensors allow his brain to control its motion. He has become so accustomed to the robotic arm that willing it is second nature.
It has become what some philosophers call “transparent equipment,” something through which Stelarc (the agent) can act on the world without first willing an action on anything else. In this respect, it now functions much as his biological hands and arms, serving his goals without (generally) being itself an object of conscious thought or effortful control.
There is a monkey who can control a robotic arm with his brain. The experiments concluded that the robotic arm system was assimilated into the physiology of the monkey's nervous system.
Creatures capable of this kind of deep incorporation of new bodily (and, as we'll see, sensory and cognitive) structure are examples of what I shall call (see section 4) “profoundly embodied agents.” Such agents are able constantly to negotiate and re-negotiate the agent-world boundary itself.
The infant must also learn to integrate her limbs into her neural physiology until they finally become "transparent equipment."

Another example is a system for helping blind people "see" with their skin. A grid of blunt nails is fixed to their backs. A visual sensory system detects the presence and distribution of objects around her, and conveys that information by applying pressure to the corresponding coordinate nail. Soon the blind users ceased feeling the nails, and could function as though "seeing" with their skin sensations. This is another example of "recalibration and renegotiation" of neural plasticity.

These technologies are new, but advancing rapidly. The back-mounted grid has been replaced with a tongue-mounted coin sized array. Soon we might have direct electrical connections to the nervous system.

Consider also an experimental helicopter flight-suit. When the helicopter tips one way, the pilot's body is hit with a "puff-induced vibrating sensation on that side of the body." The pilot moves his body to balance the vibrations, which accordingly tips the helicopter level. The suit links the pilot into a closed loop interaction that extends his agency outside his physical body.

We know such a device is successful when the pilot no longer feels the vibrations, but rather just the helicopter's position.

IV. Incorporation versus Use

A critical response could be: are we not just speaking in the usual sense of "the same old user in command of a new tool."

Clark addresses neural research in response. There are neurons that receive both visual and tactile information. These neurons were monitored while monkeys learned to use a rake. They found that the neurons became sensitive to things at the rake's distance away, "as if the rake was part of the arm and forearm” (qtd)

Berti and Frassinetti conclude that “[t]he brain makes a distinction between 'far space' (the space beyond reaching distance) and 'near space' (the space within reaching distance)” and that “ … simply holding a stick causes a remapping of far space to near space. In effect the brain, at least for some purposes, treats the stick as though it were a part of the body” (qtd)

Clark distinguishes the body image from the body schema.
the body image is a conscious construct, able to inform thought and reasoning about the body. The body schema is a suite of neural settings that implicitly (and non-consciously) define a body in terms of its capabilities for action, for example, by defining the extent of “near space” for action programs. I would speculate, however, that the striking conscious experiential datum of equipment (not just rakes but even cars and violins) falling transparent in use is plausibly one result, in conscious agents, of just these kinds of deeper changes: changes (that may be temporary, context-dependent, or long-term) in the body-schema itself.
Clark notes that when we use tools, there is more than just awareness of its capacities. We use it automatically as extending the reach of our "near space."
In this way, our own embodied activity brings forth new systemic wholes.

V. Extended Cognition

We see that we extend our sense of our physical body. Can we extend and augment our minds too?

We often already must coordinate new and old brain processes when learning something new. Hence we already are extending our cognitive capacities naturally. Clark suggests that we could as well use non-biological extensions.

When we obtain deep implicit access to new mental operations or bodies of information, we have extended our brains.

Experiments show that our minds store information by visual indices, and retrieve that information by looking to them again. Other research finds that we are really only aware of very small portions of what happens around us. But because we can retrieve detail, we think we are aware of it.
The point, for present purposes, is that the brain need not actively represent the availability of such and such information from any given internal or external location. Instead, it simply deploys a problem-solving routine (that may involve programmed saccades to a visual location, or calls to biological memory) whose fine temporal structure assumes the easy availability of such and such information from such and such a location. It is in this way (I am suggesting) that non-biological informational resources can become—either temporarily or long-term—genuinely incorporated into the problem-solving whole. Just as the experienced brain need not (though it sometimes can) explicitly represent the shape of a tool and then infer the available reach, so too it need not (though it sometimes can) first represent the availability of specific information at some location, and then infer that it can find what it needs by accessing a given resource.
Instead, a problem-solving routine is delicately “grown” so as to maximally exploit the local informational field. Such a field can include biological resources, environmental structure, and cognitive artifacts such as notebooks and laptops. As we move towards an era of wearable computing and ubiquitous information access, the robust, reliable information fields to which our brains delicately adapt their routines will become increasingly dense and powerful, further blurring the distinction between the cognitive agent and her best tools, props and artifacts.

VI. Profound Embodiment

There are three grades of embodiment: mere, modest, and profound.

A “merely embodied” creature or robot would be one equipped with a body and sensors, able to engage in closed-loop interactions with its world, but for whom the body was nothing but a means to implement solutions arrived at by pure reason. Imagine also that this being can control the body only by issuing a complex series of micro-managing commands to every tiny muscle, tendon, spring and actuator.

A “modestly embodied” creature or robot would then be one for whom the body was not just another problem-space, requiring constant micro-managed control, but was rather a resource whose own features and dynamics (of sensor placement, of linked tendons and muscle groups, etc.) could be actively exploited allowing for increasingly fluent forms of action selection and control.

The reason these embodiments are modest is because the robots are "locked in" to respond rigidly to external sense data.
Such systems are congenitally unable to learn new kinds of body-exploiting solution “on the fly,” in response to damage, growth, or change.

A “profoundly embodied” creature or robot is thus (according to this definition) one that is highly engineered so as to be able to learn to make maximal problem-simplifying use of an open-ended variety of internal, bodily or external sources of order.

Such an embodiment creates new agent world circuits by seeking-out opportunities to make the most of their systems and interfaces with the world. Primates and especially humans are profoundly embodied.
We are not disembodied. We are "promiscuously body-and-world exploiting," "forever testing and exploring the possibilities for incorporating new resources and structures deep into their problem-solving regimes." We are Natural-Born Cyborgs. There is no disembodied rational faculty within us.
Instead, much of our skilled engagement with the world flows, we saw, from the way subtle neural changes enable the embodied agent to rather directly engage the world, without representing every detail of bodily form and action-taking capacity

And our bodily assemblages can reconfigure.
all this is now highly negotiable, with the body-schema and other supporting resources apparently able to re-form and re-configure as components, interfaces, and resources change and shift.

We are
are the surprisingly plastic minds of profoundly embodied agents: agents whose boundaries and components are forever negotiable, and for whom body, thinking, and sensing are woven flexibly (and repeatedly) from the whole cloth of situated, intentional action.

VII. Enhancement or subjugation?

If Clark is right, the we
the human self emerges as a “soft self” (Clark, 2003), a constantly negotiable collection of resources easily able to straddle and criss-cross the boundaries between biology and artifact.

Many fear that this dehumanizes us or that such technologies threaten our well-being. Clark remains optimistic for three reasons.

1) Human enhancement is as old as humanity. From the first time we used a stick for some purpose, we extended our embodiments.

2) Our brain will just naturally incorporate useful extensions. We already unconsciously use brain processes to grasp an object. As we saw with robotic arms, we can quickly come to unconsciously use extensions of our brain's processes. It comes quite naturally for us to solve mathematical problems with calculators. They do not threaten humanity, even though they extend our brain's computational capacities to an external technology. And presumably, we will still be responsible self-controlled agents.

3) We can better decide and determine what is best for humanity. When we realize that our technologies become us, we can demand that they be beneficent and aid human flourishing. By choosing our bio-technologies, we choose who and what we are.

VIII. Conclusions

Clark has argued that we are profoundly embodied agents. We extends our bodies and minds using technology. And this process happens continually. With each new technology we again reconfigure our agent/world boundary. Yet, we are not disembodied cogitos. We are in direct contact with the world and with our technological sensory and cognitive extensions. The walking stick does not just become a part of our body. It becomes a part of our brain as well, and a part of us.

These technologies are developing rapidly, and may take a variety of forms, for example chemical, computational, genetic, bio-mechanical, and nano-technological.

Given our natural plasticity, we should not fear a "post-human" future. We should instead be optimistic that these technologies will enhance human happiness and flourishing.

Clark, Andy. "Re-Inventing Ourselves: The Plasticity of Embodiment, Sensing, and Mind. in Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Volume 32, Issue 3 May 2007 , pages 263 - 282.
More information and text available at:

Deleuzean Cyborgs without Systems

Clark explicitly states that our brain's plastic alterations are on-going. He also at times refers to the breakdown of organic bodily and mind operations that happen when the new tool is first being incorporated into our nervous systems. For example, when the macaque monkey started controlling the robot arm, he seemed to have experienced disjunctions within his own system's operations. Clark writes:
When the robot arm was inserted into the control loop, the monkey displayed a striking degradation of behavior. It took two full days of practice for fluent thought-control over the onscreen cursor to be re-established. (emphasis mine)
When learning to use a new tool, we might as well feel the way it disorients us, and places our systems into chaos, until we adjust to it. So it seems that when we extend and alter our nervous system's operations, we do so under the conditions of confusion, disorder, and disorientation.

Hence it might seem that the aim of new tool use is to master the world around us. But at first, we let the world master us. We submit ourselves to chaos. When we first take a wet paintbrush to canvass, we apply too much or too little pressure. We have not learned to extend our sensitivities out to the end of the brush. And we can clearly feel the brush in our hand. We are aware of the contact-point between hand and brush, but not between brush and canvass. Slowly, the brush becomes like a sixth finger. We lose our sensitivity to the brush itself. We no longer feel it in our hands. But we do feel the canvass at the end of the brush. We can sense through the brush whether the canvass is smooth or rough, wet or dry. The brush-bristles are new nerve endings. Information comes through the brush that our nervous systems have learned to cooperate-with as though the bush extended our nerves beyond our bodies. So while we do not have nerve endings that touch the canvass, the ones in our fingers along with the neurons in our brains have modified their operations so that they convert the information coming through the brush as giving indications to what lies on the other end. At first we feel a tug in the brush. That means nothing at first. Slowly we learn to translate the amount of tug with the roughness of the surface. As we become adept, we need not think twice. We instantly feel the canvass' surface with each stroke.

So consider a professional painter. Take away her brushes and paints, and tell her she must live without them. Some argue that these instruments are not truly parts of us. But what about the painter without her brush? Will she feel that something essential to her is lacking, maybe even what is most essential to her? Our tools become extensions of our selfhoods, and not just in a metaphorical way. They literally are co-operational extensions of our brains and nerves.

Yet Clark does not stress the element of chaos. However, he does imply it. And by addressing it, we can take his line of thinking in a new direction. Because we can see that what makes us living, growing selves are our confrontations with disorder. As soon as we master the new tool, we are desensitized. What this tells us is that to be alive and to be ourselves, we need to explore. We should jump into new worlds, and let them change us.
'"A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns—nicht wahr? . . . No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up. So if you ask me—how to be?"
"And yet it is true—it is true. In the destructive element immerse." . . . He spoke in a subdued tone, without looking at me, one hand on each side of his face. "That was the way. To follow the dream, and again to follow the dream—and so—ewigusque ad finem. . . ." (Conrad, Lord Jim)

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