To the CitiZENs of the Future Office: ‘It Is All in Your Mind’
|Image courtesy of Phil Whitehouse on Flickr
Societal material progress has been based on the ability of humans to improve their productivity and efficiency with the aid of technological innovations. Take for example, the steam engine, the machine that kick-started the first industrial revolution in the 1700s. This invention rapidly diffused into our daily lives, by affecting the transportation, textile, infrastructure and agriculture industries and also gave impetus to improve other societal factors like sanitation, labor laws and housing. Till date, we’ve experienced two more such revolutions – the second (energy revolution in the 1800s) and the third (telecommunication and electronics revolution in the 1900s) – and are currently in the midst of the fourth (digital revolution in the 2000s). There is no doubt that such tectonic shifts in the way our society functions can have a significant collateral of creative destruction (for example technological advancements like energy production from fossil fuels at the cost of the environment) whose ramifications can be felt for a long time. I would like to recall the three laws1 by the famous science writer and futurist Arthur Clarke to recalibrate our perspective on such technological changes and their impact on society, and if I may, add a corollary to the third.
- Law 1: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- Law 2: The only way of discovering the limits of what is possible is to venture a little way past that into the impossible.
- Law 3: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Corollary: Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from reality
|Image courtesy of Krishnan Thyagarajan
Since its conception, the office has evolved both in the style of interaction among people and the modalities used for the interaction, so much so that the concept of the office as most people know it from the early 1900s, may change for those in the 2100s (see Figure 1). With open offices, we moved to cubicles, to glass and concrete, then to wellness-centered and ergonomics-inspired co-working. Although a finite fraction of the workforce has started to work remotely (see ‘Where does the technology stand today?’), we are seeing a greater merger between the work-home environment that is being assisted by technologies that the last two revolutions have enabled. These include real time high-definition videos and big data, good visualization tools and content being streamed across the high-bandwidth information highways – all of which need more and more human-machine interaction to enable greater human-human interactions! Think also of social media and you’ll know what I mean. Rather than meeting and discussing face-to-face, people keep in touch and up to date via instant messaging and social networking platforms. With these capabilities, the future holds even more intriguing promise by giving greater access to a wider variety of human-human and human-machine interactions. If someone had stated several decades ago, that they will be able to live-stream high-quality video content showing geographically-separated colleagues who are part of the same meeting, it might have been categorized in the realm of science fiction. But there were those who sensed optimism in Clarke’s first law and pushed ahead.
- Can humans conceive of a device that is capable of capturing smells that I smell inside my head? In the past, I would have been skeptical, but so would people have been about technologies like Optogenetics. Current advances in electromagnetic tools have inspired studies to create artificial smells2 and although we are quite a distance away from such a device, given the massive improvements in computation, machine learning, neuroscience, physics and engineering – it is not inconceivable in the future.
- What world would this open up to us? Alain De Botton, a Swiss-born British philosopher, has correctly pointed out – “Most of our childhood is stored not in photos, but in certain biscuits, lights of day, smells, textures of carpet”3. Being able to recreate the smells of nostalgia would give us unprecedented access to capturing qualia and maybe even sharing it? Creativity is not the constraint of what we can dream of, but rather, our sense of what may tear at the fabric of society. This immense capacity to tweak perception, raises many questions on the ethics of such devices. Can I record your memories? Can I corrupt them? Can I implant a false memory, as has been recently demonstrated4?
- Isn’t the device capable of doing so, pure magic? The device picks up and isolates signals of smell from my brain, filters out those that I like and breaks those down into component smells that I need to mix to get that seductive eau de cologne. But then, isn’t this device also messing with your sense of reality? AR/VR devices that give a realistic experience including the sense of smell might make it tough to decipher what is real and what is virtual? Making a reference to a famous Taoist story – are you the person dreaming you are a butterfly when asleep or are you a butterfly dreaming of being a person when awake?5
|Image courtesy of Krishnan Thyagarajan
- Information exchange: If I were to be plugged into the device, who has access to what information goes into and out of my brain? Is it the firm manufacturing the device? Or is it a higher authority? What will my mind be fed? To what extent can I control the device? Can my personal opinions about certain projects or colleagues at work be extracted from my mind and used to my detriment?
- Emotional regulation: Given that our brain is the seat of our emotions, will such devices have regal access to altering my emotions and make me less human? Can my emotional health (e.g. anxiety, tiredness, positive reinforcement) be manipulated to make me work harder? Can my memory be erased and replaced by a different memory? Will it be the new electronic drug?
- Maintaining moral sense: If such a device can control my emotions, it can also control my sense of judgement about what is morally correct. Can I then be coerced into doing things I would not do otherwise? Who is responsible for actions committed by the user under the influence of such a device? Think of the similar debate surrounding driverless cars.
- Privacy protection: Offices are where we work with colleagues, connect with them and reach out to others. Being connected to others risks the exposure of my private thoughts, current state of mind, emotions and anxieties – how will I protect my privacy as an individual with such a device? Can I choose what access rights others have in this mind social network, which might be an interconnected network where users have access to each other’s thoughts?
- Internet vulnerability: A connected world is wonderfully ideal, but like with all networks such as smart grids, the internet and human networks, this connectedness also leads to exposure and vulnerability. How can I protect myself from hacking and wrongful manipulation?
- Sense of self: If my emotions, thoughts, memories and privacy are all vulnerable to exploitation, can I still retain my sense of self? Who are you dealing with then – is it me or an artificially enforced personality?
- Clarke, A. C. (1973). Profiles of the future: An inquiry into the limits of the possible. Harper & Row.
- Holbrook, E. H., Puram, S. V., See, R. B., Tripp, A. G., & Nair, D. G. (2018). Induction of smell through transethmoid electrical stimulation of the olfactory bulb. Int. Forum of Allergy and Rhinology.
- De Botton, A. (1998). How Proust can change your life, Vintage, 4th printing edition.
- Vetere, G., Tran, L. M., Moberg, S., Steadman, P. E., Restivo, L., Morrison, F. G., Ressler, K. J., Josselyn, S. A., & Frankland, P. W. (2019). Memory formation in the absence of experience. Nature Neuroscience, 22, 933-940
- Mair, V. H. (2000). Wandering on the way. University of Hawaii Press.
- Heff, C. & Schultz, T. (2016). Automatic speech recognition from neural signals: a focused review. Front. Neurosci, 10, 429
- Makin, J. G., Moss, D. A., & E. F. Chang. (2020). Machine translation of cortical activity to text with an encoder-decoder framework. Nat. Neurosci.
- Jiang, L., Stocco, A., Losey, D. M., Abernethy, J. A., Prat, C. S., & Rao, R. N. (2019). BrainNet: a multi-person brain-to-brain interface for direct collaboration between brains. Sci. Rep. 9, 6115.
- Putze, F., Vourvopoulos, A., Lecuyer, A., Krusienski, D., Mulle, T., & Herff, C. (2020). Brain-computer interfaces and augmented/virtual reality. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 10, 3389.
- Orwell, G. (1949). Essays on reflections on Gandhi. The Orwell Foundation.
Want to cite this post?
Thyagarajan, K. (2020). To the CitiZENs of the Future Office: ‘It Is All in Your Mind’. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2020/05/to-citizens-of-future-office-it-is-all.html