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Cognitive Systems Research 6 (2005) 405–409

www.elsevier.com/locate/cogsys

Book review

Review of Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and


the Future of Human Intelligence, Andy Clark; Oxford
University Press, 2003, $26.00, 240 pp. ISBN: 0-1951-4866-5
Action editor: Stefan Wermter
Leslie Marsh
Centre for Research in Cognitive Science, Department of Informatics, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, UK

Available online 5 July 2005

The notion of the cyborg has exercised the pop- 1. The human mind is naturally disposed to
ular imagination for almost two hundred years. In develop and incorporate tools.
very general terms the idea that a living entity can 2. Humans have always been to a greater or lesser
be a hybrid of both organic matter and mechanical degree cyborgs.
parts, and for all intents and purposes be
seamlessly functional and self-regulating, was pre- These two theses give the informal derivation of
figured in literary works such as ShellyÕs Franken- the title: Natural-Born Cyborgs. ClarkÕs appropri-
stein (1816/18) and Samuel ButlerÕs Erewhon ation of the image of the cyborg is in the service of
(1872). This notion of hybridism has been a staple these theses and has little to do with some futurist
theme of 20th century science fiction writing, tele- utopian manifesto or nightmarish ‘‘post-human’’
vision programmes and the cinema. For the most scenario. His interest is in addressing a question
part, these works trade on a deep sense of unease central to cybernetics: ‘‘How does human thought
we have about our personal identity – how could and reason emerge from looping interactions be-
some non-organic matter to which I have so little tween material brains and bodies, and complex
conscious access count as a bona fide part of me? cultural and technological environments?’’ In the
Cognitive scientist and philosopher, Andy Clark, service of answering this question, Clark considers
picks up this general theme and presents an empir- a diverse selection of technological props or aids
ical and philosophical case for the following inex- from the commonplace (the mobile phone) to dis-
tricably linked theses. cussion of implants and collaborative filtering pro-
gramming to the more unusual (the prosthetic
performance artistry of Stelarc).
ClarkÕs project is threefold with one primary
E-mail address: l.marsh@sussex.ac.uk. task and two derivative tasks. The primary task

1389-0417/$ - see front matter Ó 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.cogsys.2005.05.003
406 Book review / Cognitive Systems Research 6 (2005) 405–409

is to dispel the fear generated by the sense of exot- activities, and that does not require mental guid-
icism typically attached to the notion of the ance or intervention for its successful accomplish-
cyborg. On closer examination the integration of ment (p. 33). It should be noted that such a
technology (the artefactual) with the biological is critique does not commit one to the wholesale dis-
so ubiquitous, it is in many respects banal: ‘‘It lies missal of representational theories of mind (Wil-
on a direct continuum with clothes, cooking, son, 2004). The relationship of the Cartesian
bricklaying, and writing.’’ (p. 174). ClarkÕs broad legacy to cognitive science is often presented in
conception of technology (counterposed by his caricatural form; for a nuanced assessment see
overlooking of biotechnology) raises questions Wheeler (2005). Of course, embodiment has been
about the conceptÕs extensional and intensional a major theme in robotics (see Bedau, 2005; Ziemke,
adequacy. His inclusion of language, for example, 2002).
seems to render it so broad as to be vacuous As a DEEDS theorist, Clark understands there
(Clark, 2004; Clark, 2005b; McKenzie, 2004). to be a reciprocal relation between our conceptual
ClarkÕs second task is to emphasize the ‘‘capacity creativity and the environment (natural and arte-
to creatively distribute labor between biology factual), to intimate, regulate and inform concepts
and the designed environment is the very signature and action. Whatever the resistance to the notion
of our species’’ (p. 174). And finally ‘‘who we are is of the cyborg, it does not turn upon the integration
in large part a function of the webs of surrounding of biological and artefactual as such but upon the
structure...’’ (p. 174). Discussion of these three perceived ‘‘transformative potential of this coali-
themes cut across the eight chapters that comprise tion’’ (p. 22). That there is a transformative poten-
this book. tial is precisely ClarkÕs point and this is to be
ClarkÕs Cyborg metaphor turns on the con- embraced. To define ourselves in ‘‘brutal opposi-
joined idea that (a) cognitive processes extend into tion to the very world in which we live love and
the world and, (b) cognitive states extend into the work’’ (p. 142) is an incoherent notion. The history
world whereby objects are the repositories of data of human-artefact integration one might say is also
that can be accessed. Clark is a leading researcher a history of the civilizing process. The pencil and
in a loose anti-Cartesian non-representational coa- paper or the hammer are paradigm examples of
lition comprising dynamical-, embodied-, ex- transparent tools in that they are so functionally
tended-, distributed-, and situated-theories of effective and finely attuned as to be invisible:
cognition (DEEDS). DEEDS should be set in con- ‘‘[t]here is no merger so intimate as that which is
trast to the Cartesian inspired orthodox material- barely noticed’’ (p. 29). The artistÕs iterated pro-
ist-computationalism which has been closely tied cess of externalising and re-perceiving turns out
to a representational theory of mind, the idea to be integral to the process of artistic cognition it-
being that the fundamental relation of a person self (p. 77). Clark here is emphasising the human
to the world consists in the relation of the content capacity to develop practical (situational) intelli-
of an individual mind to the world of objects, gence, as opposed to the rigidity of brute (abstract)
events, and states of affairs as represented by that computational power – hence ClarkÕs famous slo-
content. Implicit is the methodological supposition gan ‘‘Good at Frisbee, Bad at Logic’’ (Clark,
that cognition can be studied independently of any 2001, p. 133).
consideration of the brain, the body, and the phys- Since ClarkÕs self-labelled position ‘‘active
ical or social environment. Cartesian (metaphysics externalism’’ is a species of externalism, we briefly
and epistemology) is highly individualistic in the have to note the fault-line that divides internalism
sense that it focuses on mental operations of cog- and externalism in recent philosophy of mind and
nitive agents in isolation or abstraction from other language. As there is a voluminous and confusing
persons and contexts. The DEEDS literature holds array and conflation of several philosophical
that the most fundamental variety of human polarities (Millikan, 2004, p. 228), I make no apol-
action consists in the apparently unthinking, ogies for the crude outline. Externalism is the view
skilled action that makes up much of our everyday that the content of a mental state is in part
Book review / Cognitive Systems Research 6 (2005) 405–409 407

determined by elements of the external world. By serve to illustrate that whether the technology is
contrast, internalism is the view that the content external, invisible or is deeply embedded in the
of mental states is determined by features of the biological being, is neither here nor there: the mark
conscious subject without recourse to environmen- of human intelligence and experience is, and has
tal conditions. It should be noted that externalists always been, a coalition with the artefactual. Of
are not committed to the claim that mental states course, there are more ‘‘opaque technologies’’,
are somewhere other than in the head, and individ- technologies that are visible in that the required
ualists do not think that what is outside the head skills and capacities are not yet sufficiently devel-
has nothing to do with what ends up in the head. oped. But this does not detract from ClarkÕs point:
There is a great deal of resistance to what seems such technology should contribute nothing to the
like counter-intuitive aspects to ClarkÕs ‘‘active complexity of the tasks they support – ‘‘complexity
externalism’’, in particular to the idea that cogni- should reside in that of the task, not the tool’’ (p.
tive states extend into the world. Sterelny (2004) 45).
takes issue with Clark (and ChalmerÕs) apparent These examples have mereological import to
over-reliance on a functional similarity between some and it is here the tricky topic of personal
internal and external memory, or to put it another identity comes into play. This topic has, at best,
way, the difference between cognitive states and been very cursorily treated by most DEEDS theo-
cognitive content (Dartnall, 2004). rists; at worst, totally ignored. Though there are
Can we accept that a state of believing is really problems in the presentation of this topic in
out there? (Dartnall, 2005, p. 142). ClarkÕs Cyborg, it offers the most sustained treatment
response is that his and ChalmersÕ concern is with yet. There is a voluminous literature in the analytic
the dispositional state of believing. So, for example philosophical tradition going back to Locke that
one might believe some propositional fact such as considers the notion of personal identity ab-
‘‘Madrid is in Spain’’ even if this knowledge is not stracted from any socio-cultural context. Lockean
in use (Clark, 2004). The proposition might be theories take psychological continuity to be the
shared by two or more agents even if the vehicle criterion of personal identity. Clark takes the view
as distinct from the content is in one case both that we are not just a kind of rational or intellec-
internal and biological and in the other case exter- tual presence but a conglomeration of ongoing
nal and non-biological. What this means is that it goals, projects and commitments that cannot arbi-
just does not matter whether the data are stored trarily be changed. One recognises oneself in part
somewhere inside the biological organism or by keeping track of this flow of projects and com-
stored in the external world. What matters is mitments; others recognise me not only by my
how information is poised for retrieval. In other physicality but also by some distinctive nexus of
words ‘‘it is not knowing so much as knowing projects and activities. It is DescartesÕ notion of a
how to find out’’ (p. 67). Our sense of location is centralised controller, some central cognitive and
not simply a function of our beliefs about the loca- conscious essence that makes me who and what I
tion of our body (p. 91): it is the two-way flow am (p. 138) that Dennett (1991) and Clark take
between brain, body, and world that matters. to task. In Clark (2004) he explicitly says that at
Another grade of integration is exemplified by root he is offering a kind of no-self theory. This
microchipped pets, implants such as an auditory has strong resonance with Derek ParfitÕs (1984)
prosthesis, the pacemaker, artificial heart trans- and DennettÕs (1991: 423) Buddhist-like conclu-
plantation and implantable neural biomimetic sions. Parfit deploys science fiction inspired
electronics (Berger & Glanzman, 2005). But it is thought experiments to test our intuitions about
the example of Kevin Warwick that seems to cap- self identity. Parfit distinguishes two views about
ture the cyborg of the popular imagination: War- the nature of persons, one the Non-Reductionist,
wick has had neuro-surgical implants placed into the other the Reductionist. The former is the
the median nerves of his arm linking his nervous Cartesian Ego whereby a person is distinct from
system directly to a computer. These examples his brain, body and experiences. The latter, ParfitÕs
408 Book review / Cognitive Systems Research 6 (2005) 405–409

position, is that the existence of a person just con- attuned to consumer behaviour. The downside
sists in the existence of his brain, body, his is that there runs the risk of ‘‘a kind of dysfunc-
thoughts, deeds and innumerable other physical tional communal narrowing of attention’’ (p. 158)
and mental events – personal identity is not a sep- that can be self-fulfilling. What would be interest-
arate further fact. ing would be to examine the principles of CF in
ClarkÕs proposal is that all that should matter is relation to the notion of group minds – can the
that the conscious self has a broad sense of what aggregation of individual activity as outlined in
the entire situated and embodied agent can and CF give rise to minimal emergent group psycho-
can not do: so fitted with a new prosthetic leg that logical properties? (Rupert, 2004, 2005; Wilson,
now allows me to walk, my sense of what I can do 2004). Another question to be considered is how
must rapidly alter and catch up and this bundle of are the principles of CF to be integrated into the-
‘‘taken-for-granted’’ skills, knowledge, and abili- ories of memetics of ideas?
ties that surely structures and informs our sense In Chapter 7, Clark highlights some socio-
of who we are and what we know (Clark, 2005a, political and ethical worries he has about
p. 8). human-centred technology. Clark grants that the
Orthodox cognitive science has systematically seeds for the nightmarish scenario are latent,
overlooked not only the location of thinkers in but is sanguine about the prospects of this vision
their physical environments, but has also over- coming to fruition. Clark is hopeful that there
looked the interactions amongst thinkers in the will be an organic realignment of moral and tech-
ambient social soup. ClarkÕs theme of looping nological value. Every technology is a two-edged
interactions between material brains and bodies, sword, conveying benefits and disadvantages.
and complex cultural and technological environ- Clark is a technological agnostic: the prolifera-
ments is exemplified in another domain – the soci- tion of digital technology in our everyday lives
ality of minds. The social and distributed cognition is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically evil.
emphasis on the social context of knowledge has Of course there are socio-moral-political issues
begun to redress the lacuna of de-contextualised but these are germane to the general history of
theorising in the Plato-Descartes tradition. While our relationship to technology from the Industrial
Clark does not tackle social epistemology per se, Revolution to the Digital Age. I do not think that
his Chapter 6 entitled ‘‘Global Swarming’’ out- Clark can plausibly be characterized as buying
lines a fertile source of ideas for social epistemol- into the unreflective hype of techno-culture
ogists. Clark discusses ‘‘collaborative filtering’’ hypercapitalism (Thompson, 2003, p. 190) or
(CF) as exemplified by Amazon.com which ex- ‘‘pre-dotcom crash ebullience about technology’’
ploits the principles of ‘‘swarm intelligence’’. CF (McKenzie, 2004). As noted at the outset, ClarkÕs
exploits similar principles to those underlying work has little to do with some misplaced futurist
pheromone-based self-organization of ants and utopian manifesto or nightmarish ‘‘post-human’’
bees whereby each episode of use or access by scenario.
an agent lays down a trace. After a sufficient Cyborgs is, in publishing parlance, a trade
amount of activity (here consumer activity), book: it has no pretensions to be otherwise. This
exploitable patterns emerge. Self-organisation as said, Cyborgs lays down the gauntlet to main-
a general principle has much wider application stream philosophical discussions of personal iden-
in areas of information extraction and retrieval. tity by offering some profoundly interesting
This activity supports a kind of automatic pool- metaphysical puzzles. I think the publisherÕs rec-
ing of knowledge and expertise and is so powerful ommendation that Clark abstain from devoting a
precisely because tracks and trails in consumer whole chapter to personal identity (in ClarkÕs ter-
space are laid down as a by-product (unplanned minology ‘‘Soft Selves’’) as unsuitable for such a
and emergent) of the primary activity, online book (Clark, 2004, note 4) is an affront for the
shopping. One of the great advantages of this un- reader and the author, the author being one of
planned and emergent activity is that it is finely the most accessible and stylish of writers around.
Book review / Cognitive Systems Research 6 (2005) 405–409 409

Clark, ever engaging his critics, has the unusual Dartnall, T. (2004). We have always been... Cyborgs. Meta-
distinction of making his critics appear more elo- science, 13(2), 139–148 (I refer to pre-published MS kindly
sent to me by Andy Clark).
quent than they really are. Thus the novice coming Dartnall, T. (2005). Does the world leak into the mind? Active
to Clark via Cyborgs should have no problem in externalism, ‘‘internalism’’ and epistemology. Cognitive
following the debate as set out in either the now Science, 29, 135–143.
classic primary literature (Chalmers & Clark, Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness explained. Harmonds-
1998; Clark, 1997) or in the secondary literature worth: Penguin Books.
McKenzie, A. (2004). Has the cyborg been domesticated? (Or, is
referred to below. Lolo a disappointing cyborg?). Metascience, 13(2), 139–148.
Millikan, R. G. (2004). Existence proof for a viable externalism.
In R. Schantz (Ed.), The externalist challenge: New studies
References on cognition and intentionality; Berlin and New York: de
Gruyter.
Bedau, M. (Ed.). (2005). Embodied and situated cognition Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and persons. Oxford: Oxford
[Special issue]. Artificial Life, 11(1–2). University Press.
Berger, T. W., & Glanzman, D. L. (2005). Toward replacement Rupert, R. (2004). Challenges to the hypothesis of extended
parts for the brain implantable biomimetic electronics as cognition. Journal of Philosophy, 101, 389–428.
neural prostheses. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Rupert, R. (2005). Minding oneÕs cognitive systems: When is a
Chalmers, D., & Clark, A. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, group of minds a single cognitive unit? EPISTEME, 1(3).
58, 7–19. Sterelny, K. (2004). Externalism, epistemic artefacts and the
Clark, A. (1997). Being there: Putting brain, body, and world extended mind. In R. Schantz (Ed.), The externalist
together again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. challenge: New studies on cognition and intentionality; Berlin
Clark, A. (2001). Reason, robots and the extended mind. Mind and New York: de Gruyter.
& Language, 16(2), 121–145. Thompson, W. I. (2003). The borgs or borges? Journal of
Clark, A. (2004). AuthorÕs response. Metascience, 13(2), Consciousness Studies, 10(4–5), 189–192.
139–148 (I refer to pre-published MS kindly sent to me by Wilson, R. A. (2004). Boundaries of the mind: The individual in
Andy Clark). the fragile sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Clark, A. (2005a). Intrinsic content, active memory and the Wheeler, M. (2005). Reconstructing the cognitive world. Cam-
extended mind. Analysis, 65.1, 1–11. bridge, MA: MIT Press.
Clark, A. (2005b). Beyond the flesh: Some lessons from a mole Ziemke, T. (Ed.). (2002). Situated and embodied cognition
cricket. Artificial Life, 11(1–2), 233–244. [Special issue]. Cognitive Systems Research, 3.