The brain’s bandwidth problem and its cost in the hyper-connected age

One of Elon Musk’s key arguments for the need of a brain-computer interface is the limited bandwidth which currently exists for each of us to access our brains. Ever since he officially launched Neuralink in March 2017, the bandwidth problem and its consequences for societies have been occupying my thoughts.

As the world is getting incredibly complex, the limitations in regards to the quality and speed of accessing our brains lead to largely destructive results, which can be witnessed every day in the heated, polarized and binary political debates as well as in the simplifying responses to news events.

One commentator on Quora depicts the core problem with the lack of bandwidth very well:

“Picture anything in your mind, then try to relate it to another human with so much detail that they can reproduce it the same way you see it. One picture, a thousand words, and whatnot.

So, its like having a very very powerful computer with a very very crappy internet connection. Youre f***ed.”

Currently, if we want to express what’s going on in our mind to other people, we generally have to rely on spoken or written language (with the exception of body language, facial expressions and gestures). Historically, spoken or written language somewhat has worked, but it is utterly unfit to efficiently solve major challenges and conflicts that naturally arise in a multi-faceted, hyper-connected world like ours today.

Here are some of the flaws related to using spoken/written language to express the results of human cognitive work:

  • Our attention-span is limited. Therefore, in order to keep our attention, those who want to transmit information have to hack our brains through e.g. wrapping information into bits of entertainment or by appealing to our emotions in order to keep us interested. This opens the door for all kinds of manipulations and for a predatory “attention economy”.
  • We hear what we want to hear or what we feel like in a given moment, thanks to various biases that evolutionary biology equipped us with and due to differing personal experiences. The result is that different people will extract very different conclusions from the same text or speech.
  • Our memory is insufficient. If you keep listening to a person for ten minutes, you won’t be able to recall everything he/she told you.
  • Most of us are bad at accurately putting our thoughts into words (case in point: I tried to explain the bandwidth problem to a friend and failed miserably — essentially, I used too many words and lost her attention).
  • Spoken/written language is quantitatively and qualitatively very limited. There is a lot going on in our brains for which we lack proper terms to describe it. Either we cannot express these thoughts at all, or we have to rely on neighboring expressions, which easily can be misunderstood.
  • Words themselves are often not neutral. Some words or expressions are emotionally/ideologically charged, which easily can lead to erroneous associations and which can detract from actual transmission of information.

With the Internet that connects billions of people to a global consciousness, humanity received a major upgrade. This reshapes the dynamics of discourse, conflict handling, consensus finding and policy making — and it multiplies the costs from collateral damage caused by our flawed spoken/written language communication.

While I am not a scientist, I’d say the bandwidth problem is not only real, but also a major threat to navigating ourselves unharmed through the hyper-connected age.

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