Expanding Human Cognition and Communication Theme B Summary

Panel: W.S. Bainbridge, R. Burger, J. Canton, R. Golledge, R.E. Horn, P. Kuekes, J. Loomis, C.A. Murray, P. Penz, B.M. Pierce, J. Pollack, W. Robinett, J. Spohrer, S. Turkle, L. T. Wilson

In order to chart the most profitable future directions for societal transformation and corresponding scientific research, five multidisciplinary themes focused on major goals have been identified, to fulfill the overall motivating vision of convergence described in the previous pages. The first, "Expanding Human Cognition and Communication," is devoted to technological breakthroughs that have the potential to enhance individuals' mental and interaction abilities. Throughout the twentieth century, a number of purely psychological techniques were offered for strengthening human character and personality, but evaluation research has generally failed to confirm the alleged benefits of these methods (Druckman and Bjork 1992; 1994). Today, there is good reason to believe that a combination of methods, drawing upon varied branches of converging science and technology, would be more effective than attempts that rely upon mental training alone.

The convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science could create new scientific methodologies, engineering paradigms and industrial products that would enhance human mental and interactive abilities. By uniting these disciplines, science would become ready to succeed in a rapid program to understand the structure and functions of the human mind, The Human Cognome Project. Truly, the mind is the final frontier, and unraveling its mysteries will have tremendous practical benefits. Among the most valuable spin-offs will be a host of devices that enhance human sensory capabilities. We will be able to build a vast variety of humane machines that adapt to and reflect the communication styles, social context, and personal needs of the people who use them. We will literally learn how to learn in new and more effective ways, revolutionizing education across the life span. New tools will greatly enhance creativity, industrial design, and personal productivity. Failure to invest in the necessary multidisciplinary research would delay or even prevent these benefits to the economy, to national security, and to individual well-being.

Rapid recent progress in cognitive science and related fields has brought us to the point where we could achieve several breakthroughs that would be of great value to mankind. However, we will need to make a significant special effort to bring together the often widely dispersed scientific and technical disciplines that must contribute. For example, progress in the cognitive neuroscience of the human brain has been achieved through new research methodologies, based in both biology and information science, such as functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) and infrared sensors. However, we are reaching the resolution limits of current instrumentation, for example because of concerns about the safety of human research subjects (Food and Drug Administration 1998), so progress will stall quickly unless breakthroughs in NBIC can give us research tools with much greater resolution, sensitivity, and capacity to analyze data. Many other examples could be cited in which scientific, technological, and economic progress is approaching a barrier that can be surmounted only by a vigorous program of multidisciplinary research.

The panel identified five main areas in which integration of the NBIC sciences can enhance the cognitive and communicative aspects of human performance. Each of these is a challenging field for multidisciplinary research that will lead to many beneficial applications.

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