Livewired by David Eagleman26 Sep 2023
More than 15 years ago I wrote a blog post called “how to use 100% of your brain”. It was a bit click-baity as the intention was to illustsrate that we already use 100% all the time, and it included a few references. The intention was mostly to inform people who had grown up with the fables of “we only use a small percentage of our brain, imagine what we could do if we could use all of it?”… I mean, there are even movies on this topic.
Interestingly, it became quite popular, most of my traffic from Google Search went towards that article; I removed it after a while as I hadn’t done proper research on the topic and the information was not very accurate.
I am not a neuroscientist after all, but do you know who is? David Eagleman, author of Livewired.
Note: This book review has some spoilers!
This was a super interesting book to read, quite digestible, with tons of examples.
The premise is that the brain works in a plug-and-play fashion. You can remove sensors, remove body parts, add extra ones, and the brain will adapt… like a general purpose computer. We often talk about plasticity in the brain, but referring to it as livewired makes a lot more sense; it breaks down the traditional myth that “areas of the brain are mapped in a specific way”.
One thing that was a bit of a bummer (in a funny way) was: I had a couple of ideas a few years ago which I was absoluely sure I had invented, and I was just waiting for the right moment to have a few months off some day in the future to work on them, yet here they were in full display on the pages before me, as commercial products I had never heard about.
- My first idea was a sound device for deaf people, using frequencies above 20K Hz, with the idea that even though we can’t process it, the brain might be able to react to those frequencies. The actual product uses lower frequencies (I guess they have verified that higher frequencies had no impact on the cochlea or the vibrations were not ‘converted’ into electrical signals?), yet it works, albeit the sounds are quite audible and for new users it might sound like a wall of sounds. Frequencies and amplitude are used to convey proximity, colours, brightness, etc.
- In the ISS there are sensors built by different countries which not always communicate correctly between each other… In a live-wired system data from sensors and other systems is understood by figuring things out automatically (back-propagation / unsupervised learning>. “Motor” babbling is mentioned (as babbling is the way babies figure out how to communicate, by experimenting out of curiosity). This reminded me of my Curious Actors idea (2015) where AI agents that explore, prod, and learn through curiosity. For example, interacting with APIs or objects in a codebase by performing tasks such as “what happens if I call this function? What happens if I pass this parameter? Does the result change? Are the types constant? What about the structure?”, essentially creating a model of action-reactions to specific events, as well as a dictionary of properties to expect from certain objects (including generalisations as well as specific data for instances of objects). My ultimate idea was that if we could map that virtual world to a real one, the agents would simply collect information from us using an interface, the “objects”, “methods” and “properties” shorthand for interactions with us, physical features and attributes.
A small section of the book read like a sales pitch for one of the products. I feel that was quite unnecessary… a disclosure could have been added instead, or a foreword or afterword with a bit more information on the related commercial interests of the author.
Recap: It is an easy read, not too long, with plenty of examples and illustrations. Some parts dragged on a bit with a few too many examples, but overall a very intriguing book with some really cool concepts! - 8/10