Human and Non-Human Animals Brain Interfaces

“If a Lion could talk, we wouldn’t be able to understand it” (Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations p. 235)

In his recent paper Harish Shah a futurist speculated on the possibility of developing human to non-human brain interfaces as a means for humans to communicate with other non-human animals. He even speculated on animals of different species using the same technology to communicate with each-other. Shah was talking about a really interesting area of research. He quiet correct to note that our ability to control a mechanical arm using brain interfaces does indeed imply that we should be able to use similar technology between humans and non-human animals.
However I would like to sound a brief note of caution to his optimistic speculation. Firstly one needs to be very careful when one uses the word ‘communication’ to avoid using the same word in different contexts when the word means different things in different contexts. When I communicate to others using language there is a lot going on at the personal level (intentional stance) and the sub-person level (brain processes). So at the sub-personal level the Broca’s area in the cortex important for producing speech and Wernicke’s area in the cortex used for understanding speech. Now in producing speech different areas of the brain will be communicating with other, so my Wernicke’s area will be in communication with my temporal lobes and occipital lobes if my speech involves the use of any image. All of this is very crude and my reason for bring up this preschool model of brain areas communicating with each other is so I can emphasise how un-language like it is. When different brain areas communicate with each other they do so in-terms of things like topographic maps etc (see Paul Churchland’s ‘Plato’s Camera’). So when a brain interfaces with a robot arm it is important to note that the sub-personal level nothing language like, which involves consciousness awareness, occurs. The person in the experiment may be consciously aware of a desire to move his arm, or may be directed to do so by one of the scientists in the team, but the brain moves the arm because of un-language like computational interfaces between the brain and the robot arm. These facts are important to think about when assessing Shah’s speculations.
Shaw speculates as follows:
“Brain signals exist in animals, though perhaps operating in different ways or at different frequencies than humans. However it is a matter of time, before the same type of thought reading apparatus used for human-to-human interaction can, and will, be adjusted to identify, decipher and read animal thoughts.”
“And then now think, if we figure a way, to relay our thoughts or intended messages, to your pets or other animals, in a way, they can understand? Going to the zoo will become a very different experience from what it is today. Imagine if you could have a conversation with a lion. For example, you think the question, “How are you feeling today?”, which gets converted into data, and then signal, which is transmitted to the brain of the lion, in a form, which the lion is able to interpret and understand, in response to which, the lion thinks, a thought that is captured by a brain interface device picking up it’s brainwaves, converting it, translating into a human language you understand, converting it to voice sound, relayed back to you, which you hear in your head, whereby the lion’s response may sound to you perhaps like, “The same as I do every day when humans like you come by across that barrier. Hungry.”
Here there are a couple of points to note I would imagine that it will be very soon possible through brain implants (in the Rats Motor cortex) to give me partial (or full control) of a rats behaviour directly via my own brain. But this control will again all be done via the sub-personal computational processes we discussed above. With this type of interface I will not have any communication (at the personal level) with the rat.
What about direct interface so we can communicate linguistically via the interfaces with non-human animals? Such interfaces may not be as feasible as Shah seems to think. In a 2002 experiment Hauser and Fitch compared the grammar learning abilities of Tamarin monkeys and humans in learning grammars. Their studies showed that while Tamarin Monkey’s could learn context free grammars easily they could not learn phrase structure grammar, where as humans could learn both. Neuroscientist Angela D. Friederici decided to test this study from a neurological point of view. Since she did not have detailed neurological studies for cotton-top tamarins; so she instead she compared human and Macaque brains. She used a study by Petrides and Pandya (1994) which analysed the cytoarchitectonic structure of the frontal and prefrontal cortexes of the brain in human and macaque brains. Anterior to the central sulcus (cs) there is an area called BA 6. Friederici notes the following:
“BA 6 is particularly large in humans and in the monkey. However in the monkey the areas that seem relevant for language, at least in the human brain, are pretty small in the macaque” (The Brain Differentiates Grammars p. 186)
“For the group that learned the Finite State Grammar, we found activation in the frontal operculum, an area that is phylogenetically older than the Broca’s area, for the comparison between grammatically correct and incorrect sequences. Interestingly enough, difficulty cannot be an explanation here because behaviourally, no difference was found between the short sequences of the FSG and the long sequences, In the imaging data a difference was learned in the delay of activation peak and early peak, with an early peak for the short, and a late peak for the long FSG. But what do we find for the Phase Structure Grammar learning group? Here again, not surprisingly, the frontal operculum is active, but now additionally Broca’s area comes into play, And again when we compare the short sequences and the long sequences, difficulty does not matter.” (ibid p.187)
Now the fact that just the phylogenetically older areas of the brain were used for processing of Finite State Grammars (an artificially made grammatical rule), whereas in the phrase structure grammar ( the actual structure of human language) both the phylogenetically older area and the phylogenetically newer area are used is interesting. Because the areas involved in learning a Phrase Structure Grammar (the newer areas in the brain) are much smaller in the Macaque brain. This of course is why the Macaque’s cannot learn the Phrase Structure Grammar Rules but can learn the finite state rules. The macaque doesn’t have a sufficiently developed cortex.
Firstly I should note that the above experiment is one of many and it would take me well beyond the remit of this blog to go through all of the many experiments. Here I merely want to note these are the types of experiments we need to take note of (as well as mathematically modelling the verbal behaviour of human and non-human animals) if we want to understand the potential of human-non-human interfaces for communication. Shah doesn’t go into the important detail of what area of the human’s brain the animal is connected up to, and what area of the animal’s brain the human is connected up to. So one could ask are the implants placed in the pineal gland of both human and animal so they can communicate with each other via their respective Cartesian theatres? This joke of a question may sound a bit unfair on Shah, but it is important to understand exactly how he thinks the process will work before we can evaluate his claims.
Another mistake that Shah makes is in acting as though the animal and human will speak to each other in English (or some form of mentalese). Firstly the vast majority of animals will not have the ability construct grammatical sentences using a phase structure grammar in the way we do. So even if (and it’s a big if) they do think in propositional attitudes. The attitudes will be so different from ours that they will not think in ways that will be recognisably human. Furthermore we know from studies of animals that some animals are not social in the way we are. Very few animals recognise pointing as an attempt to share information about a shared object of experience. So with such interfaces the animal will be as powerless (because of his type of brain) to make the animal share information because this is not something this particular type of animals does.
Now one could reply to my objection that I am misrepresenting Shah because he is actually talking about animal thoughts being translated into English before they are communicated to us. But things are even worse in this case. If we translate and beat a lion’s thoughts into our grammatical form, and into terms we typically use (see Lakoff and Johnson for how much of our ordinary language is shot through with metaphors) we will be changing them to such a degree that we will not be justified in calling them an ordinary lion’s thoughts. Dennett makes this point forcibly:
“Wittgenstein once said, “if a lion could tlak, we could not understand him”. I think on the contrary, that if a lion could talk, that lion would have a mind so different from the general run of lion minds, that although we could understand him fine we could understand him just fine, we would learn little about ordinary lions from him” (Consciousness Explained p. 446)
So Shah’s translation claim doesn’t really help him make his case for the type of animal human interfaces he is arguing for.
An incredible amount of human thought is done unconsciously; we do not yet have enough data as to how much of animal behaviour that looks purposiveful actually involves conscious thought. Let alone that the animal will be prepared to communicate this knowledge with us. This is why passages like the one below are fanciful to say the least:
“And because it is a probable eventuality, it is valuable to forecast a scenario, where the technology becomes an actual reality. Imagine what could happen if we could use such technology to converse with animals, as we converse with each other in the present day. What would the subjects be? Perhaps spirituality, where we ask animals if they understand the concept of life and death, and if so, what it means to them? Do different animals believe in an afterlife? Do they believe in a heaven or a hell? Do they believe in karma or a greater entity? Do they worship in their own way?”
It is possible that we could have direct access to the images and memories of some animals by interfaces between their temporal lobe etc and our occipital lobe. However such memories will not necessarily have a propositional form, or they could have a propositional form imposed by us as our brain interacts with theirs. Furthermore our occipital lobe being a different character than theirs may modify the images etc to some degree. So instead of getting direct knowledge from the animal about its world we would be interpreting it from the point of view of our own mode of cognition.
One final difficulty I have with Shah’s behaviour is that he seems to think that such communication if possible would have ethical consequences:
Imagine if we could ask different species of animals, how they feel about different things? For example, if we could ask a chicken about its sentiments that humans take its eggs or its life, for food consumption? Only time would tell, when such communication is possible, if it’s response, if any, or whatever it is, would suffice to convert the entire human population to vegetarianism. What would different animals say to us, if we asked how they felt about humans in general? Would they say they think we are cute and adorable? Or would they say we frighten them? Or would they say, we look tasty?”
“Perhaps with a means to communicate across species barriers, with brainwave computing, we will able to negotiate with different animals. For example, we engage sharks to reach an understanding, where we would not hunt sharks for human consumption and sharks would not attack swimmers and beach-goers, more so, if a man goes overboard a ship’s deck, sharks would come to his aid. Perhaps we could discuss means of co-existing and cohabiting better, so as not to impede or violate each other’s spaces.”

I somehow don’t see these ethical consequences after all humans have the ability to communicate with each other and it hasn’t stopped them from exploiting each other in the least. Furthermore as I have said I see little chance of this direct communication he speaks of ever occurring. For the time being if we want to communicate with animals the best way is to understand their form of life and immerse ourselves into their world as they interact with each other. And to test your beliefs about their beliefs with as many experiments as possible.

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