Future Tech: Expert Systems


Artist Tom Estes for Art Selectronic at The Internet Yami-Ichi (Blackmarket) at Tate Modern. Estes’ work, like Science Fiction, is a sort of thought experiment and serves as a useful vehicle for “safely” discussing controversial topical issues, providing thoughtful social commentary on potential unforeseen future issues. 

In the neo-noir sci-fi classic, The Matrix, protagonist Neo is able to learn Kung Fu in seconds after the martial art is ‘uploaded’ straight to his brain. Feeding knowledge directly into your brain, just like in this sci-fi classic, could soon take as much effort as falling asleep.  In a study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience,  researchers from HRL Laboratories, based in California, say they have found a way to amplify learning, only on a much smaller scale than seen in the Hollywood film. They  claim to have developed a simulator which can feed information directly into a person’s brain and teach them new skills in a shorter amount of time, comparing it to “life imitating art”. They believe it could be the first steps in developing advanced software that will make Matrix-style instant learning a reality. Dr Matthews believes that brain stimulation could eventually be implemented for tasks like learning to drive, exam preparation and language learning

What our system does is it actually targets those changes to specific regions of the brain as you learn,” he added.

The method itself is actually quite old. In fact, the ancient Egyptians 4000 years ago used electric fish to stimulate and reduce pain.

Some of the most controversial issues to face us in the future will come from cognitive breakthroughs. The more we understand about the our own brain, the more we know about ourselves, which of course can be unnerving. But future breakthroughs in neuroscience could have a far greater effect on society. What will the world be like when technology can tell us without a doubt if you are guilty of a crime, you have cheated on your spouse, or are an employee would likely steal? How about uploading your memories for posterity or downloading the skills you need for that new job? Record your dreams for later viewing or control your computer (or any device), just by thinking about it?

We already have all sorts of ways to observe activity in the brain. Magnetic resonance imaging can show blood flow, positron emission tomography can map neurotransmitter activity, and electroencephalograms can record electrical activity. Scientists can tell what parts of the brain are active, and how active they are. That’s enough to tell what parts of the body are stimulated, sexually and otherwise. 

Substantial mainstream research in related areas is being conducted in brain mapping and simulation, development of faster super computers, virtual reality, brain-computer interfaces, connectomics and information extraction from dynamically functioning brains. According to supporters, many of the tools and ideas needed to achieve mind uploading already exist or are currently under active development; however, they will admit that others are, as yet, very speculative, but still in the realm of engineering possibility.

However, many futuristic technologies are already in development. Hopfield networks provide a model for understanding human memory. A Hopfield network is a form of recurrent artificial neural network popularized by John Hopfield in 1982, but described earlier by Little in 1974. Training a Hopfield net involves lowering the energy of states that the net should “remember”. This allows the net to serve as a content addressable memory system, that is to say, the network will converge to a “remembered” state if it is given only part of the state. The net can be used to recover from a distorted input to the trained state that is most similar to that input. This is called associative memory because it recovers memories on the basis of similarity. For example, if we train a Hopfield net with five units so that the state (1, 0, 1, 0, 1) is an energy minimum, and we give the network the state (1, 0, 0, 0, 1) it will converge to (1, 0, 1, 0, 1). Thus, the network is properly trained when the energy of states which the network should remember are local minima. Max Tegmark, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (MIT), shows how these problems can be formulated in terms of quantum mechanics and information theory. And he explains how thinking about consciousness in this way leads to precise questions about the nature of reality might help to tease apart. Any information is stored in a  Hopfield neural net would automatically have this error-correcting facility. However, he calculates that a Hopfield net about the size of the human brain with 10^11 neurons, can store 37 bits of integrated information.


Could human memories be uploaded and stored — just like data — in a computer? Mind swaps have been a standard science-fictional prop for decades. Just wire up the brain in a tired old body to something new, turn on the magical mind-transfer machine, and your mind gets downloaded into a new body, a computer, or a spaceship. Today, we can do computer mind swaps routinely. So why not download our memories from our aging bodies into a shiny new computer?

What if we use  data to recreate a person by simulating them on a computer?  As well as referencing SF in his work, Artist Tom Estes uses new or existing technologies. In his tiny robot figure displayed by at The Internet Yami Ichi  (Blackmarket) for Tate Modern contains human memories in the form of brainwaves. Estes uses an electroencephalograph (EEG) to record human brain waves. Small sensors are attached to the scalp to pick up the electrical signals produced when brain cells send messages to each other. Before the test starts, the scalp is cleaned and about 20 small sensors called electrodes are attached using a special glue or paste. These are connected by wires to an EEG recording machine. Routine EEG recordings usually take 20 to 40 minutes, while other types of EEG recording may take longer. 

Transferring knowledge is one thing, but transfering a whole brain is a different matter. Whole brain emulation (WBE) or mind uploading (sometimes called “mind copying” or “mind transfer”) is the hypothetical process of scanning mental state (including long-term memory and “self”) of a particular brain substrate and copying it to a computational device, such as a digital, analog, quantum-based or software-based artificial neural network. The computational device could then run a simulation model of the brain information processing, such that it responds in essentially the same way as the original brain (i.e., indistinguishable from the brain for all relevant purposes) and experiences having a conscious mind.

The trick would be to program a computer to sift through the accumulated life data to look for patterns of speech or behavior. The computer would not have to be programmed to look for anything in particular. Instead, it would look for speech or behavior that distinguishes that person from others. However engineers have already developed software, called expert systems. They codify specific knowledge accumulated by experts in a given field, and assemble it into an organized form that non-experts can use. For example, the expert system could collect techniques that retiring machinists used to fabricate hard-to-make components. When new workers face similar problems, they can query the system to learn details such as what lubricant to use while cutting a certain alloy.

Similarly, someday veteran space pilots could tell the tricks of their trade to a future expert system, which could codify their knowledge for the next generation of pilots. Of course, such an expert system would not preserve either your personality or your sense of being, so it couldn’t transfer your “self” from a worn-out body into a spaceship where it could survive indefinitely. We have less idea of how to do that than we do of how to record your thoughts or how to translate them into words. But that might not be a bad thing. Would you want to spend eternity as an expert flying a slow freighter to Neptune? That’s the sort of boring place where Gordon Bell would turn his life recorder off.


As well as referencing SF in his work, Estes uses new or existing technologies. This tiny robot figure displayed by Tom Estes at The Internet Yami Ichi for Tate Modern contains human memories in the form of brainwaves. The work is reminiscent of a medieval reliquary, or an object containing purported or actual physical remains, such as bones, pieces of clothing, or some object associated with saints or other religious figures.

For Artist Tom Estes this is similar to the question of The History of Art itself. Artistic-processes attach themselves to the great sedentary assemblage of art institutions to establish settled lineages and well-ordered sequences. Yet artistic activity is characterized by its antagonism towards stable temporality involving coincidences, glitches and unforeseen consequences -breaks, twists and bends in time.

In 2008, Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin in Madison proposed that a system demonstrating consciousness must have two specific traits. First, the system must be able to store and process large amounts of information. In other words consciousness is essentially a phenomenon of information. The whole question is of objective reality versus subjective illusion. We all change the apparent reality through willful, distortion, but also reduction. So the answer to the question “Which space do we live in?” is clearly: we live in a subjective world. This is the age-old story of the phenomenology and of human intentionality. And second, this information must be integrated in a unified whole so that it is impossible to divide into independent parts. Each instance of consciousness is a unified whole that cannot be decomposed into separate components. Given that it is a phenomenon of information, a conscious system must be able to store in a memory and retrieve it efficiently. So each memory has to be integrated into an overall consciousness or identity. This consciousness must also be able to to process this data, like a computer but one that is much more flexible and powerful than the silicon-based devices we are familiar with. So for example the individual memories-to-download are part of a wider interdisciplinary project that incorporates innovative web conversations and social networks 


Within our new world of digital inter-connectivity, more and more representation and therefore our understanding of the world takes place on-line.

A discussion of ‘downloading memories’ is not complete without an extrapolation of the theories of Sigmund Freud and their wider application by Edward Bernays. Freud developed techniques to explore the subconscious,  while  Edward Bernays unleashed  the methods that could be applied to mine the hidden recesses of the mind of the masses in order to control and influence opinion. The entire field of Freud’s important work, today, via Edward Bernays, has created the basis for of mass influencing, some say manipulation, positioned to create endless versions of market controlled happiness, and how people value themselves and others.

Edward Bernays’ public relations efforts helped to popularize Freud’s theories in the United States..Bernays also pioneered the public relations industry’s use of psychology and other social sciences to design its public persuasion campaigns. He called this scientific technique of opinion-molding ‘The Engineering Of Consent:

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.”

So while their are serious ethical questions about the potential uses of downloading memories into a human brain, it is still a Future Tech. However, you can already download your memories to a computer. The next time you want to remember a piece of information, save it as a file on your phone or computer. Lead author, assistant professor Benjamin Storm of the University of California, said:

“Our findings show that people are significantly better at learning and remembering new information when they save previous information.”

The act of digitally storing files containing useful or important data boosts memory and the brain’s ability to remember future events. This is because the brain knows the original information is safely stored, which ultimately frees up cognitive resources that can focus on learning and remembering new facts and figures. 


Q & A at Yami Ichi. Science Fiction in its purest form takes a scientific principle, poses a quest or hypothesis about that principle and then explores the effects of that principle on society and culture. In a similar manner Artist Tom Estes has always leaned toward making Live Art performance work that is participatory or immersive in some way.

20 – 22 May 2016, Art Selectronic joined the arebyte Gallery for London’s first ever Internet Yami-Ichi (Black Market) event at Tate Modern as part of Offprint London 2016. The fair showcased up to 20 local and international artists working mainly in digital and net-based practices exploring the potential of online art IRL (In Real Life). The Internet Yami-Ichi (Black Market) deals with “Internet-ish” things, face-to-face, in actual space. Both flea markets and the Internet are fantastical and chaotic mixes of the amazing and the useless. The Internet Yami-Ichi is a celebration, where together we experience the afterglow, off line, as the “buzz” of the Internet wears off. After visiting Berlin, Brussels and Amsterdam, Linz, New York and more, Tate Modern in London is the pinnacle of all Yami-Ichi’s.


Emiddio , KAAP, Irini Pigaditi, GlitcHaus, Nukeme, FZS + UMZ, Christophe Cachelin, Chloe Spicer, Mr.Nowhere, Banrei, Nye Thompson, One Life Remains, Libby Heaney, Minutiae, Cloud8Art, Rob Walker, Anna Ridler, Yinan Song, Shinji Toya, Tadeo  Sendon, Erik Zepka, Martin Lau, Julien Bader, Marta Velasco Velasco, Jordi Canals, Sigergallery, Art Selectronic, Fabio Lattanzi Antinori, 2 Loops Print, Jennifer Crouch, Brian van Lijf, Marie Namur & Pascale Loyens.





About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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