Paul Smart: Emerging Digital Technologies: Implications for Extended Conceptions of […]

Dr Paul Smart (University of Southampton) speaks at the Extended Knowledge conference, University of Edinburgh.

Abstract: A recent focus of attention in both the philosophy of mind and contemporary epistemology is the notion of extended cognition: the idea that the material mechanisms associated with the realization of certain kinds of mental states and processes extend beyond the biological realm to encompass aspects of the surrounding technological and/or social environment. Emerging digital technologies have an important role to play in terms of shaping the philosophical debate in this area. Firstly, new technologies can highlight specific areas of interest and attention for philosophical discussion. The advent of new technologies, such as wearable computing devices, ambient computing, augmented reality, linked data, and brain-machine interfaces all have the potential to transform the kind of technological landscape against which philosophical debates and scientific interests are formulated. The ethical debates concerning privacy, for example, have gained a new momentum as a result of the growing awareness associated with the novel surveillance opportunities that the Internet provides to both government agencies and criminal fraternities. Secondly, emerging digital technologies provide a focus for philosophical debates relating to the future transformation of our cognitive abilities. The reliability, portability, and accessibility of the technologies, as well as the extent to which they can be deemed to be an integrated part of our cognitive characters are features that are of interest to those seeking to isolate concrete instances of extended cognition and extended knowledge. By understanding some of the capabilities and limitations of a range of new technologies, the philosophical community is better enabled to evaluate whether these technologies satisfy the conditions for cognitive extension. In addition, the feedback gleaned from this philosophical debate serves as a potential driver for future forms of technological innovation and development by the engineering community. Thirdly, the social dimension of emerging digital technologies is relevant to discussions concerning distributed cognition and social epistemology. New technologies are, typically, embedded within the broader socio-technical ecology of the World Wide Web, and this has provided a wealth of opportunities for novel kinds of information processing and information distribution, as well as arguably transforming the nature of many different kinds of social processes. In view of the extended cognition thesis, it is natural to wonder whether this reshaping of our social interactions and problem-solving processes has any bearing on the philosophical debates relating to the technological transformation of our cognitive and epistemic capabilities. It is also important to consider the way in which the advent of the Web is giving rise to new forms of machine-based intelligence; ones in which human contributions play an important role in terms of scaffolding and shaping the nature of machine-based processing. This potentially introduces a new dimension in the philosophical debate relating to extended cognition. Whereas much of the current debate is concerned with the extent to which new technologies will impact the cognitive and epistemic profile of human subjects, we can now also begin to ask whether the advent of the Web enables collections of human agents to participate in the extended processing loops that realize the next generation of intelligent machines.