Preparing for Launch

For the past 8 months that the Extended Mind app has been in public beta, our team has been fully focused on implementing the remaining core features and ironing out bugs. So no news has meant good news.

We’ve been making steady progress and a really nice version 1.7.4 is now available on the App Store and Google Play.

We’ve received plenty of valuable feedback from our users and have improved every area of the app as a result. Thank you everyone for your help so far!

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. We’ve had to experiment quite a bit with different designs, throw out features and completely rewrite others to find the most elegant solution for each use case. As we found out:

Simple is really hard to do.

It’s much easier to just add new features on top of old ones, than it is to stay true to our mission of building simple, fast and focused software.

The good news is that things are finally coming together and we’re now preparing for the end of beta with version 2.0 in the pipeline. For the remainder of the public beta we will focus on new user experience and implementing premium features.

Exciting times ahead.


Neuroimplants and Augmenting the Mind

There was an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal on neuroimplanting. The authors argued that it is not a matter of whether neuroimplants will break through, but when. Already, we have EEG-based applications for directing machines directly with brain signals, and as the article points out, some motor conditions such as Parkinson’s can be treated with microelectrodes.

Neuroimplanting is, however, a technology that is slightly further down the horizon owing to a very simple obstacle that many other soon to be seen technological breakthroughs don’t suffer from: we still don’t really know that well how the brain works.

The brain, according to current knowledge, has about a hundred billion neurons, with a whopping hundred thousand billion synapses connecting them. For the last few decades, it was thought that each synapse could function as something like a transistor, either letting current through or not.

This would put the amount of controllable variables in the brain in the ballpark of a maximum of one hundred thousand billion. Controlling such a huge amount of variables with microelectrodes or even neural dust is going to be quite challenging.

But the complexity of the neural net is only the beginning. Like I said, the above has been the received view for the last few decades. Recent advents in neuroscience have, however, pointed to an even more complex picture.

In a groundbreaking Stanford imaging study, it was found out that the synapse is in fact a far more complicated structure than a simple transistor, with individual memory systems and other components more typical to a processor than a transistor.

The neural complexity is not limited to the brain either. Also the gut has about five hundred million neurons to further stir up the stew, so to speak. Add to this the more than a hundred neurotransmitters that either excite or inhibit neural signals, the complexity of variables to be controlled or analyzed by an implant is mind-blowing. I won’t even go into glia cells.

So the brain is likely to be tremendously more complex than we think. But so what? Like Marcus and Koch rightly point out in the WSJ paper, every breakthrough technology has looked at such challenges at some point.

I do believe we will have garden variety neuroimplanting in the future. But I suppose that future is slightly farther beyond than is implied in the article. That being said, I think we should not downplay the upcoming advent of HUD’s and other augmented UI devices.

After all, we do have highly sophisticated neural interfaces in place already: our eyes, ears and skin. In a classical experiment Paul Bach-y-Rita used the skin and the tongue to restore vision – yes, actual visual imagery! – to congenitally blind people. In fact the EEG devices that we now have are not that different from what Bach-y-Rita did. By picking up relevant EEG signals we can, for example, guide a robotic arm. Just like we could by hooking the electrode to a facial muscle, for example.

Before we get to the point where a memory module is hooked up directly to the brain – and we will get there, by the latest in a century or two – we can already significantly boost our mental faculties by the devices we have right now.

By being able to tap into relevant information and sorting out the wheat from the chaff, we can augment our mental capacity dramatically as we speak, with nothing fancier than a smartphone.


It Ain’t All in the Head

by Lauri Calonius

There is a growing interest in the idea that cognitive processes are not solely confined in the head and explained simply in terms of brain processes. The type of body we possess and the natural and cultural environment we are surrounded by are taken more into account in the explanations of cognitive phenomena such as memory and problem solving tasks.

In my thesis It Ain’t All in the Head: Situating Cognition to the Body and the Surrounding World, four different approaches to cognition that conceive it in this bodily and/or worldly situated way are looked into. More specifically “embodied-embedded cogntion”, “enactive cognition”, “extended cognition” and “distributed cognition” are compared and contrasted with each other and the more orthodox “brain-bound” conception.

In addition, critique towards the more unorthodox positions is examined, but which ultimately ends up leveling the ground between the unorthodox and orthodox positions. Thus highlighting the viability of the positions that credit more role for the body and the world in explaining cognitive phenomena.

Finally, the issue of cognitive agency (i.e. what elements of the body and the world may be said to be responsible for a given cogitive property or process) is also examined in the light of these different approaches.

The main goal of the thesis then is to elucidate different positions that depart from the traditional brain centered conception of cognition and draw out the similarities as well as the differences between the approaches.

Moreover, even if these approaches still remain distinct without a clear unified conception of cogntion there could be said to be a kindling of an emerging paradigm that could be applied to other interesting philosophical questions such as the issue of cognitive agency.

The take-home message from the thesis is that even if the liberation of cognition from the confines of the head is a complex issue, being open to this kind of possibility will nevertheless bring forth new and interesting ways of understanding cognitive phenomena.

You can read the entire thesis here.


So What on Earth is Extended Mind?

Extended Mind is not just a nice brand name for a task manager or another note taking app. We are very serious about the fact that certain mental operations such as workflow management and declarative memory can be externalized. This will change the way you think.

The original argument stems from Andy Clark’s and David Chalmers’ awesome 1998 paper called – that’s right – “The Extended Mind”. In that paper the philosophers Clark and Chalmers asked a simple question: if an activity, such as recollection, that is typically thought of as mental involves an external component such as a notebook, is the external bit then a part of the mental activity? Clark and Chalmers answer with a resounding yes. We agree.

We really still don’t know what exactly the mind is. But we do know a lot about how it works.

We know that the brain has a lot to do with the way the mind works. Certain areas of the brain light up with certain thoughts and actions. But the thoughts and actions are not in the brain. They just coincide with brain activity. Much like if you move your hand, the movement is not in your brain, even if the motor cortex always lights up about the same way when you move the hand.

So we can show that mental function correlates with the brain. Likewise, we can show mental function correlates with the tools you use. If you have stuff stored on your smartphone, you simply remember things better than if you didn’t have. And if you have a task list, you are simply more effective than if you didn’t have one.

But the mind is a funny thing. It’s not just one thing, but at least two.

There is the intuitive, non-conscious System 1 of your mind that does most of the hard work. And then there is the reflective, conscious System 2 that does the thinking part.

The former can process a whopping 11.2 million bits of information per second. No wonder that things just pop into your head. The latter, in turn, can only process a meager 40 bits per second, that is three or four things at a time. Again, no wonder it’s so damn hard sometimes to dig things up from your mind. You just know that you know – but you cannot for the love of it recall what is it exactly that you know.

This we want to change.

There are three development goals we have set for the Extended Mind.

We want it to be simple. The 40 bits of your reflective mind are easily distracted by whatever is on the screen. So we’ll put only what you need on the screen.

We want it to be fast. It’s not much of a substitute for mental function if it takes ages to boot. Access times to whatever is on your Extended Mind should be less than ten seconds; comparable to what it normally takes to refresh your biological memory. (We actually tested this on Trivial Pursuit.)

And we want it to be focused. Most software have so many features that the ones you most typically use get lost amidst them. We’ll include only what you most typically need. This means the Extended Mind will have only about 5% of the features the other available apps. But those 5% we’ll do really well.

Your biological mind is great at being creative, at understanding emotions, creating connections and feeling deep. But it sucks at storing and organizing things.

The digital tools in turn are not that awesome with feelings. But they are great at focusing your attention, at organizing a whopping amount of data and at storing stuff so that you can return to it ten years from now.

That is, unless the software you use gets in the way of what you want to get done.

So this is our vision:

Let’s leave the storing to the digital mind so that the biological mind can focus on the feeling and the creating. And let’s have the two work seamlessly together.

Only the essential, with no bells and whistles.

Just your mind, extended.

Sign up for beta here.



XKCD: The Extended Mind