Just read a post on the increasing ability of neuroscientists to image and understand the brain. The author, Kathleen Taylor makes a very interesting observation that perhaps in the future the research of the brain will surpass the physical sciences in importance. She is probably biased given her neuroscience background but I feel that she has highlighted some fundamental questions with regard to how humans will interact with the world (or perhaps the universe?) and with each other in the future.
She makes the point that the physical sciences have largely been insulated from how the knowledge gained from research in this area is used, given that there is no human input into their experimentation. The research is largely introspective or governed by mathematics or similarly prescriptive methods. The potential consequences of the research is not addressed at any time (at least in a formal sense) as there is little input from others apart from peers and supervisors with a similar research background.
The difference between the physical and social sciences has been commented on in previous blog posts. Physical scientists, although brilliant in their own field, tend to make assumptions as to how humans fit into their models and how their research can be applied. Human behaviour is commonly included as a probability which then influences the remainder of the postulated model to provide results which do not necessarily reflect what actually happens in the real world. However, either these discrepancies are ignored, or assumed to be just part of a distribution of human behaviour. A system is then designed using such flawed thinking and typically, it is the poor old human operators who have to adapt and make up for such sloppy design when they have to make things work.
Alternatively, these operators are seen as the problem when the system is subsequently audited as the ‘brilliant’ system design is hardly ever tested and/or seen to be at fault. At last there are glimmers of hope as safety management systems are identifying that these ‘brilliant’ systems are more often than not the cause of many failings, not just from the operator perspective. So the ‘human error‘ which historically has almost always been attributed as the cause of an accident is sheeted home to where it belongs in the first place – the arrogant human who designed the system who was either unaware of or was permitted to ignore the fact that an inherent part of the design process is to understand how the human operator thinks and acts when interfacing with their system.
On the other hand, social scientists and human scientists in particular have a core theme that human behaviour is far more complex and determined by sensory and perceptual aspects initially, then modified by cognitive processes which are also subject to change. These factors need to be addressed when modelling how a human operates with a machine or amongst themselves to make decisions etc. As discussed in Kathleen’s article, the brain is such a complex organ and it is subject to a massive range of inputs that we are only now becoming aware of how it works, and how to manipulate it. Perhaps in the new millennium, neuroscience may have similar advances as occurred in physics (relativity, quantum mechanics and understanding of atomic and sub-atomic structure for example) during the last.
Kathleen highlights that the ethics of operating on the neural and molecular scale within the human brain and the resultant impact it may have on the individual concerned will be a central theme going forward. This is especially pertinent when entities such as commercial or government interests will be in a position to manipulate these factors and it is therefore something which needs to be addressed well prior to this particular genie escaping the bottle.
Which leads back to Kathleen’s major point. She contends that neuroscience may overtake the physical sciences as the whole consciousness experience will determine how the human species develops into the future. The social/psychological/physiological sciences understand these aspects and, most importantly, understand the need for an ethical framework when addressing these matters. So at least we will be better placed than the current situation, where the physical scientists, who have neither of these fundamentals, seem to determine how technology develops and is applied. Perhaps we will then have a more level research field where social and human scientists are included at the very beginning and can (heaven forbid!) inform how technology is developed and applied to best advantage for the human user who will ultimately directly interact with it.