Our Next Evolutionary Step?

”Connected” filmmaker and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain sees the Internet as the key to ramping up our collective and individual brainpower

2 min read
Our Next Evolutionary Step?

As creator of the Webby Awards—the Oscars of online videos—Tiffany Shlain has had a front-row seat to the Web’s power and the creativity unleashed when people with disparate points of view and from different cultures put their minds together.

With the reach of the Internet and social media growing to some 2 billion users, Shlain began contemplating whether such collaboration could reprogram the brain’s thought processes and facilitate humankind’s collective ability to solve the environmental, ideological, population, and economic problems threatening the planet.

But she also noticed a dark side: namely, the deterioration of interpersonal relationships. So for every novel solution—such as gamers solving a years-old biochemical quandary—there’s a burgeoning techno-addict with an overwhelming urge to text at dinner. “What began as a way to improve life is now threatening to consume it,” she says.

Shlain unveils such hopes and warnings in her latest film, Connected, which screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Utah and is now making its way around art houses internationally. It wraps its New York run Oct. 27, and next month Shlain will speak after a special screening at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“We created computers as an extension of our brains, and now we’re connecting through those computers and the Internet cloud as a way of expanding them,” she says. “The way we think is totally changing—we’re interfacing with so many ideas.”

The film’s perspectives pull from scientific arenas close to home. The first is from Shlain’s late father, Leonard Shlain, a laparoscopic surgeon and best-selling author ofArt and Physics and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. He suggested that the formation of alphabets and writing moved societies from right-brained (conceptual, matriarchal) to left-brained (linear, patriarchal) thinking. Expanding upon her father’s theory, Shlain proposes that the Internet might enable humans to evolve collectively, by facilitating global problem-solving ability, and individually, by its dual use of words and visuals stimulating both hemispheres of the brain.

Shlain's other scientific contributor, and the film’s co-writer, is her husband, Ken Goldberg, a professor of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, and an IEEE Fellow. He notes that software can loosely model human patterns of finding better solutions from enhanced collaboration. “My research in robotics suggests that nonlinear models with higher-order statistical filters may be used in new systems online to rapidly extract the most valuable ideas (the signals) from the noise," he says.

Shlain hopes that faster and more global consequences of human actions, courtesy of the Internet, may increase empathy. “The cause and effect of actions in real time may make people more thoughtful and conscious about their behavior,” she says in Connected. “The Internet is creating a global network [to] harness the potential of all our minds. How can humankind use connectedness to its advantage and take the next leap in human evolution?”

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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