Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Mind and Machine

Wired has an article about Princeton's Anomalies Research program, which since 1979 has been measuring the effects of human consciousness on machines:

The most substantial portion of the PEAR program examines anomalies arising in human/machine interactions. In these experiments human operators attempt to influence the behavior of a variety of mechanical, electronic, optical, acoustical, and fluid devices to conform to pre-stated intentions, without recourse to any known physical processes.

See also this critique of the program.


Blogger The Doctor said...

For 26 years, strange conversations have been taking place in a basement lab at Princeton University.

No one can hear them, but they can see their apparent effect: balls that go in certain directions on command, water fountains that seem to rise higher with a wish and drums that quicken their beat.

Yet no one hears the conversations because they occur between the minds of experimenters and the machines they will to action.

Researchers at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program, or Pear, have been attempting to measure the effect of human consciousness on machines since 1979.

Using random event generators -- computers that spew random output -- they have participants focus their intent on controlling the machines' output. Out of several million trials, they've detected small but "statistically significant" signs that minds may be able to interact with machines. However, researchers are careful not to claim that minds cause an effect or that they know the nature of the communication.

The lab is led by Princeton professor emeritus Robert Jahn, a physicist and former dean of the university's engineering school. Jahn became interested in the mind-machine connection in 1977 when an undergraduate student proposed designing a random event generator, or REG, for her thesis. Jahn was intrigued by the idea of using the device to measure the effect of minds on machines, so in 1979 he launched the lab.

Although the lab is housed at Princeton, the university doesn't support it financially. Instead, the lab has relied on private donors like James S. McDonnell, founder of McDonnell Aircraft (later McDonnell Douglas and now part of Boeing), Laurance Rockefeller and John Fetzer, former owner of the Detroit Tigers baseball team and CEO of Fetzer broadcasting.

Jahn said McDonnell was concerned with how critical electronic systems could be vulnerable to the mindset of human operators under stress.

"McDonnell said he couldn't in good conscience put a young man in the cockpit of an F-18 and assume that all of the highly sophisticated equipment was totally invulnerable to the stress that the pilot would be under in combat or other emergencies," Jahn recalled. "He wanted some research to judge how much he needed to harden that equipment to make it invulnerable to that influence."

Government intelligence, defense and space agencies also have shown interest in the lab's research, which Jahn said he has freely shared.

The first REG that researchers used produced high-frequency random noise. Researchers attached circuitry to the device to translate the noise into ones and zeroes. Each participant, following a prerecorded protocol, developed an intention in her or his mind to have the generator alternately spew out more ones, then more zeroes, and then do nothing at all.

The effects were small, but measurable. Since then, the same results have occurred with other experiments, such as one involving a pendulum connected to a computer-controlled mechanism. When the machine releases the pendulum to swing from a set position, participants focus on changing the rate at which the pendulum slows to a stop.

Other experiments involve a drum machine that participants try to control and a mechanical cascade machine, in which a large device drops thousands of small, black polystyrene balls to fall around pegs in a wall and settle into a row of slots at the bottom. Participants try to direct the balls to fall to one side of the row or another.

Participants have been able to direct one out of every 10,000 bits of data measured across all of the tests. That figure might seem small, but Dean Radin, a senior scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and former researcher at AT&T's Bell Labs, said it's to be expected.

"Many times in the beginning of a new scientific realm the effects are weak because of high variability," Radin said. "We don't know all of the factors yet that are involved in the effect (that could increase the results)."

Radin likens the current state of research to when scientists first began studying static electricity and didn't know that humidity levels could affect the amount of static electricity produced.

There is very little that the researchers understand about the phenomenon, but they do know that results aren't affected by distance or time. Participants, for example, can have the same effect on a machine from outside the room or across the country. They can also have the same effect if they have the intention before the REG is turned on or even if they read a book or listen to music while the machine is running.

Environmental conditions -- such as room temperature -- also don't matter, but the tester's mood and attitude do. It helps, for example, if the participant believes he or she can affect the machine.

Resonance with the machine is another important factor, Jahn said. He likens it to what happens when a great musician seems at one with her violin or a gifted athlete suddenly performs with his equipment in a way that is outside his normal bounds.

Gender matters as well. Men tend to get results that match their intent, although the degree of the effect is often small. Women tend to get a bigger effect, but not necessarily the one they intend. For example, they might intend to direct balls in the random cascade machine to fall to the left, but they fall to the right instead.

Results are also greater if a male and female work together, but same-sex pairs produce no significant results. Pairs of the opposite sex who are romantically involved produce the best results -- often seven times greater than when the same individuals are tested alone. Brenda Dunne, a developmental psychologist and the lab's manager, said the results in such cases often reflect the two gender styles. The effects are bigger, in keeping with what the female alone would tend to produce, but more on target, in keeping with what the male alone would produce.

"It's almost as if there were two styles or two variables and they are complementary," Dunne said. "(The masculine style) is associated with intentionality. The (feminine style) seems to be associated more with resonance."

What does all of this mean?

No one knows. Both Radin and Jahn say that just because there is a correlation between the intent of the participant and the machine's actions doesn't mean one causes the other.

"There is an inference (that the two are related) but no direct evidence," Radin said.

Radin said the phenomenon could be similar to quantum entanglement -- what Einstein referred to as "spooky action at a distance" -- in which two particles separated from each other appear to connect without any apparent form of communication.

Or the effect could be caused by something similar to what occurred in experiments conducted in 1963 by neurophysiologist W. Grey Walter. In those experiments, researchers implanted electrodes in participants' motor cortices and sat them next to a carousel slide projector. Participants were told to advance the slides by pressing a button. What they weren't told was that the button was a dummy. The slides actually advanced in response to an amplified signal sent from the participants' brains.

"(The difference is) we're not talking about sending signals from the brain to the machine through a circuit," Jahn said about the Pear experiments. "Whatever is going on, is going by some anomalous route. We don't know the carrier of this information. We only know something about conditions that favor it."

Although the effects produced in the experiments have been small, they have been repeated over time, though not always in a predictable manner. A participant can have an effect one day and repeat the experiment the next day with no results.

The lab has many detractors who have found fault with Pear's methodologies and dismiss the work as entertainment, comparing the results to motorists who wish for a red light to turn green and think that because the light changes they caused it.

Stanley Jeffers, a professor of physics at York University in Toronto, attempted to conduct experiments that were similar to Pear's, but couldn't replicate the results. Researchers at two German labs, working in cooperation with Pear, also were unable to replicate results using the same equipment that Pear used.

"If their claims are to be taken seriously in science, they have to be replicated," Jeffers said. "If they can't be replicated, it doesn't mean they're false, but science rapidly loses interest."

Dunne, the developmental psychologist who manages the lab, said that Pear repeated Jeffers' own experiments and got significant results. And a dozen meta-analyses done since the 1980s have found a basis for Pear's findings in experiments done by other researchers. Meta-analysis looks at large levels of data across many experiments and combines them statistically to see if the effects repeat overall.

"We're looking at statistical deviations from chance that are unlikely (to occur) over the battery of experiments," Jahn said. "When you do enough of these experiments, (the effects) compound with a statistical weight. There is no doubt at all of the validity of these effects."

Radin, who is not affiliated with Pear, dismisses critics who say the group isn't practicing solid science.

"This field has received far more scrutiny and criticism than many other ordinary fields," Radin said. "The people who do this kind of research are well aware that their research has to be done better. The Pear lab has taken the best principles of rigorous science and applied it to extremely difficult questions and come up with some pretty interesting answers."

Jahn thinks that critics err in expecting the phenomena to follow the usual rules of cause and effect. Instead, he thinks they belong in the category of what Carl Jung called "acausal phenomena," which include things like synchronicity.

"They play by more complicated, almost whimsical, elusive rules," Jahn said, "but they play."

Jeffers is skeptical.

"They can't have it both ways -- say (they're) reputable scientists and have claims for a particular effect under controlled conditions, and then when the results don't work out say rigorous scientific methods don't apply," Jeffers said.

But Jahn said that just because scientists can't explain the phenomena yet, doesn't mean they aren't real.

"If these things are real," he said, "I think our society has a right to demand of science that it pay attention to them and come up with some mechanics to deal with them constructively."

1:05 PM  

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