The Human Operating System
September 22, 2006
How much do we know about the operating
system that we humans are equipped with? We have a great deal of information
about biology, and yet our knowledge is still vastly incomplete. Still, we have
a sufficient understanding to undertake a whimsical comparison between how we
function and how a computer operating system functions. This is my vision of
the Human Operating System.
There are many models of computer operating
systems, but for our purposes we will use a very simple framework comprised of
Firstly, there is the hardware, which specifies the capabilities of the system. Next, the kernel represents the core of an operating system – that which controls the hardware layer and provides the framework for all higher functions. On top of the kernel we find the service layer – the tools and systems which perform the component tasks. Finally, we have the application layer which is where services are combined to carry out overall tasks.
Using this simple model, we will now look
at the corresponding elements in the Human Operating System, or HOS.
Computers run on hardware, which is fixed.
It doesn’t change unless someone intentionally alters it. But biological
organisms run on a very different kind of hardware, more dynamic and strange
than computer components. I call this wetware, a term coined by
cyberpunk author Rudy Rucker in his novels.
The basic unit of wetware is a cell – and indeed one of the simplest organisms is the bacterial cell which runs on a single cell of wetware. DNA encodes the biochemical ‘construction codes’ of the proteins from which cells are made, as well as ‘control codes’ that influence when these proteins are produced. Opinion is largely divided as to how influential this is. Some people believe all of biology derives solely from the action of DNA, but this position has largely been falsified by the discovery of various epigenetic mechanisms. As with so much of biology, our knowledge is incomplete.
Humans have very complicated wetware. They
are akin to vast colonies of many different types of bacterial cells which have
learned to co-operate so closely that rather than encoding their proteins in
separate DNA, as with, say, a Portuguese Man O' War (Physalia physalis),
they encode all their proteins in a single DNA sequence. This co-operation
strategy is highly effective and has allowed all manner of complex organisms to
secure unique environmental niches. As Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan wrote:
“Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.”
The part of the human wetware we are most interested in is the central nervous system, as this carries out most of the information processing.
At the core of the Human Operating System
is a large associative memory system built from neural networks, coupled with a
whole host of complicated additional features including a system of
neurotransmitters triggered by the limbic system which incite special states we
call emotions. The limbic system distinguishes mammals from earlier forms of
life, and can produce a great many different emotional states.
We actually know very little about how the
human kernel works, because neural networks do not decompose in a manner
compatible with conventional reductionism, and we have not confidently
identified all of the mechanisms at work. For instance, it was only recently
discovered that nitrous oxide gas served as a neurotransmitter in the brain –
diffusing across the entire cortex to affect signalling globally. Brain
operation is a vibrant area of research, and we still have much to learn.
Fortunately, we don’t need to understand the kernel to examine activities in the other layers.
In the service layer we find all manner of apparently in-built functions, about which we often know very little.
For example, Noam Chomsky’s postulated
Universal Grammar – which he suggested was what allows young humans to learn
language so easily – can be considered a hypothetical element of the service
layer. Whether or not there transpires to be something akin to a Universal
Grammar, it is certainly the case that something in the HOS acquires and
manipulates language. I am content to call this the Universal Grammar for the
Another set of elements in the service layer are Temperaments which can be thought of as patterns of emotional response. Like the Universal Grammar, we have no way of tying this directly to the human kernel (although this hasn’t stopped me from speculating). It is this aspect of the service layer which Myers-Briggs typology, Temperament theory and several other psychological models apply (see below).
Each of the four Temperaments can be understood as a system in the services layer which operates in a certain specific manner. We each possess all four Temperaments (as well as many other services) in this layer of our operating system, although we each express the individual Temperaments to differing degrees. The four “Temperament services” are:
- Rational, concerned with mastery, self-control and the acquisition of knowledge, and providing strategic skills.
- Idealist, concerned with meaning, significance and identity, and providing diplomatic skills.
- Artisan, concerned with freedom of action and the ability to cause impact, imparting tactical skills.
- Guardian, concerned with membership of groups, responsibility and duty, and imparting logistical skills.
Over the next few months, I will be writing
more detailed descriptions of these four Temperaments that will allow you to
see how these patterns of emotional response are expressed in your own life.
Related to this are four Interaction
Styles, which are 'social' services concerning the relationship between an individual
and those around them. Sadly, these are trademarked so I require permission
to write about them, but you can learn a little from here. (I may well substitute my own terms - I have no patience for scientists taking their research out of the public domain).
Above the various services, we have the
applications – such as languages, metaphysics, scientific models, ethics, customs and
skills. Many can be understood as language games, although there are many
abilities we learn that are not linguistic. The applications layer varies
significantly from culture to culture – indeed, the choice of languages for any
individual has a vast effect on how the world is perceived. It is here that we
find practically the whole of explicit human knowledge and skills, and it is
here that humanity expresses its tremendous individuality.
It is here that the flaw in the operating
system known as cognitive dissonance is triggered – as a result of
incompatibility between two separate cognitions. It seems quite likely that
this behaviour relates to a specific aspect of the kernel, however. The ‘bug’
(if one chooses to see it as such) is at the kernel level; it just tends to
express itself in the interactions of the applications layer.
For our purposes, the language games of note in the applications layer are those which describe the “Temperament services” in the layer below. Perhaps because these models are observational science, they are not widely taught. In fact, there may even be a certain overt resistance among those scientists whose metaphysics application tells them that science is wholly objective. Certainly there seems to be no way of using Temperaments meaningfully without using a human as the principle measuring instrument, as paper tests are wildly inaccurate.
science is essentially subjective anyway, I am not certain how valid a
criticism this might be, especially given that psychologists using a sixteen
type model derived from Temperament theory can make testable
predictions which can be validated, as was shown during the BBCs coverage of the subject. As far as I’m concerned, this is perfectly legitimate science, and
we have a lot to gain from upgrading crude astrological models of personality (widely
used by the general populace) with these more carefully constructed systems.
The Temperament and Interaction Style
models interrelate to provide sixteen different “personality types” which
correlate to the sixteen types of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator test, (a zealously guarded trademark of Consulting Psychologists Press). These “types”
are better understood as roles that individual humans can adopt with
varying degrees of ease according to which Temperaments and Interaction Styles
they find most comfortable. It is not that you "are such-and-such a type" but rather there are certain roles you can adopt more easily than others.
I am in no doubt that in the future mankind will have better models of the service layer than we have now. But for the time being, the Temperament Theory "application" strikes me as one of the best models available – and the ease with which it can be taught further enhances its utility.
I look forward to discussing this further
with you over the next few months.
This model of the Human Operating System is naturally incomplete, and based upon a fanciful metaphor, but it demonstrates both how little we know about the working of our own minds and bodies, and yet at the same time how much progress we have made in the last century in terms of expanding our scientific knowledge. Indeed, there is now so much research that it is possible to pick and choose from the available knowledge and build many different models and metaphors from which to understand the world and everything in it. That we exist as organisms with this extraordinary ability is one of the most astonishing things imaginable, and yet we tend to take it for granted.
Your consciousness occurs in an astonishing piece of wetware with amazing capabilities, but alas, no operating manual to help you use it. Don’t let the lack of clear instructions deter you from enjoying your mind and body to the fullest extent imaginable.
The opening image is Blue Painting of Mind Shadows, by Sabin Corneliu Buraga, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
I've enjoyed reading your posts, here are some thoughts that this one sparked off. My interest is different to yours, so this is not a criticism but a layman's musings.
I'm not sure that I like using the analogy of the brain to an Operating System(OS). I'm coming from the perspective of the hope of building AI. The analogy may be a helpful visualisation or discussion tool.
My first issue is that it encourages people to literally think of the brain as an OS and therefore directly implementable on a computer. There are some things that are needed in an OS model that a von Neumann computer are bad at. Mimicking physical processes would be number 1 on my list. It would take very time consuming calculations to model hormone flow, for example. Super computers take days to predict nanoseconds of a protein's life. This difficulty exists on any level of brain physicality, not just sub-cellular. A grounding in computing theory is important to be able to not fall in to the "sometime in the future" trap. Massive parallelism would be another difficulty.
The second, more relevant, issue is the layers approach (and the closely related module approach).
The interfaces between these layers are a sticking point for me. How would neurotransmitters and the limbic system lead to formal grammars, and formal grammars to temperaments? Your related blog post of the theory of neural networks and temperaments, seems more analogous rather then a biological explanation.
It think these statements from the post sum it up:
"...neural networks do not decompose in a manner compatible with conventional reductionism,..."
"Fortunately, we don’t need to understand the kernel to examine activities in the other layers."
Perhaps the whole brains can't be reduced?
A wild idea is that perhaps thoughts on aspect programming may go further?
It is a hard mental jump to go from thinking of wires, gates, registers to fully blown programs. It is even harder to get from DNA, neurons, etc. to temperaments and emotions.
Coming from the building perspective, I also have an issue with using personality traits (or temperaments). Again, they may be a great tool for talking about personality and behaviour, but they describe rather then explain. The last paragraph here echo some of these thoughts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits#Criticisms
Posted by: John Sietsma | September 22, 2006 at 02:41 PM
It strikes me that according to this formulation of biological sentiences, the sentience is placed outside of and apart from the biology.
A key factor in applied computer science is that processes export operations - everything is designed to be used by something else. It doesn't have to be a person, it could be another computer, but every part of the service architecture is always providing services up or across, until you get to a user that is not part of the system - a remote machine or local person.
Following the analogy implies that the user of the HOS is a sentience that is only linked by their usage - almost like strong A.I. Its a perfectly valid viewpoint (though not to my taste); nor am I sure it was a deliberate implication?
Posted by: zenBen | September 22, 2006 at 05:24 PM
John: your comments here are quite apposite. Certainly, I do not think that we are going to be building functioning AI based on this sort of approach any time soon - perhaps I should have expended more effort to exclude that possibility in this piece. :)
My purpose in rendering Temperaments in this context was by way of placing them in a framework other than the "placing people into little boxes" fashion that is the usual way that people attempt to understand personality typing. I am uncertain if this piece achieves this goal, or merely obfuscates my purpose!
The criticisms of the "Big 5" you linked to are perfectly valid, up to a point. That point for me is that we need a better language for discussing personality and behaviour, and Temperament theory is the best model I've found thus far (leaps and bounds ahead of, say, astrological models!) Also, Temperament theory doesn't appear to have the othogonality issues raised in this piece. I welcome your feedback on this once I start posting the real content (starting later this week).
The incompleteness of any representational system is not a reason not to use it. After all, we got a lot of traction out of Newtonian physics prior to Relativistic physics. :)
One of the reasons I have held off for more than a year from writing up pieces on Temperament theory was a profound scientific conflict within myself as to the validity of the approach. But, ultimately, my version of Temperament theory removes any and all attempts to provide a reductionistic framework to hang the observations on (excluding my wild speculations, perhaps!) - which is to say, it becomes a language of observation more than a theoretical model. I have managed to convince myself that this is a modestly worthwhile endeavour if for no other reason than it extends our language in useful ways.
This piece should be taken as a prolegomenon to the discussion of Temperament theory itself over the next few months, and nothing more.
I hope this assuages some of your concerns. :)
zenBen: it certainly was an intended aspect of this representation that people can look at Temperament not as "who I am" but rather as part of a mental tool kit to which we all have access. I don't believe science or philosophy has much of a handle on sentience, nor do I believe it needs to at this point in time. The science of any given era will always necessarily be incomplete - pretending it is otherwise is a gross diservice to all concerned. :)
Thanks for the comments!
Posted by: Chris | September 25, 2006 at 10:42 AM
what do you guys think of this model ;-?
strategist: significance, cause impact, duty
diplomat: knowledge, free (self-defined) action, membership
tactician: mastery/self-control, meaning, responsibility
logistician: mastery/self-control, identity, reactivity
Posted by: translucy | September 26, 2006 at 08:20 PM
as a matter of fact thats the name of my book "human operating system" which i wrote 2 years ago and puplished on jan 2009, its in arabic language... hope to hear from you
Posted by: Esmail N. al-Hilo | December 15, 2009 at 11:08 PM
Esmail N. al-Hilo: thanks for letting me know about your book! I don't speak Arabic, but if it gets translated into another language I'd be interested to read it.
Posted by: Chris | December 16, 2009 at 07:54 AM
well, i think it's going to be an interesting thing to do, i'll start the translation in the near future to english language, i will arrange it with the publisher... thanks for being interested
here is my e-mail for more information
Posted by: Esmail N. al-Hilo | December 19, 2009 at 12:05 PM
Every human acts differently, so each human has a different operating system! There is no way that an annoying stranger uses the same operating system as you. Humans with similar operating systems are more likely to be friends.
Posted by: Piotr | August 25, 2017 at 06:52 PM
Interesting argument, but I do not find it quite convincing... I use many computers with the same operating system, and they all act very differently (according to local policy configurations, user configurations, differences in hardware, versioning differences etc.).
Is it really evidence of no common operating system that people behave differently?
Thanks for your comment!
Posted by: Chris | August 31, 2017 at 04:16 PM