Read New Scientist’s 50th Anniversary Special Edition

December 9, 2006

The predictions for the next 50 years by dozens of world class scientists are wide ranging and intriguing. The set of articles on the “big questions” is fascinating covering topics such as “Do we live in a computer simulation?” to a physicist’s interesting perspective on “Do we have free will?” and “Is the universe deterministic?”

Two articles really resonated with me:

I loved James Hughes amazing, optimistic and uplifting vision of the future in “What comes after homo sapiens?” and hope to be around to experience it.

I was even more touched by Paul Brok’s take on “What is consciousness?” where he recounts the history of the understanding of consciousness from a futuristic perspective.

Here are a few tantalizing excerpts:

“Consciousness went the way of phlogiston, the theoretical substance that scientists once used to explain fire. Strange we ever thought the problem hard. But as our post-millennial neuroscientists marveled at the sparkling, dare I say spectral, patterns cascading from their high-resolution brain scanners, they were nagged by a mischievous question: who’s running the show? … The illusion of the ghost in the machine was compelling – the natural intuition that somewhere in the shadows of the brain there lurks an observing “I”, an experiencer of experiences, thinker of thoughts and controller of actions.”

“This was hard to reconcile with the material facts (the vacant machinery that actually packs the skull) and it was plain to see the mental operations underlying our sense of self – feeling, thoughts, memories – were dispersed throughout the brain. There was no homuncular assembly point where a little soul-pilot sat watching the dials of experience and pulling the levers of action. We were, neuropsychologically speaking, all over the place. And anyway, who did we think was pulling the levers in the little soul-pilot’s head? If we found a ghost in the machine we’d have to start looking for the machine in the ghost.”

“Imagine being teleported. A special scanner records the state of every cell in your brain and body and digitally encodes the information for radio transmission. Your body is destroyed in the process but reconstructed as soon as the signals are received and decoded at your destination. You “arrive” in precisely the same condition that you “left”, identical in body, brain and patterns of mental activity. Your memories, beliefs, plans, skills and emotions are perfectly intact and you go about your business feeling and believing that nothing about you has changed in the slightest. It’s just like waking from a dreamless sleep and getting on with the day.”

“If you are comfortable with this scenario then you should be comfortable with bundle theory. You appreciate that the observing “I” is no more than patterns of energy and information, which can be disrupted and reconstituted without destroying the self – because there is no self to destroy. The patters are all. If, on the other hand you believe that some essential “you” would be lost in the process you are an irredeemable ego theorist. You believe that the reconstituted body is not “you” but a mere replica. Although the replica will know in its bones that it is the very person who stepped into the scanner at the start of the journey and friends and loved ones will agree, you insist it could not be you because your body and brain would have been destroyed.”

“Incidentally, we see here a neat inversion of conventional thinking. Those who believe in an essence, or soul, suddenly become materialists, dreading the loss of the “original” body. But those of us who don’t hold such beliefs are prepared to countenance a life after bodily death.”

For the full article, buy the magazine 🙂

However, I cannot resist including the short story Paul Brok’s uses to illustrate the article:

“On this special day, my 121st birthday, it is good to be surrounded by those I love. There’s no denying I feel old, but in body, not spirit. Oh dear, there I go, slipping into the old ways of thinking: mind and body, spirit and substance. There’s no excuse. The ghost in the machine was exorcised long ago – and here’s Celeste, my sweet, uploaded daughter: the living proof. She kisses my aged forehead. Chronologically, Celeste is 90 years old. Physically she’s a genetically re-engineered woman of 30. Psychologically, well, these days you have to keep an open mind about psychological ways of being. But one never stops worrying about one’s children, and the uploading – the transfer of information from old brain to new – was, I confess, a little troubling. I have always felt some responsibility for the current popularity of mind transposition. I helped create a climate of acceptance. Forgive me if I reminisce.”

“And so Celeste, my sweet, uploaded daughter, takes my hand and leads me to the chamber where my gift awaits. I see my re-engineered body, which sits motionless: the limp corpse of a young man prepared for resurrection. Its carbon nanotube brain lies dormant but will soon be infused with my digital ghost. Like Celeste, I chose 30. That was a good age. Unlike her, I resisted the temptation to tinker with cosmetic details. Take me or leave me. And I’m opting for a conservative, level 1 transposition: my new brain will run, like the old one, as a stand-alone unit with unenhanced software. Celeste is level 3 – enhanced and hive-mind compatible. She is fully immersible – and these days mostly immersed – in the web of awareness, a.k.a. the hive.”

“What’s it like?” I ask her.

“Inconceivable,” she says, her eyes mocking my nostalgia for puny individualism. Then she tells me that the time has come. I sit in the chair adjacent to the corpse, wishing that it didn’t have to be quite ceremonial.”

“When did I realize I was God” says the psychotic aristocrat in the old film The Ruling Class. “Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself.” My epiphany was less grandiose. It was quite the opposite. I realized I was talking to myself, but no one was listening.”

“Happy birthday, Dad.”

“Goodbye, Celeste.”

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