Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Human consciousness could be immortal

Our subjective experience of the 'continuity' of consciousness is surely an illusion. But what makes that illusion and why is it so compelling? That's a deep question but here are I think two fundamental reasons:

1. Embodiment. You are an embodied intelligence. It is a mistake to think of mind and body as somehow separate. Our conscious experience and its awakening as a developing child is surely deeply rooted in our physical experience of the world as mediated through our senses.

2. Environmental continuity. Our experience of the world changes 'relatively' slowly. The word relative is important here since I mean relative to the rate at which our conscious experience updates itself. Of course we do experience the discontinuity of going to sleep then waking to the changed world of a new sunrise, but this is both deeply familiar and predictable.

A word that encompasses both of these is situatedness. Our intelligence, and hence also conscious experience is inextricably situated in our bodies and in the world. Let me illustrate what this might mean with a thought experiment.

Imagine a brain transplant. Your brain complete with its memories and life's experience, together with as much of your central nervous system as might be needed for it to function properly were to be transplanted into a different body. You would wake from the procedure into this new body. I strongly suspect that you would experience a profound and traumatic discontinuity of consciousness and, well, go mad. Indeed it's entirely possible that you simply couldn't (and perhaps mercifully) regain or experience any sort of consciousness at all. Why? Because the conditions for the emergence of consciousness and the illusion of its continuity have been irreversibly broken.

However, if what I have said above is true, there's a flip side to the story that could have extraordinary consequences.

If the continuity of consciousness is an illusion then, in principle at least, it might be possible to artificially perpetuate that illusion.

Imagine that at some future time we have a sufficiently deep understanding of the human brain that we can scan its internal structures for memories, acquired skills, and all of those (at present dimly understood) attributes that make you you. It's surely safe to assume that if we're able to decode a brain in this way, then we would also be able to scan the body structures (dynamics, musculature and deep wiring of the nervous system). It would then be a simple matter to scan, at or just before the point of death, and transfer those structures into a virtual avatar within a virtual world. The simulated brain structures would be 'wired' to the avatar's virtual body in exactly the same way as the real brain was wired to its real body, thus satisfying the requirement for embodiment. If the virtual world is also a high fidelity replica of the real world then we would also satisfy the second requirement, environmental continuity.

I would argue that, under these circumstances, the illusion of the continuity of consciousness could be maintained. Thus, on dying you would awake (in e-heaven), almost as if nothing had happened. Except, of course, that you could be greeted by the avatars of your dead relatives. Even better, because e-heaven is just a virtual environment in the real-world, then you could just as easily be visited by your living friends and relatives. Could this be the retirement home of the far future?

In this way human consciousness could, I believe, be immortal.

Monday, December 24, 2007

My love hate relationship with an Xbox 360

Ok, I admit it. I have an Xbox 360.

Of course I'm hopeless at playing video games, which is perhaps just as well because it means that I don't spend long playing (or wasting time, depending on your point of view). Just as long as it takes for me to get frustrated by how useless I am and give up. (But it's ok because my eldest son levels me up when he comes to stay;-).

However, as a piece of hardware it's awesome. Liquid cooled, 3 processors plus graphics processing unit. As someone who worked with the very first 8-bit microprocessors over 30 years ago (see my post By, you were lucky...) and with pretty much every generation since, I ought to be inured to the now expected doubling of performance roughly every two years (Moore's Law). But I'm not. I still easily get awestruck by next generation hardware and its capability. I'm equally impressed by the Xbox 360's operating system, its so called 'blade' interface is intuitive and a pleasure to use.

Of course this blog is really just an excuse for me to post a screen capture from the stunning Project Gotham Racing 4 of me driving (in my dreams) an Enzo Ferrari down The Mall, in the rain.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The future doesn't just happen, we must own it

Had a remarkable couple of days last week. Walking with Robots (WWR), the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) and the London Engineering Project jointly ran a pilot Young Peoples' Visions Conference. The aim of the 2 day event was to give an opportunity for around 20 young adults (age 16-18) to "explore visions of their future and the part robots will play" in that future.

For me the event was important because it takes Walking with Robots into a new form of dialogue. At WWR events and activities I have been privileged to engage with many children, teenagers and adults, over the past year and I increasingly have a sense that our children, in particular, believe that the future is nothing to do with them. That technology is something that happens, or is imposed from outside and that they are merely passive consumers or targets for that technology. In this conference we really tried to change that view. It was wonderful to see the group change from - at the beginning - seeing this as 2 days out of college to - in the end - all being deeply engaged in the dialogue. I got a real sense of them feeling empowered and that their considered opinions are important - not least because those opinions will be published by the RAE and send to policymakers. In other words that they do have a say in their own technological futures.