Losing consciousness

There are some scientists who believe the universe may be a largequantum computer. I follow this thought into the dark places, andI realize it implies we are nothing but information, as AntonZelinger believes.

This doesn't bode well for modern artificial intelligenceresearch.

Molecular environments

Over the last few weeks, I've renovated my "geek room," as my wifecalls it. I ripped up carpet, which is an odor-trapping machine madeof molecules; I've sanded the old wood I found underneath, removinglayers of molecules making up old varnish; I've spread new layersof molecules of new varnish; I've painted the walls with some nicepurply-light-reflecting molecules.

This was all done to the satisfaction of my wife, who is anorganism made of molecules and animated by chemical energy and avibrant sense that she is right. I was frequently distracted by mydogs, who are also mode of molecules and powered by chemical energy,but are motivated only by the desire to wrestle and chase tennisballs.

I am made of molecules. So are you. This world to which we are sotightly glued by gravity is composed of a tremendous number ofmolecules. Also made of molecules: roots and rocks and stars and yourbest friend and your worst enemy. And so on.

Since the time of Newton, we have understood the universe as a vastclockwork, spots of molecules held together by gravity, the weakest ofthe various forces, ticking away the eons with beautiful cosmicprecision. The model of the clockwork cosmos has served us well,taking us to the moon, and Mars, and Saturn, and out towards Pluto,the farthest known non-planet planet in our solar system.

We can calculate the workings of this molecular machine. There areother things, however, which we cannot calculate.

The necessity of consciousness

In all our years of pondering, we have not come up with anexplanation of our own self-awareness. We are each of us isolated inour thoughts, unable to describe the sense of being aware. Most of usare equally sure this consciousness is a real phenomenon. It could bean illusion, an artifact of our information-processing centers, thatbig mass of neurons of which we are so proud. Few are willing toaccept that explanation, though.

If the universe is a giant quantum computer, as Seth Lloydcontends, then perhaps there is more to us than the simple collectionof chemically-powered molecules we call our Self. Perhaps ourobservable environment is a result of ourobservation, rather than the converse, and consciousness is thefundamental nature of the universe, as Donald Hoffman thinks.

Whatever the fundamental nature of the universe, our intelligenceand consciousness appear to be tied together. One may be an artifactof the other. They may be two parts of a larger whole. They may be theexact same thing, observed from different angles, like the mesa in theCydonia region of Mars that looks like a face in some pictures, andlike a regular mountain in others.

The shortcomings of the clockwork cosmos

There is one more simple thought to introduce. Over the course ofmy career in computers, the computational power of a single machinehas increased by orders of magnitude. The capabilities of eachcomputer has not increased much at all. (The one exception: thealmost-photorealistic modern games are visually stunning. The gameplayisn't that much better, but the graphics are amazing.)

In this molecular universe, my computer remains a machine composedof molecules, and powered by electrons. It is motivated by nothing,animated by nothing. It remains inert, and unintelligent.

Fundamentally, it doesn't do much more than my old Apple ][.

I believe the field of artificial intelligence hasn't progressedmuch because we are still operating in the clockwork cosmos, theuniverse of molecules and atoms and electrons. Our programs arewritten as if the clockwork is all that exists. This approach isunderstandable, and it fits nicely with our knowledge and our currentscience and the way our brains fit things together.

As the future progresses, quantum computers will debut with muchcelebration and hope. Perhaps then we will see real progress in theability of our computers.

Our understanding of the fundamental natureof consciousness may improve then, as we observe the interaction ofthe quantum world and the molecular world. Self-awareness may turn outto be an illusion, a hoax perpetrated by our own brains. Evenunderstanding this will help us toward true artificialintelligence.

Until that time, I believe artificial intelligence research willgive us good techniques for ordering information, and help us inprocessing contextual meaning-- but it will not give computers theability to synthesize knowledge from other knowledge.

A final thought: If the universe is a large quantum computer, and we learn thesecrets of quantum computing, then perhaps we can learn to program theuniverse itself. It seems to me the fabric of reality is missingplanet-sized botnets and viruses.

Happy hacking.


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