November 19, 2010

The Widening of Frontiers

birthday balloonsWe live in an incredible, wonderful time. I call our time the Age of Wikipedia. Our understanding of the world around us has been exploding, and access to that knowledge exploding even faster. A child with access to the Internet has riches of knowledge that da Vinci and Darwin could have only dreamed of.

We are all beneficiaries of mankind's increased knowledge. Our standard of living is directly impacted by new inventions, new manufacturing processes, and new discoveries. But there has been one casualty of this rapid explosion of information.

The Age of Wikipedia has killed the Renaissance Man. Da Vinci made significant contributions to our understanding of anatomy, astronomy, engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics, and made smaller contributions to many other fields.

Today, nearly all of the incredible breakthroughs that da Vinci made are taught in first-year classes in their respective disciplines. Like a balloon that is continually expanding, the frontiers of our knowledge keep growing. The balloon of human knowledge in da Vinci's time was small enough that he could help to expand it in multiple places.

In order to really study something, to make breakthroughs, you have to be at the edges. These days, we have a much larger balloon; it takes a lot more work to get to the edges. It really takes a PhD before you can hope to contribute to a field.

For an aspiring Renaissance Man like me, this can be depressing. When a subject catches my fancy, I often begin by looking it up on Wikipedia. I am quickly immersed by information, and the realization that the waters are much deeper than I realized.

For example, I have recently been enamored with the idea of simple actors (e.g., ants, businesses) working together to build something more complex than any of the individual actors understand (e.g., nests, economies). In my Internet research, I discovered that this is called emergence, and that there are branches of computer science and philosophy and biology and linguistics and sociology that focus on emergence. There is even an Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence.

This idea that I had never considered before has an entire industry built around it. There are people who study it for a living. There are websites and magazines about it. This should be enabling and invigorating, but I generally find it depressing. It feels as though I would have to devote a lifetime in order to learn anything "new", anything that humanity doesn't already know.

It's hard to decide what ideas are worth a lifetime.

November 13, 2010

What is my Fridge Thinking?

Consciousness is notoriously difficult to define, because we are defining something that we only experience first-hand.

There is no way to measure whether someone else's experience of consciousness is truly the same as ours.

We assume that other people are conscious, because they act like we do, and because we have language which helps us to describe consciousness to each other.

While there have been some fascinating attempts to design tests for consciousness, they can give only circumstantial evidence of consciousness. A sufficiently advanced automaton could pass any test we could design (think The Matrix).

I think that it is probably safe to assume that there are varying levels of consciousness, from a complete unawareness of your own existence or the world around you up to our own awareness not only of ourselves, but awareness that we are aware of ourselves.

While it is easy to put rocks, dirt, etc. on one end of the spectrum and ourselves at the other end, it is very difficult to discern where other things should be placed.

Most people would agree that monkeys are conscious, in most senses of the word, but how about rats? Snakes? Fish? Ants? Trees? Algae? Bacteria? Viruses? We have an intuition about just "how conscious" each organism is, but that guess is really just based on how different from humans they are. We haven't experienced life as an ant, or life as a bacteria - there is a chance that it is much richer with awareness than we expect.

We are also inherently hesitant to grant the possibility of consciousness outside of the realm of life. However, it seems more and more likely that our creations have some sort of consciousness. The Internet has eyes (cameras), ears (microphones), and a brain of billions of interconnected computers. Is it possible that the Internet is, in some sense or other, aware of the world?

And if the Internet, what about individual computers? What about dishwashers and refrigerators? When we designed refrigerators to keep food cold, did we also give them some sort of desire or drive to get rid of heat? In the video above of the "Big Dog" robot, it is very hard to shake the feeling that the robot "wants" to stay upright.

It is possible that all complex systems with interconnected, communicating nodes (brains, networks, etc.) have some level of consciousness. If that is the case, then isn't it also theoretically possible that our economies are conscious? Our cities? Our corporations?