A Sixth Sense

Sometimes I feel like a stuck record, saying the same things over and over, but I want to spend a moment tonight reflecting on how amazing, and strange, consciousness really is.

Imagine if, while you were developing in the womb you underwent a mild complication leaving you with brain damage in your gustatory cortex.  You can find this area in the brain diagram below.

What would happen?  When you would go to eat, placing food in your mouth, you would feel it on your tongue and have a sensation of swallowing, but you would have no experience of taste.  You’d have no idea what “taste” even is.  You would eat food everyday and find it puzzling the hear your friends say, “Mmmm, this is delicious.”  You would have no idea what they’re talking about.  Why?  Those neurons in the gustatory cortex are responsible for producing a conscious sensation of taste.  When they fire in different patterns and different timings, you taste different things.  Considering that you wouldn’t have them, you’d have no experience of taste.  That’s weird, really weird.

There’s no analogy I can use which captures the mystery of our brains.  I’m going to write about neurons and how they function for my Space, Time, and the Mind “book”, considering they’re the underlying substrate for neural computation and the production of consciousness, but we can take a short look at them.  They’re cells like other cells within your body which have little gates and pumps in their cell walls, allowing them to move electrically charged ions in and out of them to produce electrical discharges which are sent down the neuronal axon to another neuron.  They call this an “action potential”.  To save myself some time, just watch this short video from Youtube.

The brain is filled with a salty fluid which has Calcium, Chlorine, Sodium and Potassium ions buzzing around.  To use a water analogy, when neurons conduct electrical current, they’re like leaky garden hoses.  It’s all a rather sloppy process.  I really like the animation in this next video.  These videos don’t show how messy it all is though.  When the electrical pulse is moving down the axon, there’s all kinds of leaking, which is why the signal needs to be continually amplified to make it any considerable distance.  You see that the axon is wrapped in myelin, which is basically like a duct tape for axons, but it doesn’t cover the entire axon.  You can easily see the gaps.  It helps stop a lot of the leaking, though it’s still really bad.

At the end of the axon you reach the synapse, which is the connector between one neuron and another. When the electrical pulse makes it here, various chemicals, called neurotransmitters, are released into an open gap called the synaptic cleft. Here the transmitters float down to the other end where they bind to various receptors, which then do things like stretch the cell membrane of the other neuron letting ions flow in. Here’s a video of the synaptic terminal.

Salt water pumps around in my head and releases various chemicals and voila, I have conscious experiences.  *Scratches head in amazement*  Why would salt water pumping around in my head produce consciousness?  My last post was about virtual reality.  I want to write an entire post about how that would work, but as for taste, I would only have to stick nanobots in your gustatory cortex and have them fire off your neurons based on signals I send them from a computer.  I could wirelessly communicate to them using say, radio waves.  I could then make you taste anything, even things you’ve never tasted before, even when nothing is in your mouth.

In your mouth there are tastebuds which undergo various chemical reactions with the food you eat, which then produce signals which are sent up to the brain in the gustatory cortex.  I’ll talk about all that in detail in my book.  In VR we just bypass these circuits and go straight to the cortex.

Ok, now that I’ve explained the basics as to what taste is (at least biologically), here’s a question I find myself pondering near every single day.  These neurons are pumping charged ions in salt water.  Let’s say I take my brain out my skull and put it in a jar.  I’m not an expert in biology, so I don’t know all the technicals as to how this would work exactly, but my DNA has instructions as to how to build more neurons.  Say I used my nanobots to initiate cell division processes in the brain and I grew new extra neurons and wired them up in new and novel patterns using my nanobots.  I start firing them in various patterns.  Could I generate a new sixth “sense”?  Instead of just being able to see, hear, taste, smell, and feel, could I also __ fill in the blank ___.  I have no idea what this new sense would be like and there’s certainly no way to put it into words.  But are there possibly an infinite number of new senses out there which we could wire ourselves up to experience?  Could I eventually become a being not just with five sense, but a thousand different senses?

Also, does consciousness need this rather sloppy medium of the brain to work?  Can I produce a conscious experience of tasting something by using more modern electrical equipment?  What if I build circuits that fire in the same sorts of ways as neurons but much more quickly?  Would I still taste?  I don’t know the answer to that but I really want to know.

When we look at each other, we see the light bouncing off their skin and clothing and only notice the body’s outer shell.  Our brain processes these light signals and we see images and perceive forms and their movements.  But what’s really inside people’s skulls?  This!

I don’t particularly find the brain aesthetically pleasing.  There’s all the hundreds of billions neurons with their ion pumps and channels moving electrical charge around producing your entire experience in this life.  Your memories, loves, hates, perceptions, bodily sensations — it all happens in there.

You know what gets me the most?  It’s all so fragile.  The only thing protecting your memories, bonds, knowledge, and everything you value most is a thin skull and a leather-like lining.  That’s not to say we can’t suffer from a stroke from eating greasy foods, plugging up our arteries and blocking blood flow to our brains.  The skull won’t help us there.  There’s no use belaboring that point.  Everyone knows that life is fragile.

Here’s a little thought experiment for you.  Say I filled a plastic pale with the same extra-cellular fluid which flows through the brain.  I then grow neurons in a lab and wire them up in various patterns, similar to the human brain, and place them in the pale.  I now send electrical pulses through them.  As long as I keep the neurons alive, and keep the pulses flowing, have I just created a conscious sentient being?  Is there someone living in there?  Would a conscious being, similar to myself, be experiencing a life, falling in love, working a job, and pondering the universe — all within the plastic pale?  Strangely, it also wouldn’t know it’s in a pale, but would think it’s someplace else.  That’s mind boggling.  Maybe we’re all living within an alien simulation in which they’re running a test to see how various patterns emerge based on a set of physical laws.

Commenting on my post Future Implications Of Virtual Reality, Tim asked if once we achieve full immersion VR, and we have the capability to experience anything we can currently imagine, is that the end?  Is there anything more?  Considering that we evolved from single-celled organisms which started sticking together into colonies, consciousness developed over time as nervous systems developed.  Assuming we augment additional neural circuitry into our brains, I think we may be able to add new senses, one by one, possibly indefinitely.  Just like the person who has never tasted before, maybe we’ll wire something up just right and be like, “Whooaaa, I’m experiencing something new!”  We’ll add a new sixth sense, and that should be interesting.   Our VR will initially be computers bringing us various patterns of experiences within five senses, but that may expand into new domains later on.  We’ll be fed combinations of experiences from twenty or thirty sensory modalities.

I also think physics will lead us into some new domains beyond what we currently think about.  There will be plenty to figure out, and even more to do!  I very much doubt there’s an end to the potential of what we can become.

Future Implications Of Virtual Reality

As I was out for a walk today I found myself reflecting on the vast implications virtual reality will have on the future of our species. The importance of this future technology shouldn’t be underestimated.

Take one of the biggest issues facing the world today — the haves and the have nots. I used to reflect on this problem a lot, and found myself terrified at the proposition that if we cannot solve it, as technology progresses, we’re very likely to destroy ourselves fighting over the “stuff” of this world. Whether it be homes, cars, gadgets, or whatever. We live in a world that is unfair, where some people seem to have it all — money, influence, power, good looks, a beautiful home, amazing life opportunities, and the list goes on. We’re all guilty of being envious and resentful as we look at our own lot in life and compare it to others. We find ourselves screaming, “Life’s not fair”, but what can we do?

Today people think of video games as entertainment, simple fun. But when you start reflecting on the direction that technology is moving, you begin to see the emergence of virtual reality (“VR”), and that is far from just entertainment. The human species is actually on the brink of a technology so amazing, it will revolutionize everything. When I say everything, I mean EVERYTHING. When we have tiny robots which are able to go into the human brain and manipulate signals from various sensory systems, we’ll be able to place ourselves in VR and it will be as real and as vivid as you sitting where you are right now. You won’t be able to tell the difference. It will be like the Matrix.

Think of how easy it is to manipulate data on a computer. Imagine if you could plug into VR and live any life you can think up. Imagine never getting sick, never getting hungry, never getting tired, and you can teleport to any location, and be with anyone you desire instantly. Everyone can live in their dream home, everyone can experience life in any human body they desire, and they can interact with one another in total safety. Imagine virtual locations, everything from private homes to giant cities, which are like video game “maps” today. You select a menu and choose where you want to “spawn” into, and if you have the proper permissions, in the blink of an eye, there you are. Your friends are there waiting for you and you all go off on whatever adventure you desire.

There’s several questions to address. First off, never getting hungry, sick, or tired? How would that work? Here’s what I honestly think, and you all may differ in opinion. When I mention this to family members, they laugh at me, but I don’t think they understand what I’m really saying, or believe that this technology is right around the corner. I think once VR is as vivid as real life, people will come to hate their physical bodies and find them a cumbersome burden. They’ll see themselves in the mirror and think, “This thing is ugly. It gets sick, constantly needs bathed, I have to brush my teeth, and ugh. I hate this thing. I can’t fly, I can’t teleport, I’m fragile and can easily be injured. This just sucks.” Then a thought will enter their minds. They’ll say, “Why don’t we have robots build a vault down deep within the Earth, fully protected by robot sentinels, and we all take our brains out of our skulls and put them in jars, stored and protected by the robots. Then we wire ourselves into the VR system. We’ll have the robots provide our brains with whatever nutrients and minerals they need to operate, and they’ll constantly monitor our brains’ status, making any repairs, and keeping us healthy.” As for interaction in the “real” world, we’ll have robots which we can wirelessly “spawn” into, which we’ll control with our brain, similar to VR. To us, the “real” world will be just like another location to spawn into.

Does this sound unreal and science fiction like? When I reflect on how it all works, in order to plunge ourselves into VR, the first main step is the tiny robots. And how long before we’ll have those? In twenty to thirty years we’ll have nanobots capable of doing this. Now does this mean in thirty years all of this will happen? No, but that’s when it’ll all move rather quickly in that direction. Once people get used to interacting with one another in VR, they’ll drift more and more toward finding that as the place to be. Then they will demand technology which allows them to live completely in VR and not worry with their physical body.

I look at human life right now, and our lifestyles and desires are so demanding on the biosphere, we’re killing everything around us. We’ve left no room for other species. Without VR, I wonder if the “real” world could possibly support us and our insatiable lust for change and new things? How could we solve this problem? We could go underground and move all our brains into protected vaults. We could then clean up the Earth’s surface environment and leave it to wildlife. But how would we get our power to run our VR systems?  We could send probes out into space toward the asteroid belt. We could then harvest all that metal and material and turn it all into solar panels. We then move the panels up close to the sun and harvest all the energy we could possibly need.

All life today is powered by plants who harvest sunlight from photosynthesis. We even burn fossil fuels to create electricity, which amounts to harvesting energy collecting by past organisms, such as plant life. We need to bypass all of this and go straight to the source — the sun. Harvest all the vast energy that big fireball is pumping out. The sunlight which makes it to the Earth’s surface is highly diluted compared to how powerful and concentrated it is up close!

I wonder to myself, “Will I see this happen during my lifetime?” I think the answer to that is yes. By the time I’m an older man, around sixty or seventy, this stuff will be flourishing. Kids won’t be playing Playstation, they’ll be immersed in VR. That generation in particular will be so comfortable in VR and most of their experiences will be from within it. The “real” world to them won’t be as “real” to them as it is to us. They’ll be much more anxious to rid themselves of their physical bodies.

What would you do in VR? I’d build that dream home I mentioned in a previous post, brick by brick. I’d construct an old 1940s propeller plane and fly over my island. I’d design and build its engine by hand. I’d play all sorts of VR video games, mostly fantasy role playing games where I’m some wizard battling dragons like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. Fellow nerds could join me and we’d all traverse some medieval labyrinth deep within the Earth, filled with ghouls, goblins, and skeletal knights. After I finished gaming, I’d teleport off to science conferences where I’d discuss all the latest technology, and work on upgrading the VR computers, and research the latest scientific pursuits. I’d also work toward enhancing my brain with the robots so that I could think faster, and process information much more effectively. I’d create wormhole technology and then connect my brain to deep space probes and robots, where I’d conduct research on black holes, pulsars, and other exotic structures in space. It sounds wonderful.

VR has so many possibilities. Is someone annoying you? You think a thought, “Remove this person from my experiences.” And poof, they’re gone. VR environments could be protected and annoying people would be banned and not have access. This may sound pretentious, but there are people I’d prefer never to have any dealings with. There are people in this world who have no respect for themselves or others. The other day a person drove by my house and threw their car’s floorboard garbage out the window onto my front lawn. If I could have a world where they wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near me, at any time, that would be wonderful. You could exist in a VR world with only the types of people you want to be around. Hillbillies could live in log cabins out on the bayou and hunt virtual alligators and drink beer. Scientists could have access to all the latest equipment and spend their time around other minds on similar pursuits. Artists could erect beautiful cities and entire environments which themselves are giant showcases of their talent and ability. The possibilities are as endless as our imagination.

Think for a moment of what it’d be like to live in this VR world. Imagine never having to worry about crime, or being injured, or stress. You’d be so relaxed. Lovers could be with one another without worrying about things like finances and job security. You could have all kinds of amorous affairs and participate in wild loving making orgies and would never have to worry about getting STDs or your partner getting pregnant. You could eat all you want and never get fat. You could really show other people the real you. You wouldn’t be limited by all the stupid restrictions that this world we live in now imposes on us. And if the robots could repair our brains, we’d live for an incomprehensible length of time. This wouldn’t be heaven, but it’d be a huge step forward.

Does this sound like a techno utopia? In many ways it is, but that’s not to say this sort of thing isn’t very possible. Our technology is almost at this level now.

VR allows us to fulfill our desires, no matter how extreme, without effecting anyone else, without imposing burdens on anyone else, and without destroying the environment we all need to survive. It creates the possibility where each person can live their dreams, and nobody, not anyone, can force you to do anything. VR is the ultimate manifestation of freedom and security. It’s not just about entertainment, it’s the ability to guide and control what we experience and that is a VERY big deal.

Thoughts On The Future Economy

As I’ve been writing my Space, Time, and the Mind posts, I’ve been thinking a lot about technology and artificial intelligence (AI).  Eventually I want to write about AI since it is our attempt to emulate the actions of the human mind, building intelligent machines which can do various tasks for us.  That got me thinking about the economy in the future.

If you’ve studied economics, you’re probably familiar with a concept called “jobless growth”.  It is a phenomenon where the economy grows but there are no new jobs being created for workers.  Ultimately I think technology and automation brought about by intelligent machines will eventually make the human worker obsolete.  In the beginning, relatively unskilled labor will be replaced by robots, but later all of us will be unnecessary.  When I went to Steak and Shake the other day, I saw a young woman in the back making burgers and thought, “Twenty to thirty years from now, I can easily imagine a robot doing that job.”  The same applies to waitress positions.  With time, truck drivers and warehouse workers will be replaced.  Super market cashiers, shelf stockers, and janitors could all be replaced.  All these unskilled positions will likely be replaced and automated by intelligent robots.  That brings up another question.  How in the future will these displaced workers find jobs and earn their living?

It’s a bit sad to think of a future that doesn’t need us, a future where we’re little more than the robots’ domesticated playthings.  I’d like to quote a passage from a rather surprising source.

But suppose now that industrial society does survive the next several decade and that the bugs do eventually get worked out of the system, so that it functions smoothly. What kind of system will it be? We will consider several possibilities.

First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better that human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decision for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better result than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite — just as it is today, but with two difference. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless the may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consist of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone’s physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes “treatment” to cure his “problem.” Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or to make them “sublimate” their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they most certainly will not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.

Who do you think wrote that?  A prominent philosopher?  A futurist?  An economist?  No, not quite.  It was written by the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.  I’m certainly no apologist for his cause, and find his idea of bombing innocent people to bring attention to his ideas appalling.  Even so, he makes some powerful arguments.  He felt that our technology was going to, at worst, lead to the extermination of our species, and at best, create a miserable world without purpose or meaning.

I already see unskilled labor being displaced.  Most people think that we need to create education programs and help such workers get into more highly skilled positions.  After all, we all need to carry our weight.  Our workforce needs to step up and compete.  Or do we?  One thing to consider is this:  our technology is supposed to make life easier for us, not harder.  You’d think if we automated a job with robots we could relax and let them handle the work while we reap the rewards.  Instead, our intelligent machines will leave us working harder and, even worse, unemployed.  We’ll have to work our butts off studying at universities, having to master more and more difficult material in order to be able to contribute to the economy and land a decent paying job.  Also, not everyone has an analytical type of mind, capable of doing difficult mental work.  Considering this, it seems inevitable that once technology reaches this point (and it’s not all that far away), unskilled people need to be given a comfortable minimum amount of wages even if they’re not currently employed.

What!  Are you crazy Jason?  That’s the ultimate welfare state!  Yes, it is.  But we’re entering a new age that’s unlike anything humanity has ever experienced.  When robots are doing all the grunt work, performing all the menial tasks to support our everyday existence, humans should relax, and not be forced to compete with the technology designed to help them.  Scientists and other highly skilled positions should continue their jobs, and help improve the machines until they too are displaced.  During the transition, however, once a robot takes your job you should be able to just sit back and enjoy yourself.  Let the robots serve you in the restaurants, go see a movie, visit the lake and go fishing, learn a hobby, read some books, compose music, and just do whatever you want to do.  If you want to work for fun, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t have to.

I know this is troubling, but we really will be worthless at this point.  It will be harder for the average person to find any meaning to their existence.  Nobody will need you outside of emotional bonds, such as love.  But even that will likely be replaced.  People will find their lovers in virtual reality, and probably fall in love with AI beings who are better lovers than you could ever be.  People may well fall in love with realistic robots.  The upcoming world is crazy.  It’s really hard to put your head around it.  And you want to know what’s worse?  This is pretty much inevitable.  It’s not like people are going to stop improving technology.

I don’t know what to think of a world where robots can outperform us in every way.  We pick up a guitar and play in a restaurant.  Then a robot plays the next song and makes you look terrible, even if you’re the best human guitar master alive.  And if we merge with the machines, we lose our individuality and uniqueness.  In many ways, we become one.  We can share abilities, memories, experiences, and everything else, just as easily a networked computers can share files.  Who and what are we?  What does all this mean?  On the plus side, we can understand one another better than ever before, but that’s not to say there’s no downsides.

How will we manage and distribute our resources?  There’s several ways to look at that problem, but I’ll share my own view on the matter.  The main factors you need to keep in mind is nanotechnology and virtual reality.  Currently scientists are building what are called nanofactories.  These machines have billions of micro-machines, conveyor belts, and lifts.  They take raw materials and produce anything you desire, molecule by molecule.  Watch for yourself.

Our future economy will be geared around sharing what you create.  As for physical products, you’ll share information and blueprints.  I imagine that everyone will have nanofactory appliances in their homes, and if we see a product we like, we’ll simply download the blueprints off the internet and have a nanofactory assemble one for us.  When we’re finished with something, similar technology will dismantle it back into the raw materials.  If every type of food and product can be produced by such methods, why should people have to work jobs?  There’s no need.  People should focus on being creative and sharing what they create.  Most economic theories revolve around scarcity.  Even in this system there is scarcity, but it’s limited to the raw materials and energy to use in the production.  These changes are going to require us to rethink the economy.

Once people have nanofactory appliances, will people even need to work or earn money?   The only time you’d need money is when nanofactories cannot produce what you’re wanting.  Overall though, most all labor will be truly voluntary.  I can’t imagine people easily being forced to do things.  They won’t have to worry about bills or grocery money.  They’ll be able to produce any food they need by pressing a button on their nanofactory appliances.  We can make it a mandated law that every household have access to nanofactory appliances and a certain liberal amount of raw materials and energy.  Projects which use a lot of raw materials, energy, and public land can be voted upon.  As for who gets the most land to build on, that will probably go to whoever is the most creative.  If you produce music people like, or design some helpful invention, or something else creative, then people can “like” your blueprint, and you get rewarded with land, and maybe computational power.  I don’t know.  There will certainly be a shift in what’s considered valuable.

This is where I worry.  Once the masses are useless, as Kaczynski points out, the elite may well just have them exterminated so that they can have the entire world for themselves.  Sadly, I see this as a very strong possibility.  If we don’t blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons, bioengineer a plague which kills us all, or pollute our planet to an extent to which its uninhabitable, we may well survive only to be slaughtered by the greed of powerful elites.

You know, sometimes I wish I wasn’t a thinking person.  I saw a young man the other day with his girlfriend.  They were holding hands, smiling, laughing, and I seriously doubt any of these things were of any concern to them.  I chose to pursue the truth about this world and learn what makes it tick.  I find myself baffled by quantum mechanics, troubled by the forces running our economy, and blown away by what the future may hold for humanity — everything from pure bliss where humans are practically gods, to mass extermination, even dystopian scenarios of pure misery and slavery ruled by transhuman overlords.  Sadly, this deep knowledge I now possess makes me sound like a crackpot to the average person, who has no idea what I’m talking about.  Honestly, my mind often feels so rattled that I don’t care anymore.

Bertrand Russell felt that the human race would annihilate itself if technology continued to progress yet humanity lacked an understanding as to the scientific principles which make it all work. I agree with him. I feel like we’re placing a powerful gun in the hands of a young child. Superstitions, hatred, greed, I really wonder if we’re capable of handling the powerful technology of the upcoming century. I don’t think we’re ready, but there’s no stopping it. We’ll see if we make it out alive.

In the meantime, as long as humanity trudges on and robots replace us in the workplace, I worry that many will continue to hold an antiquated mindset toward labor, and a lot of suffering will result.  It’s still commonly held that everyone should have to earn their way in the world.  I believe in hard work, but we work to reap the fruits of our labor, not to work in and of itself (unless you enjoy the work, which is a small minority of cases).  If robots can do it, let them do it.  If I live a normal lifespan by today’s standards, I expect to see this being a huge problem by the time I’m an older man.  I’m currently 28 years old, and in thirty years I’ll be around sixty.  By then, I expect robots to be powerful enough to very easily do unskilled labor as well as a human.  I don’t know how long before we’ll have nanofactories, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them within my lifetime as well.  I’d be surprised to see robots doing creative work as well as human beings during my lifetime, but overall, that’s not far off either.  It’ll happen before the century ends.

STM – Introduction – Ideas And Mental Objects

Now that we’ve established a general outline to work within, let’s introduce the first topic area which will be a major focus throughout this book – Ideas and Mental Objects.

Ideas And Mental Objects

Imagine taking a leisurely walk through your home, inspecting everything you find.  What do you notice?  What do you see?  In my case, I see a dining room table, chairs, cushions on the chairs, a stainless-steel refrigerator, a flat-panel television, a microwave oven, a lazy boy recliner, and so on.  The first question is, “What are these things?”  Now I’m not talking about their physical nature, such as the atoms by which they’re made out of.  I’m talking about what they are to you.  Light bounces off of these objects and finds its way to your eyes, which then process that retinal information inside your brain into objects located within both space and time.  How does that happen?  How does that work?  These common everyday objects of our daily experience, I call “mental objects”.

Say I was to take a book down from my bookshelf and asked you, “What is this?”  You’d tell me, “It’s a book”.  How did you do that?  Books come in a wide variety of different shapes, colors, and sizes.  Still, even so, you’re able to easily tell me, “That’s a book”.  Say you walk around my house with me and I point at objects along the way.  You’d very easily be able to tell me, “That’s a recliner”, or “That’s a refrigerator.”  Does your brain have a giant database of 3D models which it then links to words in your head?  If so, how many 3D models does your brain store?  Think of how many different things in the world you can instantly recognize without effort.  To top it off, even if you did have these models all stored in your brain, by what sort of process do you compare the 3D models to the physical objects in front of you?

First off, how do you go from a 2D image on your retina to a 3D environment?  That in itself is a problem which baffled the greatest minds for hundreds of years.  But let’s assume we’re able to parse out a 3D environment of objects and place them in a spatial arrangement, now what?  Do we just take a 3D model from our brain’s database and compare it to object in front of us?  Would we have to compare every single model stored in our brain with the shape of, say, the recliner, in order for us to identify it?  Are you telling me the brain can compare hundreds of thousands of object models, possibly millions, to what’s in front of you in a few milliseconds?  Think of all the possible rotations and orientations, and statistical variances, such as objects which are similar but but not quite the same.  How in the world did it do that?  That’s incredible!  But wait a minute, let’s think about this a little more deeply.

Jeff Hawkins, a prominent neuroscientist, and founder of Palm, had a friend ask him to sponsor a contest and offer a $1,000,000 cash prize.  What were the contestants asked to do?  They had to program a computer to do something you can do effortlessly – look at pictures of either a dog or a cat, and tell which one it is.  Should be simple, right?  WRONG!  Think about it for a moment and you’ll realize why it’s difficult.  Think of how many different 3D shapes (“forms”) a dog can have.  Think of how varied different species of cats are.  They vary in size, shape, color, and many other characteristics.  But somehow, your brain has not only a database of individual dogs and cats you’ve had experiences with, but can abstract away general properties all dogs and cats have in common pretty much instantly.  You take a small child, open up the picture book, show him or her a simple line drawing of a dog, tell them, “That is a dog”, and from then on, that child is capable of identifying any type of dog it sees, bulldogs, chihuahua, to golden retrievers.  Wow!  As a computer programmer, I find that mind boggling.  That line drawing isn’t even 3D.  It might be just a black and white contour line showing the general shape of the animal.  To say that the human brain is sophisticated is an understatement.

Just a few days ago I was out for a walk through the neighborhood and noticed that one of the neighbors had renovated their front porch.  In a flash I noticed this, with no effort whatsoever.  Now pause and contemplate this marvel.  My brain must have a stored representation of everywhere I’ve ever been, down to who knows what level of detail.  It not only identified that this was the neighbor’s house, but it knew that the home’s front porch had changed.  It also noticed that a new flower bed had been put in place.  Now here’s the question of the day.  How detailed are these 3D models stored in my brain?  If I had nano-bots which could go into my brain and read in the information stored there, and we were to play that back on a computer screen for others to see, what would we be looking at?  Would my brain have an entire database of everywhere I’ve ever been, and everything I’ve ever seen, and would I be able to fly through it and show it all to you guys?  Would I be able to slide a bar along the bottom, and see how everything has changed through time?  For example, would I be able to walk through my childhood home, with the old 1980s television set, with the original Nintendo hooked up to it, and watch my Dad play Zelda?  Would we be able to watch my mother and I on my sixth grade field trip back in middle school, played back in a vivid motion picture?  If not, how detailed is this information?  I certainly remember these moments, though they seem a bit faded.   There’s obviously something there.  All of this information is crammed into a blob of jelly in our skulls.  This is the question of memory and the time-line of our lives.  We often associate ourselves with this time-line.  It’s a major factor in defining who we are.  But what is this “time-line” of memories exactly?  How does the brain store it and access it?  How much information is there?

We have a few more factors to consider as well.  If I were to tell you I had a cloth sofa, I bet you can imagine, just from a picture of it, what it would feel like if you were to touch it.  After all, you know it’s not going to feel slimy, or cold as ice.  How many other properties of these objects are stored in your brain?  Their weight?  How it would smell?  Taste?  Whether or not it could support you if you were to sit on it?  Whether its parts can move?  For example, a microwave oven’s door, you know if you pull on the handle, it will open in a certain way.  How many other object properties are stored, and how does the brain organize and work with all of this vast information?

We’ll also be discussing logic and abstract thought.  For example, if I were to say to you, “Every pet dog I’ve ever had has eventually died”, how does your brain understand this statement?  You’re able to group objects into classifications by all sorts of things, such as their motions, forms, movement patterns, behaviors, and their changes in states over time.  You can then assume properties and make predictions about objects if they fall within these groupings.  Abstract thought is fascinating.  How do we group things together and why do we associate things the way we do?  How do we perform things like induction, inference, and what are “thought” and “ideas”?

While we’re discussing how mental thought processes take place in the mind, we’ll discuss logic and why scientific method works, and the consequences of holding beliefs that knowledge can be obtained through other means.  For example, can you sit in your armchair, speculating about the world, and come to a deep understanding of the universe?  Pious religious monks believe this, as they sit in meditation, they believe they’ll learn the greatest truths this world offers.  Others believe in divine revelation from God.  If you don’t know the answer to something, you should pray about it, and God will lead you down the path you need to go.  But what does evidence suggest about these things?  When we look at what the brain actually is doing, and how it comes to what we associate with “knowledge” about the world, such notions will look ridiculous.

I want to lay out your brain, section by section, and tell you what each area is doing.  By the end of this talk, I hope you can look at yourself in the mirror and know how your brain is giving you a sense of space, organizes information into a time-line, lets you recognize yourself in the mirror, how you recognize others and objects, and every other major aspect as to how you think.  As we’re examining which brain areas are doing what and the general informational processes being performed, we’ll look into some rather fascinating issues, such as whether or not animals can think like we can.  After all, your dog walks around the house and has no trouble noticing what’s going on around it.  What’s different between us humans and that dog?  What extra mental faculties do we possess and why?  We’ll see an interesting development which shows that animals are very similar to us.  To anyone knowledgeable in biology this isn’t surprising.  After all, every lifeform on Earth is directly related in the tree of life.

Speaking of biology, that will be a major aspect within this book as well.  The brain developed from the inside out.  Within it, we find baggage from ancient times, and I want to walk you through this development.  It will leave you not only feeling more connected with other life around you, but you’ll also see others around you being primarily motivated by instincts and passions from their evolutionary baggage which serves no purpose in the modern world.  I want to take you on a journey, backtracking our evolutionary development, covering each major transition, and what mental faculties we gained.

You may also be wondering what all of this has to do with the previous post related to the grand epochs.  If we begin to modify both the Earth and the human mind in a transhuman era, there are some rather drastic consequences which we need to consider.  A lot of things change.  For example, we tend to think of things like our memories, our loves, our preferences, our skills, and our relationships with others as who we are.  Once you get into discussions related to tiny robots in your brain feeding your senses information, everything changes.  Wittgenstein once commented, “Suppose someone were to say, ‘Imagine this butterfly exactly as it is, but ugly instead of beautiful.'”  None of us can choose whether or not we find a butterfly beautiful.  We simply look at it and find it lovely to the eyes.  But once we start modifying our brains, anything goes.  We can find anything beautiful.  That’s very profound, but also a bit troubling.  Skills will be able to be downloaded into our brains and our entire time-lines which we call our lives will be something more akin to files on a computer hard-drive.  We can modify that time-line and make ourselves think we lived a life which we never did.  We can choose what foods we find enjoyable to eat because we can change the sensation the foods produce in our mouths.  We could grab a person off the street and reprogram their brain and make them fall madly in love with us, or anyone for that matter.  Combine this with advancements in say genetics and bioinformatics, and we start modifying our bodies, possibly making them entirely artificial and robotic. The sheer power of this technology is mind boggling and so vast in its implications it requires us to totally rethink the very nature of what we are.

Once we look into what our brain is, its information processing nature, and what knowledge is, we’ll see how we could connect ourselves to a global “brain”, storing all knowledge.  The small robots in our brains could identify patterns and then access the “cloud” (like a Google of all human knowledge), look up what that object is, its properties, how it behaves, what to expect, whether or not its dangerous, and so on, and then produce in you any sort of conscious reaction or feeling we feel appropriate.  Right now, humans are like distinct laptop computers which have strict access permissions set where very little new software can be installed.  They’re in many respects hard-wired, and just barely connected to one another through a super-slow information transfer process which we call oral and written language.  We’ll look into this information transfer process, such as how our brains decipher audible pressure waves into sound, and various sights, such as letters on a page, into thought.  We’ll realize how limited these methods are, and then examine how in the transhuman era you’ll be able to feel what another person feels, see what they see, hear what they hear, taste what they taste.  We’ll be connected in a way humanity has never been connected before.  Everything which we currently attribute to our individuality will be seen to be an illusion.  But what does this mean?  Humanity is having an identity crisis, and it’s going to take us a while to come to grips with what science is now telling us.  All of our religions, and most all of our philosophies, when closely examined within the context of modern physics, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology, is just wrong.  Biology is telling us we can reprogram our bodies.  Neuroscience is telling us we can reprogram our brains.  Modern physics is telling us reality can be pretty much anything, like a programmable construct which supports near infinite possibilities.  So what do we do with all this?

Eventually the distinction between knowledge “in our heads” and reality becomes very blurred.  It all becomes controlled flows of information.  The distinction between what’s alive and what’s dead matter becomes indistinguishable.  Take for instance the idea of transforming the entire Earth into tiny robots which follow the dictates of a super-computer of which we’re all plugged into.  We take a stroll on the surface of the Earth and we think a thought, and then robots, at super speeds, assemble themselves together into whatever form we envision, the super-computer calculating what the robots need to do to make themselves into the forms we desire.  You’re in an open field and think, “I’d like to see the Notre Dame Cathedral”, and the robots assemble themselves into that cathedral.  Such a world is incomprehensible to us.  We tend to think of the world as this place that doesn’t care about us, our health, and our desires.  We struggle just to exist day by day, facing toil and disease, starvation and poverty, but these future humans will live almost in a dream.  If they’re in virtual reality, their senses will be fed whatever they want to experience.  If they’re materialized in physical reality, in some body linked to their brain, these tiny robots caress them like a child, watching over them, making sure no harm comes to them.  Anything they can imagine they can experience, and if you hold a rather solipsistic philosophy, how are such beings not Gods by every way we’ve ever thought of the term?  Imagine a newborn child being born into this wondrous place.  They wake up in a daydream, always happy, experiencing bliss every moment.  And you want to know what’s truly bizarre?  This is completely possible!  I’m not saying it’d be easy to achieve, especially with our current technological means, but this is the direction things are moving if we don’t annihilate ourselves in stupidity.  The other day I was sitting on my front porch, pondering this.

In such a world, you would lose your sense of space and time.  We’d think, “Oh, this is virtual reality.  This is actual reality.  Even though I’m in this “body” over here, my brain, which is the real me, is stored in some protected vault near the core of the Earth.”  In time though, you’d forget about that brain.  The philosopher Daniel Dennett has an excellent article he wrote quite some ago called Where am I?  In it he envisions a project where they take out his brain, put it in a jar, wire it up using electronics to his body wirelessly, and then explores the implications.  It’s very interesting to think about staring at your brain in a jar.  You’d think, “I am here in this room, in this location”, but then you’re actually in the jar.  Or are you?  He ends up going on a dangerous mission under the surface of the Earth, his body is destroyed, and scientists build him a new one, and then wirelessly hook it back up to his brain.  Later he also discusses a philosophical idea of mind called functionalism, and they wire his brain up to an artificial mind made of different electronic materials, but the two process information identically.  They then set up a switch where he can use either his old biological brain, or the “new” brain in order to give him conscious experience.  He’s originally “running” on his biological brain, he flips the switch, and nothing happens.  He flips it again, nothing happens.  As long as the two are in sync, it makes no difference.  But then the two “minds” get out of sync, and that gets interesting.  We’ll talk about all of this in our discussion later in the book.

There’s really two main sections to this book, the first being this “Ideas and Mental Objects” section, which is basically how informational flow patterns give rise to a mind, consciousness, and a sense of space and time.  Possibly in a second section, or along with the other posts, I haven’t quite decided, I want to talk about the physical fabric of reality.  Those atoms of which everything is made, including our minds, follows the laws of physics.  These atoms come together in one way and you have a conscious brain thinking thoughts or falling in love.  If they come together another way, you get a flowing stream and a waterfall or a blue sky.  They come together another way, you get a distant star emitting radiation.  It’s profound and amazing.  The universe is so remarkable, I have no words for it.  We experience a lot of hardship and suffering in this world, but if you’ll open up some science books and just explore for a while, you’ll see things beyond anything you can imagine, quite literally — a framework which can make anything you can imagine real, even things you’ve never considered and never will consider.  I became a physicist because I started to see this picture and I just keep walking toward the light.  I’m going to keep going, wherever it takes me.  I hope this journey is as exciting and wonderful to you as it is to me.