Engineering The Mind

As I woke up today, I found myself wondering what it is that drives my near obsession with understanding the human mind.  By far it’s the subject I’m most interested in.  I have bookshelves of textbooks on neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, artificial intelligence, neural computation, and many more.  Though it’s been a rather long and winding road which lead me to all of this, over the years I’ve gradually found out just how important these areas of research are.

Back in 2002 the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), along with the Department of Commerce, created a report entitled Converging Technologies For Improving Human Performance.   In it you’ll find the same conclusion I’ve drawn from what research into these areas has to offer.

“Understanding of the mind and brain will enable the creation of a new species of intelligent machine systems that can generate economic wealth on a scale hitherto unimaginable. Within a half-century, intelligent machines might create the wealth needed to provide food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, a clean environment, and physical and financial security for the entire world population. Intelligent machines may eventually generate the production capacity to support universal prosperity and financial security for all human beings. Thus, the engineering of the mind is much more than the pursuit of scientific curiosity. It is more even than a monumental technological challenge. It is an opportunity to eradicate poverty and usher in the golden age for all humankind.

Few people today realize how powerful these technologies will be as they mature.  Right now they’re in their infancy.  Rates of progress are currently exponential and I expect they will continue to move forward very rapidly in the future.  When will these technologies completely reshape human society?  Will it be fifty years?  One hundred years?  Two hundred years?  I can’t pinpoint it down very easily, but I see the trends, and this is going to bring huge changes to the human condition.  I’d like to be a part if I can.

Things are going to be changing so rapidly, it’s hard to see very far into the future.  My father grew up in a rural area and he didn’t even have an indoor bathroom, access telephones, or electricity.  Just a generation later, I’m playing online games over the internet with people all over the world in 3D virtual worlds on my computer, sit cozily in my heated and air conditioned home, and have access to countless movies with Netflix.  That’s pretty crazy when you think about it.

I’m not an old man by any means.  I’m not even thirty yet.  Even so, when I was in high school in the late 1990’s, very few people had the internet.  I remember hanging out with guys on the basketball team and Mike was telling us how his family had just got access to the internet over dial-up.  That was the big thing.  We ran around with Walkman handheld cd-players, oftentimes with all our cds in a big folder in our backpacks.  Barely a decade later, we have nearly all human knowledge available at our fingertips, iPhones, and Kindles.  University lectures on almost every subject are available on Youtube.  Nearly every major book has been scanned and is available on the web in PDF form.  Every type of scientific dataset is becoming accessible and computable with Wolfram Alpha.  It’s incredible.

When I’m around college students nowadays, there’s about a decade age difference between us.  One of them noticed that I don’t carry a cell phone and just couldn’t believe it.  He asked how people got ahold of me.  I coyly replied, “They don’t.”  When I was in school nobody had cell phones.  We’d find a landline phone someplace and make our calls.

What will things be like a few generations from now?  I don’t think many of us can even imagine how much things will change.  If you had a time machine and could visit the Earth in five hundred years, I wonder if you’d recognize the place.  I’m beginning to think you wouldn’t.

Chasing Yourself

The past week I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s new book called The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes And The Deep Laws Of The Cosmos.   It’s very late and I’m extremely tired, so I’m not going to write a long post here tonight.  If this is a bit brief and terse, forgive me.

What I find truly baffling about modern physics is that you can look at the universe from so many different angles, either from quantum physics, cosmology, string theory, take your pick, and they all point toward infinite parallel universes.  You have the multiple worlds interpretation of quantum physics, cosmology’s inflationary multi-verse, or string theory’s braneworlds, and they all point toward infinite parallel universes.  Read the book yourself if you don’t believe me.  Though there is a lot of speculation, this isn’t fringe science, and it’s not empty speculation.

It’s very probable that there are an infinite number of Jasons, in fact, an infinite number of Jasons in parallel universes which are exact duplicates of my entire universe, in every detail.   Every possibility already exists and has always existed.  By our actions, we’re not creating anything.  It all has always existed.

In a sense, no matter what you do, it doesn’t matter.  You’ll experience different things based on what you decide to do, sure, but in other ways, it doesn’t matter.  Say you’re currently living a life to “change the world.”  You’re going to feed the children of Africa.  You’re going to contribute some invention or technology which will leave a better world for the next generation.  You’re going to find every little puppy a home.  Try all you like, but you’re never changing anything.   The children in Africa, whether fed, or not fed, the possibilities exist and have always existed.  Children in Africa are starving to death, dying of diseases and poverty, and in other parallel universes Africa is a technological utopia and everyone’s living in pure bliss.  Both exist and are happening right now, and every gradation inbetween.  Nothing you do or can do will ever change that.

If this is true, and piles of evidence suggests it is, you can’t change the world.  The world isn’t something that can be changed.  The world is.  Period.  Done.  End of story.   Trying to change the world, or fight it, or overcome it, or defeat it, or anything like that, is just meaningless.

If you think it over, and internalize what this stuff means, you’re obviously not going to die.  How could you?  Infinite Jasons in every possible reality continue to exist after “I” “die”.  You don’t die.  I don’t die.  We don’t die.  Nobody dies.  Nothing to worry about.

Do you all exist?  Am I the sole instance of consciousness and you all are just the collapse of my wave function, based on what I “choose” to experience?  How does this choosing work exactly?  It wouldn’t “work” in any way I could ever understand.  Why do I choose one thing over another.  There’s no reason.  No why.  I just did, I guess?   I mean, I’ve been nursing a headache most of the day, and why would I have chosen this particular experience over others?   And if I did ever make such a decision, I certainly don’t ever remember existing in this prior state, and flying through all these options and weighing the possibilities.

You guys want to know the crazy conclusion I’ve came to?  I came to it years ago, and any time I mention it to people, they just look at me like I’m totally out there — we have no identity.

The key I’ve been needing to realize is that I’m not missing anything.   As Watts said, there’s no need to struggle and struggle and struggle.   It’s about enjoying the walk of life, no matter how strange or absurd a lot of it is.  It’s not about understanding it, and it’s impossible for us to understand it.  You work to understand the world to whatever degree you need or want to understand it, based on what you’re doing in that walk.   That’s the end of it.  With all these infinite branching parallel universes, how do you ever plan to wrap your mind about all of that?   It’s a waste of time.  I guess most of my thought experiments and thinking have lead me to that inevitable conclusion.   Just enjoy the walk, and nothing can harm me.  What could anyone or anything ever do to me?

I seem to greatly enjoy reflecting on how it’s impossible to escape this conclusion.  I’ve been wanting to write another blog post about how even if you could rewind time, and do things over as many times as you want, you’d lose more than you gain.  Maybe that’ll be my next post.  Until next time.  I need sleep.

Artificial Spatial Cognition

There’s a reason I fell in love with computer programming at such a young age.  Watching a robot drive around the room, building a 3D model of its environment, understanding its position within that space, and properly avoiding the walls and obstacles is just too awesome for words.  I spend more time doing physics these days than I do writing computer algorithms like this, but I regret not having the time to do everything.

I like reflecting on how our brain represents an environment and building algorithms which lets a machine understand how the things in that environment behave.  I think the ultimate way to understand the mind is to build a machine which is capable of doing the same things it does.  If you understand your mind well enough, you can send a machine you built downstairs to buy yourself a Subway sandwich.  Just think of the possibilities.

Robotic Chefs

It won’t be all that long before robots like Asimo here will be in restaurants across the country cooking your food, taking your order, waiting on your table, and washing your dirty dishes.  It’ll leave a lot of people unemployed, but I really hope to see the day when robots can manage a restaurant entirely on their own, with no human intervention.  If I live to a normal age of around 80, I have about fifty years or so.  I think it’s plausible that I’ll see it happen.  If I were to guess though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it much sooner than that.

You can’t watch videos of Willow Garage’s PR2 system and not realize that robots will soon be able to handle mundane, unskilled tasks and do them far more effectively than humans.

Imagine the future McDonalds.  I could see a fully automated store with robots capable of making Big Macs and Quarter pounders far faster than humans, and with perfect consistency.  McDonalds execs will no longer have to traumatize teenagers with their first jobs.  What will they use to scare them into college?

My first job was at Burger King at age 16.  It was a nightmare.   Years ago I gathered up all my memories of that experience and put them into this here.   I’ll feel lonely though.  I’ll be the last of a dying breed of people who had to do horrible menial labor for slave wages.  I’ve never served in the military, but I think my BK experience is about the next best thing to sharing war stories.  That was some 14 years ago, but I remember it very vividly, even today.

Continuing A Great Man’s Quest

Just the other day I posted a video where researchers in machine vision took a digital film of them roaming about a college campus and extracted a 3D model of the entire campus from the film images alone.  Depth information can be extracted based on the rate of how the colored pixels change relative to one another.  Pixels “further” in the distance change slower than those up close, and using computational algorithms you can use this basic idea to extract “space” from the images falling on the camera’s “eye”.

I’m a quest you see.  A quest I’ve been on for years.

“Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live.”

– Albert Einstein

This is all part of a larger quest which came long before I became interested in physics.  You see, I started off reading the works of philosophers such as Hegel, Kant, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and others.  I wanted to understand what “I” consisted of.   I later realized Einstein was on this same quest, and in a way, I want to pick up where he left off, focusing on how the subjective sense of space and time are created by our brains, and help physicists figure out how to combine relativity theory with quantum physics.

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

-Albert Einstein

I’ve spent the past few weeks studying quantum mechanics.  I keep reflecting on things like Schrodinger’s equation, and try to think of how to find a distinction between myself and the objective world.  Somehow I’ve always hoped to better understand objective reality through physics, but I can’t get over some major philosophical hurdles.  Einstein seemed to struggle with the same problem.  In this letter to his friend Max Born, he was trying to find a way to hold onto a concept of objective reality as separate from a particular observer.  After all, physics gets its name from physical.

I just want to explain what I mean when I say that we should try to hold on to physical reality.  We are … all aware of the situation regarding what will turn out to be the basic foundational concepts in physics: the point-mass or the particle is surely not among them; the field, in the Faraday-Maxwell sense, might be, but not with certainty. But that which we conceive as existing (“real”) should somehow be localized in time and space. That is, the real in one part of space, A, should (in theory) somehow “exist” independently of that which is thought of as real in another part of space, B. If a physical system stretches over A and B, then what is present in B should somehow have an existence independent of what is present in A. What is actually present in B should thus not depend the type of measurement carried out in the part of space A; it should also be independent of whether or not a measurement is made in A.

If one adheres to this program, then one can hardly view the quantum-theoretical description as a complete representation of the physically real. If one attempts, nevertheless, so to view it, then one must assume that the physically real in B undergoes a sudden change because of a measurement in A. My physical instincts bristle at that suggestion.

However, if one renounces the assumption that what is present in different parts of space has an independent, real existence, then I don’t see at all what physics is supposed to be describing. For what is thought to be a “system” is after all, just conventional, and I do not see how one is supposed to divide up the world objectively so that one can make statements about parts.

– Albert Einstein, in a personal letter to Max Born

The only way I can think to proceed is to fully understand quantum physics and relativity theory (which is coming along nicely these days for me), and then figure out the algorithms the brain is using to separate objects one from another, create a sense of existing within space, our sense of self, and how our sense of time comes to be.   It’s not an easy path, but it’s the only one I find fulfilling.  I’ve never wanted to write boring business software, or attend school, or work a job.  Unfortunately I’m forced to do these things.  But I always have Joseph Campbell’s quote in the back of my mind.

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls”

– Joseph Campbell

Let’s see where this road leads.