Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Significance of Consciousness

It's a cliche to look up at the stars and comment on how small and insignificant we are. This bothers me because conscious beings like ourselves are arguably the only significant thing in the universe. Now, when I say "conscious beings," I am including the possibility of aliens and machine sentience. And of course the mental lives of a multitude of animals are worthwhile as well. Everything else in the universe is only significant in that it creates and sustains life, gives us resources, gives us something to ponder and inspires us to reach heavenward.

Is the universe really "big"? In terms of a physical dimension, only conscious beings give it any coherent scale. It's certainly got a lot going on, but so does the human body. And without beings like us, what point would there be in this, or any universe? It would be just a bunch of dust swirling around. Could the universe be a computer working on its creator's problems? Could it be innately conscious? Could stars be conscious in some way? I doubt it, but even these possibilities point out that consciousness is what is ultimately important.

The human (or possibly alien) brain, is probably the most complex naturally occurring structure. True, it is physically minuscule compared to the Milky Way. A child is a speck on a speck whirling around a speck out near the rim of one galaxy among the billions that we know of. And yet, one child's life is worth more than an infinite number of galaxies in a universe where life will never occur. Now, doesn't that make us special? Relative to rocks and hot gas, yes. But there's still the issue of our place in civilization, in relation to the human race and life as a whole, and gods willing in the galactic federation.

On a nerdy note, I want to say that I have always been bothered by the part in Watchmen where Dr. Manhattan claims that lifeless Mars is superior to Earth life. It's a bunch of pretty rocks! And they're only pretty because he's looking at them. And that crystal thing of his is way less interesting than all the crap going on here. Get over yourself Dr. Manhattan!

Next: Stuff I Find Suspicious


Singularity Part 4: Uploading Minds

I have several times encountered an odd notion: won't we have to to be able to "upload our minds" before the singularity can take place? "Uploading a mind" is frequently taken to mean transferring a person's unique consciousness into a machine. Moving consciousness into a machine or from one person to another is a common trope of mainstream science fiction, which hasn't helped the confusion.

More rational science fiction features a more realistic (and coherent) form of "uploading" a mind. Due to the unfortunate connotation of the term "uploading," I think "copying" is a better term. "Copying" a mind (or brain) means storing detailed brain scans in a computer. Often, but not always, this is followed by running a simulation of the recorded brain state, possibly giving that simulation a virtual body in a simulated environment or in a robot, etc.

Obviously, such a simulation based on your brain would not be "you". Even if consciousness could be generated by a machine, it is uncertain how comparable it would be to human consciousness. Besides the problem of machine consciousness, such a simulation could exist alongside you. No matter how closely it may resemble your thinking, memory, or emotions, you can't exist in two places at once.

So you can make a copy of yourself, and that may be fun and useful, and even keep your “mind” and memories and relationships alive after you die, but it will not exactly be you. In other words, shooting yourself after you make a perfect copy of your brain would be a waste. Even if a truly in-depth scan require the destruction of your brain, examining it layer by layer, it would not move your consciousness into a machine.

Finally, I don't see how the ability to copy or upload our minds is a precondition for the plausibility of the singularity, but it does seem to come up a lot for some reason, so there you go.

Next blog: Looking up at the stars.