Intelligence and Learning

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Wise woman

Science Fiction and the Future

Science fiction writer, Spider Robinson indulged in some fantasies about the year 3000. Robinson claimed that if he succeeded in writing a valid year-3000 story, the characters would be incomprehensible. He goes on to describe Morgan, an androgynous, wealthy, immortal, who lives in a perfect virtual reality. Like many technology fans he is prejudiced against life, which he describes as "meat.' His year-3000 creature "drives meat" occasionally - little adventures outside the safe and more facile regions of virtual reality.

A thousand years may sound like a long time, but in evolutionary terms, it is insignificant. We can guess that human nature has not changed much in the past 150,000 years and humans, if they still exist in the year 3000, are going to be similar to contemporary humans unless rigorous selection or genetic engineering intervenes. Technology may be different in year 3000, but I doubt that current technological fantasies have much relevance or validity. More likely scenarios place important obstacles in the path of human survival and our species will be doing well to rescue itself from self-extinction. For most humans, life will not become a pleasurable video game.

Robinson bases his fantasy in part on the erroneous idea that the contents of mind can be downloaded, stored in a machine, transformed and uploaded at will. The biggest error in comparing the human brain to a digital computer is the belief that the "data in a human brain" can be downloaded to a computer. However, you cannot download information in the brain because there are no input and output ports, no files and no hard drives. The brain is an analog computer with no digital files as memory that grows its hardware and software as needed. Memory is built into the neuronal connections of the brain and cannot be separated from the structure of the brain.

The brain may be better compared with a television set; to a naïve observer, TV programming looks information-rich and prolific, but the information is not stored in the TV set; it is just passing through. The picture on the screen is monitor image of the electronic processing of waveforms; consciousness is a monitor image based on neural events that are as transient as the waveforms passing through the television. What is mostly stored in the human brain is the circuitry to process the information available everyday on many broadcast channels native to planet earth (no satellites are required). You do not download a television set. You construct one out of parts. When it is all wired, you can tune in and watch the programs. You do not up load or download a human brain you construct it out of sperm, eggs, DNA, neurons, nutrients and feed it with blood.

Robinson is also enamored of Eric Dexler's nanotechnology. Dexler imagines microscopic assemblers, tiny machines that can construct machines of out of atoms. Life is based on micro-assemblers and Dexler is not inventing anything new, except he proposes to make non-living micromachines. One can imagine a tiny, radio-controlled robot traveling around in the blood stream like the Disney movie version of micro-submarine, dissolving a blood clot or repairing a damaged artery. The study of "meat" has revealed an entire universe of living nanomachines that perform astounding feats of molecular assembly everyday in every creature alive on earth. 

I was more convinced by technology pundit, Clive Thompson's, alternative article January 1, 2000.  Thompson writing about conditions in 2010 stated: “What’s astonishing about the world in 2010 (and beyond) is not how different it is from the turn of the millennium, but how similar…it's getting harder to sustain all the moist, liberatory hype about high-tech that floated around in the 1990's. Back then over-oxygenated pundits babbled endlessly about how digital tools were empowering consumers, overturning fortunes and creating a new entrepreneurial culture. But these days all it seems to have done is heightened the peaks and valleys. If you are rich things are great… If you are not rich, well…good luck."

Thompson predicts that electronic communication will not replace commuting, traveling and the need for face to face interaction among humans. He stated: “The face to face meeting is now the exclusive mark of power and prestige … isolation is a mark of disempowerment. The truly powerful work only for big companies and they meet in person, driving around and flying all the time".  The anti-life bias of Spider Robinson and a host of people who fantasize about technology is a concern. Humans are unrealistic at the best of times. There is a tendency, even in science fiction, to repeat old and obsolete beliefs  The worst new age and science fiction beliefs mislead many who take them too seriously.

Here are eight corrections in the form of enduring truths:

  1. Body and mind are one and the same.
  2. There is no consciousness outside the "meat".
  3. There are no contents of the brain to be downloaded.
  4. There is no personality to be saved and transplanted to either a virtual or real other body.
  5. Technology may have improved some human lives, but humans are at great risk of destroying each other with their new and improved technology.
  6. The universe is a large place and it is mostly empty. There is no other place to go to and no human is going to escape human folly on earth by finding a utopian kingdom in the stars.
  7. No intelligent species is going to arrive to help us or to destroy us.
  8. Intelligent human progress should be back to a restored, healthy nature, not pursuing a perverse fantasy of a virtual reality here or on another planet.