Dagdha's Blog

Electric Consciousness

Posted in Uncategorized by dagdha on November 23, 2011

I have a terrible habit of using cynicism to fuel my writing, relying on pessimistic sentiments to overcome the disheartened apathy of shattered idealism.  But, the labyrinth of theoretical and philosophical text that follows is my earnest attempt to paint a positive portrait of my thoughts on technology, consciousness, and the potential for unhindered human life.

There is no question that the fundamental foundation for modern technology is the computer network.  It is the catalyst behind an ever-quickening dissemination of information and ideas, which in turn accelerates the rate of technological development.  Moreover, the network itself has become the lifeblood of new technology, rendering devices like smartphones and netbooks virtually useless without internet access.  Despite its mechanical nature, this interdependent (fiber-based) architecture appears organically analogous to systems found in nature, like complex neural networks formed by millions of microscopic synapses.  Perhaps the Internet and its collective information are the primordial ingredients for a new type of autonomous consciousness.

Countless tales exist about the apocalyptic consequences for playing God and bestowing sentience upon our own creations, but these stories about artificial intelligence almost universally neglect the non-scientific and internal realm of consciousness.  In other words, the futurist perspective of science fiction often fails to explore the consequential development of the human species (aside from our inevitable servitude to machine overlords).  Specifically, I’m talking about the fundamental need to understand consciousness before it can replicated, and how that understanding could be used to preserve our minds beyond traditional limitations.*

Most of the theories I’ve read about the potential existence of advanced, technologically-superior lifeforms suggest that these aliens are likely cybernetic organisms.  Whether these cyborgs created themselves or they are the product of organic predecessors, understanding the structure of consciousness is a fundamental key to their existence, which would open the way for all kinds of psychic possibilities.

If a species discovered a way to transfer consciousness into mechanical bodies, immune to disease and organic death, such technology would exponentially multiply their collective knowledge.  To put things into perspective, the development of the modern computer has enabled the corpus of human knowledge to double every ten years – that is with the need to educate new minds as the intellectual flames of older, wiser predecessors extinguish.  If Einstein or Heisenberg were still around and had access to the Large Hadron Collider, we would probably be a bit further along (though Sheldon Cooper might disagree).

So assuming we discover a way to map the basic structure of consciousness and replicate (or transfer) it into mechanical bodies, logistics is one of largest problems, literally.  A few years ago, the human brain was estimated to have the equivalent binary storage memory of 1,000 terabytes (based on the number of synaptic junctions of neurons; if storage takes place on the molecular level, it’s closer to 4 exabytes).  Walking around with a head containing a petabyte’s worth of storage devices would be rather cumbersome.  And what about replacement parts for our new mechanical bodies?  As a computer technician for many years, I’ve seen enraged individuals nearly go on a killing spree because they had to wait a few days for a particular part.  I can hardly fathom the ungodly chaos that would ensue if people had to wait for a replacement eye-bulb, or heaven forbid, whatever coital circuit is undoubtedly invented to replace genitalia. The easiest way to manage this problem is to individualize responsibility.  Essentially we need an extremely efficient, auto-redundant, microscopic way to store massive amounts of information for working memory, as well as the instructions and mechanisms for repairing and regenerating dependent body parts.  If you think this sounds like DNA, I like where your fleshy head is at.

Although still largely a mystery, we know that DNA contains massive amounts of information with the convenient ability for self-replication.  Most people know that DNA is made from sequences of adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine (ATCG) nucleotides, however it’s not commonly discussed that only 3% of a cell’s DNA sequence determines its function, while the other 97% is often considered junk DNA, which seems innately in violation of mother nature’s otherwise shrewd structural organization.

In his book Supernatural, Graham Hancock discusses the correlation between DNA and the linguistic phenomenon known as Zipf’s Law.  This states that in a given body of words (in a natural language), the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank on a frequency table.  So the most common word in a book will appear approximately twice as much as the second most common word, three times as much as the third most common word, and so on.  This is true of any known language, from Attic Greek to Middle English and Icelandic.  Interestingly, if you take the 97% of junk DNA and divide it up into words based on common repeating patterns of ATCGs, then the remaining sequence adheres to Zipf’s Law.**  Without getting into theories about xenogensis, it’s easy to see how DNA could be an ideal medium for storing the incomprehensible amount of data needed to replicate life and consciousness.

If you have managed to read this far, you’re probably wondering why I wasted my time and nearly a 1,000 words arguing the obvious, that genetics is our future to immortality, and rightly so.  What I haven’t discussed, however, is the processing power needed to simulate consciousness, especially if the brain works more as a filter than processor as Huxley and others have suggested.  It is difficult to imagine that anything short of quantum computing would have enough horsepower for the job, and I firmly believe that technology can’t significantly progress to that stage without global cooperation.  Either we will get to that stage as a collective civilization, or a select few will carefully guard the technology until ultimately leading to the demise of our species.  Though I’ve been known to hyperbolize, firsthand accounts from the Cold War era attest to the pervasive, ominous threat of apocalypse,  and nuclear power pales in comparison to what is theoretically possible with quantum computers.

Essentially our global community has to move beyond the basic notions of collectivism and embrace a hive mind mentality.  Despite its negative association with online communities like 4chan and reddit, a hive mind societal structure evolves extremely efficiently around a shared ideology, naturally destroying unwanted or benign elements that distract from the overall purpose of the community (like countless bureaucracies).  Think of the hive mind as civilization’s natural selection.  Mankind has achieved incredible, nigh impossible, accomplishments working, in one way or another, as segregated tribes throughout history.  The potential of a unified global society, unhindered by religion, race, or other petty prejudices is truly astounding.  So why is it so difficult for people to get along?

Beneath a thick and bitter, crusty shell of cynicism, I am at heart an idealist.  I see a world being torn apart by voracious greed and prejudice, and I can’t help but smirk, because I know the world is changing.  I’ve always liked change. It provides an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and move forward a little wiser.  Although I think we need to be cautious about technology, tools like the Internet are changing the way we view ourselves – not as separate countries, but as a global community, mutually dependent on each other and our environment. Such a perspective gives me a spark of idealistic hope for the future.

 

 

*Although some of these ideas are explored in the re-imagined television series Battlestar Galactica and it’s short-lived spin-off Caprica, these too fall victim to the cliche dichotomy of “man vs. machine.”

**There are only certain combinations of ATCGs that occur in DNA sequencing, just like only certain combinations of our alphabet form words; and if you think that 4 characters doesn’t seem like much, remember that ALL modern computing, regardless of how complex, runs on just 2 characters (1 and 0).

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