Spiritual Machines

I’m lucky enough that I discovered my passion for understanding the brain at an age when I could easily pursue it at university.  Some of the more baffling, interesting, and exciting ideas I’ve come across so far I hope to share here.  These come from a whole range of subject areas, including psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, cognitive science and computer science.  I’ll also be talking a bit here and there about the research I’m working on for my PhD.  But to begin this blog, I thought it might be fitting to talk a little about how I became interested in the subject.  

The very first time I considered the brain and its function in any real way, I was about seventeen and listening to a concept album by a little known (and underrated) Canadian alt rock get-up called Our Lady Peace.  The album was called Spiritual Machines, and between tracks were brief recordings of some guy talking about the progression of artificial intelligence.  These tiny speeches covered things like the first time a computer beat the world champion at chess (Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997), and the potential for heavy ethical dilemmas in the future if computers ever become autonomous enough to be truly considered conscious or independent.  The album concluded with a hidden track; a short dialogue between what appears to be a character from a future age, ‘Molly’, and an inquisitive present day person, quizzing Molly on whether she is a machine.  Molly replies that it ‘is really not for me to say.  It’s like asking me if I’m brilliant, or inspiring.’

After minimal research, I discovered that the album was named in honour of a book entitled ‘The age of spiritual machines’ by the brilliant Ray Kurzweil.  Turns out the snippets of speech on the album were actually excerpts from the book, read by Kurzweil himself.  The book describes a future in which the majority of society is artificially enhanced to various degrees, and the line between machine and human has become truly ambiguous.  Non-augmented humans or ‘MOSHs’ (Mostly Original Substrate Humans) are rare and comparatively primitive; incapable of understanding many things that are apparently commonplace, like music.

The idea that one day humans and machines could be two ends of a spectrum really got me interested in artificial intelligence and all its associated philosophical issues.  In turn, for the first time I began to think of the brain itself as a machine.  While this might seem like an unpleasantly cold and reductionist view, I believe that it has opened my eyes to some quite amazing possibilities.  For me, the most exciting part of this intellectual journey was the realisation that this machine – the brain – is just so spectacular.

Fine, so we can’t perform arithmetic like a calculator, or store information as accurately as a database, but the computations performed by the brain are infinitely more sophisticated.  We are flexible in our behaviour. We incorporate emotions and reason in our decisions – we don’t do things based on some explicit rule based system, but just know when something ‘feels’ right or wrong.  We have the ability to empathise, to understand the concept of existence.  Our brains tell our muscles when to adjust our posture to avoid falling over, keep us breathing and tell our hearts to beat, all completely outside of our awareness.  They transform photons and sound waves into the subjective experiences of seeing and hearing.  We can imagine things we know to be impossible, and visualise things we’ve never seen.  We are constantly learning new things and adapting our behaviour, sometimes realising it and sometimes not.  We prepare ourselves for the immediate and distant future and constantly make predictions about what’s going to happen next.  When our predictions are wrong, we refine them so they are better next time.  The particularly ineffable mystery, consciousness, is mediated by this machine, this slimy, grey mass of goop.  And all of this goes on for our entire lives.  It’s a pretty heart-stoppingly amazing machine that can do that.

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