Thinking out loud

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Problem of Consciousness

Penrose, in his book "The Emperors New Mind", comes up with this nice argument about why teleportation of human beings is problematic. It goes something like this:
Suppose that a person is completely characterised by the "position" of the all the atoms/particles of his body relative to each other. Also, by some argumentation of Quantum Mechanics, its possible to say that its not a particular electron or proton that is part of a body that matters, but the fact that there is an electron at a position; basically that electrons are indistinguishable from each other. Now, suppose (the uncertainty principle notwithstanding), we are able to precisely locate each electron/proton/neutron in a persons body and transmit this information via electromagnetic waves to a distant planet. At that end, with still more sophisticated machinery, we construct a body with an identical configuration (as specified). Now, the original body is destroyed. Have we been able to transfer the person to another place? At first sight, one is tempted to say "well...yes....but what about the uncertainty principle".
Let us forget the Uncertainty Principle for the moment. There are other problems still. Suppose that we fail to destroy the original body. Does that mean that the "same" person is in two places at once? In body perhaps, but what about consciousness? Are the "two" people aware of each others presence? Have we replicated the "consciousness" too? So, essentially, is consciousness only a function of configuration of electrons in the body?
Again suppose, while the data was in transit, there was a lot of congestion on one of our wi-fi links. And the data had to be temporarily stored in a hard-disk. We, meanwhile, destroy the original body...since the data is safe and we are sure we can reconstruct the person as and when we wish. And now suppose the hard-disk lies around for several days. Is the "person" "inside" the hard-disk? Is part of the hard-disk conscious? Essentially, is consciousness a function of the information content in the human body?
What would happen if a person suddenly found himself at another place...with time having elapsed....but with the body having had NO EFFECT of passing time whatsoever. No new memories are formed during the process of transmission. This is different from falling asleep...where aging continues to happen even though memories might not be formed. Wouldn't the mind be in an 'inconsistent' state? Is that a problem?
Defining consciousness is a hard problem...perhaps the "most important problem about the world, the universe and everything" and whose answer is very unlikely to be 42. Is it Godel's incompleteness theorem at work here? Is this the ultimate question that we can never answer in finite time? Are we finite state automata too?

Monday, April 04, 2005

Are We Prepared?

Science has been around for a very short while; its origins can be traced back to the Renaissance perhaps. Technology, on the other hand, has always been there. When Man invented the Wheel, there was no science, yet the Wheel was a fabulous piece of technology.
So we, humans, have been building things for a very long time, science or no science. They seem to work pretty well too. Those that don't, either die out or get replaced by better technologies. Technology today is good, but is it good enough? Can we stave off an alien invasion (Independence Day) or predict/outlive the onslaught of a premature ice-age (Day After Tomorrow). Hollywood would have us believe that we could. But how true is that?
How fragile is our technology? What extremes of conditions can it withstand?
Think of computing power - we have massive amounts of data being generated by millions of sensors around the globe and in space. Do we have the mathematical models to make sense of all that data? Do we have enough computing power to crunch through the numbers and produce results? Do we have visualisation tools that can present data to us in a way that we can understand?
On the socio-political side of affairs - do we have social support for fundamental research? Do we have economic strength to sustainm research which may not bear immediate results but which may be key to saving mankind and the earth some day. Do we have international brotherhood so that every country can contribute its bit to the forwarding of mankind without worrying about replicating technology so expensively built by one nation.
It is funny that we as individuals as well as nations should worry so much about time and effort, yet as inhabitants of this planet, we should fight each other tooth and nail to keep our 'secrets'; so that all the effort and time and money we have spent building technology is put in 175 times over in each country.
Moving on to India in particular: if we are to rise in power, and if we can take it as a given that no other country will help us get that power, do we have the resources to do so on our own? We have multiple problems at multiple levels. We have a pressing population/health/education problem. We might not have been, but now we certainly are a political mess. We have severe infrastructure shortage. We are spending lots of money and effort on solving these problems, but the solutions we build are extremely fragile. Roads don't last through one rainfall season. If the weather doesn't tear them apart, some or the other government department does. Does this not scream out for better planning? Are we conscious that we are desperately in need of e-enabling our governance? Our research centers? Are we in any position to monitor every corner of our country the way the US of A can (or atleast makes believe that it can)?
And yet there is brain-drain. Why is that? Is it not because we as a nation have failed to praise/support people who have worked for the nation? Is it not because we have failed to give them incentive (more than just patriotism) to work for the country?
Let alone technology, we have even failed to provide support to the young men and women guarding our national borders. Are we put to shame?

These are a lot of questions. Each begging for an answer, and more importantly, an action. Are we even conscious of these questions? Are we prepared for the future?