Friday, July 18, 2008

The Speed of Life

I've written a story about a future in which our minds (memories, personality, consciousness) are uploaded into computers when we approach death. (Not before: the readout process is destructive and you would not survive).

Personally, I think that understanding the brain is not going to happen, but that doesn't keep us from simulating it, from creating a large and powerful neural network sufficient to model every aspect of the human brain. We don't need to understand how the brain "thinks" any better than we do now; we simply need to provide the inputs, outputs, and a sufficiently large, fast, impressionable (teachable) model. This is largely how computer neural networks work today, but on a trivially small scale.

One common perception is that the resulting computer would be placed into a (potentially humanoid) robot, so that the person would continue to function much as in biological life, but now mechanical/electronic. Personally, I don't think this is likely. For the near future, robots are difficult to implement. Energy storage, strength, speed, dexterity are all issues that we have evolved to handle well and that are extremely difficult to implement using the motors and actuators that we can build.

There is another problem: why should the electronic implementation of the mind be limited to occupying a physically present (robotic) body? Virtual reality simulations of an environment would offer much greater freedom, including virtual travel, conventions, sex, whatever. Note that a physical body is necessarily limited to responding to its environment by the needs of physical response times. Virtual reality has no such restriction.

One of the interesting aspects of this approach is the speed of life: how rapidly does the person in the computer experience the reality of the world? I'm pretty certain that when Moore's Law makes the next generation of computers run twice as fast and that means the person in the computer experiences reality twice as fast, not that they become twice as smart.

I see potential problems of the difference in speed when it comes to communicating with (slow) humans, or older generations of uploaded personalities, problems which will get worse as technology improves. Do you like to spend time with really slow people? It becomes frustratingly difficult to engage in meaningful dialog, on both sides. Note that I do not anticipate "improving" consciousness; you would not be able to carry on a half-dozen simultaneous conversations any more than you can today. We would find ourselves using buffered communication channels, such as email or voice mail.

Back to the robot issue: a very fast implementation of a human mind in a human sized real-world responding robot would be awkward at best, maddeningly boring at worst. I'd rather experience the virtual world at a normal (to my greatly sped-up mind) speed--blindingly faster than you slow biological humans.

The reality of minds in many different speeds of computers might lead to a caste system. It might also lead to a world where the young and fast have huge performance advantages over the old and slow, with serious implications for jobs. I guess we'll have to pay for continuous upgrades, or fall behind. Great story ideas; I've already written one and outlined two others.

But wetware (or breeders, or humans--whatever you want to call us) will always run as slow as we do today. Our "speed of life" is built into us by our biology and environment.

Human perception speed is not the only possible speed. Other animals may perceive the world much differently than we do. Have you ever watched a hummingbird eat or fight? Their motions and reaction times are incredibly fast. They think we are slow. Likewise, a tortoise may perceive us as fast. A tree views a tortoise as imperceptibly fast.

What about alien biologies? Aliens could be around us now, but running at such a faster (or slower) speed that we don't perceive them as existing, let alone as intelligent. Larry Niven wrote The Slow Ones. Robert L. Forward wrote Dragons Egg about the inhabitants of the surface of a neutron star who experience life incredibly faster than humans.

Is it possible that our forests are intelligent creatures with trees the equivalent of neurons and fungi are neural transmitters? Such intelligences would experience thoughts many orders of magnitude slower than us; I doubt we'd ever recognize them.

I would argue that a human brain cell is alive but not intelligent. Would an intelligent species of bacteria recognize that a human was intelligent? I think not; the scale and speed of life is too different.

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