Archive for November, 2008

The Human Soul

I came across this article on Yahoo! today about the origin of the idea of a soul. It claims that the idea of a soul possibly came about as far back as 200,000 years ago, when humans first started talking.

What’s really interesting to me is that, despite all the scientific and technological breakthroughs made in the time since, so many people still believe in the concept of a soul. The idea came from so long ago, in a age where superstition and ignorance were standard, yet people seem to think that out of all the various religious and social beliefs that we now know to be 100% wrong, they managed to actually get one completely right.

I think it’s more likely that the humans of the past were just completely wrong about everything. Once they started actually objectively observing nature and experimenting, then they could say for sure what is and what isn’t. And once they starting doing that, they became us.

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Real World Brain-to-Computer Interfaces

Last post I described how the virtual space system will work. What it comes down to hooking a computer into a human brain so that it can deliver artificial sensory perceptions. But is such a feat feasible?

The interesting thing is that there are a number of present day systems which do just that. Take a look, for example, at Cochlear Implants. These implants have been around for a while and help deaf and other hearing-impared people be able to hear. This is not a normal hearing-aid, which amplifies sound. It “bypass[es] damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate[s] the auditory nerve”. Granted, these implants don’t produce sound as well as human hearing, but that’s just an engineering detail. We know, from the very fact that human hearing exists, that phyisical systems can be created that are just as good or better.

Artificial Retinas are the visual verson of the Cochlear Implant. They take a small camera and wire it up to the optic nerve to restore vision in those who have lost it. Again, these may not be as good as 20/20 human vision, but they are a step in the right direction.

What about robotic bodies? People, by and large, like having bodies (myself included). Artificial limbs have been around for a while, but these have been more or less controlled by utilizing a sequence of pressure-points at the point where the prothesis and body connect, rather than just hooking into the brain. However, there are protheses in development that are planned to recieve motor instructions directly from the human brain. In the future if you want to move your artificial arm, you’d do it in exactly the same way as if you had a biological arm.

These technologies are all precursors to what the virtual space system will be able to do. They are all relatively crude compared to typical human functions, and so seem unlikely that they could ever be as good as human functions. But we need to remember that the human body, for all its marvel and intricacy, is still just a physical machine which works via physical laws. There is absolutely no reason why we can’t do better.

How Virtual Space Works

Note: Most of what I have written here has also bee written by HowStuffWorks founder Marshall Brain. I am also writing it because, basically, I think he’s got it right. It bears repeating and expanding.

In describing the virtual space system and all of its benefits, I never actually detailed how it is going to be accomplished. It’s not as if the human brain has a port all prepared with which to plug a computer into. Actually connecting a computer and a human brain together is the main hurtle to overcome in the creation of virtual space.

The first thing we need to understand is how the brain gathers information. We have sensory perceptions. Our brains sit at the top of the central nervous system which carries sensory feeds from our various sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, etc.) to the brain. The brain, conversely, sends signals back down through these nerve bundles to control nearly all the functions of the body, both conscious and unconscious.

What a virtual space system will do is sever these nerve bundles and connect them directly to a computer system. The system will then deliver all necessary sensory information. What the person “sees” will be what the virtual space system delivers through their optic nerves. What they “hear” will be what the virtual space system delivers through their auditory nerves. The sensation will be indistinguishable from any other sensation.

The person will be able to communicate with this system just like they would with another person. They will talk to it. The signals used to move the mouth and vocal cords will be intercepted before they reach their destination and the computer will understand what is being asked of it. From the outside, this communication between the person and the computer will be completely invisible (no talking to thin air like a madman or Bluetooth user).

Going the other way, the computer system will be able to take control of the body. It will feed it, exercise it, wash it, and do all the necessary upkeep that we do today. In this way, the body will remain healthy (likely much healthier than the bodies of today) and will thus live much longer, keeping the brain alive.

Getting out of virtual space then becomes trivial. The computer system simply routes all incoming sensory perceptions from the body back through the brain. It becomes as if the system isn’t even there.

Completely replacing the body’s natural sensory inputs isn’t the only option. It is also possible to simply add to them, like a Heads-Up Display. Let’s say you’re in an unfamiliar building and you need to find a specific room. You ask your computer system where the room is. The computer system looks up the information and relays it to you through your senses. It might be through audio, telling you to turn left/right, saying which floor to go to in the elevator, etc. It might be visual, with arrows appearing on the floors and walls pointing the way, or a beam of light which you can follow like a road. The choice is up to the user.

Imagine placing a telephone call this way. You call someone, and talk to them through this system. Anything you say is again intercepted before being said out loud and transmitted to the other person through their auditory nerves. Anything they say is delivered directly through your auditory nerves. From the outside, it seems as though you are communicating telepathically, even though you’re not. Listening to music works the same way. An additional benefit is that you won’t disturb anyone else around you. You may be listening to ultra-loud gangster rap, while everyone else hears nothing.

The next step, obviously, would be to also see the person through a fully-3D image created by the computer system. It will seem as through the person were actually standing right in front of you, and could hear them speak as if the sound were actually coming from their vicinity. If you’ve even seen the show Quantum Leap, this is essentially identical to what Al is.

The only difference is that you can extend the interaction with the projected person and the environment even further. The computer system is watching the environment and the person’s actions very carefully. It is likely that the computer could also supply other sensory perceptions such as touch if the person wanted to feel something. They could slam their hand down on a table and feel it, and make noise, at least for the user. The difference between the projection and actually having someone in the room begins to blur considerably.

Of course, the person really isn’t there. They can’t actually interact with the objects, or do anything permanent. They might be able to reach down and pick something up, but at that point, the “real” object would just become edited out of the sensory feed and the object in the person’s hand would be a simulation. By deactivating this, the object would seem to “jump” back to its original location.

Another possibility is removing the brain and placing it in a hermetically-sealed jar with life-support. That way, the brain stays much safer, since most causes of death are from some part of you body failing (i.e. your heart), subsequently killing you. By doing this, you would likely live decades longer, for however long the brain itself can hold on. The only downside is that moving from the virtual world to the physical world be much harder. It would take a little while to get a robotic body ready for you to use.

Likely an uploaded brain will work the same way. It is a piece of computing matter with sensory feeds in and out. That will ultimately be what civilization becomes. Uploaded brains in robotic bodies scattered all around the world, all connected wireless through virtual space.

The Slowing Down of Time

During this century, humans will upload their minds into computer hardware. This got me thinking: the modern human brain calculates away at 100 trillion (1014) operations per second. Computers, however, will continue to improve in processing speed until they reach the physical limit of 100 trillion trillion trillion trillion (1050) operations per second as determined via quantum mechanics. This made me think: what if we were to essentially “speed up” the rate at which the uploaded brain calculates at? It might subjectively seem to that person that time has slowed down. Their normal thought processes would appear to be the same, but the rest of the world would slow at the same rate that their brain has been sped up.

So how slow? The Josephson Junctions I talked about on The Other Blog calculate 100 billion trillion (1023) operations per second per kilogram (which is about the same mass as the human brain). If your uploaded brain were made of these things, you could potentially slow down the passage of time by a factor of one billion. One second of the outside world would take one billion seconds for you. Of course, one billion seconds is around thirty-one years. Probably one could dial the actual rate of how fast their mind operates, or use it for only short periods of time (a subjective two-week virtual vacation would appear to take only a millisecond to the outside world).

But let’s go all the way. What if you were able to push your uploaded brain all the way to 1050 operations per second? A single nanosecond of “outside time” would equal, oh, several dozen quintillion years of “inside time”, about two million times longer than the current age of the universe.

Of course, light still travels at only 300,000 km/s in the outside world. Trying to communicate with someone else would take eons even if they were standing right next to you. Because of this, it will likely only take place in virtual space, at least for factors slower than a hundred or so. Virtual space isn’t hampered as much by the limitation of the speed of light because all the computing hardware is very close together.

The really weird problem is in some people living at a billion times the normal rate, with others living at normal speed. A normal-living community might take an hour to have lunch, while the high-speed virtual community will have lived through a hundred millennia. It will be interesting to see how society copes with that.

I Hate Biology

I’m a physics-major and like all physics-majors (and all physcial scientists, and all non-insane people), I can’t stand biology. I’m not talking about the subject here, I’m talking about the actual stuff itself. The chains of hydrocarbons linking together to make wierd gooey stuff.

For the past few months, my dog has been growing some lump on her back. It got to be the size of a ping-pong ball. Today, it decided to burst. I’m not going to go into all the…detail. But I will state it again:

I FRIGGIN’ HATE BIOLOGY.

Once we move beyond it, I will be so much happier.

A Bit Bizzare

I was just playing around with the Yahoo! search engine when I decided to type in my own name (my real name: Zebanya Rice). I had the Seach Assist on, and when I had typed the first six letters, it came back with this:

me-somehow

I guess someone has been searching my full name before. I mean, I haven’t even finished the first word yet, and it has already decided to prompt the second word, which is correct. ‘Arik Rice’ doesn’t do the same thing…yet…

Immediate New Prediction

A while back, on The Other Blog, I said that I had privately predicted that oil would top out around $150-$160 a barrel before crashing again. This, obviously, happened. Unfortunately, since I didn’t post it, there’s no way I can prove it. I also predicted that the financial bailout would help the economy. Of course, things haven’t improved that much, but, then again, the money hasn’t been handed over to the banks yet. We still have to wait and see on that.

Anyway, now I am predicting that oil prices will actually stay pretty low, at least over the next five-year period. It may fluctuate, but for the most part (meaning 50%-75% of the period), a gallon of gas will likely stay under $3.

I think this because it was all speculation. Well, not all speculation. There is greater demand for oil today than in the past, but not enough to justify $150 a barrel. Back in 2002, oil was only around $20. Really. So, maybe $40 or $50 today is about right (leading to an average annual increase of 12-16%). The rest was because people saw a rise in demand for oil and started buying. That act of buying led to a price increase, further fueling (ha) buying and price increases. Once people realized that A) it’s not going to last forever, and B) really high oil prices are severely hurting the rest of the economy, they started selling, which, of course, caused a crash. This boom-and-bust cycle has happened over and over in the past. It will happen again in the future.

The thing is though, oil won’t last forever. It just won’t. We really are running out of cheap oil. We have several centuries’ worth of expensive oil locked away in shale, but what happens when that runs out? Human civilization has been around for thousands of years. The Earth and the Universe have been around for billions of years, and will be around for billions of years yet. What do we do over that length of time?