In honor of my little 99 cent promo deal for the Viral Spark kindle book, I’m taking some time today to talk about one of the background world elements in the book. It’s actually something that I’ve been thinking about for over fifteen years.
There’s a question in philosophy that has captivated me since the first time I considered it. It’s an ancient question, and one that even today has never been suitably answered. It’s home is in the realm of philosophy, it’s origin in the mystical, and whole scientific disciplines (like artificial intelligence) seek to find a solution. Better known as the mind-body problem.
To start off this discussion, a bit about my background. I started programming when I was eight years old, on my dad’s ATARI computer. Since my first foray into coding in BASIC, I tried to make some kind of program that could think on it’s own. I was likely inspired by Sci Fi movies and television shows. I had one rule, one goal: it MUST be able to evolve or learn on its own.
I may have started as a programming prodigy, but failed time and time again with this. The older you get, the stiffer the competition is for the title of “prodigy.” The academic medals I’ve won for my skill at the keyboard aren’t enough anymore to place me in the upper echelons, or even close to some of these guys working in the field today. My original programs were language based, and some of them had pretty cool effects, but nothing I would call “thinking.”
My next consideration of the problem came in high school, when I dived off into the study of some advanced mathematical concepts. One of my teachers introduced me to Chaos Theory and specifically Fractal Geometry. I could take the ideas in the books and use them to plot complicated equations, and then manipulate the parameters to one-up all of the studies I was reading about. The Mandelbrot Set fascinated me, but it had four dimensions, and my goal was to display the entirety of the set by making a video presentation of a three-dimensional shape (thus all four variables accounted for). I often thought outside the box about stuff like that, and I wish I still had the slides, because it was pretty cool. But this idea of artificial intelligence, and consciousness, cropped up again. The brain is a complex system of simple bio-machines, and the overall effects of complex systems can be staggering. I began to question if complexity itself was enough to spawn consciousness.
In college, I was able to explore more of these avenues. I started studying computer science, but quickly migrated to Physics and Philosophy. (I prided myself on lowering my GPA by taking on extra work). It was the study of philosophy that opened me to a grander scope of the problem. People like Descartes and Plato and Aristotle had pondered the same question I was fighting with. The door opened to “brains in vats” and perceptions of people “locked in caves.” The idea of the soul being separate but connected was examined with the same fury as the rest of my studies. It seemed that religious digression had more to say about the issue than science.
Needless to say, I was a weird kid in college. The skateboarding long-haired physicist that smoked a meerschaum pipe and spent as much time contemplating world religions as I did studying science.
The mind-body problem is essentially this. How exactly do thoughts and mental commands become physically manifest in our body? How are the mind and body actually connected? Are thoughts a bi-product of chemical interactions in the brain, and if so are our thoughts deterministic? After all, if it all stems from a wrinkled gray computer in my cranium, how can I have any claim to free will? And WHY? That’s the important part. If we’re biological computers, how and why do we even have thoughts?
Equally disturbing is attacking the problem from the other side. If our soul, our essence, our life force, or whatever you want to call it is non-physical and not part of the material world, what is the divine spark that allows that consciousness to interact with the human brain so that the right nerve signals can be sent to control the body.
I’ve come up with a lot of theory in this regard, and even after college spend hours and hours pondering my solutions and their implications. I even started a new computer project, that unlike other “Artificial Intelligence” engines, took into account that a true intelligence can only come from true consciousness. If that consciousness is a bi-product of the brain, it might be able to replicate it with a simulation not of a worm or a chess player, but with a synthetic brain. Program a bunch of neurons, give them a fairly simple life process, string them together in a vast neural network, and hit go. I would attach some inputs and outputs as sensors that could feed electrical stimulus in while other connections could “leak” signals to say, speakers, or lights. Let it run until it becomes alive.
Now. This is not as simple as I make it sound (and personally, I think it sounds quite tricky). I’ve had some limited success in making tiny versions of this on the order of 10,000 to 100,000 brain cells in a grid. The beautiful thing about a simulation is that I could also simulate the inputs and outputs. I could even build a synthetic body and environment, then simply plug in my “brain.”
Needless to say, I’ve failed at this idea over and over, but through my work, my mental musings, and my studies, I have a somewhat different view of the world than most. I wanted to convey some of these ideas in Viral Spark, in a way that would make sense to the reader. I wanted people who have never heard of the mind-body problem to consider the ideas it poses. And I didn’t want to do it in some artificial analogy that left the wrong impression or missed the point. Unfortunately, without metaphor, some of these concepts are hard to realize.
The issue crops up again and again in the book. The bee boxes on the roof are symbolic of not only a “hive mind” type of concept, but also the deeper underlying concept of how what we are (a mass of indifferent cells acting as a community) translates into what we experience. If I were to yank out a single brain cell and ask it what it’s purpose is, the answer probably wouldn’t be that different from any other living creature. It eats, it breeds, it dies. The idea of culture plays heavily into this argument. Is a culture simply the consciousness of a large enough group of individuals?
Some of the colorful digression later in the book, the concepts about hacking the human mind, even the “need” for humans like Robert to find a counterpart, or Amanda’s desire to have children someday. Those are the interactions of the pieces. It’s what simple life forms think about. Even the food, and having it in ready supply. Every single detail of that book ties back to this point about consciousness, how it works, how to replicate it, and the nature of the human soul.
Here’s the rub. These concepts also filter over into the daily life of every single reader. It’s difficult to think of yourself as a colony of living creatures, or as a single creature in a much larger colony (Earth). This book is meant to open those ideas to the reader, to see the bigger picture, and to consider the interrelatedness of everything. The universe in a cup of tea, or the microcosm being reflected in the macrocosm. The connection between the nucleus of an atom, and the whole of the universe.
I haven’t really gotten a chance to talk about all of this, or maybe I’ve been putting it off, but there it is. My inspiration? My Viral Spark? It came a long time ago, from a group of neurons in my cranium seeking to understand themselves.