Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lt. Commander Data

One of my favorite TV shows growing up was Star Trek: The Next Generation. And my favorite character on that show was the pale-skinned android, Lt. Commander Data.

Data was a window into the meaning of sentience and of being human. He was also a strange, inconsistent fellow. How could it possibly be that he could perfectly perform millions or billions of math calculations per second and not be able to substitute “I'm” for “I am” or use any other contraction?

When I was young, it seemed everyone older had the answers, but of course the Star Trek: TNG writers were just making it all up as they went, and they met their burden of plausible explanation by having Data and the other Star Trek characters vaguely allude to Data's positronic brain, just as Asimov gave his robots mysterious-sounding positronic brains decades before. As to the question: why is Data self-aware when all our own 20th and now 21st century machines are not? It's the positronic aspect of his brain.

It's hazardous to generalize about sentience, being as how we humans don't know of any other examples in the universe, and it remains an open question in the philosophy of mind as to how much the peculiarities of the underlying hardware affect consciousness, but I'll chuck discretion aside and posit that if there really existed someone like Lt. Commander Data, and he did possess self-awareness, then he would not be able to perform those millions or billions of calculations any faster than I can. That is, he would have to program a computation machine to do the calculations for him, just as I have to do.

The philosophy of mind is a wildly divergent field; its contributers and followers don't yet even agree whether the brain hardware is in someway fundamentally special stuff, as far as the laws of physics go. This is to say that what I'm writing in this post is only my opinion, and it's unaccredited opinion at that. However, here's what I know. I know that the underlying hardware of the human brain is capable of performing trillions if not quadrillions of calculations per second, all taking the form of neurons molecularly adding together the weighted input of other neurons' outputs and propagating their own summation outputs to yet other neurons. Whereas the computer on which I'm typing this blog post performs a small number of calculations simultaneously but performs each calculation in a nanosecond or so, the human brain achieves its speed by performing its calculations with massive parallelism. Even with its “clock speed” over a million times slower than a $300 laptop's CPU's, the human brain is still far faster than any single machine we can fabricate.

And yet, ask nearly any human to do some math, and though our self, our I, rests upon this awesomely fast, biological computer in our head, the human will be slow and error-prone. It's like dropping a 500HP engine into a car and achieving nothing more than golf cart power, only this analogy doesn't come close to capturing the scale of the discrepancy. As to what causes the discrepancy, the philosophers of mind are working on it. My guess is that consciousness is fundamentally computationally expensive. But in any event we know the discrepancy exists. Consciousness appears to be bloatware to a scale beyond anything software developers have been able to create. Even the ones who work at Microsoft.

Returning to the positronic brain, why then should we expect Star Trek's Data to be so perfect and so fast at mental math? Somehow, Data must possess bloat-free consciousness, an ability to cut through its layers and manipulate his “positrons” directly. This makes as much sense as does a human capable of manipulating his own neurons directly. Rather, I'd expect Data to be as confounded and awed by the mysteriousness of his positronic brain as we are confounded and awed by our own brains, and Data would be thinking those thoughts of puzzlement and reverence with the same slowness and fuzziness that we think ours.

On the other hand, I'm just making this up as I go along.


Bobby Wein said...

Wow. Seriously, the fact that you can write that and then have conversations with me kind proves your point...or one of the points I thought I read through that incredible text.

PS Tell NEVER Enough Laura that I really like Laura the Blogger and hope she can put me on a list to receive her posts whenever she posts...

cmbrandenburg said...

Bobby— To stay up to date with Not Enough Laura, you can become a Blogspot “follower” or use an RSS feed.