What the Internet Likes

Being a blogger who sits in the sad, lonely corner of the Internet along with all the twitchy Twitterers whose updates all look like “f*cking blue dog dems need to stfu,” I occasionally (okay, frequently) feel the need to inflate my own sense of importance.

This time, I’ll be doing that by using my humble little blog as a statistical snapshot of the things the Internet likes.

Oh, Internet, you’re such a muddled psychotic bitch (or bastard, in the interest of equality)…

By far, the Internet loves VY Canis Majoris, the current candidate for “largest star in the universe,” more than anything else. Since I posted it, it’s gotten an absurd 13,766 views. Whoo.

Okay, so that’s nice: people want to learn things about the mysteries of the universe. Cool. Maybe we’re doing better as a society than I thought. But no. No. The rest of my science posts languish in the bottom of the bargain bin, while, by far, my Zombie Simulator-related posts are the proud runners up, having garnered 10,466 views.

Okay. Internet-people like zombies. No big surprise. You know what else Internet people like? Stupid memes. That crazed devotion to sloppily-doctored pictures with poorly-spelled captions earned my “Yo Dawg…” post 437 views. What to take away from this: the Internet likes memes, but it likes them more than an order of magnitude less than zombies.

Struggling along near the back of the pack, battling shinsplints since the first quarter-mile, is the Giant Rubber-Band Ball, with 302. Puffing along beside it, considering an unsportsmanlike elbow to the face, is Poor Man’s Liquid Nitrogen with 292.

So what have we learned? Well, that the Internet is a big fan of impractical time-wasting things, often with a scientific theme. A lot like me.

But you might be asking, what doesn’t the Internet like? Well, a lot of things, but mostly, my weekly updates and various other posts about my life. So the Internet thinks I’m kind of a loser. A lot like me. But now, that’s really more my psychiatrist’s business than yours, isn’t it.

A Theory of Consciousness

Lately, I’ve been reading Oliver Sacks’s new-ish book Musicophilia. While it’s not quite the tour de force that The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat was, it’s gotten me thinking once again about the neurology of consciousness, and after a few days’ contemplation (and a few years spent reading neurological books), I think I finally have a rough sketch for my own theory of how consciousness comes into existence. Of course, I’m not a neurologist. I don’t know the details of how all this works, and none of it is based on empirical evidence, but that’s the beauty of the Internet: you can talk about ideas abstractly. And, since that’s what I’m good at, that’s what I’m going to do. So, here goes: consciousness.

There are a few structures which are vital to conscious experience. These are:

  • The thalamus
  • The brainstem
  • the prefrontal cortex (and the rest of the cerebral cortex as well)

The other structures are more involved in the contents of consciousness. They are the raw material that the conscious structures process. Here’s how it seems to me that consciousness happens:

  1. Sensory information enters via the brainstem.
  2. The brainstem preprocesses the information and sends it to the thalamus.
  3. The thalamus takes in the preprocessed sensory information and combines it with information about the state of the cortex itself.
  4. The thalamus relays this information to the relevant cortical structures. The prefrontal cortex may play a role here in organizing the arrival of the information, and perhaps in weighting it emotionally.
  5. The cortex processes the sensory information, and the prefrontal cortex reads the results and generates judgments based on emotional weighting from the limbic system. It may generate some of its own emotional reactions as well.
  6. The prefrontal cortex sends the interpreted brain state back to the thalamus. There may also be other loops between the thalamus and the other cortical regions.
  7. The processed mental state enters the thalamus, along with a new set of sensory information.
  8. Repeat.

Of course, this says nothing about memory formation, which is very important for making sense of conscious awareness. It just so happens that I have a theory for how memories form as well.

  1. An emotional signal is sent by the amygdala (or some other part of the emotional system) to the hippocampus, which “reads” sensory information currently being process, thus forming connections between the disparate kinds of information.
  2. This association is stored in the temporal lobe. When the area where the memory structure is stored is activated, the temporal lobe re-activates the relevant structures (those whose particular activity patterns were linked by the hippocampus), and the remembered event is re-experienced.

I’m not really sure how a memory would be recalled in this model, though. I’d venture to guess that it’d have something to do with the prefrontal cortex sending a signal to the temporal lobe, in order to retrieve the memory for comparison to current events.

This little model (and I’ll say it again, I’m not a neurologist. Not even close, so think about this model in the spirit in which it was intended: as a useful idea, not as anything approaching a theory) does shed some useful light on certain kinds of mental illness and the effects caused by certain sorts of brain damage.

  • Schizophrenia: It’s well known that in schizophrenia, the prefrontal cortex is not functioning as it should. Without a properly-functioning cortex, judgments based on memories and sensory information cannot be made properly, and sensory information does not get integrated properly. Also, the prefrontal cortex’s inhibitory connections are less functional as well, which would seem to explain not only the disorganized and unintegrated thought patterns associated with schizophrenia, but also the hallucinations, which could be the result of sensory information going to the wrong place or being integrated improperly. Or, perhaps, the hallucinations and delusions might have something to do with the fact that, without prefrontal cortical direction, the various cortical structures can no longer properly regulate their output.
  • Anterograde amnesia: with damage to the hippocampus comes difficulty forming long-term memories. In this model, that would be because the structure which associates the various neural states with one another is either incapable of doing so, or else it is incapable of moving them into the temporal lobe for permanent storage.
  • Thalamic coma: this may also apply to comas in general, as well as minimally-conscious states, but thsi model only really has something to say about thalamic comas. When the thalamus is damaged, not only can external sensory information not enter the cortex, but the cortical state itself is also prevented from being communicated to the cortex, so there is an absence of both sensation and cognition. The thalamus, however, is divided into two parts, one of which communicates primarily to the cortex, and the other of which is mostly responsible for preprocessing and relaying sensory information. If only the sensory-preprocessor (in the case of vision, this is the lateral geniculate nucleus) were to be damaged, the patient would still likely be able to achieve conscious awareness, but there would simply be no sensory information for them to process.
  • Encephalitis lethargica: in patients with this disorder (which is, according to Oliver Sacks, an extreme form of parkinsonism), the patient is mostly functional, but they are unable to initiate much activity (if any). In this model, that would be because of damage or inactivity of the limbic system, which is crucial in communication emotional meaning to the prefrontal cortex. In patients with severe parkinsonism, there may be difficulty seeing the relevance of actions, and therefore, the actions are not generated. This can also occur with certain kind of brainstem and prefrontal lesions.
  • Depression: in this disease, the prefrontal cortex is known to be less active. However, unlike in schizophrenia, its integrative functions must still be intact. However, its emotional functions become impaired, leading to difficulty forming memories (since the PFC cannot communicate the emotional necessity of remembering something to the hippocampus, and would likely have difficulty sending retrieval signals, too), lack of motivation (since the significance of actions would become unclear), and depressed mood or flat affect (since everything would have the same emotional significance).

I won’t go any further, for fear of over-inflating my ego and for starting to make claims that I have no hope of arguing for. But this, I think, is at least something to get people thinking. Of course, there are a billion things that I haven’t taken into account: the left versus right hemisphere functional disparity, the effects of neurotransmitters, and no doubt I’ve left out quite a few very important brain structures.

The Singularity

For the past few decades, an idea referred to as “the Singularity” has been bantered about by futurists and technologists. Basically, the theory of the Singularity goes something like this:

Given the rapidly accelerating pace of technological advance, and the fact that, eventually, we will develop artificial intelligence capable of driving further technological advance at a faster pace than human beings ever could, we will eventually reach a point in our advancement where the rate of advance accelerates towards infinity.

Now, this idea may sound rather batty, but just consider this: the Universe formed some 13.7 billion years ago. The solar system, about 4.6 billion years ago. Multicellular life: 500 million years ago. Primates: 5 million years ago. Language: 40,000 years ago. Civilization: 10,000 years ago. The Enlightenment: 400 years. The Industrial Revolution: 150 years. Computers: 50 years. The Internet: 10 years. “Web 2.0”: 2-3 years. Each of these paradigm shifts is happening after a shorter and shorter delay, and, unless we manage to wipe ourselves out somehow (not exactly a remote possibility), then it seems that such a rapid acceleration of technological advance is inevitable.

A much better treatment of this idea can be found in Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near. A fictionalized version of the idea graces Charles Stross’s (probably the best Singularitarian author I know of) book Accelerando. But, since you were nice enough to visit me in this little pocket of the Internet, I thought I’d give you a condensed timeline of the predicted unfolding of the Singularity:

  • By about 2015: Practical artificial intelligence is created and comes into use. The A.I.’s can’t pass the Turing Test yet, but they’re very useful in many venues, and they’re advancing all the time. Artificial-Intelligence methods are used to design new technologies, sowing the seeds of the Singularity.
  • By about 2030: The first practical neural implants enter the market. These implants enhance human capabilities immensely, marrying the speed and stability of electronic circuits with the redundancy and plasticity of human neurons.
  • By about 2040: Human-level A.I. is born. Computers and robots gain civil rights, and begin competing with their human makers.
  • By about 2050: The aforementioned neural-implant technology combines with artificial intelligence and allows human minds to be “uploaded” and maintained in computers. The merging of mind and machine begins.
  • By the late 21st century: Nonenhanced humans are completely “obsolete.” Computing power continues to increase. Nanotechnology allows computers to infiltrate every part of our lives.
  • The end of the 21st century: The Singularity arrives. All of the computing power on Earth merges into one vast super-intelligence, which begins expanding out into the Universe.
  • Sometime next century: Nanotechnology begins dismantling all the matter in the solar system, and some matter in nearby space. All is converted to “intelligent matter” capable of performing ultrafast calculations for a tiny energy cost.
  • Who Knows When: The Singularity-Consciousness evolves to the point that it is capable of manipulating matter and energy on the smallest scales, and thus “reprogramming the universe.” New universes can be created to escape the inevitable demise of this universe.
  • After That: Consciousness controls the entire Universe, and many beyond it. It can create universes at will, and expand infinitely. Frank Tipler calls this the “Omega Point.” Some Singularitarians call this “God.”

The really creepy thing is that, in all likelihood, I, being a young and fairly healthy person, will live to see this. Barring some sort of unfortunate incident, I — and probably quite a large fraction of my readers, too — will live long enough to be absorbed into the Singularity. And, since we will then be able to escape from our physical bodies, we will live essentially forever.

Food for thought, as usual.

A Debate

 Author’s Note: These are my personal (and sometimes inaccurate) ruminations on the idea of a simulated universe. I don’t claim to know anything about the philosophical treatment this idea has already been given, nor do I know much about any of the arguments. If I’ve stolen someone’s idea, I apologize…I didn’t do it intentionally.

Bob sat on the great stone platform atop the mountain, gazing down over the endless convolutions of the Great Valleys below him. His face bore a look of the most intense concentration. His brow was furrowed, and his eyes were distant and contemplative. It was in this state that Alice found him. She ascended the great staircase and seated herself next to him.

“So there you are.”

“Yes.” It was nothing more than a pleasantry, for Bob was far too lost in thought for any real communication.

“What on Earth could you be thinking about with such intensity?” Bob did not answer, but instead maintained his tense posture for another minute or so, then relaxed, and looked up at Alice.

“I’m sorry, what did you ask?”

“What are you thinking about with such intensity?”

“Oh, well…I’ve just been considering something.”

“Well, what?” A look passed across Bob’s face, and Alice realized with concern that he could very easily lapse back into mute contemplation.

“I’ve just been wondering…it seems to me that we are living in a simulated world?”

“What? What do you mean by that?”

“I simply mean that the Universe that we see is really just an assemblage of data in a computer somewhere, and that the physical laws we observe – and their consequences, such as our own sentience – are simply processes within that computer. You know, program instructions.” Alice rolled her eyes surreptitiously, then crossed her arms.

“Not this subject again!”

“Well, I believe it deserves consideration!”

“Why? It’s an entirely foolish idea!”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, how could we possibly find ourselves in a computerized Universe? No computer could ever manage such a feat of simulation, and even if it could, it wouldn’t be able to produce the robust world we observe!”

“That’s where you’re wrong, I believe.” Bob had now turned fully towards her, and had fixed her with the challenging gaze that was his trademark.

“Oh, really? And have you any evidence of my wrongness?”

“Of course. You know – you should know better than anyone else – that I never make a claim without having a good argument to support it.”

“Well?”

“Okay. Since I am going to base my argument on the idea that a computer likely simulates the universe we live in, I’ll make my argument from a computer-based standpoint, even though essentially any suitable substrate could simulate our Universe. Now, consider a simple electronic circuit.”

“All right.”

“Right. This circuit consists of a small mathematical processor, a few registers for storing data, and all the other necessary equipment for a circuit to work properly.”

“I’m with you so far.”

“Now, say this circuit, on every tick of its internal clock, performed the following calculation: take the value stored in the data registers – call it x – and squared it, then multiplied it by some constant k, then subtracted from the result the value j times x, j being another constant, then stored all of that back in the data registers, and repeated the process ad infinitum.”

“I don’t quite see your point here, Bob. I must confess that I’m rather confused.”

“That is because you’re not thinking about things correctly. Okay, I’ll give you a hint. What would a system such as the one I’ve described represent?”

“Some mathematical function, I think.”

“Go up one more level of abstraction.”

“What do you mean? There are no other levels of abstraction in this system. Either it is a system consisting of electrons darting from atom to atom in a silicon circuit, or it is an abstract mathematical system. There is nothing else!”

“Ah, but you’re wrong on that account! For, think about physical laws!”

“What about physical laws?”

“Are they not just a higher level of abstraction than pure mathematics?”

“Hm…no, I don’t believe they are.”

“I think our definitions of ‘abstraction’ may differ. For now, I’m defining ‘abstraction’ to mean ‘representation,’ or something to that effect.”

“Ah, I see. Well, given that definition, I suppose I’d have to agree: physical laws could be seen as a third level of abstraction.”

“Right. Now, back to my imaginary circuit. Think about what its third level of abstraction would be.”

Alice thought for a moment, and then her face lit up.

“Aha! It seems to be the equations of motion for an accelerating projectile subject to air resistance!”

“Very good!”

“But what was the point of the whole exercise?”
“Be patient! I was coming to that! Now, couldn’t one argue – rather convincingly – that in many ways, the creation of this circuit has also brought into existence an accelerating projectile subject to air resistance?”

“No, I don’t think so. The projectile is not real, it’s merely an abstract representation, created by us, its conscious observers.”

“I’ll ignore your little play on the definition of ‘abstraction’ there, for the moment. So, you say that the circuit’s ‘higher-level’ meaning as an accelerating projectile exists only in the minds of us, its conscious observers?”

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

“Well, you’ve stumbled right into my philosophical trap, then! For, is not the mind itself little more than a circuit, similar to (but, of course, infinitely more complicated than) the circuit we are discussing?” Alice looked blindsided for a moment, then recovered.

“The mind is something different. Your little circuit is fixed in time. It cannot observe itself nor rewire itself. The brain can.”

“Ah, yes, but, still, on the cellular level, is not the brain only a ‘system of electrons darting from atom to atom in a biological circuit’, as you said before?” Alice looked as though she had been physically struck.

“Oh, dear…I believe that’s checkmate…Hm…”

“Yes, you see? There can exist such abstractions, the mind being the primary one!” Alice knitted her brow while her toe fidgeted with a pebble.

“Okay, I concede that such abstractions are possible in our Universe. But since our observation is necessary to bring these abstractions – such as the one of the projectile in your nice little argument a moment ago – to light.”

“Ah, I was hoping you’d try to wiggle free in that way, for I have the perfect rebuttal!”

“And what’s that?”

“Imagine a computer, a huge computer. As big as the Earth, if you like, or bigger. It has memory cells for the storage of data, and processors for the computation of the effects of physical laws. Now, furthermore, let’s say that this computer is running a program that simulates the interaction of a huge number of elementary particles, based on physical laws that are the same as those in this Universe.”

“All right, I follow you so far.”

“Right. Now, let’s further suppose that this computer was allowed to run long enough that the Computed Universe experienced the Big Bang, the formation of ‘normal’ matter, the coalescence of stars and galaxies, and the formation of planets, and all the requisite molecules of life. And then, let’s assume that life does indeed begin in this Computed Universe, and that it evolves to the point where it has developed something like a complex nervous system – what resemblance it actually bears to a nervous system is immaterial, it just must fulfill a very similar function. Then, through the slings and arrows of Darwinian evolution – you don’t disagree that Darwinian evolution would necessarily take place, do you?” Alice shook her head. She knew that evolution was a principle based merely on the idea that the more fit an organism is for its environment, the more likely it will be to be represented in the next generation, and this principle is completely ignorant of the material composition of what is actually evolving. “Good. Then, we have Darwinian evolution, and let’s assume that it produces self-aware organisms. Now, do we not have that ‘secret ingredient’ necessary to allow the universe to be viewed in an abstract way?” Alice was at a loss for words, and she had to work to keep her mouth from falling agape.”

“Oh dear…I seem to have argued myself into a corner…if I allow for the existence of conscious minds, then it seems that I must inevitably fall to your argument…” Bob looked rather satisfied with himself, but then Alice took on a very resolute expression. “Wait! Would not this giant computer still require the observation of its operators in order to see the abstract things – the conscious observers – that it represents?” Bob smiled knowingly, and Alice realized that he would soon deliver his finishing blow.

“No more than our Universe requires a godlike figure to observe it in order for ourselves to exist.” Alice nearly fell off the rock. Then, she steadied herself, and a smile crossed her lips.

“Ah, but you have forgotten your original claim! How can you claim that we live in a simulated Universe? All you have done is to prove that it is possible that we might be, not that it is inevitable, or even likely!” It was Bob’s turn to grin.

“I was waiting for you to recover, so that I could philosophically knock you down once more.” Alice feigned offense.

“Oh, you philosophical sadist!” They both had a good laugh, then Bob suddenly grew serious.

“Now, for the final blow!”

“I’m ready.”

“Let’s assume that some species in some Universe – simulated or not – created a computer simulation of a Universe. Suppose furthermore that that simulation was rich enough that observers – conscious entities – could arise within it. Then suppose that these Computed Observers created their own Computed Universes – for it seems inevitable that any such Universe-Computing race would compute more than one Universe – and within these Computed Computed Universes, Thrice-Computed Universes arose. This would continue until the ‘Nth-Time-Computed Universes’ became too small – for any Computed Universe must necessarily be smaller than the Universe in which it is computed – for conscious observers to arise. Despite this limitation, is it not obvious that there would be an immense hierarchy of simulated Universes for every ‘real’ Universe?” Alice nodded gravely, her defeat seeming imminent. “So, given the laws of probability, since there is such a hugely larger number of Computed Universes, compared to the original few ‘real’ ones, isn’t it much more likely that we find ourselves in a Computed Universe.” Alice sighed loudly, but then a glimmer of hope touched her countenance. After a few moments’ introspection, she smiled.

“Unless, of course, some of the current findings of cosmology prove true, and there is an infinite number of ‘real’ Universes!”

“I don’t follow.”

“Well, consider it! If there is an infinite number of ‘starter’ Universes – that is, ones that are not simulated – there would then be an infinity of Computed Universes, too, but only an infinity, since the mathematical laws of infinite numbers are so slippery. Then, the probability that we find ourselves in a Computed Universe is only one-half, since there is an equal number of both.” Bob looked flabbergasted.

“Oh, dear! I hadn’t even considered that! Excellent riposte, Alice!”

“Thank you!”

“But, wait! Suppose that instead of a finite hierarchy of Computed Universes, the hierarchy was infinite!”

“How would that even be possible.”

“Well, suppose that the infinite ‘starter set’ of Universes was itself simulated, and the Universe in which they were simulated was also simulated, and so on out to infinity!” Alice laughed. It was now her turn to be sadistic.

“But, Cantor showed that an infinity is an infinity. Even if an infinity of initial universes produced an infinity of simulated ones, their numbers would still be equal!” Bob seemed almost to deflate.

“Well, one could get around that by supposing that there is only a single Universe.”

“Not really.” Alice was now philosophizing at full steam, ready to make the kill. “Since, in an infinite Universe – which ours appears to be, based on telescopic observations – there will be regions too far apart to communicate, which are separated by the insurmountability of the speed of light, so that no information can ever pass between them. These regions might as well be separate Universes. This position would only be strengthened if the physical laws could vary from one such region to the next. No matter what you do, unless the Universe is closed and finite – which seems unlikely given the data – then we only have a fifty-percent chance of finding ourselves in a Computed Universe after all!”

Bob was silent for a long time, his head bowed. Then, he began to emit a peculiar rhythmic sound, a little repetitive squeaking. Concerned that he might actually be weeping, Alice leaned in to comfort him, but then the squeaking erupted into chuckling, then into uproarious laughter. Alice was confused.

“What’s so amusing?” Bob stopped laughing, shot her an impish grin, and extended his hand. In his palm was a coin. Alice joined in his laughter, and said, “If it comes up heads, we’re living in a real Universe…otherwise…”