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I've been discovering Terrence McKenna over the past few weeks. I am finding his ideas to be fascinating, and his spoken delivery is utterly compelling. I haven’t given myself over to McKenna’s world view quite yet (note that I am not talking about his drug use--I believe meditation should be used instead of drugs to achieve trance-like states) ; but I am certainly digesting it and weighing it, and I know I’ll never think the same now that I've been exposed to his ideas. I recently watched one of his YouTube lectures called “Shamans Among the Machines” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gx6P6Nq8JoY). He seemed to be convinced that the so-called artificial intelligence “singularity” is inevitable. I read a book advancing the same notion by Ray Kurzweil called “The Age of Spiritual Machines”.
As a computer programmer, I’m not sure I agree that machines will achieve true consciousness. If one accepts that we will be able to model the human brain in silicon then I suppose there isn't a strong non-metaphysical argument against machine consciousness. But I believe I recently read that scientists have discovered another layer of complexity below the neuron. What if the brain is like a fractal construct of layered complexity down to the atomic level? On the other hand, the Dalai Lama has stated that he believes a “soul” could manifest through a sufficiently advanced machine.
Outside of the machine "clone" of a human brain, the problem I have is that I can’t conceive of any human writing software that could model our own consciousness. McKenna asserts that complex systems can exhibit spontaneous increases in “order”. I interpret this to mean that he believes that a consciousness might suddenly flicker to life within the aggregate of the internet. I just don’t see how that could happen given the deterministic nature of machines and software. I suppose neural networks functioning on a vast scale would leave the realm of human reckoning and could take that leap. But I don’t see the internet as a vast interconnection of neural networks yet. Maybe down the line. Microsoft’s new voice translation technology IS apparently using neural networks (http://readwrite.com/2012/11/09/microsoft-demos-a-star-trek-style-universal-translator-video)...
I think that as humans pursue A.I. it’s more likely that we will make asymptotic progress toward an A.I. passing the Turing test, but A.I. may never get “there”. I think cyborgs will be far more interesting—perhaps even the brain will be augmented. And then when the animal “meat” around it dies, perhaps we’ll be faced with the question of whether the remaining machinery, assuming it claims sentience, should really be considered so.
I've recently had a few days off to center myself and to write. They've been glorious despite being somewhat compromised by outside pressures. The good news is that I've officially started writing Hemlock Book III, and I'm feeling good about the direction it's heading in. The bad news is I didn't make as much progress as I had hoped I would. I will be shifting into a "mode" of writing more regularly now, so I still hope to have something ready early next year. It will probably be a shorter, cheaper installment than Book II. But if I wait until I have the entire arc for Book III done then I might not finish until 2014. And that seems unacceptable.