Monday, August 4, 2008

Humanity 2.0 – It’s the Software, Stupid

A truly thought provoking video on TED is headlined: Kwabena Boahen: Making a computer that works like the brain. Boahen is a computer scientist who actually grew up Ghana, where he was fortunate enough to get a computer as a child; in the video he quotes a fellow researcher Brian Eno who said in 1995, “The problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them.”

Boahen takes that to mean more creative conception of computer hardware, and proposes a restructuring of the CPU along the lines of neural networks to permit more efficient processing of information.

What I find incredible is that neither Boahen, with his fresh viewpoint on computer science from his unique perspective, nor seemingly any of the speakers at TED (with the possible exception of Jill Bolte Taylor’s “My stroke of insight” – a phenomenal investigation of neuroscience of mystical proportions) make any attempt to truly grasp the significance of the analogies between advances in computing and the human brain.

More specifically, if we can use Biblical language allegorically, it seems clear that consciously, subconsciously or indeed completely unconsciously we’ve created computers in our own image.

In my humble opinion, there is deep meaning to this, and indeed the birth of the computer and with it the Internet are major potential milestones in the evolution of our species – perhaps to a Humanity 2.0 – but only if we grasp their essential meaning.

What do I mean?

To my mind the missing dimension to all comparisons between the human brain, neuroscience and the computer is the incredible avoidance of these endeavors to acknowledge the key component of all computers – namely software.

From the amazing description of an apple as an application that can be genetically reprogrammed by Juan Enriquez (again on TED) to Boahen’s concept of a chip based on neural networks no scientist seems comfortable venturing into the area that is the very key to understanding any computer system: what program is running and where did it come from?

In the scientific community this is relegated to “soft” sciences – psychology, sociology and perhaps philosophy – but it is remarkably absent, or so it seems to me, as a matter of serious inquiry, in the fields of genetics or neuroscience.

Evolution is the obvious "scientific" answer to such questions – and that’s fine – but we need to recognize that if we exist in a universe of cause and effect laws, the process that we term evolution is very unlikely to be the result of haphazard chance or accident. It is too well programmed for that.

Clearly, if the brain is the basis for our development of the computer and then the Internet -- the issue of what may be the “operating system” and what sorts of software it is running are probably the most significant issues facing us if we are to understand its true functions.

From the first personal computer I ever purchased, this was the key point: what was I going to use it for (its purpose) and then, which programs did I expect to run. In my case I would never have bought my first Eagle if I could not run a program called WordStar and write screenplays of questionable quality.

And even now I would never invest in a new computer, or load a new operating system (sorry Vista) unless I was confident that the tasks I intended to perform could be effectively completed by the software I intended to run.

The problem, of course, is that as soon as you begin to speculate on software in the brain you come across two potentially troublesome terms – either “Mind” or “Consciousness” become unavoidable factors.

Science refuses to seriously address these two concepts (except in the “soft” sciences) because they do not easily yield solely (or soul-ly) to data analysis and require deeper investigation and thought.

Indeed in the realm of quantum mechanics, the key component of the observer as a critical aspect of any phenomena that can be investigated on the subatomic level has already presented this same barrier – the presence of an embodied mind or consciousness it seems effectively determines the observable data and without an observer the result either doesn’t exist or as Heisenberg suggested, it is in reality uncertain. To our materialistically oriented mentality uncertain data doesn’t really qualify as data at all.

But I digress. When as I wrote before, Juan Enriquez describes both the computing power necessary to decode (sequence) the genome, and the ability of our geneticists to reprogram what has been discovered (and yet not create it out of nothing), this begs the question: Where did the program come from and what about the immense scale of its apparent complexity?

If you consider the brain or genetic material hardware only – as seemingly inanimate things – then certainly it could have evolved over eons from other inanimate things – perhaps stimulated by electrical energy when it is perceived as yet another inanimate thing.

But if you remain true to the computer model then there has to be an investigation of the true nature of software, both as we know it and as it has apparently come to exist in nature itself.
Taking the analogy a bit further, perhaps simplistically, but truly sincerely, we can see that for example, Microsoft Word, the evolutionary offspring of WordStar, the software for which I purchased my original Eagle, is the result of only one thing – human ingenuity and a meeting of thousands of Minds.

It could not exist otherwise.

The zeroes and ones that constitute the program that is Word or was WordStar were created by human minds with a purpose: to communicate more efficiently and connect human minds through language, sound and images.

The Internet evolved similarly, out of a human capacity for creating a system of programs that could connect us electronically – but the Internet too would never exist just to constitute a network of cables or wireless connections.

The Internet as hardware would never have evolved.

It exists only to move messages and meaning.

So again, working backwards, if the model for all of this is our own brain, and by extension, our nervous system and even our more automatic or autonomic physiology that is programmed genetically – we probably need to ask – what’s the software?

Unfortunately if we ask this question sincerely, answers do not come easily, and they are open to much debate, but at least they are the result of serious questions and not the obvious and deliberate avoidance of deeper issues.

My own suggestion would only be a self conscious pointer in two possible directions where we might look for more answers.

First inside ourselves, because deep self examination of one’s own programming is the only real access we currently have to our software. Observing others is possible at this point only in terms of their outward manifestations, verbal descriptions, and the data of brainwaves which is at present inconclusive in terms of that troublesome concept: meaning.

The second direction might be the same road some aspects of quantum physics have taken – namely East. The descriptions of meditative states and the reality of consciousness described by Eastern thought seems to dovetail nicely with the observations or “data” of quantum physicists, to their everlasting dismay.

The apparently dualistic state of light as simultaneously both wave and particle phenomena is a real paradox, just as we might argue about the “cause” or primogenitor of evolution.

It is quite possible that both neuroscience, and very likely astrophysics and astronomy, will have to be led kicking and screaming into both of these new directions – directing their investigations inside ourselves as organisms comprised of hardware (physiology) and software (essence, spirit, soul or mind) -- with a perspective broadened by the meditative practices of the East.

Only then will we perhaps be receptive to a download from somewhere or an upgrade of something that we ultimately evolve into Humanity 2.0, or failing to connect successfully and log in to something higher -- our species may degenerate into a lower life form, or become extinct, like WordStar and the Eagle computer.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Whose PC Is It Anyway?

Has this happened to you? You return to your Vista PC and find that either the screensaver is running or you have the log on screen on your monitor, and you realize that the computer has rebooted in your absence?

If all you have to do is log back in, it’s a mild inconvenience but it’s still a bit creepy…

But if after you log in, your entire desktop is GONE? That happened to me recently. Being fairly experienced, I located the actual files in my Desktop folder under my user name, so I knew the data was safe. But suddenly Vista had given me a whole new blank desktop with the default wallpaper.

And, for good measure, when I opened my browser, I found that my start page was back on MSN and my history was gone. Cool, huh?

Obviously this was the result of an update, necessitated by Microsoft’s well founded security concerns.

But it’s a lot like the manager of my building coming into my apartment and rearranging the furniture while I’m gone – or locking the doors and windows.

I don’t like it, and combined with the other inconveniences of Vista, I’m sure lots of other people don’t like it either.

What are those other inconveniences? They are too numerous to mention but how about incompatible hardware and software, new CD and DVD formats that don’t work, and interminable file transfer times?

What makes it worse is that as always, there are no solutions. I recently had a data dump, otherwise known as the blue screen of death, and when Windows returned I was told it had recovered from a serious error (it had used System Restore – the same way I got my desktop back from the other incident) and did I want to know more details…

Sure I clicked Yes, figuring I’d get the usual inscrutable information that told me nothing but this time NOTHING is exactly what I got. Nada. Zilch. No explanation whatsoever is available for a “serious error.”

How long has Windows had a blue screen problem – how about EVERY INCARNATION? Maybe it’s impossible to correct given the disparate hardware on which the platform is located, but how about providing a clear and understandable EXPLANATION of how it happens and what you can do to recover?

Here is what I mean by clear and understandable. NOT “you had a fatal error or system exception at memory base 4M60XQIC0M;’T.XOM.”
No – here is what I mean: the last program you used was _____________________________.
When you clicked ___________________________ it conflicted with ______________________.
To prevent this from happening you should uninstall ______________________________ or reconfigure ______________________________.
Alternatively you could delete _________________________ from StartUp under MSConfig.

System Restore is nice but scary. It’s like you’re waiting for the patient to come out of the ER. And there is no chance to talk to the surgeon afterwards – “Oh, we took out some malware and now the system is fine.”

I would feel a whole lot better with a clear and concise explanation of using System Recovery and Safe Mode – I know they exist but they are documented only for IT professionals. When a “normal” user crashes he may as well invoke a voodoo chant to get his system back.

It is wholly inexcusable for Vista to reboot and destroy your desktop on the one hand, requiring System Recovery, and provide no clearly understandable information on how to protect your system or bring it back from a data dump.

"Windows 7" promises a whole host of new features, including a touch screen "coffee table" interface -- I have a better idea, how about an understandable, reliable system that just works consistently?