Thursday, September 29, 2005

Consciousness

Read this interesting article about human learning abilities today. I continue to be amazed by the capabilities of human consciousness. Now, I know that this is not my field of expertise; but over the course of my readings I have become deeply amazed and interested in the studies about "consciousness". Consciousness is that illusory something which gives us the awareness that we exist. That same something probably is also the reason that we are aware of being aware. Gets a bit complicated soon, doesn't it? This article gives me hope not be deterred. Apparently a lot of scientist are trying to figure it out too!

The first time I came across different ideas about consciousness was when I read the books 'The Tao of Physics' and then 'The Web of Life', both by Fritjof Capra. To learn more, I read Roger Penrose's amazing book 'The Emperor's New Mind'. Now I want to read Ray Kurzweil's books 'The Age of Intelligent Machines' and 'The Age of Spiritual Machines'.

There are many pieces of this puzzle I guess, starting with "What is thinking?", leading to "what is the mind?" and ending with "what is consciousness?"; with a whole host of other things to figure out before a complete picture can emerge. I am most intrigued by the idea of consciousness being an "emergent property" of the body (not just the brain). The idea is that our sense organs, the nervous system and the brain form a network. An emergent property is something that emerges out of the multitude of small local interactions between the various nodes of the network. So consciousness is something that we feel when this whole network is working and exchanging signals back and forth. Surprisingly we are also aware that we are aware.

Taking this to the next level then, will consciousness emerge spontaneously if a certain level of complexity is established? Imagine the consequences. Cars have become incredibly complex these days and will keep getting even more complex. Someday there will be numerous sensors on the car feeding information to a central computer. The computer will be much more complex than the one on which I am working right now. (its already a Pentium 500MHz dinosaur!). There will be sensors to steer and drive the car, to detect problems before they arise in the engine and transmission, to operate the A/c system and a whole host of other things. Imagine if one day you take the car to the shop to get it installed with a new sensor and suddenly you realize that consciousness has emerged! At this point the car will be able to be consciously aware of its own existence!

You may want to be elated at first, now that the Age of Spiritual Machines has arrived. But imagine the problems this may cause. The car will have feelings and emotions. On a cold, wet day it may feel like not starting up at all when you will be in a hurry to get to work. It may be jealous of the shiny new Corvette parked beside it in the parking lot. It may be angry and grumpy if you miss an oil change or don't take it to the car wash. May be it will take itself to the car wash whenever it is in a mood for a shower. The newly conscious cars may rally against the destruction of the old "unconscious" cars and may declare them to be endangered species.

Somehow the idea that human beings could someday be able to create "conscious" machines seems a bit frightening to me. My fear is not about some "Matrix" like scenario where the machines take over. We aren't doing half a good job of taking care of all the sentient beings that exist naturally right now! Imagine a day when we add to that, sentient being created by "us".

We have come a long way from hunting the saber toothed tiger with clubs and rocks, largely due to our wisdom. However, I don't think that our capacity to use our wisdom wisely has evolved all that much. We still use our brains to do as many stupid things as good. So it would be good if some things are left for nature to do on its own.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Blog Finds

Recently NYTimes stopped free access to a lot of good things on their website. If you want to read the columns online you need to subscribe to TimesSelect. Since this stopped my access to the daily dose of opinion on their website... I was forced to look at other places. There is an opinion that too much "opinion" stanchs free thinking. I don't really agree with that. Isn't pretty much everything we read somebody else's opinion? So I set out to find other places where I could have a healthy and nutritious "schmeal".

I hadn't warmed up to the idea of regularly following blogs till now. The blog search engines were not (and in my opinion still aren't) as good as they should be in my opinion. But I decided to give blogs a try anyway. So I went around searching for some good reads. I have to say that the so called "blogosphere" is really a tangled mess, a jungle if you will. The probability of finding good blogs (or blogs you may like) is equal or less than that of finding really crappy ones. Inspite of this I came across some really cool finds. Here's a sprinkling...

GreenThinkers I think is a cool blog... a bunch of people posting things about green technologies i.e anything that would help you lead a more sustainable lifestyle (from composting toilets to hybrid cars). Some posts are really interesting... e.g the one today about the problem of "pee bombs" on US highways. Fun stuff and educational too.

I was trying to find blogs about India or blogs by other desis (an Indian term for another Indian here in the US) like me. I first came across India Uncut by Amit Varma... which I thought was good. On Amit's blog I found this link to Arzan's blog. Arzan, it turns out, has figured out a solution to those nasty "smashits" and "bollywoodnow" popups which neither IE nor Firefox can block on their own. Thanks Arzan! You need to use an extension called Adblock (which works really well) inspite of having an inbuilt popup blocker in Firefox. You can read Arzan's post on how to do it. Thanks to Amit Varma... I found some more cool blogs like this one by Megha and few more like Sepia Mutiny and The Acorn, which I would like to keep track of henceforth.

Atanu Dey's blog on Deeshaa is great. I really liked his posts. Do check out a couple of his posts on Tom Friedman's book "The World is Flat" (about outsourcing etc.). I also liked Atanu's essay on India's education system. It makes a lot of sense. I guess it applealed so much because I am a product of that system. The biggest catch of the day was this story by Jean Giorno posted on Atanu's blog... awesome!

I realized that I might have just touched the tip of the iceberg. I can't imagine how many more good blogs may be out there. I think I might have finally found an inexhaustible source of "hot air" for my daily consumption and its FREE! Take that! NYT... even if I can afford to cough up 50 bucks a year... I don't think I will ever subscribe to TimeSelect.

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Monday, September 26, 2005

Punctuation mark

The occurrence of a tragic event, in my own life or with someone I know... a close friend or a relative, is like a punctuation mark or more like a stop sign on a road in the middle of nowhere. Once in a while events occur which shake you thoroughly and make you stop and think about the validity of everything...the way to lead your life, your thoughts, beliefs, values... everything!!!

There are many facets to my reaction to such events... beginning with disbelief. It's as if the mind is not ready to accept the fact that such a thing could happen. Every once in a while there are these bolts of disbelief going through the mind saying, "No! This has not happened!" or asking, "Has this really happened...or is this just a bad dream or something?" Even days or weeks after the event I sometimes find myself facing this disbelief. It's as if a part of my mind forgot to walk into the future after such an event.

The worst feeling about such episodes is when there is very little that I can do physically to help. It is sometimes a cause of great frustration to me. Anger, I feel at such times, is futile; although perfectly justified in most cases. All that I can possibly do is hope for the best, pray and send my compassion and good wishes to the person.

Such experiences have always made me think about my own "lifestyle". I strongly believe in the wisdom that everything is connected as Chief Seattle said:
This we know...everything is connected, like the blood that unites a family. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons and daughters or earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web... he does to himself.
I feel that solving problems that the whole society faces requires every member to think how he or she is contributing to the problem. We are very quick to blame individuals as the cause of trouble. If not we tend to point the finger towards a group. Hardly ever do we look at ourselves and ask "could it be that something I am doing... or not doing... is contributing to this problem?". I feel it is very important for me to ask this question to myself repeatedly. When I look deeply I find that for every problem that I think of as being "out there"... there are connections leading back to me, my lifestyle or my thinking.

I found myself thinking like this yesterday when I heard that a horrible tragedy had befallen a friend. Once again I realized that there are many ways in which I may be contributing to the problems, which caused great harm to my friend... directly or indirectly as a member of the society. I feel it's my duty to start making my contribution to the solution. I have been reading a lot about Buddhism lately. I feel that Thich Nhat Hanh's 5 mindfulness trainings really capture the essence of this thinking. Each mindfulness training is a reminder: "Don't be a part of the problem... be a part of the solution."

I personally have found that meditating on this thought and trying to be a part of the solution gives me the much needed "outlet" from the whirlpool of emotions that such events stir up in my mind. It cures the frustration a bit and lessens the intensity of the bolts of disbelief. While sincerely hoping and praying for the well being of my friend, I find myself praying also for the strength and wisdom to stop being a part of the problem... and look deeply at the problem... and look deeply at my own life and change the things which I feel could contribute to the problem.

Sending all my good wishes and prayers to my friend today...