Enchanted mechanisms of life

18 January 2021
18 Jan 2021

This is an excerpt from today’s issue of my weekly newsletter.

The universe began as an enormous breath being held. Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I’m glad it did, because I owe my existence to that fact. All my desires and ruminations are no more and no less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe. And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on.

In the short story Exhalation, Ted Chiang tells the tale of a scientist in a civilization of mechanical beings, powered by a supply of pressurized air supplied from deep underground. The scientist who tells us of this air-powered world learns upon a self-dissection of his brain that his thoughts are powered by delicate mechanisms in his brain constructed with thousands of thin gold leaves, vibrating and waving together in distinct patterns, powered by the air he breathes in. To him, and to all the other golden beings of his world, thoughts are merely gold leaves fluttering in ephemeral formations in the wind. A mechanical miracle reflecting dreams into motion like clockwork.

Sir Charles Sherrington draws quite a different image of the human brain in Man on his Nature. He describes a brain waking from sleep:

The great topmost sheet of the mass, that where hardly a light had twinkled or moved, becomes now a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points with trains of traveling sparks hurrying hither and thither. The brain is waking and with it the mind is returning. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.

Now the brain is a great programmable loom, shuttles weaving patterns back and forth in ephemeral strokes upon the textiles of time.

Today, we have artificial brains of a different flavor, AI systems like MuZero that replicate the capabilities of intelligence with pure information flowing across silicon—intelligence as a symptom of mathematics. Images and thoughts manifest as probabilities and matrices of numbers encoded into electric pulses. Perhaps this is the way we’ll finally build mechanical analogues that match the power of our minds, perhaps not. But if not, it seems clear to me that we’ll continue imagining new mechanisms for consciousness until we discover the source of the magic that drives all of this. All of our experience, our memory, our dreams.

The wind-powered mechanical scientist closes his story with this—

Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss. The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you.

Today, I relish in the miracle that is the enchanted loom, the fluttering clockwork of golden leaves, the electric dreams that flow across the silicon in my brain. And I stare in fascination at our aspiration to build these enchanted mechanisms of life ourselves.

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