Once you start poking around in the muck of consciousness studies, you will soon encounter the specter of Sir Roger Penrose, the renowned Oxford physicist with an audacious--and quite possibly crackpot--theory about the quantum origins of consciousness. He believes we must go beyond neuroscience and into the mysterious world of quantum mechanics to explain our rich mental life. No one quite knows what to make of this theory, developed with the American anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, but conventional wisdom goes something like this: Their theory is almost certainly wrong, but since Penrose is so brilliant ("One of the very few people I've met in my life who, without reservation, I call a genius," physicist Lee Smolin has said), we'd be foolish to dismiss their theory out of hand. Penrose, 85, is a mathematical physicist who made his name decades ago with groundbreaking work in general relativity and then, working with Stephen Hawking, helped conceptualize black holes and gravitational singularities, a point of infinite density out of which the universe may have formed. He also invented "twistor theory," a new way to connect quantum mechanics with the structure of spacetime. His discovery of certain geometric forms known as "Penrose tiles"--an ingenious design of non-repeating patterns--led to new directions of study in mathematics and crystallography. The breadth of Penrose's interests is extraordinary, which is evident in his recent book Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe--a dense 500-page tome that challenges some of the trendiest but still unproven theories in physics, from the multiple dimensions of string theory to cosmic inflation in the first moment of the Big Bang.
Artificial intelligence hasn't taken over the world ... yet. But while humans can still outperform computers on most high-level intelligence tasks, at this point most people would concede the game of chess to the machines. The best chess-playing computer programs can already school just about any average human player, and they've proven capable of beating our grandmasters too. But maybe there's still some hope for us, even when it comes to chess. Scientists with the Penrose Institute have devised a unique chess problem that's fairly simple for humans to solve, but which seems to irreparably stump even the most sophisticated of chess programs.
A chess problem could help scientists finally unravel whether quantum theory can explain human consciousness. Sir Roger Penrose created the puzzle to prove the human mind can never be matched by a computer because it exhibits quantum effects. This means the brain doesn't follow the rules for the classical properties of matter, like a computer. Instead, it follows for a new concept of matter altogether that leaves cracks for consciousness and intuition to appear. Now, the Oxford university professor, who has set up a new institute, has invited everyday puzzle enthusiasts to pit their wits against the problem to test his theory.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Seven Pines Symposium on Fundamental Problems in Physics outside Minneapolis, where I had the honor of participating in a panel discussion with Sir Roger Penrose. The way it worked was, Penrose spoke for a half hour about his ideas about consciousness (Gödel, quantum gravity, microtubules, uncomputability, you know the drill), then I delivered a half-hour "response," and then there was an hour of questions and discussion from the floor. Below, I'm sharing the prepared notes for my talk, as well as some very brief recollections about the discussion afterward. I unfortunately don't have the text or transparencies for Penrose's talk available to me, but--with one exception, which I touch on in my own talk--his talk very much followed the outlines of his famous books, The Emperor's New Mind and Shadows of the Mind. Admittedly, for regular readers of this blog, not much in my own talk will be new either. Apart from a few new wisecracks, almost all of the material (including the replies to Penrose) is contained in The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine, Could A Quantum Computer Have Subjective Experience? (my talk at IBM T. J. Watson), and Quantum Computing Since Democritus chapters 4 and 11. See also my recent answer on Quora to "What's your take on John Searle's Chinese room argument"? Still, I thought it might be of interest to some readers how I organized this material for the specific, unenviable task of debating the guy who proved that our universe contains spacetime singularities. The Seven Pines Symposium was the first time I had extended conversations with Penrose (I'd talked to him only briefly before, at the Perimeter Institute). At age 84, Penrose's sight is failing him; he eagerly demonstrated the complicated optical equipment he was recently issued by Britain's National Health Service. But his mind remains … well, may we all aspire to be a milliPenrose or even a nanoPenrose when we're 84 years old.