Belief is a special kind of human power. Agustin Fuentes, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame, eloquently claims as much in his recent book Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being. It's the "most prominent, promising, and dangerous capacity humanity has evolved," he writes, the power to "see and feel and know something--an idea, a vision, a necessity, a possibility, a truth--that is not immediately present to the senses, and then to invest, wholly and authentically, in that'something' so that it becomes one's reality." A great example of this is the widespread and intuitive idea that we have free will. Most people grow up with the notion that they are, in some sense, responsible for their thoughts and actions because, unlike animals, humans can think about their choices.
I'm trying to explain to Arthur I. Miller why artworks generated by computers don't quite do it for me. The works aren't a portal into another person's mind, where you can wander in a warren of intention, emotion, and perception, feeling life being shaped into form. What's more, it often seems, people just ain't no good, so it's transcendent to be reminded they can be. Art is one of the few human creations that can do that. No matter how engaging the songs or poems that a computer generates may be, they ultimately feel empty. They lack the electricity of the human body, the hum of human consciousness, the connection with another person. Miller, a longtime professor, a gentleman intellect, dressed in casual black, is listening patiently, letting me have my say.
One autumn afternoon in the bowels of UC Berkeley's Li Ka Shing Center, I was looking at my brain. I had just spent 10 minutes inside the 3 Tesla MRI scanner, the technical name for a very expensive, very high maintenance, very magnetic brain camera. Lying on my back inside the narrow tube, I had swallowed my claustrophobia and let myself be enveloped in darkness and a cacophony of foghorn-like bleats. At the time I was a research intern at UC Berkeley's Neuroeconomics Lab. That was the first time I saw my own brain from an MRI scan. It was a grayscale, 3-D reconstruction floating on the black background of a computer screen. As an undergraduate who studied neuroscience, I was enraptured. There is nothing quite like a young scientist's first encounter with an imaging technology that renders the hitherto invisible visible--magnetic resonance imaging took my breath away. I felt that I was looking not just inside my body, but into the biological recesses of my mind. It was a strange self-image, if indeed it was one.
For this reason, the best question of all would likely be that of the hard problem itself: Why does consciousness even exist? Why do you experience qualia while processing input from the world around you? If this question makes any sense to the AI, then we've likely found artificial consciousness. But if the AI clearly doesn't understand concepts such as "consciousness" and "qualia," then evidence for an inner mental life is lacking. Building a consciousness detector is no small undertaking.
Time travel has been a beloved science-fiction idea at least since H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1895. The concept continues to fascinate and fictional approaches keep coming, prodding us to wonder whether time travel is physically possible and, for that matter, makes logical sense in the face of its inscrutable paradoxes. Remarkably, last year saw both a science-fiction film that illuminates these questions, and a real scientific result, spelled out in the journal, Classical and Quantum Gravity,1 that may point to answers. The film is writer-director Christopher Nolan's attention-getting Tenet. Like other time travel stories, Tenet uses a time machine.
After I got my second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a wave of euphoria infused me along with the modified messenger RNA. Many friends describe the same feeling. This is the end of the pandemic for me. But then my usual, pessimistic view of life returned along with an examination of the evidence. There is no question the development of the vaccines is a monumental achievement of science.
I could stridently insist that natural selection is the only way that complex life can evolve, but that's not strictly true. We can already design computers that can learn and reason and--almost--convince an observer that their behavior might be human. It's not unreasonable that in 100 or 200 years, our computer systems will be effectively sentient: human-like robots, similar to Star Trek's Commander Data. Alien civilizations that are considerably more advanced than us are likely already capable of such creations. The possibility--likelihood, even--of such robotic life has implications for our predictions about life on alien planets.
There are many ways to think about alien, extraterrestrial life forms. Science-fiction writers do it all the time. Scientists, more interested in nonfiction, think about how to receive signals that real aliens might send, as well as what sort of signals we might send to "them." SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is a real, ongoing project, with a real budget overseen by real researchers. Others partner with biochemists and evolutionary biologists to investigate how life might have begun on Earth and whether, and under what circumstances, it could also exist elsewhere in the universe. But not many scientists have gone beyond to speculate on what alien life might actually, seriously, genuinely be like. One exception is Arik Kershenbaum, a zoologist at Cambridge University, whose recent book, The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy, might remind readers of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The Zoologist's Guide, though, is definitely science and not fiction.
Life seems to be tied to bioelectricity at every level. The late electrophysiologist and surgeon Robert Becker spent decades researching the role of the body's electric fields in development, wound healing, and limb regrowth. His 1985 book, The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life, was a fascinating deep dive into how the body is electric through and through--despite our inability to see or sense these fields with our unaided senses. But Becker's work was far from complete. One scientist who has taken up Becker's line of inquiry is Michael Levin.
It's a bit of a bummer that dreams are as fascinating as they are hard and expensive to study. Famed psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung may have made big names for themselves mining the meaning and significance of our dreams, but even today, with powerful brain-monitoring technology, it's tough to get a handle on what, exactly, is going on. Researchers, if they wait to wake up their subjects from sleep in the morning, have to contend with "rapid forgetting." A better method is to wake people up while they're dreaming, but this requires running a sleep lab, which doesn't offer that much of an advantage. The dreamers are groggy and still forgetful.