"Could a quantum computer have subjective experience?" by Scott Aaronson

People who are into physics and follow blogs actively have surely ran into MIT physicist Scott Aaronson, probably most well known for his critiques of the alleged D-Wave quantum computer. More recently, Scott has been writing a lot about consciousness, but his latest post – prepared talk notes from the Quantum Foundations of a Classical Universe meeting – is a real doozy. It's a long read but well worth the trouble.

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For and against connectome-ism

The concept of a connectome has been often featured in the media during the past year. The idea is that rather than looking at our genome as determining who we are, what we actually should be looking is our connectome – the totality of all the connections between all the neurons in our brain. Sebastian Seung has been particularly visible in promoting the idea and research into figuring out how we could map the whole connectome (listen to the Science Weekly podcast, and see his TED talk). Although everyone agrees that the connections in the brain are a crucial piece of the puzzle of how our minds work, this vision has been criticized as too simplistic:

A human brain connectome would undoubtedly be useful. Given the staggering complexity of the human brain, however, it would arguably teach us even less about ourselves than the nematode connectome has about its behaviour. What's more, we now know that the brain continuously "rewires" itself in response to experience, by altering its connections, and perhaps making news ones and breaking older ones, countless times every second. A static connectivity map would, therefore, tell us nothing about these organizational changes. We would, therefore, need multiple connectomes for each individual to take these changes into account.

If this were the case, and just mapping the connections gives as practically nothing, it clearly has implications for transhumanist ideas of creating artificial minds and uploading our consciousness to artifical systems. These of course have long been Ray Kurzweil's forte, and he happens to have a new book on this topic just coming out, succintly named "How to create a mind". No reviews out yet, but I'd definitely keep an eye out for the more critical voices just to proof oneself against confirmation bias.

Biotech and transhumanism links

Although I am certainly partial to the physical sciences due to my background, biotechnology is starting to be increasingly amazing. Scientists and doctors can design, repair, and manipulate cells and organs in ever more sophisticated ways. Consider these recent examples: Organs Tailor-Made With Body’s Own Cells Human Muscle, Regrown on Animal Scaffolding Human embryonic stem cells could help to treat deafness

Of course, any discussion on the topic shouldn't omit the work on fully synthetic cells – combined with the exponentially increasing ability to design DNA sequences it's clear this is a research direction with legs.

Scientists learning to program "synthetic life" with DNA 'Artificial life' breakthrough announced by scientists

Two significant parallel developments in my view are cybernetic augmentation (I would jump to the chance to get AR contacts!) and so-called 'smart drugs', as recently featured in Wired UK's Transhumanism week series of articles and elsewhere:

Engineers take first step towards augmented-reality contact lenses Smart drugs to 'moral enhancement': a chemical approach to transhumanism Advanced robot hand enables cybernetic augmentation

News like these keep rolling in and keep fascinating me – truly we live in interesting times.