Thursday, February 13, 2014

Computers, bodies, and Star Trek

Inspirations for today's post include the Star Trek: TOS Episode "By Any Other Name" and "Turing's Cathedral" (February's book club read, finished the Audiobook on Sunday).

Essentially, each has me thinking about the relationship between brain/body (and, I suppose something like soul/personality/essence), and the ways those relationships distinguish us from computers.

In "By Any Other Name", the Enterprise is taken over by powerful aliens who create human bodies to accomplish the hijacking.  (Total aside - Spock does a LOT of Magic in this episode, all of it basically irrelevant).  The aliens are highly intelligent, rational, and equipped with a superweapon, so they have no problem taking over the ship, but they're unaccustomed to human bodies.  Kirk is seductive, Bones injects drugs, Scottie introduces the delightful effects of alcohol, and the aliens find themselves defeated and transformed.  Embodied humanity, in this narrative, is more than the sum of thought processes.

In the exact same episode, the aliens dispose of the rest of the crew by transforming them into fragile crystals.  Their body, memories, and personality, the leader of the aliens informs Kirk, are maintained and preserved in this form.  Embodied humanity, in this narrative, can be fully known and encapsulated in some static form, irrespective of environment.  (Another aside, the moment in which Kirk rushes through his ship encountering these crystals might have been affecting and tragic if the camera had held on for a few extra moments).

Meanwhile, most of the way through Turing's Cathedral the question of the relationship between computers and biology has cropped up in a few places.  One contrast is between a calculating machine that fundamentally acts one step at a time (and therefore places a great deal of importance on clock speed) compared to a biological process acting within an environmental continuum.  Another important distinction is between early computers, with unreliable parts but generally uncomplicated & debuggable operations, modern computers with generally reliable parts but highly complex and unreliable operations, and biological processes that occur in environments with unreliable parts and highly complex/unreliable operations.  The gap between a computer and an organism, and therefore the types of processes and correction methods that each uses, is actually vast and fundamental.

This distinction between body and mind has a long tradition in at least Western philosophy (one which I'm hopelessly unqualified to survey or comment on), but the general notion of an ability to separate these two, perhaps joining them via some ineffable "soul", "spirit" or "identity"is appealing and in some ways intuitive.  The potential for artificial intelligence, for a truly deterministic universe, weather control, and artificial life seems tantalizingly close the more these two elements of our self seem distinguishable.

The more that I read about computers, biology, and particularly neurology, though, the more convinced I am that this apparent distinction is dangerous and misleading.  Our bodies are not supercomputers stuck inside a collection of tendons and bones.  (We're not Krang!)  We're embodied in an analog (continuous) universe.  Computers are really cool.  So are people, but we are embodied in (and embody within us) a vast and complex ecosystem that proceeds steadily, not via the ticks of a clock.

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