The Emperor's New Mind

Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics

[Amazon Link]

Another deep dive into the bookshelves to read something I should have read closer to the time I bought it (circa 1991, in this case). Fortunately, my Book Picker script is (very slowly) making me more disciplined. In this case, there's a certain amount of punishment involved, too, because this book was kind of painful to read.

The author, Roger Penrose has had a long and distinguished career in math and mathematical physics. He hasn't received a Nobel (neither did his occasional more famous collaborator, Stephen Hawking), but he's won pretty much everything else.

This book lays out his contention ("theory" is too strong a word) that human consciousness can not be adequately explained by a computational model; the mind is not simply a computer made of meat. He believes that, deep down, there's some quantum weirdness going on. Hence, no matter how "smart" artifical intelligence might become, it will never adequately model human intelligence.

Or something like that. Penrose seems likeable enough, but he is not a gifted writer. And I'm pretty sure, despite the lavish blurbs on the cover, that very few lay readers outside the rarefied field of mathematical physics have read this all the way through with understanding.

Suggestion, should you attempt it: read the Prologue and Chapter 1, about 29 pages, where he sets up the issues. Then skip ahead to Chapter 10 (about 45 pages) where he provides his interesting takes on the "physics of mind".

His Chapter 10 discussion is contentious, slightly hand-waving, but fun to read. It slightly depends on the intervening ~375 (!) pages, where Penrose lays out (an incomplete list): the Turing-machine theory of computability; lambda calculus; fractals; Gödel's theorem; classical mechanics; special and general relativity; quantum mechanics; statistical mechanics; cosmology; quantum gravity. And a basic discussion of brain physiology.

Let me be clear: if you had a decent understanding of these topics, you would be a very advanced undergraduate, probably graduate, student in computer science. And physics. And mathematics. There's no way you're going to pick this stuff up by reading 375 pages of Penrose prose.

Still, an admirable attempt. I can't (however) help but think it was quickly written to hitch onto Hawking's A Brief History of Time coattails, another book famous for having been bought but not read.

URLs du Jour


[Amazon Link]

  • I was amused/outraged by this Slashdot story: Alcohol Causes One In 20 Deaths Worldwide, Says WHO. [Says WHO? Says the World Health Organization, that's WHO.] Specifically, the very first sentence:

    Alcohol is responsible for more than 5% of all deaths worldwide or around 3 million a year, new figures have revealed.

    We live in a time when Serious People think (self-refutingly) that free will in human beings is an illusion. But a molecule can be held to be "responsible" for mass murder.

    Today's pic du jour: a hungover young lady fondles one of the usual suspects. "You're responsible for my headache!"

  • David Harsanyi in the Federalist: Democrats Go Full Authoritarian To Stop Brett Kavanaugh.

    Whatever happens to Brett Kavanaugh, Democrats have normalized yet another illiberal position in their pretend crusade to save the Constitution from Donald Trump.

    “Doesn’t Kavanaugh have the same presumption of innocence as anyone else in America?” CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono this past Sunday. “I put his denial in the context of everything that I know about him in terms of how he approaches his cases,” was her unexpectedly honest answer.

    One of the worst effects of Democrat behavior, from my perspective: It has made me feel cheering for the Republicans again. I hate that tribal instinct, but I nevertheless feel it.

  • Fortunately, Jason Brennan (one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians) reminds us of The Rules of Tribal Politics.

    Democracy is the rule of hooligans, and hooligans demand hooliganism from everyone else. Check Facebook, the news, the English department’s faculty meeting, or Twitter, and you’ll see that modern democracy is characterized by a tribalistic, neo-barbarian* ethics. Here are the rules of the game.

    1. You must take a side immediately.
    2. You must believe what your side says on the flimsiest of evidence.
    3. You must not question what your side says.
    4. You must prove your loyalty by taking ever more extreme versions of your side’s view.
    5. You must never notice hypocrisy on your side, but must find it everywhere on the other side.
    6. If the other side tries to reason with you in good faith, presume their explicit arguments are mere propaganda covering their dark beliefs and evil motives. 
    7. All evidence for your side is to be believed; all evidence against it is to be dismissed.
    8. You must denounce apostates, skeptics, and heretics to your side.
    9. People and cases are not to be judged on their individual merits, but on their membership in our tribe or theirs, and on the usefulness to our tribe of taking a stance one way or another.
    10. Nuanced analysis is forbidden.
    11. Anyone who repeats these 11 rules is to be denounced as a traitor and an apologist for evil.

    I was going to stop quoting after one or two, but…

  • At Reason, J.D. Tuccille writes on Google and Privatized Authoritarianism.

    Tech giants get a lot of well-deserved flack for playing at partisan politics, picking sides in policy disputes, and suppressing speech and ideas that don't fit well with their dominant political ideology—or promoting those that do. Even some of the companies' employees' find the internal culture stifling, such as the Facebook workers who recently derided the social media behemoth for "a political monoculture that's intolerant of different views." But for a glimpse of real danger, consider what happens when Google, the dominant search-engine company, teams up with a regime it apparently finds agreeable, and lends its considerable clout to reinforcing authoritarian rulers' control over their suffering subjects.

    Google left China in 2010 after realizing that there was no end to the demands and intrusions the government would make, no matter how the tech firm tried to comply. But now the company appears willing to do almost anything asked to win access to the vast market. And what's being asked of the company is that it help the government control its people.

    I keep waiting for Sergey Brin to speak up about Google's kowtow to the Chinese dictatorship. I guess I'm lucky that I'm not holding my breath.

  • The Babylon Bee is the bearer of the bad (or, depending on the status of your immortal soul, good) news: God Checks Twitter, Immediately Bumps Up Date For Apocalypse.

    HEAVEN—The Lord of all creation has reportedly bumped up the scheduled date for the consummation of all things after briefly checking Twitter Monday morning and verifying that things are much worse off than they were a year, a month, or even a week ago.

    The timeframe to kick off the end times has been set in stone from eternity past, but the Almighty agreed to push it forward "just a little bit" after staring into the abyss of Twitter this morning.

    I would be getting my affairs in order, but… for what?

  • Yes, Twitter is a cesspool of trolls and ogres. Unlike Sodom and Gomorrah, however, there are occasional tweeted valuable insights, for example our Tweet du Jour.

    I guarantee that parsing that out will make you a better person.

Last Modified 2019-10-16 5:41 PM EDT