Coast Chronicles: The multilarity of life is here now

Actor Keven Kent, starring in a hilarious theatre production at West of Lenin in Seattle called Eulogy, illustrated the range and creativity of human intelligence.

After last week’s Oysterville School House talk by Steven Romero, I felt the need to speak from the heart about the un-digital life, I suppose either to defend it or to explain its difference from the digital world.

Midway through Steve’s lecture, someone asked “What is the definition of digital exactly?” — an important question. Digital is the binary language of computers. Yes or no, on or off, zero or one. Our analog world — AKA the real world, i.e. everything that exists inside our bodies and outside our doors — is continuous, is filled with an infinite range of colors, tones, smells, textures, tastes, experiences.

The digital world is discrete, finite, exists in increments. In a digital world, a photograph becomes a series of values presented in pixels (the mash-up of two words: pictures — pix — and elements). Yes, sometimes we might not immediately recognize a pixilated image as non-analog. On the other hand, early digital representations of the human voice on digital phones were horrible in quality and often unrecognizable, because the tones of the voice were chopped into little chunks of bits and bytes that left out too much of the continuous voice timbre.

Note that after digital music’s debut, audiophiles are migrating back to analog sound. Sales of vinyl records increased by 260 percent in 2009. As for me, yes, I would rather walk out my door and listen to the crows, wrens and meadowlarks than hear them on a CD or put on a pair of virtual reality goggles for a digital birding tour.

In case you think I’m just an old fuddy-duddy I’d like to report that I’m a total proponent of so many aspects of digital technology. I toyed with The Well in the mid-80s (a precursor of the web); I knew Howard Rheingold in Marin County; in the early ‘90s I attended an Interop conference in Paris and thrilled to the first herky-jerky internet image and sound transfer using CU-SeeMe software, introduced by Cisco’s CEO John Chambers; I was an information technology (IT) consultant in the early days of the internet; I met Tim Berners-Lee in the particle collider at CERN.

Well, enough name dropping. Let’s just say I love the web’s 60 trillion pages (add more today!), four zettabytes of data and its millions of emails per second. I can’t imagine life without digital technology. (Last week I dropped my phone in some water; it died and I hyperventilated for an entire day until I got a new one.)

However, I don’t think Kurzweil has it right when he predicts that the so-called Singularity, the date by which computers will be self-replicating and smarter than humans, is 2045. (See last week’s column for more detail.) Neither does David Linden, a neurobiologist with 28 years of experience studying the cellular and molecular basis of memory and cognition. Linden notes in his essay, The Singularity Is Far, ( that the facts don’t add up.

In an interview with GOOD magazine, Kurzweil says: “By the late 2020s, nanobots in our brain, that will get there noninvasively, through the capillaries, will create full-immersion virtual-reality environments from within the nervous system. So if you want to go into virtual reality the nanobots shut down the signals coming from your real senses and replace them with the signals that your brain would be receiving if you were actually in the virtual environment. So this will provide full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all of the senses.”

Linden says, “In Kurzweil’s scenario, brain nanobots could just as easily manipulate motor functions, cognitive processes, memories, emotions, and basic drives. Kurzweil predicts that by the late 2030s, we will be able to routinely scan an individual’s brain with such molecular precision and with such a complete understanding of the rules underlying neuronal function and plasticity that we will be able to ‘upload’ our mental life into a vastly powerful and capacious future computer. As Kurzweil describes it in his book The Singularity is Near, ‘This process would capture a person’s entire personality, memory, skills and history.’”

Linden outlines some analog-world data that he feels defeats Kurzweil’s timetable. He imagines Kurzweil’s nanobots measuring seven microns across — about half the diameter of a typical neuronal cell body — maneuvering through brain tissue. Then these nanobot-cars, let’s say about the size of a Volkswagen, encounter a neuron, about the size of an SUV, and begin nano-processing. (No, please don’t shut down my senses!) The problem is that there aren’t open-spaces in the brain; it’s composed of neurons and glial cells packed very tightly together in a delicate web of connections — with cables of sugar and proteins providing signal exchange — leaving only miniscule gaps. Any kind of nanobot vehicle would plow through like a bulldozer leaving destruction in its wake.

“Let’s imagine our nanobot-Volkswagen approaching the brain, [basically] a parking lot of GMC Yukon SUVs stretching as far as the eye can see,” Linden continues, “all parked in a grid, with only one half-inch between them, and that half-inch is filled with these crucial cables hooked to their mechanical systems. (To be accurate, we should picture the lot as a three-dimensional matrix of SUVs soaring stories into the sky and stretching as far as the eye can see).” That nanobot is stopped in its tracks.

There’s a neurologist’s view. My view is more mundane, though we come to the same conclusions. AI robots have been unable, to-date, to accommodate even the most rudimentary kind of visual recognition; nor can they ambulate well over rough terrain; nor speak like a human; nor, and this is always the trickiest thing about entering a foreign culture, come close to understanding or creating a joke.

In short, human consciousness is built on eons of evolution of sensory organs, which gather and process complex analog data — a function we share, by the way, with most other creatures on Planet Earth. (Note that Frans de Waal, primatologist and ethologist, in his about-to-be-released book about animal intelligence says that paper wasps can recognize the faces of their kin.) Computers are good at processing and storing digital information; hence their ability to beat chess masters. But they have no imagination, no sense of humor and only rudimentary functioning sense-organs. (I have several friends who say the coming Singularity is just a matter of time — but 34 years from now? Perhaps not.)

This “consciousness gap” came clear to me again while attending “Eulogy” this past weekend, a theatre performance at West of Lenin in Seattle. Kevin Kent, in drag as a “professional mourner,” ad-libbed spontaneously on photos brought to the theatre of deceased family members. In a glance, he caught small details of dress, expression, body position, age, and setting and built elaborate, hilarious stories about the people in the pictures. He exhibited a wide range of human intelligence: intuition, reasoning, empathic knowledge, creativity, problem solving, humor and physical dexterity. His improv was brilliant and hysterical.

So this has become my new test for Kurzweil. When we have a robot who can entertain us like Keven Kent while dancing in four-inch heels, I will believe you. Until then, yes, digital information may be useful, distracting and powerful, but analog is my kind of intelligence.


Note, regarding last week’s article about Steven Romero’s Oysterville lecture, Steven has pointed out to me that he left eBay in 2015; and, additionally, that his degree is in mathematics solely.

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