I had the honor of participating in a panel on the future of AI with a group of industry luminaries, led by Kevin Kelly of WIRED Magazine.
Watch the discussion here.
I had the honor of participating in a panel on the future of AI with a group of industry luminaries, led by Kevin Kelly of WIRED Magazine.
Watch the discussion here.
Read my article in VentureBeat about how Bitcoins may restructure our civilization, and the need for advocacy to support this transition, if it is going to happen. Here’s an excerpt:
Bitcoin is a trend with all the ingredients necessary for changing the world. It spreads virally, funds its own growth, and can’t be controlled from any central point. Like the Web, it could eat the world.
Bitcoin could be the beginning of a massive transfer not only of wealth, but of power — a shift to a new social order. If you change the money system, you change the economy; that in turn changes society, government and industry. The shift to Bitcoins would be more than an economic shift, it would be a shift to a new social order — one built around a “freer market” economy.
Such a shift would be a lot more likely if a new grassroots organization were formed to accelerate, promote and protect the emerging cryptocurrency economy. By helping the cryptocurrency economy to fund its own evolution and defense, it would have a better chance of surviving the inevitable challenges it will soon face.
As this new digital economy emerges, the mysterious Bitcoin creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, could turn out to be one of the most important historical figures of our time.
I was quoted in this New Yorker article about whether relationships between humans and bots are real, along with some other AI experts. Can bots experience love? Read it and find out.
This article is part of a series of articles about the Bottlenose Public Beta launch.
Bottlenose offers a new window into what the world is paying attention to right now, globally and locally.
We show you a live streaming view of what the crowd is thinking, sharing and talking about. We bring you trends, as they happen. That means the photos, videos and messages that matter most. That means suggested reading, and visualizations that cut through the clutter.
The center of online attention and gravity has shifted from the Web to social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Bottlenose operates across all them, in one place, and provides an integrated view of what’s happening.
The media also attempts to provide a reflection of what’s happening in the world, but the media is slow, and it’s not always objective. Bottlenose doesn’t replace the media — at least not the role of the writer. But it might do a better job of editing or curating in some cases, because it objectively measures the crowd — we don’t decide what to feature, we don’t decide what leads. The crowd does.
Other services in the past, like Digg for example, have helped pioneer this approach. But we’ve taken it further — in Digg people had to manually vote. In Bottlenose we simply measure what people say, and what they share, on public social networks.
Bottlenose is the best tool for people who want to be in the know, and the first to know. Bottlenose brings a new awareness of what’s trending online, and in the world, and how those trends impact us all.
We’ve made the Bottlenose home page into a simple Google-like query field, and nothing more. Results pages drop you into the app itself for further exploration and filtration. Except you don’t just get a long list of results, the way you get on Google.
Instead, you get an at-a-glance start page, a full-fledged newspaper, a beautiful photo gallery, a lean-back home theater, a visual map of the surrounding terrain, a police scanner, and Sonar — an off-road vehicle so that you can drive around and see what’s trending in networks as you please. We’ve made the conversation visual.
Each of these individual experiences is an app on top of the Bottlenose StreamOS platform, and each is a unique way of looking at sets and subsets of streams. You can switch between views effortlessly, and you can save anything for persistent use.
Discovery, we’ve found from user behavior, has been the entry point and the connective tissue for the rest of the Bottlenose experience all along. Our users have been asking for a better discovery experience, just as Twitter users have been asking for the same.
The new stuff you’ll see today has been one of the most difficult pieces for us to build computer-science-wise. It is a true technical achievement by our engineering team.
In many ways it’s also what we’ve been working towards all along. We’re really close now to the vision we held for Bottlenose at the very beginning, and the product we knew we’d achieve over time.
If Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and other social networks are the conduits for what the planet is thinking, then Bottlenose is a map of what the planet is actually paying attention to right now. Our mission is to “organize the world’s attention.” And ultimately I think by doing this we can help make the world a smarter place. At at the end of the day that’s what gets me excited in life.
After many years of thinking about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that the key to higher levels of collective intelligence is not making each person smarter, and it’s not some kind of Queen Bee machine up in the sky that tells us all what to do and runs the human hive. It’s not some fancy kind of groupware either. And it’s not the total loss of individuality into a Borg-like collective either.
I think that better collective intelligence really comes down to enabling better collective consciousness. The more conscious we can be of who we are collectively, and what we think, and what we are doing, the smarter we can actually be together, of our own free will, as individuals. This is a bottom-up approach to collective consciousness.
So how might we make this happen?
For the moment, let’s not try to figure out what consciousness really is, because we don’t know, and we probably never will, but regardless, for this adventure, we don’t need to. And we don’t even need to synthesize it either.
Collective consciousness is not a new form of consciousness, rather, it’s a new way to channel the consciousness that’s already there — in us. All we need to do is find a better way to organize it… or rather, to enable it to self-organize emergently.
What does consciousness actually do anyway?
Consciousness senses the internal and external world, and maintains a model of what it finds — a model of the state of the internal and external world that also contains a very rich model of “self” within it.
This self construct has an identity, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, feelings, goals, priorities, and a focus of attention.
If you look for it, it turns out there isn’t actually anything there you can find except information — the “self” is really just a complex information construct.
This “self” is not really who we are, it’s just a construct, a thought really — and it’s not consciousness either. Whatever is aware is aware of the self, so the self is just a construct like any other object of thought.
So given that this “self” is a conceptual object, not some mystical thing that we can’t ever understand, we should be able to model it, and make something that simulates it. And in fact we can.
We can already do this for artificially intelligent computer programs and robots in a primitive way in fact.
But what’s really interesting to me is that we can also do it for large groups of people too. This is a big paradigm shift – a leap. Something revolutionary really. If we can do it.
But how could we provide something like a self for groups, or for the planet as a whole? What would it be like?
Actually, there is already a pretty good proxy for this and it’s been around for a long time. It’s the media.
The media senses who we are and what we’re doing and it builds a representation — a mirror – in the form of reports, photos, articles, and stats about the state of the world. The media reflects who we are back to us. Or at least it reflects who it thinks we are…
It turns out it’s not a very accurate mirror. But since we don’t have anything better, most of us believe what we see in the media and internalize it as truth.
Even if we try not to, it’s just impossible to avoid the media that bombards us from everywhere all the time. Nobody is really separate from this, we’re all kind of stewing a media soup, whether we like it or not.
And when we look at the media and we see stories – stories about the world, about people we know, people we don’t know, places we live in, and other places, and events — we can’t help but absorb them. We don’t have first hand knowledge of those things, and so we take on faith what the media shows us.
We form our own internal stories that correspond to the stories we see in the media. And then, based on all these stories, we form beliefs about the world, ourselves and other people – and then those beliefs shape our behavior.
And there’s the rub. If the media gives us an inaccurate picture of reality, or a partially accurate one, and then we internalize it, it then conditions our actions. And so our actions are based on incomplete or incorrect information. How can we make good decisions if we don’t have good information to base them on?
The media used to be about objective reporting, and there are still those in the business who continue that tradition. But real journalists — the kind who would literally give their lives for the truth — are fewer and fewer. The noble art of journalism is falling prey, like everything else, to commercial interests.
There are still lots of great journalists and editors, but there are fewer and fewer great media companies. And fewer rules and standards too. To compete in today’s media mix it seems they have to stoop to the level of the lowest common denominator and there’s always a new low to achieve when you take that path.
Because the media is driven by profit, stories that get eyeballs get prioritized, and the less sensational but often more statistically representative stories don’t get written, or don’t make it onto the front page. There is even a saying in the TV news biz that “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Look at the news — it’s just filled with horrors. But that’s not an accurate depiction of the world. For example crimes don’t happen all the time, everywhere, to everyone – they are statistically quite unlikely and rare — yet so much news is devoted to crimes for example. It’s not an accurate portrayal of what’s really happening for most people, most of the time.
I’m not saying the news shouldn’t report crime, or show scary bad things. I’m just pointing out that the news is increasingly about sensationalism, fear, doubt, uncertainty, violence, hatred, crime, and that is not the whole truth. But it sells.
The problem is not that these things are reported — I am not advocating for censorship in any way. The problem is about the media game, and the profit motives that drive it. Media companies just have to compete to survive, and that means they have to play hard ball and get dirty.
Unfortunately the result is that the media shows us stories that do not really reflect the world we live in, or who we are, or what we think, accurately – these stories increasingly reflect the extremes, not the enormous middle of the bell curve.
But since the media functions as our de facto collective consciousness, and it’s filled with these images and stories, we cannot help but absorb them and believe them, and become like them.
But what if we could provide a new form of media, a more accurate reflection of the world, of who we are and what we are doing and thinking? A more democratic process, where anyone could participate and report on what they see.
What if in this new form of media ALL the stories are there, not just some of them, and they compete for attention on a level playing field?
And what if all the stories can compete and spread on their merits, not because some professional editor, or publisher, or advertiser says they should or should not be published?
Yes this is possible.
It’s happening now.
It’s social media in fact.
But for social media to really do a better job than the mainstream media, we need a way to organize and reflect it back to people at a higher level.
That’s where curation comes in. But manual curation is just not scalable to the vast number of messages flowing through social networks. It has to be automated, yet not lose its human element.
That’s what Bottlenose is doing, essentially.
To provide a better form of collective consciousness, you need a measurement system that can measure and reflect what people are REALLY thinking about and paying attention to in real-time.
It has to take a big data approach – it has to be about measurement. Let the opinions come from the people, not editors.
This new media has to be as free of bias as possible. It should simply measure and reflect collective attention. It should report the sentiment that is actually there, in people’s messages and posts.
Before the Internet and social networks, this was just not possible. But today we can actually attempt it. And that is what we’re doing with Bottlenose.
But this is just a first step. We’re dipping our toe in the water here. What we’re doing with Bottlenose today is only the beginning of this process. And I think it will look primitive compared to what we may evolve in years to come. Still it’s a start.
You can call this approach mass-scale social media listening and analytics, or trend detection, or social search and discovery. But it’s also a new form of media, or rather a new form of curating the media and reflecting the world back to people.
Bottlenose measures what the crowd is thinking, reading, looking at, feeling and doing in real-time, and coalesces what’s happening across social networks into a living map of the collective consciousness that anyone can understand. It’s a living map of the global brain.
Bottlenose wants to be the closest you can get to the Now, to being in the zone, in the moment. The Now is where everything actually happens. It’s the most important time period in fact. And our civilization is increasingly now-centric, for better or for worse.
Web search feels too much like research. It’s about the past, not the present. You’re looking for something lost, or old, or already finished — fleeting. Web search only finds Web pages, and the Web is slow… it takes time to make pages, and time for them to be found by search engines.
On the other hand, discovery in Bottlenose is about the present — it’s not research, it’s discovery. It’s not about memory, it’s about consciousness.
It’s more like media — a live, flowing view of what the world is actually paying attention to now, around any topic.
Collective intelligence is theoretically made more possible by real-time protocols like Twitter. But in practice, keeping up with existing social networks has become a chore, and not drowning is a real concern. Raw data is not consciousness. It’s noise. And that’s why we so often feel overwhelmed by social media, instead of emboldened by it.
But what if you could flip the signal-to-noise ratio? What if social media could be more like actual media … meaning it would be more digestible, curated, organized, consumable?
What if you could have an experience that is built on following your intuition, and living this large-scale world to the fullest?
What if this could make groups smarter as they get larger, instead of dumber?
Why does group IQ so often seem inversely proportional to group size? The larger groups get, the dumber and more dysfunctional they become. This has been a fundamental obstacle for humanity for millennia.
Why can’t groups (including communities, enterprises, even whole societies) get smarter as they get larger instead of dumber? Isn’t it time we evolve past this problem? Isn’t this really what the promise of the Internet and social media is all about? I think so.
And what if there was a form of media that could help you react faster, and smarter, to what is going on around you as it happens, just like in real life?
And what if it could even deliver on the compelling original vision of the cyberspace as a place you could see and travel through?
What about getting back to the visceral, the physical?
Consciousness is interpretive, dynamic, and self-reflective. Social media should be too.
This is the fundamental idea I have been working on in various ways for almost a decade. As I have written many times, the global brain is about to wake up and I want to help.
By giving the world a better self-representation of what it is paying attention to right now, we are trying to increase the clock rate and resolution of collective consciousness.
By making this reflection more accurate, richer, and faster, and then making it available to everyone, we may help catalyze the evolution of higher levels of collective intelligence.
All you really need is a better mirror. A mirror big enough for large groups of people to look into and see what they are collectively paying attention to in it, together. By providing groups with a clearer picture of their own state and activity, they can adapt to themselves more intelligently.
Everyone looks in the collective mirror and adjusts their own behavior independently — there is no top-down control — but you get emergent self-organizing intelligent collective behavior as a result. The system as a whole gets smarter. So the better the mirror, the smarter we become, individually and collectively.
If the mirror is really fast, really good, really high res, and really accurate and objective – it can give groups an extremely important, missing piece: Collective consciousness that everyone can share.
We need collective consciousness that exists outside of any one person, and outside of any one perspective or organization’s agenda, and is not merely just in the parts (the individuals) either. Instead, this new level of collective consciousness should be something that is coalesced into a new place, a new layer, where it exists independently of the parts.
It’s not merely the sum of the parts, it’s actually greater than the sum – it’s a new level, a new layer, with new information in it. It’s a new whole that transcends just the parts on their own. That’s the big missing piece that will make this planet smarter, I think.
We need this yesterday. Why? Because in fact collectives — groups, communities, organizations, nations — are the units of change on this planet. Not individuals.
Collectives make decisions, and usually these decisions are sub-optimal. That’s dangerous. Most of the problems we’ve faced and continue to face as a species come down to large groups doing stupid things, mainly due not having accurate information about the world or themselves. This is, ultimately, an engineering problem.
We should fix this, if we can.
I believe that the Internet is an evolving planetary nervous system, and it’s here to to make us smarter. But it’s going to take time. Today it’s not very smart. But it’s evolving fast.
Higher layers of knowledge, and intelligence are emerging in this medium, like higher layers of the cerebral cortex, connecting everything together ever more intelligently.
And we want to help make it even smarter, even faster, by providing something that functions like self-consciousness to it.
Now I don’t claim that what we’re making with Bottlenose is the same as actual consciousness — real consciousness is, in my opinion a cosmic mystery like the origin of space and time. We’ll probably never understand it. I hope we never do. Because I want there to be mystery and wonder in life. I’m confident there always will be.
But I think we can enable something on a collective scale, that is at least similar, functionally, to the role of self-consciousness in the brain — something that reflects our own state back to us as a whole all the time.
After all, the brain is a massive collective of hundreds of billions of neurons and trillions of connections that themselves are not conscious or even intelligent – and yet it forms a collective self and reacts to itself intelligently.
And this feedback loop – and the quality of the reflection it is based on – is really the key to collective intelligence, in the brain, and for organizations and the planet.
Collective intelligence is an emergent phenomena, it’s not something to program or control. All you need to do to enable it and make it smarter, is give groups and communities better quality feedback about themselves. Then they get smarter on their own, simply by reacting to that feedback.
Collective intelligence and collective consciousness, are at the end of the day, a feedback loop. And we’re trying to make that feedback loop better.
Bottlenose is a new way to curate the media, a new form of media in which anyone can participate but the crowd is the editor. It’s truly social media.
This is an exciting idea to me. It’s what I think social media is for and how it could really help us.
Until now people have had only the mainstream, top-down, profit-driven media to look to. But by simply measuring everything that flows through social networks in real time, and reflecting a high-level view of that back to everyone, it’s possible to evolve a better form of media.
It’s time for a bottom-up, collectively written and curated form of media that more accurately and inclusively reflects us to ourselves.
I think Bottlenose has the potential to become the giant cultural mirror we need.
Instead of editors and media empires sourcing and deciding what leads, the crowd is the editor, the crowd is the camera crew, and the crowd decides what’s important. Bottlenose simply measures the crowd and reflects it back to itself.
When you look into this real-time cultural mirror that is Bottlenose, you can see what the community around any topic is actually paying attention to right now. And I believe that as we improve it, and if it becomes widely used, it could facilitate smarter collective intelligence on a broader scale.
The world now operates at a ferocious pace and search engines are not keeping up. We’re proud to be launching a truly present-tense experience. Social messages are the best indicators today of what’s actually important, on the Web, and in the world.
We hope to show you an endlessly interesting, live train of global thought. The first evolution of the Stream has run its course and now it’s time to start making sense of it on a higher level. It’s time to start making it smart.
With the new Bottlenose, you can see, and be a part of, the world’s collective mind in a new and smarter way. That is ultimately why Bottlenose is worth participating in.
Recently, one of Twitter’s top search engineers tweeted that Twitter was set to “change search forever.” This proclamation sparked a hearty round of speculation and excitement about what was coming down the pipe for Twitter search.
The actual announcement featured the introduction of autocomplete and the ability to search within the subset of people on Twitter that you follow — both long-anticipated features.
However, while certainly a technical accomplishment (Twitter operates a huge scale and building these features must have been very difficult), this was an iterative improvement to search…an evolution, not a revolution.
Today I’m proud to announce something that I think could actually be revolutionary.
And here’s the video….
Now we’re launching the second stage of our mission “to organize the world’s attention” — a new layer of Bottlenose that provides a live discovery portal for the social web.
This new service measures the collective consciousness in real-time and shows you what the crowd is actually paying attention to now, about any topic, person, brand, place, event… anything.
If the crowd is thinking about it, we see it. It’s a new way to see what’s important in the world, right now.
This discovery engine, combined with our existing dashboard, provides a comprehensive solution for discovering what’s happening, and then keeping up with it over time.
Together, these two tools not only help you stay current, they provide compelling and deep insights about real-time trends, influencers, and emerging conversations.
All of this goes into public beta today.
I am very proud of what we are launching today, in many ways — while still just a step on a longer journey — it is the culmination of an idea I’ve been working on, thinking about, dreaming of… for decades… and I’d love you to give it a spin.
And I’m proud of my amazing technical team — they are the most talented technical team I’ve ever worked with in my more than 20 years in this field.
I have never seen such a small team deliver so much, so well. And Bottlenose is them – it is their creation and their brilliance that has made this possible. I am really so thankful to be working with this crew.
So what is Bottlenose anyway?
It is a real-time view of what’s actually important across all the major social networks — the first of its kind — what you might call a “now engine.”
This new service is not about information retrieval. It’s about information awareness. It’s not search, it’s discovery.
We don’t index the past, we map the present. That’s why I think it’s better to call it a discovery engine than a search engine. Search implies research towards a specific desired answer, whereas discovery implies exploration and curiosity.
We measure what the crowd is paying attention to now, and we build a living, constantly learning and evolving, map of the present.
Twitter has always encouraged innovation around their data, and that innovation is really what has fueled their rapid growth and adoption. We’ve taken them at their word and innovated.
We think that what we have built adds tremendous value to the ecosystem and to Twitter.
But while Twitter data is certainly very important and high volume, Bottlenose is not just about Twitter… we integrate the other leading social networks too: Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, Flickr, and even networks whose data comes through them like Pinterest and Instagram. And we also see RSS too.
We provide a very broad view of what’s happening across the social web — a view that is not available anywhere else.
Bottlenose is what you’d build if you got the chance to start over and work on the problem from scratch — a new and comprehensive vision for how to make sense of what’s happening across and within social networks.
We think it could be for the social web what Google was for the Web. Ok that’s a bold statement – and perhaps it’s wishful thinking – but we’re at least off to a good start here and we’re pushing the envelope farther than it has ever been pushed. Try it!
Oh and one more thing, why the name? We chose it because dolphins are smart, they’re social, they hunt in pods, they have sonar. We chose the name as an homage to their bright and optimistic social intelligence. We felt it was a good metaphor for how we want to help people surf the Stream.
Thanks for reading this post, and thanks for your support. If you have a few moments to spare today, we’d love it if you gave Bottlenose a try. And remember, it’s still a beta.
Before I get too deep into the tech and all the possibilities and potential I see in Bottlenose, I first want to make it very clear that this is a BETA.
We’re still testing, tuning, adding stuff, fixing bugs, and most of all learning from our users.
There will be bugs and things to improve. We know. We’re listening. We’re on it. And we really appreciate your help and feedback as we continue to work on this.
I was recently contacted by a computer scientist, Sergey Bulanov, who has been working quietly for 20 years on a new approach to artificial intelligence. It’s a pretty interesting and novel approach, and I would like to see what others think about it.
From what I understand, the essence of Sergey’s approach is a new form of computer reasoning that implements “non-computational” networks of logical operations to solve problems.
It is “non-computational” in the sense that it is not an expert system or traditional computer program — rather it is a network of simple operators that compute locally and interact with one another, to emergently arrive at results, reflected by an overall state of the system at the end of the process. This approach reminds me of “connectionist” approaches to AI, such as neural networks and cellular automata.
Sergey believes that his approach could be an important step towards making truly humanlike artificial intelligence in the future. His point is that the brain is a non-computational system, and might in fact use some of these principles.
Sergey calls his approach “Artificial Consciousness,” but I don’t think the word “consciousness” adds value here – and it may even distract from the core idea. But, for the moment, let’s not argue about terminology — his theory is very interesting.
Sergey states that he has used this approach, to solve every logic problem in Raymond Smullyan’s book, Lady and the Tiger. For more info, read Sergey’s overview of his theory. You can read some more of his writings on this theory, here.
I can’t explain it very well, so here is Sergey’s explanation to me, from our correspondence (please note, he is not a native English speaker, so I have added some corrections to his letter to improve readability):
I consider the present version of system, which only solves logical tasks, to not be a truly “intelligent” system. This system is only a starting point for my investigations. This system only looks like it is intelligent because it is solving tasks that are hard for people. The idea for how to solve logical problems in this way came to me accidentally by thinking about the book, Lady and the Tiger, by Raymond Smullyan. In my classification of AI, a system for solving logical puzzles appears to be a kind of low complexity system (according my theory). This present version of the system is just a step along the way towards more sophisticated AI.
Despite my low valuation of systems for logical solving, for practical use at least, such systems can be amusing for people. And such system can be the starting point to thinking about more sophisticated “non-computational” systems. The theory of such systems is well developed for computational case and such system is called SAT system (Boolean satisfiability problem).
The essence of the problem is as follows. Suppose we have a logical expression. (In our case the logical expression reflects the statement of a puzzle). And we consider that logical expression has value “TRUE” (in our case the formulation of the puzzle is true). Then we shall find out logical arguments of this expression which satisfy this expression (to make this expression to be “TRUE”). This procedure is so called NP-complete. In the worst case, this requires full enumeration of all possible arguments. The SAT approach aims to reduce the probable enumerations. The methods of SAT is well developed. But I don’t know about this at the beginning of my work. Moreover, from the beginning I started to create a non-computational approach.
My idea was very simple. Assume we have a logical function , “AND,” with two arguments. This function will have output value “TRUE” only in case where both of its arguments are “TRUE”. So if we know the value of the output of function, we can predict (not in any cases) the value of its inputs.
The formulation of the puzzle is expressed as a logical expression. The expression is represented in a form of a tree (mathematical tree). This tree you can see at video in my website. The nodes of the tree are logical functions (AND, OR and some more types). These nodes are represented as balls in the video. Each ball has one output link and several input links. The state of the function can be TRUE (red ball), FALSE (blue ball) and UNKNOWN (grey ball). From the beginning the logical tree has some nodes with pre-determined initial values (according to the formulation of the puzzle). These values are reassigned not only at the top or the bottom of the tree, but also in the middle of it.
After the start of the system, each ball (each of the logical functions, i.e. each node) can fill states of the adjacent nodes. And each of the balls begins to continuously correct its state depending on the states of the nearby balls. For example, if one of the balls bears function AND with three inputs (thee arguments) and the upper ball sends to this ball information to be a “TRUE” then this ball will assign value “TRUE” at the each of its three inputs. In such a way different kinds of information will be propogated through the tree until a steady state is reached.
This information can change until steady state, asynchronously and even without clocking (this is not proved by me). During the theory about NP-completeness, solving can’t be reached unconditionally (like solving in the linear or differential equations). After some time, the system reaches an unresolvable state and it would need some more iterations to reach the complete solution. The system can be knocked out from each of these unresolvable states by assuming a hypothesis on one of the unresolved balls. The system can reach a global contradiction state or it can reach a global solution. If system doesn’t reach global solution or global contradiction state we must add a next hypothesis on the one of the next balls. In case of contradiction state we must change one of the hypotheses (typically the last hypothesis).
So the system can reach the solution (or set of the solutions) during the iterations between the assignment of hypotheses. This solving can be achieved without explicit algorithm and it can be achieved on non-computational structure, thousands or million time faster than in the computational devices.
These results appear to be an unusual and promising for the AI domain. The importance of these results is in the demonstration of possibilities of non-computational solving of complicated tasks. I hope this system can attract attention of people to develop non-computational cognitive system millions times more powerful than human brain.
But unfortunately this kind of system is not yet a true AI system. Below is some explanations of why.
A full AI system can’t be based on traditional (simple) logical basis. The system represented in our website can solve some kinds of logical tasks. But it can’t discus with humans about these tasks. It can’t explain the solving of these tasks. It can’t (and never could in future) understand natural written text. And it couldn’t do most of the human brain’s functions. One of the most fundamental reasons is that a network of logical functions (as I represent it) could only solve logical tasks, and it can’t grow by its own reasoning. There are many reasons to construct completely another kind of AI system based on different principles. But creating of more complicated system would be hard without understanding principles and problems of more simple system. Logical systems, such as mine, can be a starting point of the way to more powerful systems that apply my non-computational approach.
I came to idea that a really powerful system must be based on the idea of mathematical sets. I found a way to create a network based on sets that can grow, and how such a network can solve different tasks. The range of these tasks is much greater than only solving of mathematical puzzles. I am working on this presently.
My idea for a the chain of model tasks is not an engine of the system but it is a method of research. This idea is very close to the statement of philosopher Bertrand Russell:
“The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it”.
So that is my approach. For example, I made an expression of the idea of logical functions without logical notions. And I found unusual ideas for my novel system in this way.
There is another example of my principle. Assume we take a simplest question, so simple that decision of this question would be almost inevitable. Then if the decision would have high quality, the principles of this decision can be applied to a next but more complicated question. So moving from simple task to more complicated we can develop our theory.
I hope Sergey’s 20 years of thinking in this direction will prove interesting, and perhaps even fruitful, for the field of artificial intelligence. It does appear to me to be a novel and potentially promising vein of innovation.
Best of luck to Sergey and his collaborators. I’m always happy to see really original thinking in the field of AI.
In the previous article in this series, Is The Universe a Computer? New Evidence Emerges I wrote about some new evidence that appears to suggest that the universe may be like a computer, or least that it contains computer codes of a sort.
But while this evidence is fascinating, I don’t believe that ultimately the universe is in fact a computer. In this article, I explain why.
My primary argument for this is that consciousness is not computable. Since consciousness is an undeniable phenomenon that we directly experience, the universe has to be more than a mere computer, because a computer cannot create or simulate consciousness. No universe that is merely a computer or a computation can generate or account for consciousness. Below I explain this in more detail.
If the universe is a computer, it would have to be a very different kind of computer than what we think of as a computer today. It would have to be capable of a kind of computation that transcends what our computers can presently do. It would have to be capable of generating all the strangeness of general relativity and quantum mechanics. Perhaps one might posit that it is a quantum computer of some sort.
However, it’s not that simple. IF the universe is any kind of computer, it would actually have to be able to create every phenomenon that exists, and that includes consciousness.
The problem is that conscious is notoriously elusive, and may not even be something a computer could ever generate. After decades of thinking about this question from many angles, I seriously doubt that consciousness is computable.
In fact, I don’t think consciousness is an information process, or a material thing, at all. It seems, from my investigations, that consciousness is not a “thing” that exists “in” the universe, but rather it is in the category of fundamentals just like space and time. For example, space and time are not “in” the universe, rather the universe is “in” space and time. I think the same can be said about consciousness. In fact, I would go so far as to say consciousness is probably more fundamental than space and time, they are in “in” it rather than it being “in” them.
There are numerous arguments for why consciousness may be fundamental. Here I will summarize a few of my favorites:
Because of the above lines of reasoning and observation I have come to the conclusion that consciousness transcends the physical, material world. It is something different, something special. And it does not seem to be computable, because it has no specific form, substance or even content that can be represented as information or as an information process.
For example, in order to to be the product of a computation, consciousness would need to be comprised of information — there would need to be some way to completely describe and implement it with information, or an a information process — that is, with bits in a computer system. Information processes cannot operate without information – they require bits 1’s and 0’s, and some kind of a program for doing things with them.
So the question is, can any set or process of 1’s and 0’s perfectly simulate or synthesize what is to be conscious? I don’t think so. Because consciousness, when examined, is found to be literally formless and unfindable, it has no content or form that can be represented with 1’s and 0’s. Furthermore, because consciousness, when examined is essentially changeless, it is not a process – for a process requires some kind of change. Therefore it is not information or an information process.
Some people counter the above argument by saying that consciousness is an illusion, a side-effect, or what is called an “epiphenomenon” of the brain. They claim that there is no such thing as actual consciousness, and that there is nothing more to cognition than the machinery of the brain. They are completely missing the fundamental point.
But let’s assume they are right for a moment – if there is no consciousness, then what is taking place when a being knows something, or when they know their own knowing capacity? How could that be modeled in a computer program? Simply creating a data structure and process that represents its own state recursively is not sufficient – because it is static, it is just data – there is no actual qualia of knowing taking place in that system.
Try as one might, there is no way to design a machine or program that manifests the ability to know or experience the actual qualia of experiences. John Searle’s Chinese Room though experiment is a famous logical argument that illustrates this. The simple act of following instructions – which is all a computer can do – never results in actually knowing what those instructions mean, or what it is doing. The knowing aspect of mind – the consciousness – is not computable.
Not only can consciousness not be simulated or synthesized by a computer, it cannot be found in a computer or computer program. It cannot magically emerge in a computer of sufficient complexity.
For example, suppose we build up a computer or computer program by gradually adding tiny bits of additional complexity — at what point does it suddenly transition from being not-conscious to being conscious? There is no sudden transition to consciousness — I call that kind of thinking “magical complexity” – and many people today are guilty of it. However it’s just an intellectual cop-out. There is nothing special about complexity that suddenly and magically causes consciousness to appear out of nowhere.
Consciousness is not an emergent property of anything, nor is dependent on anything. It does not come from the brain, and it does not depend on the brain. It is not part of the brain either. Instead, it would be more correct to say that brain is perhaps an instrument of consciousness, or a projection that occurs within consciousness.
One analogy is that the brain channels consciousness, like an electrical circuit channels electricity. In a circuit the electricity does not come from the circuitry, it’s fundamentally the energy of the universe – the circuit is just a conduit for it.
A better analogy however is that the brain is actually a projection of conscious just as a character in a dream is a projection of the dreaming mind. Within a dream there can be fully functional, free-standing characters that have bodies, personalities and that seem to have minds of their own, but in fact they are all just projections of the dreaming mind. Similarly the brain appears to be a machine that functions a certain way, but it is less fundamental than the consciousness that projects it.
How could this be the case, it sounds so strange! However, if I phrase it differently all of a sudden it sounds perfectly normal. Instead of “consciousness” let’s say “space-time.” The brain is a projection of space-time, space-time does not emerge from the brain. That sounds perfectly reasonable.
The key is that we have to think of consciousness as the same level of phenomena as space-time, as a fundamental aspect of the universe. The brain is a space-time-consciousness machine, and the conceptual mind is what that machine is experiencing and doing. However, space-time-consciousness is more fundamental than the machinery of the brain, and even when the brain dies, space-time-consciousness continues.
For the above reasons, I think that consciousness proves that the universe is not a computer — at least not on the ultimate, final level of analysis. Even if the universe contains computers, or contains processes that compute, the ultimate level of reality is probably not a computer.
But let’s, for the purpose of being thorough, suppose that we take the opposite view, that the universe IS a computer and everything in it is a computation. This view leads to all sorts of problems.
If we say that the universe is a computation, it would imply that everything — all energy, space, time and consciousness — are taking place within the computation. But then what is the computation coming from and where is it happening? A computation requires a computer to compute it — some substrate that does the computation. Where is this substrate? What is it made of? It cannot also be made of energy, space, time or consciousness — those are all “inside” the computation, they are not the substrate, the computer.
Where is the computer that generates this universal computation? Is it generating itself? That is a circular reference that doesn’t make sense. For example, you can’t make a computer program that generates the computer that runs it. The computer has to be there before the program, it can’t come from the program. A computation requires a computer to compute it, and that computer cannot be the same thing as the computation it generates.
If we posit a computer that exists beyond everything – beyond energy, space and time — how could it compute anything? Computation requires energy, space and time — without energy there is no information, and without space and time there is no change, and thus no computation. A computer that exists beyond everything could not actually do any computation.
One might try to answer this by saying that the universal computation takes place on a computer that exists in a meta-level space-time beyond ours — in other words it exists in a meta-universe beyond our universe. But that answer contradicts the claim that our universe is a computer – because it means that what appears to be a universe computer is really not the final level of reality. The final level of reality in this case is the meta-universe that contains the computer that is computing our universe. That just pushes the problem down a level.
Alternatively one could claim that in fact the meta-universe beyond our universe is also a computer – So our universe computer exists inside a meta-level universe computer. In this case it’s “computers all the way down” – an infinite regress of meta-computers containing meta-computers containing meta-computers. But to claim that is a bit of a logical cop-out, because then there is no final computer behind it all – thus there is no source or end of computation. If such infinite chains of computations could exist it would be difficult to say they actually compute anything since they could never start or complete, and thus this claim is not that unlike claiming that the universe is NOT a computer.
In the end we face the same metaphysical problems we’ve always faced – either there is a fundamental level of reality that we cannot ever really understand, or we fall into paradoxes and infinite regress. Digital physics may have some explanatory power, but it has its limits.
But then what does it mean that we find error correcting codes in the equations of supersymmetry? If the fundamental laws of our universe contain computer codes in them, how can we say the universe is not a computer? Perhaps the universe IS a computer, but it’s a computer that is appearing within something that fundamentally is not computable, something like consciousness perhaps. But can something that is not computable generate or contain computations? That’s an interesting question.
Consciousness is certainly capable of containing computations, even if it is not a computation. A simple example of this would be a dream about a computer that is computing something. In such a dream there is an actual computer doing computations, but the computer and the computations depend on something (consciousness) that is not coming from a computer and is not a computation.
In the end I think it’s more likely that ultimate reality is not a computer – that it is a field of consciousness that is beyond computation. But that doesn’t mean that universes that appear to be computations can’t appear within it.
“Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” — Chuang Chou
If you are interested in exploring the nature of consciousness more directly, the next article in this series, Recognizing The Significance of Consciousness, explains what consciousness is actually like, in its pure form, and how to develop a better recognition of it for yourself.
I haven’t posted in a while, but this is blog-worthy material. I’ve recently become familiar with the thinking of University of Maryland physicist, James Gates Jr. Dr. Gates is working on a branch of physics called supersymmetry. In the process of his work he’s discovered the presence of what appear to resemble a form of computer code, called error correcting codes, embedded within, or resulting from, the equations of supersymmetry that describe fundamental particles.
You can read a non-technical description of what Dr. Gates has discovered in this article, which I highly recommend.
In the article, Gates asks, “How could we discover whether we live inside a Matrix? One answer might be ‘Try to detect the presence of codes in the laws that describe physics.'” And this is precisely what he has done. Specifically, within the equations of supersymmetry he has found, quite unexpectedly, what are called “doubly-even self-dual linear binary error-correcting block codes.” That’s a long-winded label for codes that are commonly used to remove errors in computer transmissions, for example to correct errors in a sequence of bits representing text that has been sent across a wire.
Gates explains, “This unsuspected connection suggests that these codes may be ubiquitous in nature, and could even be embedded in the essence of reality. If this is the case, we might have something in common with the Matrix science-fiction films, which depict a world where everything human being’s experience is the product of a virtual-reality-generating computer network.”
Why are these codes hidden in the laws of fundamental particles? “Could it be that codes, in some deep and fundamental way, control the structure of our reality?,” he asks. It’s a good question.
If you want to explore further, here is a Youtube video by someone who is interested in popularizing Dr. Gates’ work, containing an audio interview that is worth hearing. Here, you can hear Gates describe the potential significance of his discovery in layman’s terms. The video then goes on to explain how all of this might be further evidence for Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis (in which it is suggested that the universe is a computer simulation). (NOTE: The video is a bit annoying – in particular the melodramatic soundtrack, but it’s still worth watching in order to get a quick high level overview of what this is all about, and some of the wild implications).
Now why does this discovery matter? Well it is more than strange and intriguing that fundamental physics equations that describe the universe would contain these error correcting codes. Could it mean that the universe itself is built with error correcting codes in it, codes that that are just like those used in computers and computer networks? Did they emerge naturally, or are they artifacts of some kind of intelligent design? Or do they indicate the universe literally IS a computer? For example maybe the universe is a cellular automata machine, or perhaps a loop quantum gravity computer.
The view that the universe is some kind of computer is called digital physics – it’s a relatively new niche field within physics that may be destined for major importance in the future. But these are still early days.
I’ve been fascinated by the possibility that the universe is a computer since college, when I first found out about the work of Ed Fredkin on his theory that the universe is a cellular automaton — for, example, like John Conway’s Game of Life algorithm (particularly this article, excerpted from the book Three Scientists and their Gods).
Following this interest, I ended up interning in a supercomputing lab that was working on testing these possibilites, at MIT, with the authors of this book on “Cellular Automata Machines.”
Later I had the opportunity to become friends with Stephen Wolfram, whose magnum opus, “A New Kind of Science” is the ultimate, and also heaviest, book on this topic.
I asked Stephen about what he thinks about this idea and he said it is, “a bit like saying ‘there’s a Fibonacci sequence there; this must be a phenomenon based on rabbits’. Error-correcting codes have a certain mathematical structure, associated e.g. with sphere packing. You don’t have to use them to correct errors. But it’s definitely an amusing thought that one could detect the Matrix by looking for robustification features of code. Of course, today’s technology/code rarely has these … because our computers are already incredibly reliable (and probably getting more so)”
The work of Dr. Gates, is at the very least, an interesting new development for this field. At best it might turn out to be a very important clue about the nature of the universe, although it’s very early and purely theoretical at this point. It will be interesting to see how this develops.
However, I personally don’t believe the universe will turn out to be a computer or a computation. Read the next article in this series to find out why I think Consciousness is Not a Computation.
My father, Mayer Spivack, passed away on February 12, 2011, in the Kaplan Family House, a beautiful hospice outside of Boston. He passed away, at the young age of 74, after a difficult year and a half battle with colon cancer. During his illness he never lost his spirit of childlike curiosity, enormous compassion, and his dedication to innovation.
His passing was at times difficult, but ultimately peaceful, and took place over five days, during which he was surrounded by love from close family and friends. His presence and spirit, and the intense experiences we all shared over those last days with him are unforgettable: the most incredible experience of love and spiritual connection I have ever had. He was as great in death as he was in life.
This is the story of my relationship with my father: the things I appreciated most about him, what I learned from him, and what he gave to me at the end of his life. By sharing this, I hope to amplify and share his gifts with others.
My father was a truly unique person, and a Boston legend. He was multi-talented and worked in many fields at once, mastering them all (you can read more about his actual work here). He had a vast intelligence, a palpably original approach, and an even greater heart. He was a true Renaissance Man, a great intellectual and artist, and often an unintentionally entertaining and eccentric genius. He had a profound influence on all who knew him well.
As a father, he was a large, warm, loving, fuzzy bear of a man who never really lost his childlike innocence. He was the kind of father everyone wanted to have and when they met him they instantly wanted to hug him. His greatest accomplishment was his compassionate heart: Everyone could feel it.
But despite his brilliance, or perhaps because of it, my father never really fit in. There was no box that could contain him. He was an only child, a loner, and an outsider with little interest in conformity. He had a disdain for formality and social conventions, which always manifested, much to our embarrassment, in the most formal and conventional of settings. He described himself as an iconoclast. Despite his unconventional ways, he was loved and appreciated for his humor, his quirkiness, his unselfconscious originality, and his always out-of-the-box thinking, even (and sometimes especially) by those in the mainstream.
One funny story we recently remembered illustrates his irrepressible spirit: He was invited with his wife to a major European conference of art restorers in Italy. There was a formal reception at the home an Italian Duke. My father, never comfortable with any kind of formality, playfully took one of the candles from the reception, and wore it on his head for the entire night. During the 5 course formal dinner and the reception, he was introduced to various members of the Venetian nobility and the European art world, all the time, balancing this burning little candle on his head, yet also acting completely as if it wasn’t there and not acknowledging it at all. Everyone thought that, because of his first name, “Mayer,” he was actually the eccentric “mayor” of some city in the USA and so despite their horror they were too afraid to point out that there was a candle on his head.
In another infamous incident, my father sat on the Arts Council for the city of Newton, Massachusetts. One day a photo was taken of the Council members, none of whom were actual artists, aside from my father — they were prominent upstanding Newton business leaders and socialites. In the photo they are all wearing three piece suits and looking very formal and proud. My father is also wearing a three piece suit, except that, much to the dismay of the other Council members, his suit pants are tucked into gigantic calf-height silver moon boots (to him it was winter and it was perfectly logical to wear snow boots).
In a similar vein, whenever my father was invited to a black tie event, he would reluctantly attend, dressed appropriately, except with a black dress sock tied around his neck instead of a bow tie. Of course he would never acknowledge this to anyone, and they were all too shocked to point it out to him.
One more example of my father’s individuality: when we were children in the 1970’s in Boston, my father got a great deal on a World War One field ambulance. That was our family “car.” He also had a longstanding love affair with army surplus, to which he had special access through his position on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. From some special warehouse, he acquired a full Coast Guard extreme-weather helicopter rescue snowsuit — a bright orange practically bulletproof insulated monstrosity. To him it was extremely practical – warm, waterproof, and visible even in the worst white-out snowstorm conditions. He was entirely unselfconscious of the fact that he looked like he had just descended from a rescue helicopter when he wore it. And so this was what he wore, along with his usual silver moon boots, all winter, every winter, through my early childhood.
My poor brother and I would have to be dropped off every morning at elementary school this way: We would pull up in an an antique white ambulance — a big man in an orange emergency jumpsuit, sunglasses, and silver moon boots would get out, tromp through the snow, and open the rear doors (where the stretcher would normally be) and then my younger brother and I would pop out, much to the shock and awe of our fellow schoolmates. Thus were the origins of my own life as an alien and outsider. While these experiences were a source of horror and embarrassment for us growing up, today we laugh hysterically when we remember them — they are what we are made of and I wouldn’t trade them back for anything.
My father was a huge influence for me as an innovator. He was a prolific, constant professional inventor and my childhood was filled with his inventions, in various stages of development. He was such a good inventor that corporations like Polaroid, Otis Elevator and others, would hire him to come up with inventions. I remember him once telling me that he made 100 inventions for Polaroid in 100 days. There was another time when my father was hired to invent new uses for Silly Putty — he received a giant vat of the stuff from the Silly Putty people. With the attention of my father, two kids, and all our friends, the Silly Putty gradually dispersed throughout our house, until little blobs of Silly Putty could be found in every corner, crevice, crack, cranny and nook.
My brother and I grew up inventing things with our father. In fact, we were not allowed to have or watch a TV as children – instead we had three rooms dedicated to making things, in which we spent most of our time: one for building things with wood, one for drawing and painting, and another was my father’s studio. These rooms were stocked with all kinds of tools and art supplies.
As an inventor, my father always had tools and various devices hanging off of him, clipped onto his belt, in fanny packs, in holsters, backpacks, special cases, and in holders of his own making. Our nickname for him at times was “Inspector Gadget.” He was always infatuated with some new tool or device.
I remember, for example, what we refer to as his “Hot Glue Phase,” when I was in junior high school. Hot glue is a plastic that you melt through a device called a hot glue gun. It creates a white plastic goo that hardens as it cools and is unfortunately able to fasten just about anything together, much to my father’s delight, and our misfortune. I remember going to junior high school with a rip in my pants repaired visibly with hot glue, my sneakers repaired with hot glue, my book bag repaired with hot glue. There was nothing that hot glue couldn’t be used on, we discovered. Clothes. Plates. Furniture. Our house was at one time filled with little spider web strands of hot glue residue, stringing together our possessions, our home, our clothes, us.
One of my father’s most memorable inventions was “The Body Sail” – a precursor to the Windsurfer, on which the sail was not attached to the board but rather was held by hand using a special boom. He once won the Charles River Boat Festival sailing that contraption – of course, wearing a full body scuba suit. My brother and I used to use his Body Sail on ice skates in the winter, on frozen ponds. My father, of course, preferred to sail it on roller skates, in full bodysuit, helmet and gloves, right through parting waves of startled lunchtime crowds in Harvard Square.
No story about my father would be complete without mentioning his love of sailing. It encompassed not only his Body Sail invention, but a series of boats, particularly multi-hulled boats such as catamarans and eventually trimarans. In his later years he moved to Marblehead outside of Boston, a worldwide center of sailing, where he became an avid fan of high-speed sailing, eventually designing and starting to build his own trimaran out of aerospace composite materials, which, had it ever been finished, would have been among the fastest, and certainly the most computerized and advanced, trimarans on Earth.
My father was also a classically trained artist and particularly a widely shown sculptor — I grew up surrounded by his artworks — photos, drawings, and sculptures made from found objects, industrial artifacts, natural materials. I played in his studios – surrounded by tools for making things, prototyping, and inventing. As an artist, my father was also truly unique. An early pioneer of the use of “found objects,” his artworks were made from rusty pieces of industrial machinery, wooden molds for casting pieces of ships, old rusty farm tools, pieces of found wood and materials from nature. I grew up surrounded by these artworks. There were hundreds of them and he had numerous exhibitions.
One series of works he called “Foundiron” consisted of pieces taken from the intestines of large industrial boilers and furnaces. Another series used wooden molds for casting brass for ships, appeared like a set of primitive human figures – perhaps from Easter Island. Later works included a two ton angelic shape made from the massive steel blades of a snowplow for train tracks, and gossamer drawings in air made from the unwound springs of massive clocks that reminded one of Picasso’s drawings. His Shrine Series included animal bones, bird wings, industrial spindles, parts from clocks, early computers, and metronomes, and melted industrial alloys. One of his larger installations is made from three giant steel train car hitches that he cut apart and welded back together like hands grasping each other, and now stands permanently in Boston’s new South Station.
He was also a photographer and some of his images — for example macro images of honeycombs and turtles, still remain in my mind as if I saw them yesterday. At one point his entire office was rigged up with a complicated system of prisms, blackout shades, lenses, reflective materials, and rear projection screens so that he could take photos of shapes made of pure light that he called Lumia – which he then blew up to massive size and animated with a bank of slide projectors — some of these images can be seen on his weblog.
Another area of life that my father dove into deeply was music. He had a profound connection with music. His music collection included many of the greatest works of classical music, but also Jazz and folk music, and even Indian classical music. Our childhood was filled with music, and also with musical instruments of all kinds – particularly unusual instruments: aboriginal instruments, vibraphones, banjos, harpsichords, flutes, guitars, percussion instruments. My own broad taste in music came from this. My brother, Marin Spivack, took it even further, becoming a masterful Jazz saxophone player, as well as learning to compose for and play guitar, drums, piano, bass.
My father’s fascination with science and his massive appetite for knowledge translated into a home filled with books about science, scientific journals, and discussions about physics, biology, chemistry, brain science, psychology, architecture, engineering, and anthropology. We spent countless hours discussing science, the future, the brain, and technology, and coming up with new theories and inventions.
In my own life as an innovator, my father was my biggest fan and supporter. He taught me to invent – it was his passion. He wrote about it, and refined his theories and methods for innovating and enhancing creativity over the course of his life, and as children my brother and I were his very fortunate experimental guinea pigs.
I can remember being brought by him as a child to MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where my father had done his graduate studies — there my brother and I were subjects in early experiments on children and computers: we were observed as we played the early computer game, “Wumpus,” and learned how to use computers, by his colleagues. I still remember my father’s love for MIT — how he took my little brother and I on nighttime expeditions into the hidden catacombs under the campus, and the many times we met with his friends, colleagues and relatives from various MIT departments. My father wore his MIT ring proudly right until his last breath: It was the only club he ever wanted to belong to.
As I got older my father shared with me his work with architects and designers, and his “Design Log” methodology for documenting and improving any kind of design process. Later, as an adult he shared his new theories about human intelligence, learning disabilities, dyslexia, and what he called “syncretic associative thinking.” His theory of syncretic cognition proposes that there are two fundamentally different, yet complementary, forms of human intelligence — linear and syncretic. According to my father’s thinking, syncretic thought is associative and seemingly chaotic, yet out of it great creative leaps and innovations are born.
Dyslexics, of which my father was one, were examples of the extreme case of syncretic thinking: despite difficulties with linear logic, dyslexics are often brilliantly creative; in fact many great geniuses – especially artists, but also scientists — have been dyslexic. My father believed that instead of viewing dyslexics as “learning disabled” they should be viewed as “creativity enabled” and trained and taught differently, to leverage their unique cognitive abilities.
Instead of being viewed as bad at math or slow at reading, dyslexics might instead be viewed as unusually talented at associative thinking, brilliant in the arts and inventing. It was all a matter of perspective. My father advocated passionately for the often-overlooked talents hidden within dyslexia in his own writing, and also in his parallel career as a trained psychotherapist working with hundreds of people, especially learning disabled people, engineers and artists.
My father’s interest in the many flavors of intelligence extended not just to humans but also to animals: He had a long fascination with animal intelligence. His homes were always filled with animals – particularly highly intelligent parrots of various breeds, with whom he would speak, whistle, sing, and explore his theories about learning and cognition. When I was just a newborn, he had a pet crow — which he said was one of the most intelligent of birds.
My father painstakingly studied crows and eventually learned how to mimic their various kinds of calls. I can distinctly remember how, throughout our entire life together, he would suddenly start embarrassingly screeching, “Caaah caaahhh Caaaaaaahhhh,” whenever he encountered a crow in some random tree.
In another famous story from my father’s MIT days, he became fascinated with echolocation — the form of navigation through sound used by animals bats and dolphins. Bats in particular became a bit of an obsession for my father. Bats navigate with high frequency clicks. These clicks bounce off of surfaces like walls, buildings, plants, insects, other bats and the reflections are turned into images in the bat brain.
My father decided that bat echolocation would be a great way to help the blind navigate through cities. So he invented a bat clicker device you could wear on your head. It would emit rapid loud clicks that were within the range of human hearing. He spent a week blindfolded, wearing this device, walking around the MIT and Harvard campuses, and apparently he was able to navigate successfully with it.
He recounted that after many days of using this contraption, blindfolded the whole time, his brain adapted and he was able to discern the different types of materials, objects and surfaces from the subtle differences in sound reflections. He was able to cross streets, navigate around buildings and obstacles, and could even find his way through crowds (although we all suspected the crowds were probably parting of their own volition around this strange blindfolded man with the clicking machine on his head). The astonished people of Cambridge who encountered him must have thought he was some kind of alien exploring a strange new world. And one can only wonder what the bats themselves must have thought.
At various times in my childhood my father also had pet frogs, lizards, turtles, fish, snakes, squirrels, cats, and later, his beloved pug. We grew up with enormous aquariums, terrariums, and aviaries — as kids these were wonderlands. This love of all kinds of living things would eventually guide him to his second wife: Boston artist, Louise Freedman. We knew they were made for each other when, for their first date, they chose to go to a local cemetery pond to collect pond water and frogs together.
As their lives merged, so did their always increasing menagerie of animals. And gradually there was less and less room, or time, for humans in their house. During my college years, my father and his wife had started raising African Grey parrots, and had also become close friends with Harvard/MIT animal cognition researcher, Irene Pepperberg, and her famous parrot, Alex.
When I would visit their home on school breaks, the parrots were as much a part of the family as my brother and I, and occupied a central location in the family room. A typical mealtime conversation in our family was a combination of English words, chirps, clicks and whistles, spoken by humans and parrots alike. My father and Louise eventually moved into a home that literally was like a tree — surrounded by trees on many levels, on the edge of a huge nature sanctuary on Marblehead Neck. There amongst the branches, they could almost live as birds. My brother I joked — half-seriously — that for an upcoming wedding anniversary, we would throw out their couch and instead replace it with matching human-sized perches for them.
But my father’s fascination with animals wasn’t just about intelligence, it was also about love. I remember one day as a child, while frantically evacuating from Cape Cod ahead of a fast oncoming hurricane, my father suddenly backed up miles of panicked traffic when he stopped the car in the pouring rain and lightning to scramble around on his hands and knees, risking his own life, to rescue a turtle that had strayed onto the freeway. This deep love of animals, and people, that he manifested throughout his life, was at times a source of embarrassment for me, but later became what I admired most about him. For my father, this simple love of all living things was his religion. But for most of my life, I didn’t realize what an accomplishment that was.
Although my father influenced me in so many ways, the most important facet of life that we shared — and struggled over — was spirituality.
He was a dedicated scientific materialist and rejected superstition, which to him included all institutionalized forms of religion. He even sometimes referred to himself as an atheist, although I think more accurately, he was an agnostic. I on the other hand, while also deeply interested in the sciences, had come to the conclusion that science alone could never fully explain reality or consciousness — I felt that there was a common underlying truth in all the great religions which science had so far completely missed, a truth that was essential for a complete and accurate understanding of reality. This debate between science and religion became the fulcrum on which we wrestled endlessly and in many different ways.
I had always known, even as a child, that there is something more than meets the eye about reality that is extremely subtle, yet at once vividly evident. Growing up, I had a number of spontaneous mystical experiences that I could not explain, and later I witnessed highly unusual phenomena taking place in monasteries in Nepal and India that convinced me that there must be more to the mind, and to reality, than our western scientific worldview could presently measure or explain. I was perplexed by the apparent incompatibility of these experiences, and the Western scientific framework that my father and I both lived and worked in.
In my attempts to reconcile these two worlds, I became obsessed with physics, computer science and artificial intelligence. I began searching for a grand unified theory. I sought to create software that could simulate physics, the brain, and the mind. With some of the world’s most cutting-edge physicists and computer scientists, as well as at some of the top artificial intelligence companies, I worked on on several major initiatives in computational physics, parallel supercomputing, and artificial intelligence, as well as my own software projects and theories.
All of these attempts failed to achieve their goals so thoroughly and so repeatedly that eventually I began to question if it was even possible to do. I reached a point where I began to doubt the assumptions behind these projects — I began to question my own questions. This led me to a deeper exploration of the mind and the foundations of reality – a journey from cognitive science and physics to philosophy, and finally to spirituality. Paradoxically, I ended up back where I began, looking inwards rather than outwards, for the answers.
My quest for spiritual meaning took me through a survey of all the major Western and Eastern religions, and while traveling in Asia for a year after college, I landed in Tibetan Buddhism, with its intense focus on the nature of mind and consciousness. I was home. For me, Tibetan Buddhism had the perfect combination of rational and objective logical analysis (my father’s influence), and the mystical direct experience of the union of consciousness with divinity that I had tasted in my own experience.
In Tibetan Buddhism I finally found a rational yet holistic framework that could account for all the dimensions of observed experience: both the outer physical world and the inner dimensions of consciousness. From the Buddhist perspective, we humans are manifestations or projections of a deeper ultimate nature of reality, as are all sentient beings, and in fact all animate and inanimate things. This deeper level of reality is the origin of both the subjective and objective poles of experience, and it’s nature is transcendental, empty, yet aware.
The direct proof and experience of this can be found many ways: through logical reasoning, through prayer, through love, through nature, through art, through meditation, and perhaps most easily, by searching for the source of one’s own consciousness. Consciousness is a unique phenomena that we all have direct, equal, and immediate access to, yet which science cannot measure let alone explain. By persistently searching for the source of our own consciousness, and discovering that we can’t find it yet it is not non-existent, we are inevitably brought to a direct realization of the ultimate nature of reality.
Over decades of searching for consciousness, first through science, then through Buddhism, I had come to the conclusion that rather than consciousness emerging from the brain, it had to be the other way around: All experience, and indeed the body, brain and even the physical universe, emerge from consciousness. I had discovered that consciousness is a gateway to a sourceless, deep and endless wellspring of mysteries. And more importantly, I had found what I thought would be conclusive evidence that would finally convince my father that I was right.
But when I tried to relate these realizations to my father, he was entirely unconvinced. He argued that my experiences were not really objective, and that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain; a wonderful side-effect, a remarkable illusion that nonetheless could be reduced to neurochemistry and atoms. I countered that in the special case of consciousness, subjective observations could in fact be objective, under the right circumstances. I claimed that it was possible to scientifically and objectively observe consciousness by looking at it under the microscope of carefully trained meditation. But he cast doubts on these claims, citing numerous examples from psychology and neuroscience.
So I tried many other arguments. I cited the work of philosophers like John Searle who provided many illustrations of how conscious experiences could not be reduced to the brain or any kind of machine. I used lines of reasoning from Buddhist logic. I even cited recent findings in quantum theory that seem to imply that the act of conscious observation interacts with experimental results. But all of these arguments failed to convince my father that consciousness was fundamental or irreducible. He remained a skeptic and I felt invalidated. And so I strived even harder to find a way to map my experiences to his worldview, so I could finally prove the scientific foundations for my experience and belief in divinity to him.
This ongoing debate between my father and I — between science and religion — was not unique to us; it had been going on for millennia, and yielded many great works of both science and art. Our conversations were often frustrating and ended in exhaustion and exasperation, but we also sensed that somehow we were getting somewhere, if not mutually, then at least as individuals. We were foils to one another, worthy opponents. Like many who had come before us, the dialectical process of trying to convince one another of our conflicting views of reality, caused us to generated volumes of new writing, theories, inventions, and ideas we could not have arrived at on our own.
Nevertheless, despite my father’s strong rebukes of superstitious belief systems, and his skepticism towards my Buddhist beliefs, he was in fact a deeply spiritual man, in a very human, unembellished way. His spirituality was not tied to any system or institution — it was natural and basic: it was how he lived and the ideals he lived by: Love, Science, and Art. His spirituality was not about words, it was about actions. He expressed it in his art, his good deeds, his compassion, his joyful creativity, and his ability to love and be loved.
What I failed to see was that my father’s spirituality was immensely humble. So humble that he would not even claim to be spiritual, and certainly wouldn’t go so far as to conceptualize it. Instead, he was simply a truly good man, a mensch. While I continued to try new tactics in my campaign to convince him, and as I judged him as closed-minded and non-spiritual, he was in fact actually living my spiritual ideals better than I could understand at the time. But, not realizing this, I was certain he was missing out on something of vital importance, something that I had to convince him of before he died. And so our debate continued.
Then, in the last few months of my father’s life, we were finally able to bridge this divide. As his illness progressed, his wife called me and urged me to visit before it was too late. “He’s really getting worse, and I want you to have a chance to be together while he’s still strong enough,” she said. And so I flew to Boston and we resumed the debate.
Perhaps it was our mutual sense that time was running out, or perhaps it was that we had both exhausted all our prior arguments, but this time we reached a level of discourse that was essentially mathematical in nature; pure logic, pure set theory. Without imposing the assumptions of either science or religion, we started anew from first principles and through pure reason and observation, we derived a new common language, on neutral ground. And with this in hand, we arrived at a single nondual phenomenology — At last we had arrived at the basic nature of reality.
When we finally reached the point of agreement and mutual understanding, after decades of debate, and we both witnessed the simultaneous unification and transcendence of our prior belief systems — we saw that we had always actually agreed on a deeper level. And on that December afternoon, as we sketched out the full picture together, in a way that neither of us had done before on our own, we both breathed a sigh of relief. It was an incredibly cathartic moment for both of us.
At the conclusion of our decades long debate, we sat quietly together, just being in that understanding — a meditation on awareness and knowledge, on physics, time and space — on our mutual respect for the immensity and majesty of the universe. I will always treasure that time.
The day after that experience, before I left to return to California, I sat by my father’s bed. He was almost unable to walk at this point. As I said goodbye, thinking I might never see him again, I said, “Don’t forget what we discovered together, it is the highest realization.” He replied, “There is still one more realization that is higher.” Surprised, I asked him, “What?” He answered, “To live it!”
About a month later my wife called again. “He’s dying,” she said, “come back as soon as you can.” The cancer had advanced unexpectedly fast and so I flew back to be with him one last time.
I stayed by his side, looking into his eyes, talking to him, even though he had lost the ability to move or speak. His eyes smiled back. My brother and I kept telling him, as he labored to breathe for the final two days, “It’s ok to go now, you can let go, we love you, we’ll be ok, we’ll take care of each other.” But his drive to love and protect us all was so strong. He wasn’t ready to go. Even while in the depths of his own suffering, he was still filled with compassion, he was worried about what would happen to all of us. It was noble and beautiful to witness.
We played him the music he loved, the music he played for us as we grew up. We laughed and told him our memories and stories of him. We stroked his hair and his beard and tried to make him as comfortable as possible as he lay there, struggling, and probably frustrated that he couldn’t communicate, and at times in terrible pain. Yet through great effort he still found ways to let us know he heard us, loved us, and was still conscious.
As his breathing changed and we saw the signs of death advancing further through his body, he maintained his clarity and brilliance and even got brighter — we could feel his heart, and see his kind and intelligent spirit in his eyes. He tried to speak to us by making what little sound he could and moving his eyebrows in response to us. “Remember what we talked about, what we realized,” I said to him over and over, and I could see he was living it.
Finally, on the evening of February 12, 2011, he let go and died peacefully in his wife’s arms as she sang to him gently. All of us felt at that moment an incredible, all-embracing, boundless love and bliss, even as we grieved. It was him. My father, Mayer Spivack. Our Buddha. He went into Love.