Roger got inspired on short notice, as he was working on the sequel (which, as you all know, is a challenging and lengthy process), but in upcoming days I hope to arrange for a cover for it so we can post it as a permafree in mobi and epub content for your other readers. I think Reddit has it covered for easy reading on your phone…
Peachfront’s Note: Today, Roger is answering some questions sent in by a fan. If you want your question answered in the next round, let us know.
Question: What are your favorite movies and novels?
Roger: I have to admit liking a nice action or SF movie with impressive FX as much as the next guy, but in both movies and books I am most impressed by stories that ask hard questions and then don’t bother supplying a neat answer for you.
This applies to just about everything ever written by Philip K. Dick and most of the movies made from his books, but also to the stories of Alfred Bester and Fred Pohl. More recently there is just about everything by Iain M. Banks. I also like David Lynch’s “hard” movies like Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire because even though they seem to make no sense, they all turn out to contain a hidden narrative that does make sense, like the easter egg hidden in a video game. The hilariously low-budget movie Primer is a favorite for the way time travel folds its plot up into an impenetrable ball. Vanilla Sky asks hard questions about what simulation immortality might be like. The original Robocop and first two Terminator movies have surprisingly deep moments about the relationship between men and machines.
Do you think a machine like Prime Intellect will be able to come into existence one day?
This is a question with two very different answers depending on what you mean by “like.”
If you mean a machine that comfortably passes the Turing test and interacts naturally with us, perhaps with superhuman intelligence or other advantages, then I think it’s almost inevitable. It probably won’t be the work of a single brilliant programmer as portrayed in MOPI, because the problem is very large, but we do have prototype physical objects that exhibit these qualities — our own brains — and eventually, probably not too many decades in the future, we will have both sufficient computing power and improved understanding of the biological processes to simply do electronically what nature does with chemicals. And it might turn out to be a lot easier than that if our understanding of the algorithms underlying consciousness should make a leap.
If you mean a machine that can make itself into God as Prime Intellect does, that depends on things I simply don’t know about the actual Universe in which we live. I am more inclined to think of the Universe as a machine which could be taking shortcuts and allowing possible back doors than most scientists are, but in no sense would I for example claim to have faith that such things are possible. I am very unimpressed with the story that physicists seem to be settling on full of singularities, compactified extra dimensions, and still unresolvable discrepancies between the math that works at macro scale and the math that works at subatomic scale. But then, I am just a guy who likes computers and good stories, and the Universe could turn out to be neither.
What do you think death holds for us? Just like an unconscious state or another life?
The short answer is that being dead will be just like not having been born yet. That wasn’t so bad, was it?
Long answer #1 involves the possibility of being uploaded — of having your brain function emulated in a sufficiently perfect simulation that your memories, habits, and preferences are obvious and intact. There is a long standing debate (to long before such a thing was considered even remotely practical, in fact) as to whether such a thing is “you.” My personal take is that such a thing would, in fact, be “me,” and I”m confident enough about that that if I was dying and my only chance at survival was to be uploaded by microtoming my brain to provide the data for the simulator, I’d go for it. There is the difficult question of what would happen if such a thing could be made without destroying your original brain. I think in such a case both the copy and original would be “you,” in a very precise sense, but that the two “you” would quickly diverge into different new selves. We are really so invested in the idea of consciousness being singular and
un-copyable that we really don’t have good language to even deal with that situation.
Getting back to books and movies, two very impressive treatments of this idea are John Varley’s novel The Ophiuchi Hotline, which involves serial immortality through cloning and brain state recording/restoration, and the season 3 arc of the TV series Farscape, in which protagonist Crichton is “twinned” into two identical and completely human copies neither of which is the “original.”
Long answer #2 is that if the Universe is really inclined to allow back doors and exceptions, those could go much deeper than even portrayed in MOPI. I can envision a scheme by which the Universe continually seeks efficiency and compression, leading after millions of years to a state where consciousness itself is just something like an object in a C++ program. In such a case such objects might have only a loose association with the actual physical universe, and all sorts of situations normally associated with religion or fantasy might be justified. But again, I would not assert that the world works like that, because if it does it is also working very hard to pretend not to and proving it would be somewhere between difficult and impossible. I would only assert that it is not as impossible as some skeptical sorts tend to think.