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issue: 04/15/2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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1Wired,April 2000, Bill Joy, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us", pages 238-262.

2Information about the depletion of Venus' ozone layer as a possible cause for the dead planet is taken from "Life Beyond Earth - AreWe Alone?" a film by Timothy Ferris, aired on KQED TV, April 13, 2000, 8:00 PM, PDT

3Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Penguin Books, 1999, page 6.

4Antonio Damaso, The Feeling of What Happens, Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999, page 315.

5 Damasio, page 43.

6 Joy, page 244.

past IT/ECO columns:

Computers and Consciousness

Can Computers Save Resources?

Information Technology Meets Global Ecology

Information Technology Meets Global Ecology:
Computer Unconsciousness

by Cate Gable

Bill Joy is right when he says in his recent Wired article, "the future doesn't need us."1 Whether or not Homo Sapiens continue to develop and evolve as a species on this planet, Gaia will continue; if we haven't already done so much damage to her macro-systems--air, water, soil, climate--that they are beyond even Gaia's capacity for equilibrated repair.

In fact, in my gloomiest moods I can only hope that our species will somehow do itself in, leaving the earth intact before we do too much more damage. Lester Brown of The WorldWatch Institute believes we have fifteen years to reverse human ecological devastation that appears now to be unequivocally causing ozone depletion, global warming, and the most widespread destruction of species since the atmosphere changed to oxygen. If we haven't made drastic changes in the next fifteen years, he predicts it will be too late. Our beautiful blue bubble of a planet in the middle of black, silent space could turn into another bleak Venus or Mars.2

But one need only look at the grimmest most abandoned neighborhood in any city to see how quickly Gaia restores herself. Scrubby 'weeds' spring out from the most uninviting cracks in cement; birds find places to build their nests on the sides of our buildings, under eaves, on telephone poles; the tiniest crevice holding water invites mosquito larvae; and bacteria are everywhere, in the most inhospitable cold, dark of the sea, miles down, to still hot lava at the edge of sulfuric steam vents.

Nature has an inexorable passion to exist.

So there will be a future with or without humans, Joy is certainly right about that; though the statement he thought he was making was about the rise of robotics and its eventual domination and extermination of the human species. It seems that robotics and nanotechnology professionals think of the body/brain as a machine with simple moving parts; and that simply by increasing the computational capacity of the computer, we will be able to replicate, and vastly improve upon, human intelligence and consciousness--as if computing power alone can provide the agent that does the computing a kind of consciousness.

It is quite a well-known fact in the field of robotics that although a robotic-computer may be able to capture or 'see' images (think about the various Landers sending back to earth exquisitely detailed data-pictures of the surfaces around them), it has no ability to 'recognize' images. What is a rock? What is a shadow? What is a ball? Or, even more finite and sophisticated, whose face is this?

Ray Kurzweil in The Age of Spiritual Machines asks the same question this way: "Once computers are as complex as the human brain, and can match the human brain in subtlety and complexity of thought, are we to consider them conscious?"3 One might wonder exactly what he means by "subtlety and complexity of thought," but whatever he means, there is one major difference between computers, robots, and humans that cannot be argued. Humans have bodies. We have veins, lungs, lymphatic, nervous, and endocrine systems. We move through the world as sensual beings, touching with our voices, our eyes, our hands.

Flesh is not simply a container for the mind as Descartes, who is often held responsible for the dualism of mind and body, argued. When you ask for a doggie bag in Berkeley you generally get a wax-reinforced cardboard box. In Oakland or Emeryville you get a Styrofoam box. You might get a white paper bag or a piece of foil. Whatever container you get for your take-out food doesn't change the food inside the container.

But the body is not simply a 'box' for the mind: body-mind is one organism. As my body-mind ages, I develop different ways of thinking, and I gather perceptions differently. I may feel that 'I' am living somewhere inside my body but I can be brought up short, quite abruptly, if I think that my mind will go on 'computing' in the same way if I had a different body. I need only fall down the steps, or cut my finger, or lose my hearing to understand the body-mind unity.

Antonio Damasio, an internationally-known neuroscientist and researcher in consciousness for over thirty years, argues in The Feeling of What Happens, that "Feelings cannot be duplicated unless flesh is duplicated, unless the brain's actions on flesh are duplicated, unless the brain's sensing of flesh after it has been acted upon by the brain is duplicated."4 And feelings and consciousness are directly related. They reside in the same places in the brain. Damasio posits convincingly that "feelings are poised at the very threshold that separates being from knowing and thus have a privileged connection to consciousness.'5

Damasio articulates levels of consciousness in humans: proto self, core self, and autobiographical self. These levels of self or consciousness progress upward in a spiral of more and more sophisticated life-regulating senses from homeostatic (automatic responses) to the sensory input of pain or pleasure to the emotional overlay of meaning on those perceptions to a more complex constructed response to those meanings. This system, parts of which exist in all lifeforms, evolved over the 5 billion years of earth's existence. Thus consciousness has evolved within the biological system of life.

It is this 'biology of consciousness' that obviates the possibility of computer consciousness. Joy, though he is trying to sound an alarm, albeit tepidly, about the dangers inherent in this kind of sci-fi thinking about robotics still makes absurd statements like "A second dream of robotics is that we will gradually replace ourselves with our robotic technology, achieving near immortality by downloading our consciousnesses."6

'Downloading our consciousnesses.' Think about it. Think about any single moment of your life (let alone the entirety of your beingness): the delimiter is not even the complex set of synapses that fired in that moment; it is the contextual background of autobiographical history residing in your body-mind that created your perceptions about that moment: how you felt about what she said, what she said, what the light was doing in the window behind her, the sounds outside on the sidewalk, what you were wearing, the ache in your tooth, your worrying about the phone call you just received, a slight anticipation of dinner, your sock falling down slightly inside your left shoe, an itch on your arm, her eyes, how you felt about her eyes, your sense of sadness about your father's death last month, the dryness in your throat.

Tell me, how will a computer know anything about that?

b i o :
Cate Gable is a poet and writer (author of Strategic Action Planning NOW!) , strategic marketing consultant in e-commerce, teacher, and President of Axioun Communications International. She divides her time between Berkeley, CA; the Pacific Northwest; and Paris, France. Send comments to her at


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