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Sunday, April 29, 2001

The Mechanical Self

Current Reading: From transient patterns to persistent structures: A model of episodic memory formation via cortico-hippocampal interactions

As I watch the animals play on this sunny spring day, I amuse myself with the realization that mating rituals are simply diagnostics, like those little lights on your automotive dashboard that light up green or red to betray the inner health and vitality of your car. The lights serve no direct purpose, in terms of actually running the car--you could remove them all with no ill effect. So too a peacock's feathers, which aside from a possible ensuing depression at the lack of mating prospects, a peacock could do just fine without--but on display they betray a history of health and vitality, ample food from a high rank in the pecking order, few or no battles lost.

I watch the lizards boldly mount a high peak somewhere, in plain sight of the predatory birds that love my un-kept yard, doing push-ups to show any watching lizardettes how macho they are. I watch the birds poof up their brightly colored feathers, chirp their loud calls, hop around each other in funny circles, bob their heads, rock forward and backward, flipping their tails, demonstrating the full range of motion. In the background, I hear the computer printer warming up, systematically exercising each of its vital functions, sliding the head from one far side to the other, checking the flow for each color of ink, spinning each roller briefly to assure nothing's jammed. The diagnostic lights blink out one by one leaving just the solid green Power light. A connected cable slung up from a computer underneath will start pumping in its bits any moment now.

I think of humans and their rituals, the flip of long flowing hair, the waggle of hips, the flash of a wallet full of cash, the fancy car, the macho motorcycle, the bar fight, perfect grooming, articulate speech, the suit, the adorning trinkets -- such a strange blend of diagnostics, hold-overs from our evolutionary past with modern-day measures of power and success. And then the makeup, high heels, shaved legs, breast implants, and face lifts attempting to preserve and extend nubile appeal perhaps even further than modern medicine and the pill have postponed and extended fertility.

I wonder if cars reproduced by mating if Pep Boys wouldn't sell "000" stickers to put over the high digits of the odometer, and little green lights to paste over the red ones--and if letting another car see your dash wouldn't be tantamount to stripping.

And then I wonder: if you took all of these things away from the human disposition, and all of the things in their service, would there be anything left at all?

A marginally related excerpt from an email written on a slightly less sunny day, relating to the question: is it possible there is a theoretical limit to how intelligent an AI can be since, beyond a certain level, might it not just find its own existence pointless?

it's just interesting to ponder the question: if you were so intelligent that you were truly always clearly and intuitively aware of the mechanistic nature of your own will, and hence of your own goals, how would this affect your goals? At this point, largely because of my field of study, I'm fairly intuitively aware of this; before it was more limited to when I was thinking about it, not distracted by more grounding things, but with time it's become ever more self-evident even when I'm not paying attention to it, and in some respects it's a hindrance to living because the pointlessness in absolutely everything makes it hard to stay motivated, even if I still hold a hedonistic perspective at a rational level.

In a sense the only thing that keeps me moving is the lust for experiences more amazing in magnitude than the magnitude of my awareness of the pointlessness of everything. It's a delusion born of quantitative prestidigitation.

Perhaps some day I shall leap off that cliff, for the experience of falling to my death being the only of sufficient magnitude to notice. And it's funny I don't mean this as a glum thing at all, but precisely the opposite, grasping a last moment of life out of an otherwise existential fade into nothingness.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com