Chronicle of the Future The Gene Genie
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Roger Penrose
Roger Penrose

Penrose argued that consciousness was a quantum phenomenon, far beyond present computer technology and physics

Most famously, the Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose argued that consciousness was a quantum phenomenon, far beyond the reach of present computer technology or even of our current physics. Some philosophers argued that the very idea of artificial intelligence was nonsense - computers could process information but they could not be made to understand it. To do that you needed to be a human being. Neither side can claim victory. Computers have not become intelligent, but they might in the future. Or they might not. The issue of artificial intelligence or artificial consciousness awaits either a technological breakthrough or further failures.

But as far as science is concerned, the argument has moved on. With the advances in genetics and evolutionary theory, the search for a scientific account of the mind has gone from computers to biology. The point is no longer to model the mind, but rather to analyse its processes in terms of its evolutionary history.

Popularised by writers such as Steven Pinker, this approach is now the dominant force in scientific thinking about the mind. It begins by assuming that, as the mind will have evolved like all other organs and organisms, tracing the patterns of that evolution must be the best way to understand the mind. Plainly, all the things the human mind does - compose symphonies or construct skyscrapers - cannot be directly linked to some survival mechanism developed in the early days of humanity in the African savanna. But they can be seen as products of a mechanism that evolved in such a way that it was able to do far more than it needed to do. So the power of abstract thought may help the hunter, but it also creates the composer and the architect: everything is a product of the simple fact that our unique survival mechanism is the conscious, self-reflecting mind.

At the other, most primitive end of the spectrum of life, experimental evidence may soon back up this evolutionary view. The image of life created in the laboratory has, ever since Frankenstein, been one of the most potent expressions of modern anxiety. The story of Frankenstein was about the disastrous consequences that ensue when men play at being gods. But as a real as opposed to fictional project, it has so far proved impossible.

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