Thinking Inside the Box

Brooke Horvath

The Digital Mind: How Science Is Redefining Humanity, by Arlindo Oliveira (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-262-03603-0) xxii + 317 pp. Hardcover, $29.95.

 


Arlindo Oliveira, president of the Instituto Superior Técnico (Lisbon, Portugal) and a professor of computer science and engineering, wishes to inform us of our possible digital future by explaining the development and present state of work in computer science, cell biology, and neuroscience. The import of these discussions is to lay the groundwork for “educated guesses” about the eventual creation of digital minds, possibly/probably superior to ours but possessing emotions, free will, and consciousness indistinguishable from our own. These minds, alive in a virtual environment, will be constructed from binary scratch or by uploading human brains in all their complex neuronic entirety. In the book’s closing chapters, Oliveira considers sundry issues that may then arise: What are an artificial mind’s legal rights and responsibilities? If I upload my mind and make copies, can I go back to some point in my past in one of those copies and relive my life differently? If an artificial mind commits a crime and must be punished by being literally erased, should its copies also be deleted?

If all of this sounds fascinating, permit me to dampen your enthusiasm. Although Oliveira insists he has “tried to make this book easy to follow for anyone interested in the topics it addresses,” even for those with “no previous knowledge of any of the many areas covered,” this is not the case. Oliveira seems to realize this, for he feels obliged to suggest that we might wish to ignore not only his many equations, circuit diagrams, and charts but most of the book itself—the eight chapters (out of twelve) devoted to computer science and brain research. It is certainly the case that these chapters, despite their clear, no-nonsense prose, go into excessive detail given the intended audience and the ends toward which the book is heading. I do not need to know how to find a Hamiltonian path in a graph, how the BAC-to-BAC sequencing method works, or the proper way to consider the number 0.αβγδε to understand Oliveira’s speculative conclusions. Which is not to say The Digital Mind does not contain much interesting information—that nanochips will soon “(make) it possible to identify and remove cancer cells from blood”; that Lord Byron’s daughter is considered the first computer programmer; that humans have fewer genes than rice and share with fruit flies a “common ancestor—a sort of flatworm that lived about 600 million years ago.”

Perhaps there are two books here: one for technically minded people who aren’t quite me and one for people who find their speculative thrills in scientific fact. For those who find Oliveira’s topics provocative but who are reluctant to take on the challenges of The Digital Mind, may I suggest the issue, Volume 37.3, of which contains a special section on the dangers of artificial intelligence.

Brooke Horvath

Brooke Horvath’s most recent reviews for FI were of Arlindo Oliveira’s The Digital Mind and Daniel De Nicola’s Understanding Ignorance.


Arlindo Oliveira, president of the Instituto Superior Técnico (Lisbon, Portugal) and a professor of computer science and engineering, wishes to inform us of our possible digital future by explaining the development and present state of work in computer science, cell biology, and neuroscience.

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