X-Message-Number: 21403
Date: Fri, 14 Mar 2003 23:48:49 -0700
From: Mike Perry <>
Subject: Was Helen O'Loy Conscious?

In a recent posting I raised the possibility that a system that simulates a 
brain at a deep level may, to all appearances, have consciousness and 
feeling. For instance, a robot of the future could appear to be a human 
being, both physically and behaviorally, but have no protoplasm. Its brain, 
say, simulates a human brain at a deep level but, once again, can be 
distinguished in some physical way from natural wetware. Under these 
conditions I, once again, offer that there would be no compelling reason 
(as usual barring some fundamental new discovery about reality) not to 
regard the robot as possessing true consciousness and feeling. Robert 
Ettinger replies in part:

>It seems compelling to me just to remember that a description or picture of a
>brick is not a brick and cannot be used in building a house.

What I am talking about is a "simulated" brain but the robot would not 
simply be a description of a person, but could indeed stand in for a 
natural human in quite a few circumstances. There is a touching, beautiful 
old science fiction story on this theme, "Helen O'Loy" by Lester del Rey, 
about a robot who becomes a human's significant other. Although it doesn't 
quite say it, we can imagine Helen having an onboard computer that 
processes with bits the way computers generally do. Would such a creature 
be conscious? If she seemed to be conscious would we have any compelling 
reason to think otherwise? (There is an interesting, sad twist at the end. 
Helen is immortal but her human companion isn't. Using various cosmetic 
alterations, she "ages" along with him. Then finally he dies and she 
commits suicide, explaining in a note, "for we have had a happy life 
together, and both feel that we should cross this last bridge together." 
Too bad the alternative of cryonics wasn't considered. But more generally 
you wonder if human wetware will be the best medium for beings who wish to 
live far beyond the length of time it evolved to last--it seems most 
unlikely to me. Thus you would have to consider replacing it with something 
more durable--of course maintaining the identity of the person in question 
in the process, which brings up the uploading issue.)

>And this is not
>just because of the simplicity of the usual description or picture. As far as
>I can see, there can NEVER be any complete isomorphism between a computer and
>a different physical system.

Some amazing possibilities seem to exist in this direction. You might read 
about Seth Lloyd's universal quantum simulator, for instance. (Also, a 
simulating system need not be simulated by the system it is simulating for 
an isomorphism to exist--the isomorphism will involve an aspect of the 
simulating system, rather than that system in its entirety.) Really, 
though, I don't think the issue is so much a matter of whether perfect 
isomorphisms are possible, but whether systems that seemed to be conscious 
would really be conscious, and also, whether the brain could be replaced by 
artificial (or other) components but leave the person intact, in some 
reasonable sense. (Bravo the artificial hippocampus!)

Mike Perry

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