The essential purpose of having a mind is to manipulate information. All minds do it incessantly. Input from the senses is filtered, perceived, categorized, and filed away in memory. Processing memory is updated, scanned, and stripped of significant thoughts to be processed in the next cycle. A combination of select sensory data, accessed long term memory, and the products of short-term memory’s routines is used to actually make decisions- this element of our minds is called our consciousness. Is there something that makes consciousness special in terms of processing of information? Is there some reason why it is impossible to get human-level thought out of a computer we built ourselves?
Here’s a thought. Imagine that you were a computer. What would that be like? Many would say that it would be inhuman. You would be forever occupied with minute and nonsensical computer actions like Windows 95 printing bytecode. However, I suspect you’re drawing that conclusion from stereotypes of our day. In the early days of computers they thought computers would never exceed [insert tiny statistic of choice here]. Now we know computers can be powerful, but we’re still biased against their complexity, thinking they can only do mechanical things, can only live as a linear binary mind. The human brain is different in several significant ways, the first being that it runs on neurons instead of fixed silicon circuits. This much can be simulated with either analog neural network hardware, or emulated entirely within a Turing computer, endowed with a couple times more processor power. Also, the human brain is divided into specialized cortices with separate functions and limited communication between them. You just gave me consciousness as a form; limitation of computational perception. In your computer brain, “you”- the part that makes you human- is the higher-order information and the higher-order information only. If you include the lower-level information such as the neurochemical reactions within the brain, you can’t really conclude that that’s “you.” I would argue that you can derive all the higher-order information from that raw data, but whether it’s additional information or derived information isn’t really relevant. What is relevant is that above a certain unknown threshold of abstraction you have “you,” and below that you have data and simple processes and functions. If you’re a programmer you might have figured out where I’m going with this. Human thought is a very high-level programming language. Higher than English (or any other spoken or written language), lower than paradigms, or systems/frameworks of constructing human thought. More interestingly, the constant tendency for computer languages has been a generalized increase in abstraction in proportion to the processing power available. Yet more interestingly, it appears that above a specific threshold of abstraction we see an emergent property; the ability to understand and manipulate itself. Consciousness.
Well obviously we could build a computer that has just as much processing power as our brains do. So the question is instead- how do we program such a computer so it will be human, instead of a machine? The existence of humans means that it can be done because we are composed completely of inorganic matter organized into organic forms. So, what does it really mean to be “human”? Do we mean a human body, or do we mean a human spirit? It is possible we may conclude that a prerequisite of being human is to have a human structure and eliminate all except natural-born, carbon-based, earth-bound, and above all “normal” humans as being truly human. I, of course, utterly disagree with this assessment. We should be asking better questions. For example; is there some property of a human that you could subtract and leave something that is a non-human? I would say no, that any “property” that you could name would be a vague abstraction of something esoteric you simply couldn’t define. Such a dilemma means that we’re approaching this problem in the wrong way. Rather than asking what it means to be human, we should be asking what is the most significant property of life information that humans demonstrate? This is an immensely deep point, but I’ll reduce it as far as it will go here. Basically, if we were to transfer completely over to silicon-based consciousness or some other form and then discovered an alien race that had already made that shift, what would distinguish the human variety from the alien variety? Human and alien would be on the same substrate, but would clearly be different. Bear in mind that this situation is flawed as an example because there will be very clearly delineated cultural differences simply because the two species/races were not in the same geocultural area- both would have their own but they must by necessity (the improbability of parallel evolution) be different, though it doesn’t mark a significant difference between the two. To prove this point, any property that would be different between two human civilizations on different planets separated by that amount of time cannot be considered between a human and alien civilization because it cannot define a “human” property.
Life as a class is an example of self-organizing, self-reproducing, self-refining adaptive information. I have already covered my basic concept of what life as information is at some length, and this paragraph might not make sense if you haven’t read it, you have been warned. Life is a pattern of exponential growth, due to constant and improving refinement to improve growth and improve further refinement, etc. etc. ad infinitum. Humans are merely the bleeding edge of evolution, we are causing change faster than change has ever been caused before, and technology is the new font of evolution where our brains once were. We see a clear, direct, and unimpeded curve of the evolution from microbes to humans, the human mind, and the exponential increase of technology from a hammer to augment the hand to a computer to augment the mind. So to say that it is a human trait to expand and to push new horizons is not really accurate- that would be a property of any and all life. Our alien civilization will have been programmed by evolution with a similar drive due to the sum effects of competition, limited space/resources/whatever, and the ease of access to new untapped resources. By the same token we can disqualify traits such as drive to survive, perseverance, competition, cooperation, communication, and a bevy of other decidedly “human” abilities and traits. The truth is, there isn’t a hell of a lot left after that, none of it good. So we are left with no value to our “human” identity. So we are forced to conclude we should associate more with life than with being a particular species. Which makes sense because what it means to be “human” has evolved dramatically, and will evolve in the future, while the human status as living will not. I am not a citizen of the USA, I am a citizen of the world. Neither am I a human, I am a citizen of the great ecology of Life.
My position is that after we grew accustomed to having a trillion times as much brainpower as we do now, and having worked out any irksome little psychological issues and base drives and refined our own processes sufficiently- it would be a never-ending process, but there comes a point where it’s close enough- we would be indistinguishable from an alien race which made the same transformation independently. The reason is that we live in the same universe with the same physical laws and the same mathematics. The same logic and reason governs any and all possible alien species. If A then B, if B then C. A, therefore, C. I don’t care how many where you are in the universe, what level of technology you have, or how many eyes, limbs, or sets of genitalia you have, reason will hold. The differences between aliens would rise from the differences of their physical forms, their environments’ conditioning, and the unique and strange specialization, expansion, and limitation of their functioning. So irrespective of alienness, were you liberated from such a state and given time to sort yourself out you would end up more or less the same as another on the same path. I can hear the cries of “But I don’t wanna be the same!” Well of course, you shmuck. Why would you think that? This is where those previously discarded details come back. The cultural differences, those unique attributes that cannot be created artificially and can never evolve the same way due to a field of countless compounding infinities, make up your memory. There is no way to have a “more perfect” culture-memory in the same way a memory of an apple isn’t more perfect than a memory of an orange, provided both are pristinely accurate. Not a problem for entities such as these. Each would be incredibly unique, but would have arrived at an internal perceptual set and (comparatively) basic functional set that was highly idealized and comparable to the others’.
If you were one of these superbeings, you would probably dedicate your time to the creation of more of such material. Why do people write books, create movies, pursue their passions? Because it’s the quintessential human pursuit- the taking in of sensory data and other stimuli, the unique reinterpretation of it with our own minds in our own way. And then, lo and behold, our minds create from the ether a work that has never before been seen and could never exist in any other way had we neglected to create it. Every second not spent in its creation is wasted. The creation of better tools with which to create “cultural” (damn that word is poor) information is both its creation and the use of that knowledge to accelerate the rate at which it can be produced. The reason? Because that cultural information is alive in every sense of the word! Memes are the expansion of life into a substrate we can’t even comprehend, and we have the power to expand that substrate by making more humans, inventing ways to write them down and communicate them, making computers, and countless other inventions to come. The day we have sentient memes, things start getting truly interesting. (I suppose we already do in that one person is one meme bound to a specific brain- we don’t currently have the means to communicate a complete person-meme). And the day that another as yet unimagined and incomprehensible substrate as expansive as the mental/informational is uncovered, life will expand into that too.