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Repurposing Memory

Once upon a time, Dr. Wilder Penfield happened to cut open a patient's head and poked a part of his brain, which in turn caused the fellow to mutter something about seeing his grandmother (long dead) coming towards him with a freshly baked pie. It's worth noting that Penfield was a well respected neurosurgeon and the man having visions of nana and her baked goods was on the receiving end of a surgical procedure. Then again, when your name is "Wilder," it's pretty much a guarantee that your life will be interesting. I mention these things because Penfield went on to replicate and write about this experience, providing arguably the first real evidence for the engram, a physical manifestation of memory in the human brain.

Penfield went on to revise his hypothesis, and modern psychologists have tossed most of it away entirely, but sixty-some years ago it was a compelling case for the idea that your memories of grandma could be contained in a single cell in your cortex. Stimulate that cell and you call forth the memory, pie and all. Poke a different cell, you get a different memory.

It's a fun idea, but it falls apart quickly enough as you balance the estimated 84 billion neurons in the human brain against just how many and different kinds of memories we have, how they're related to one another (or not), and what facilitates access of some but not others. But credit where it's due, Penfield's work is likely responsible for much of what followed, even if that subsequent research was motivated by a desire to demonstrate just how wrong he was.

Nowadays, the idea of grandma cells has been replaced by patterns of activation. I'll leave it to the mathematicians among you to work out the possible combinations you can achieve with as few as 100 neurons out of an available 84 billion (and that 100 is a totally arbitrary number). The point is, you can make a much more compelling case for a pattern of firing among a specific group of neurons holding your memory of grandma (and her freshly baked pie).

Speaking as a cognitive psychologist, I quite like this model. It suggests that everything we know, everything we've experienced, pondered, dreamed, and imagined can be described as patterns of neural activity, that at the end of the day the thing that is each of us is a unique, individualized and highly organized collection of information. But speaking as a science fiction author, I'm not happy with this at all. Implicit in this idea is the limitation that because that collection of information has its basis in your wetware, it dies with you.

That grates against my aesthetic as an author. It seems... wasteful, even pointless. And I've been arguing against it from the very first story I sold. It was a little thing about the last survivor of Atlantis, a chronicler, who kept people alive by writing about them in an enormous book. That story was turned down by a lot of editors, including one very recognizable name (no, I won't tell you whom, it's not relevant) who replied that the story was about futility, and people didn't want to read futile SF.

But that was kind of my point -- even if I didn't have a clear grasp on it in my own mind at the time -- that the unique collection of information that defines each of us should not cease just because we've worn out the meat we're born into.

I've revisited this theme in subsequent fiction. It shows up several times in the collection of stories and novels that make up my Amazing Conroy universe, where Conroy (he's a stage hypnotist performing for aliens) encounters a member of the Svenkali, an ancient race that can invoke the personality and memories of any of their dead simply by speaking their unique name. The Svenkali consider this a kind of immortality, one that is part of their birthright, secure in the knowledge they'll be brought back as guests, visitors, teachers, and mentors for successive generations.

More recently I took this to the next level. In my latest novel, Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard (Buy in hardcover/Kindle ebook)), I offer up a more "scientific" explanation, positing a previously unknown subatomic particle (let's call it a "nefshon") and inventing a new branch of study that was part physics, part psychology.

Consider that the process of laying down new memories and experiences involves coding the information associated with those events on these nefshon particles, that they are in fact the material correlate of the neuronal network of activation created for each thing in memory. Being particles, space isn't really an issue, and like the old Dorrito's slogan, you can always make more.

More importantly, we're talking about a particular kind of memory here, the one that psychologists like to call "episodic memory," the store of events that you were a part of -- as distinct from say, "semantic memory" which is more encyclopedic, things you could look up on Google with your smartphone. So, knowing that Charlie has a blog is semantic memory, it's a fact and out there in the world. But that you read this particular post on the blog, that's episodic; it happened to you, and encoded along with that event is your reaction to the post, where you were when it happened, who else was around, maybe what you were wearing or eating or listening to in the background. Episodic memories represent your full sensorium of an event, both in terms of the bottom-up experience of the present stimuli as well as the top-down associations the event triggers at that moment in time.

And I'm claiming that all of that gets encoded into your nefshons.

Now here's the fun part. The information encoded in nefshons exist independently of the source of that information. Consider starlight. The twinkling bits you're seeing in the night sky have been traveling long and far to reach you; in some cases the source of their light, their information, has ceased, been snuffed out or gone nova or collapsed in upon itself or used as fuel by the First Order's Starkiller base, take your pick. The point is the particles don't care. They're busily traveling, minding their own business, and if somewhere along the way there's someone with the right instrument or sensory apparatus to recognize and decode and perceive their information, then Bob's your uncle and you get to see that that bit of reflected light from halfway across the galaxy. Pretty sweet.

Now let's go back to nefshons, particles of memory (and by extension, personality). At the end of the day, specifically the end of your last day, even though you may be destined to be worm food your nefshons continue on without you. You're no long holding on to them and they begin to defuse, fast or slow, throughout space.

In Barsk, I conveniently provide a drug that temporarily grants the ability to perceive and manipulate nefshons, allowing users (whom I call Speakers) to pull together a sufficient quantity of one person's particles to recreate a simulacrum of the deceased and actually converse with them. The idea here is the same as that starlight we were just talking about. The organization of information that made you unique, that was a description of who you are (or were) as a human being, still exists and is just waiting for someone with the tools to interact with it. Maybe it happens (as it does in my novel), maybe it doesn't (as in that vast warehouse of aging VHS cassette tapes that lack a player). It's the tree falling in the forest, the mechanism allows for immortality, whether or not there's someone there to summon you and have a chat long after you're gone.

It's a different way of looking at memory, which was part of what I wanted, and of course it begs one critical question: if a Speaker conjures you up post mortem and has a chat, will you remember that conversation the next time it happens?

96 Comments

1:

I think you are trying to beat the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, if I understand you correctly.
Which is a hiding to nothing, usually.

2:

it begs one critical question: if a Speaker conjures you up post mortem and has a chat, will you remember that conversation the next time it happens?

Or will it remember, either, and how does it remember, and in what fashion: a question that you bring up in the novel! (Happy release day by the way)

3:

So, here's my question.
Suppose Nefshons exist. They encode memories, but we are more than the sum of our memories. We also have the neural wetware that deals with logic, abstraction, language, etc. Our personality is influenced by stuff outside the brain such as hormones or even the food we eat.
When a speaker conjures the deceased by gathering up their nefshons, and attempts to speak with it, what does the "processing" to create original speech? Is it the speaker's own mind? if so, won't that influence to a very large degree the way those memories are interpreted to recreate the deceased's personality and reactions?

4:

Not if the living person is providing the low-entropy energy to power the collation; the immediate corollary is that the process would need a mentally strong person and be very tiring, both increasing rapidly as the nefshons disperse. Variants of that belief are widespread in many religions and have been used a lot in fantasy and pre-modern science fiction, of course, but I haven't seen precisely this one before.

5:

Alas, I'm not a physicist, so I'm not clear on how you feel I'm cheating thermodynamics (which is not to say that I'm not, just that I don't see it), or by which aspect of nefshons.

6:

Well, yeah, I do answer this question in the novel.

But to be fair, it's one I wrestled with for quite some time, before I had an answer which then shaped events in the book.

And thank you. :)

7:

Refers to #1, #4 and #5, and I'll start by restating the Second law of thermodynamics: In a natural thermodynamic process, the sum of the entropies of the interacting thermodynamic systems increases. Equivalently, perpetual motion machines of the second kind are impossible. from Wikipedia.

My first thought was that Greg's #1 was correct, then I read #4 and realised that this is actually correct, with the note that the energy could be supplied by some creature other than the Speaker.

Hopefully this helps Lawrence understand how he may be breaking the 2nd Law in this universe. The idea is interesting enough for me to want to use multiverse theory and say that it could work someplace else!

8:

Our personality is influenced by stuff outside the brain such as hormones or even the food we eat.

Well, yes and no. Everything we know of the external world is bottom-up processing comes to our via our sensorium, which in turn is processed by the brain. Combine that with everything we already know and might choose to apply to a given event or stimulus, and you've accounted for the top-down processing, which also occur in the brain.

But you raise an intriguing question, which if I may paraphrase you is just how much of the situation in a conversation with the dead a function of the Speaker and how much of the conversant? And by extension, does the Speaker even know?

One of the pragmatic aspects of manipulating nefshons is that you have to possess unique information about the person you're summoning or you won't be able to do it. This is a minor plot point early on in Barsk where a failure to appreciate this (by nonpractitioners)provides an unusual opportunity.

But back to the question, is the Speaker unconsciously filling in bits and mistakenly believing they come from the conversant (which would make the entire exercise more like talking to yourself) or is actual cognition going on in what one could argue is the reassembled mind of the simulacrum?

Personally, I go with the latter, because underpinning the entirety of nefhson theory is the idea that the mind is an emergent property of the brain, and can continue to exist without it.

9:

that the mind is an emergent property of the brain, and can continue to exist without it.

That's a reasonable desire, but what about the point raised elsewhere that mind appears to arise out of your body, not just out of your brain — someone suffering severe hunger, thirst or withdrawal symptoms may be less rational than a pure brain model implies.

(This is also part of the argument against the usual treatment of mind uploading.)

I'm also somewhat leery of the idea of an emergent property being at all easily removed from that from which it emerges. For me mind appears to be like an ocean wave - rather

10:

נֶפֶשון , no?

11:

Gather together?

12:

I am currently reading "How Many People Are There In My Head? And In Hers?" Oh, gods, godlings and godlets :-( Pontificating under the influence of Penrose. I suppose that he has an excuse for getting the mathematics so spectacularly wrong (though Penrose doesn't), but even so .... Yes, the "mind", "awareness", "thinking", "consciousness" etc. being emergent properties is the most plausible solution, but that most definitely does not imply any form of continuation after death. On the basis of all the evidence, that is entirely wishful thinking - which doesn't mean that it is provably false.

13:

You could argue that the hunger / thirst / fatigue are merely dominating sensory inputs, as is pain. They demand such attention as to eat up any spare cycles the brain has...

14:

"The idea is interesting enough for me to want to use multiverse theory and say that it could work someplace else!"

If you posit a sufficiently large multiverse then with finite computation it is possible to reconstruct anyone from arbitrarily small amounts of information.

15:

what about the point raised elsewhere that mind appears to arise out of your body, not just out of your brain — someone suffering severe hunger, thirst or withdrawal symptoms may be less rational than a pure brain model implies.

But all sensory input (including your bodily sensations) get processed by the brain.

Here's the example I used to use back in my professoring days: Think about some dream you've had. You're walking around in what ever dreamscape you've conjured up. You can see things, hear things, maybe you have some mac & cheese and to no one's surprise you can taste it. And so on. But your sensory receptors (your eyes, your ears, your tongue) are not actively receiving the stimuli from these things. You're drawing on sensory data that you have stored in your cortex.

The point is, we don't see with our eyes, but rather with our brain. And it's the same with any sensory information (like feeling hungry or thirsty or in pain). The brain takes that sensory information and gives it meaning, utilizing both bottom-up processes (those stimuli) and top-down processes (previous memories and reconstructions, such as the flu shot you had yesterday was nowhere near as painful as the spinal tap you endured last year).

16:

My Hebrew skills are long buried, both by time and the strata of too many other languages, but I'm guessing yours are much better and you've spotted an Easter Egg of sorts.

Keep in mind that I started writing Barsk back in 1989. That's when I invented nefshons. Hebrew was fresher in my mind and while I was getting some interference from more recently studied languages (like Comanche the year before), I hadn't yet discovered Klingon.

I did indeed go to Hebrew for nefshons. Me memory of it is hazy, but I think I looked up the word for "personality" and found Nephesh Adam (pardon the mangled romanization), literally, the face of man.

I liked it!

17:

Let's take that to its logical conclusion - the brain is just a theory that mind constructs to explain itself.

18:

Since I'm physics trained, nefshons are one of those SF shibboleths that would make me stop reading. A bit like all those "rays" from Golden Age SF.

19:

Yes, the "mind", "awareness", "thinking", "consciousness" etc. being emergent properties is the most plausible solution, but that most definitely does not imply any form of continuation after death.

You're absolutely right, Elderly Cynic, the one does not lead to the other.

Which is why I had to come up with the idea of the nefshon particles. And as an SF author (as opposed to a physicist) I get to do so without any sense of shame whatsoever.

Side note: There's a fun scene in the book where two nefhson constructs are arguing. One is the discoverer of the drug that makes active perception and manipulation of nefshons possible, and the other is a pharmer who has developed a new, more powerful strain of the drug. Eight hundred years have passed, and the latter lectures the former on developments in theory that have occurred since the original discovery.

20:


Nephesh has a bunch of different meanings, but your use of nefshon is quite consistent with most of them.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nephesh

http://biblehub.com/hebrew/5315.htm

21:

"a stage hypnotist performing for aliens"

That's enough to make my reading list.

"Being particles, space isn't really an issue . . ."

Well, maybe not volume of space, but location and velocity certainly are. And I think this is what Greg was getting at with his thermodynamics question. If memory is stored in the nefshons (And intelligence, or information processing ability? Is that stored in the nefshons, too?), I assume that somehow the wetware is organizing the particles in a particular way in time and space to make information storage and retrieval possible. This organization is a reduction in entropy, which is where the thermodynamics question comes in. So when the wetware dies, how is that the nefshons continue to be organized? What keeps them in the particular arrangement in time and space that allows continued information retrieval? (I'm betting on quantum something-or-other.)

In my mind (wherever that may be!), that's the difference between science fiction and magic dust dressed up as science fiction. But either way, probably worth a read because hypnotists and aliens, oh my!

22:

. But either way, probably worth a read because hypnotists and aliens, oh my!

Hey, Agent 0090, I need to correct you slightly.

The line "a stage hypnotist performing for aliens" refers to a different series of short stories and novels that I've previously written, and NOT to the shiny new book that launched today.

A lot of the stories are available in a collection entitled Buffalito Buffet (here's the Kindle link). Three novellas in the series have been nominated for Nebula Awards. You can also find quite a few of the stories on my page over at Moozvine where they've been released under individual creative commons licenses.

23:

I see Allen Thomson has beaten me to it.
Tried to look it up, but Google translate sucks with Hebrew (and I don't have a dictionary handy), but I assumed Nefshon is a conjugation of Nefesh; the Hebrew for spirit or soul.
A reasonably proper use of Hebrew (or Yiddish) gets my interest, so I'll be looking for your books.

Tempted to ask the standard Heeb Magazine interview qustion: So, what did you wear at your Bar Mitzvah? But I'm not.

24:

JamesPadraicR, to further tempt/taunt you, I'll point out that my protagonist has been marked by his people with a bio-luminescent tattoo that just happens to be the shape of an Aleph.

25:

I don't mean to imply that's the only reason for interest. But when other languages are used well it adds to my enjoyment of the work. Rajaniemi's "The Quantum Thief" did it very well, imo.

26:

Just checking to see whether I understand the premise …

Big assumption .. I’m going to assume that although nefshons are unique single-purpose particles, they also interact with brain cells/structures at some point, on some level. How do you test that the nefshons are actually recording what’s going on, what the original person is perceiving/feeling?

Quality/completeness of the memory storage process/equipment and/versus how good the memory player is. If the memories can be recorded exactly – complete fidelity with no omissions/lapses then you could get a reliable recording of that person. But if anything gets missed in the initial recording then the memories would have gaps that upon reassembly/replay could resemble something that never happened, a person that never was. Imagine a piece of recorded music where every second note, or notes above or below a certain tone or duration were omitted, that musical composition wouldn’t sound at all like the original piece. It’d be a completely novel composition. The same would happen if the playback equipment lacked the ability to replay everything that had been recorded. If the memory being played back was about color, and the person playing back to experience that memory had never seen/experienced color previously because of their brain/nervous system/sensory organ structure, then the ‘memory of color’ would have no place to be processed, therefore would not be experienced … would not exist.

Memory overwriting … each time we recall/refresh our memories, we’re also re-recording it plus whatever new information is hanging around in our vicinity (brain/body) at that time. This would produce an altered memory. So unless the memory we’re trying to access had never been recalled during the lifetime of the being, we cannot be sure of the accuracy of that memory.

If the memory recording occurs at time of death or shortly after, then there’s also the possibility of organic recording failures: the neurons, astrocytes, etc. start to die off or a neurochemical imbalance, cells misfire, memory traces erode and/or recombine into completely new pathways, creating memories of events that never were. How far into death does the nefshon keep recording? Which dies first, the nefshon or the other brain cells?

Also, if the species evolves, then because there does seem to be some localization of some brain function/processes, over time some memory recordings would become undecipherable unless converted to the new design/format. At this point, you might question whether the translated memory is in fact accurate or novel/new. For example, if the species ever evolved to the point where their brains had a lie-detector bunch of localized cells (the ‘BS body’), how much would they trust memories of less evolved people where they couldn’t tell fact from fiction?

27:

So, erm, nefshons are the particles of dark energy that are driving the universe apart?

If they're the particles of memory, then one would posit that they're increasing through time. As with the Pratchett universe, where about 6% is what we can see and the invisible 94% is the record-keeping and the audit trail, it looks like nefshons are the invisible part of the universe, with all that implies in modern-day cosmology.

28:

I don't think memory alone is sufficient to define a personality. Memory is the data but there is also an application and a set of algorithms reading, side effecting and writing that data. That application varies person by person

As a concrete example being good at Math is more then remembering you are good at math and it is also more then remembering your times tables

29:

That works too.

I wrote a character with animated UV tattoos of circuit patterns and Magnetic Core Memory. But then I saw a circuit tattoo on a friend-of-a-friend, and then UV ink came out. Not sure if that novel will see light. I'm not particularly into tats, but know enough people with them that they've popped up in my writing attempts.

And the Conroy series sounds fun.

30:

Tried to look it up, but Google translate sucks with Hebrew (and I don't have a dictionary handy), but I assumed Nefshon is a conjugation of Nefesh; the Hebrew for spirit or soul.

Google renders נֶפֶש , which is a real word, as "soul." I just tacked on the ון to agree with nefsh-on. Understandably, Google doesn't do very well with made-up neologisms.

BTW, I don't actually know much Hebrew but can fake it a little on the interwebs.

31:

Strangely, I agree with Dirk on that...

32:

Google turned up your Big Idea write-up on Scalzi's Whatever blog. Nice timing! Your story premise sounds interesting, so will be adding Barsk to my reading list.

33:

So, erm, nefshons are the particles of dark energy that are driving the universe apart?

I think you confuse that with Fixions.

34:

I don't think memory alone is sufficient to define a personality. Memory is the data but there is also an application and a set of algorithms reading, side effecting and writing that data.

If it was a set of algorithms, it would be Turing-computable. While behavior of some persons is clearly computable, the complete experience of a personality is not. You'd need a physical system with at least the complexity of a human body to emulate personality.

35:

You'd need a physical system with at least the complexity of a human body to emulate personality.

I agree. But then, that's what the network of nefshons is providing, albeit at a much smaller level. Two points to consider (over and above the fictional and theoretical premise): 1) without getting caught up in the math, I would expect the number of nefshons to be several orders of magnitude greater than the number of neurons, and 2) the nefshons, being subatomic particles, aren't responsible for any other functions or dependent on any other systems, as opposed to the living cells that make up the brain.

36:

As I was sharing some of the comments here with my wife, she reminded me that the blog post doesn't include mention of a factor that is made very clear in the book (and which might address some of the Thermodynamic concerns):

In Barsk it's made clear that because nefshons diffuse after a person's death, a Speakers have a very limited range of years that they can draw on. We see some Speakers who have an easier time of summoning a conversant because 1) the target had been previously summoned and so the nefshon dispersal has started all over again, and 2) they're in closer proximity to where the diffusion began (e.g., a Speaker attempting to summon a recently deceased commenter here would likely find it a simpler task to perform the summoning here on Earth, than at the other end of the galaxy).

The point being, the Speaker puts energy into the system to gather a sufficient number of the conversant's nefshons together. Once they've arrived, their pre-existing relationships to one another make it possible retrieve the information they contain. An imperfect analogy might be made to the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, randomly distributed at first but coming together to reveal an image.

Finally, I'll remind you that my academic training is in cognitive psychology and not physics, so I'm much more comfortable with the stuff about memory and not so much the particulars of particles. And too, all of this is in service to a work of fiction, so I'm more than willing to ask for a bit of suspended disbelief about an idea that cannot currently be proved using the tools we currently have at hand. In my fiction I've always taken the position that a character traveling as a passenger on a spaceship (e.g., the Amazing Conroy when he's working his way across space entertaining the guests) is no more expected to know how the ship gets from place to place than I am to have a deep insight to how example my car uses gasoline to permit me to drive around town.

37:

(Fair warning: my נֶפֶשון are a bit scrambled).

Two questions:

#1 Given that a Mind's T/S position is part of an orbit (Galactic Year), does this mean that nefshons are localized?

Do species run around sampling the local nefshon backgrounds as a scientist would analyze soil?

Do you only get to access the nefshons that were formed when that Mind/Nefshon interface happened? (e.g. We have to go 100 AU in that direction, this version of Einstein is too early).

Or do nefshons radiated out like particles? (At which point the Fermi Paradox is solved, Earth is the galactic superfund site that is still being discussed in an inter-agency dispute)


#2 I'm going to disagree with the following, which while poetic, misses a bit (there's a point to this):

The twinkling bits you're seeing in the night sky have been traveling long and far to reach you; in some cases the source of their light, their information, has ceased

They're also the source. To unpack: skipping the obvious point that emitted light is part of a Star (so, if you want to imagine the universe in a different way, imagine a brane shaped like fractal sea-urchin with coloured splodges on it, all running into one another in various depths of tone[1]), many Stars out there aren't progenitor originals from the Big Bang (yours is not - Pan-STARRS1) but are made from progenitors (Wolf–Rayet star).


So, do nefshons likewise get reused?

Even accessing them is going to change their nature - so is it a case of "used and burned" where nefshons are a hedonic fossil fuel used for entertainment, or is there a rule [tm] which means once imprinted on the brane they stay fixed?

#3 From a psychological / philosophical point of view, simulacrum are atemporal (third order, c.f. Baudrillard - It becomes reality for its own sake, the fetishism of the lost object: no longer the object of representation, but the ecstasy of denial and of its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal.... The hyperreal ... manages to efface even this contradiction between the real and the imaginary. Unreality no longer resides in the dream or fantasy, or in the beyond, but in the real's hallucinatory resemblance to itself,")

In short: a culture based on barsk is itself trapped in being a simulacrum and doomed.

Intentional?

~

Off I tootle.


Never say that Wikipedia isn't full of insight sometimes:

4 galactic years from now Carbon dioxide levels fall to the point at which C4 photosynthesis is no longer possible. Multicellular life dies out


[1]This is an atrocious analogy, but chosen for reasons. The Language one was plucked, so I went for something else. Something something Carob seed.

38:

My physical body is constantly exchanging atoms with the world around it. What makes a nefshon part of one individual and not another? Binding effect of psychic energy generated by the brain? Soul?

Can the nefshons representing a dead individual be edited? duplicated? combined with someone else?

Feel free to tell me to RTFB

39:

CatinaDiamond, we clearly have a problem when you say "two questions" and then proceed to ask at least six (amidst lots of other confusing bits). While my math may be terrible (as compared to members of this audience) I do have a passing facility with arithmetic. :)

So, I'm going to pick and choose two questions.


Do species run around sampling the local nefshon backgrounds as a scientist would analyze soil?

Brilliant question! Though, I admit, I'm biased. That very point is a major subplot of the first of two sequel proposals sitting on my editor's desk right now. We get a small glimpse of this in the book when a character engages in a related behavior (I'll say no more now because... spoilers.


Do you only get to access the nefshons that were formed when that Mind/Nefshon interface happened?

There's too much here that requires agreed upon operational definitions, and the medium of comments and replies (particularly on launch day) is too inefficient a use of my cycles. If I'm understanding the question (and I don't know that I am), then the answer is "no" but that's also affected by what you mean by "access."

Short answer: read the book and see how and what the characters do with this idea. Then come back and beat on my head with chapter and verse as ammunition. Fair?

40:

Vox: You'd need a physical system with at least the complexity of a human body to emulate personality.

Schoen: I agree.

I'd withhold agreement or disagreement. Our bodies and accompanying minds/personalities are, as far as we know, the product of evolution and, as many examples show, evolution can lead to messy ways of doing things. Add that we currently have next to no idea of how minds arise from bodies, and one should at least keep open the possibility that simpler physical systems could manifest minds/personalities.

41:

Yay! I got a RTFB response! (*nose wiggle*)

The psychological implications of accessing simulacra was my real interest (the rest is camouflage to pretend I'm hard SF enough), given your background.

However, I guess you're on the list (to read).

~

p.s.

"anthropomorphic elephant people".

Oh dear. I fear I'll get bagged as a ringer poster if such synchronicity goes on much longer. LSD and Elephants, tsk tsk priming the audience like that is naughty ;)

42:

Google does fine with single words, and Nefesh is a common one--it's in the 1st chapter of Genesis. But try it with a sentence or paragraph, if you include the nikud (vowel points) it'll come out mostly garbage, it does better without the vowels though with some odd translations. It doesn't do that great with Yiddish passages either. I'm nowhere near fluent in either, which is why I've tried Google Translate, it's useful for words or short phrases.

43:

When the nefshons are collected, how is the set from one mind kept separated from anothers, so that only one mind is interacted with, not some sort of composite or multiple mind construct? If the idea of nefshon discreteness is correct, this makes nefshons non-fungible, which is rather different from known particles isn't it?

44:

I like the mental image of Earth lurching through space, leaving a trail of "Nefshon" billowing behind like oil smoke rolling from a fifty year old car in dire need of an oil change. Star-farers in need of a resident personality for a new AI capable computer would trawl that path and new life arising on a world that crossed our trail would not be entirely random.

45:

A perfect justification for using the old A.I Is a Crapshoot trope.

46:

And if "Nefshon" behave anything like electromagnetic phenomena, well adjusted successful types who tend to die inside of buildings will be selected against.

47:

Not necessarily, it just indicates nefshons are fermions, not bosons. This would lead to some consequences.

For starters, nefshons would most likely have a half integrer spin. They woul also be subject to the Pauli exclusion principle, which might hamer communication between sophonts on a fundamental level ("are you pondering what I'm pondering?").

They'd also be subject to baryonic and leptonic conservation, which might indicate some kind of "eternal soul", though one might reconcile it with the Buddhist dharma system somewhat.

Maybe some physicist might explain it somewhat more...

48:

This is not the physicist you're looking for! ;-D

The basic idea of nefshons is starting to make some sort of sense to me all of a sudden though!

49:

If nefshons are like fermions, e.g. electrons, while they obey the Pauli exclusion principle, I don't see how that helps. Suppose you take 2 electron sources and merge their electron streams, can the streams be separated out again by source? I don't think there is any property that allows that. (But I'm not a physicist). Suppose that they had a property that was unique to the mind generating them, then that would require a very large range of property values to allow a unique "code" for each mind. It seems to me that they would need something up to 500 bits (500 2 state properties) to ensure a unique value for all individuals in the universe. Even for a planet, perhaps 40 2 state properties for all individuals who ever lived.

If nefshons acted more like light, then perhaps they could be separated by focusing the light so that their sources could be separated. This seems like a more reasonable approach.

50:

I think it a more reasonable approach to consider nefshons as fictional particles that only exist in order to provide a backing to a story.

51:

Fictional sure, but it's more fun to try and treat them as theoretical particles than purely as handwavium.

52:

Not if you first have to forget all you know about physics.
(Damn, I'm still agreeing with Dirk. Something is wrong.)

53:

Well, if you really want a pseudo-plausible view of nefshons then consider them virtual particles involved in moment by moment quantum non-demolition imaging of this reality from a parallel universe where time somewhat different or non-existent. That is, nefshons are the read mechanism to a parallel universe that acts as a spatial record of our temporal events.
A bit like the old SF idea that the history of the universe is written onto every event horizon of every Black Hole, and might be retrieved. The Cosmolith.

54:

I refer you to my #48.

55:

The nice thing about event horizons is that within limits you can claim anything is on the other side of them.

Anyone who tries to go and prove you wrong isn't going to be bothering you again after all :)

56:

So you agree with me and many of his colleagues that Stephen Hawking should be a shoe-in for a Special Award - Professional in the World Fantasy Awards?

57:

Don't think much of the characterisation to be honest, although there are people who read Egan so I guess he's in with a chance.

58:

I hadn't heard this one before, but I'd vote for him, and yes I have read (not just own, have read) "A Brief History of Time".

59:

I'm reminded of a sci-fi novel the title of which I can no longer remember. Every memory of every human who ever lived is recorded on light-like particles that are collected by a God-like alien in order to help it defeat another race of spider-like aliens who eat pain. Ring any bells for anyone?

60:

A. A. Attanasio, in his Radix Tetrad

61:

Hi Dirk,

When you say "If you posit a sufficiently large multiverse then with finite computation it is possible to reconstruct anyone from arbitrarily small amounts of information.", I have a question or three...

1. Are you saying that your computation will converge upon reconstructing the one and only one version of that individual that existed in the history of the universe you started computing from? * - see notes

2. How small can "arbitrarily small" be? - eg: "genome contained arginine", "lived at or near the surface of Earth", "Cannot be proven not to have existed"

* As opposed to computing a class of many ** members, one of which is the one you were trying to reconstruct

** many(1) - gross physical (observable) differences in history eg lived on the streets and sold methamphetamine vs worked at CERN keeping their computers functioning...

** many(2) - differences that the original individual could pick but an observer could not eg spent much of their time mentally composing poetry but never wrote it down/spoke any of it, vs spent exactly the same time obsessively composing Twilight fanfic but never emitted any of that either.

62:

It will not converge. Think of it as a curve fitting exercise where every interpolated point takes a different value in a different universe. So a vast number of people will be reconstructed and at least one will have continuity of consciousness with the "real" original.

Arbitrarily small can be to the point of it being a character from fiction.

63:

So then you are merely left with the easy problem of sorting through an infinite number of fits for the correct one.

Can you do that with an arbitrarily small amount of information as well?

64:

You don't need to do any sorting, because the reconstructed person will be indistinguishable from the original in all the facts that you have available in your particular universe. It really only matters to the original.

65:

the point is that you will have an infinite number of reconstructed people in your fit. Now choose the right one.

What you are actually doing is searching a very large, possibly infinite dimensional configuration space for a particular configuration.

Your "arbitrarily small" amount of information merely narrows it down to a smaller but still possibly infinite subspace that is guaranteed to contain your target.

Pointing at an infinite volume and saying "in there" does not count as success.

At least the final search is only O(n) in configurations. Oh.

66:

There's always the possibility that you're speaking to a collection of nefshons that is 60% the guy you want, 35% other random people, and 5% labrador retriever. Could be amusing.

This is really where the second law of thermodynamics comes in: a firecracker will scatter gas molecules very easily, but collecting them again is much harder.

All the author really had to say was four words: "I see dead people". The readers who are willing to follow the conceit are on board, and the others know enough to stop reading. I don't really see the point of trying to reconcile ghosts with particle physics.

67:

I don't have to choose the right one. All the reconstructions will be constructed to match all known facts in each universe. None will be "objectively" the original. All that can be said is that in one universe at least there will be a true version of the original with matching brain states, even if it is not known whether you occupy that same universe.
We are talking about some 10^(10^16) reconstructions in 10^(10^16) universes by 10^(10^16) versions of "me". (Assuming I am doing the reconstructions)

68:

Nope, that isnt it. In the one I'm thinking of, it starts off with a war between an authoritarian Nordic society and a revolt. There's remote controlled space fighter, a set of asteroids in deep space, and a female POV character who is rejected from her society.

69:

Ok, I'll to poke the OP in a manner that tickles the right neurons; I fear he feels that "tough crowd" has happened and is challenging on unfair grounds:

Speaking as a cognitive psychologist, I quite like this model. It suggests that everything we know, everything we've experienced, pondered, dreamed, and imagined can be described as patterns of neural activity, that at the end of the day the thing that is each of us is a unique, individualized and highly organized collection of information.

As a CP [no, chans, not that], do you apply hierarchy to said states?

What's your model of organizational priorities here?

Taking it at face value means that 90% of Homo Sapiens Sapiens within a Cultural Space are functionally identical, barring the minutiae of their everyday random scatter emotional relations.

And this hasn't gone unnoticed:

Propaganda Games: Sesame Credit - The True Danger of Gamification - Extra Credits
[YouTube: Discussion: 7:38] Dec 16 2015

~

Is there a reason, as a CP, that you've chosen interactions with simulacrums?

70:

i just invented the saying :-) I have read it, too, and it irritated me nearly as much as Penrose's witterings.

71:

The statement that I had read it was because I remember back in the day critics claiming that many more people had bought ABHoT than had actually read, never mind understood, it.

It irritated me (and PhD friends) too, mostly for the number of times it said "it therefore follows" or similar, and our reaction was pretty much (even if the conclusion was correct) "no it doesn't, not from the evidence presented anyway".

72:

I consider Penrose' books far better than BHoT

73:

So the premise may be similar to Penrose's Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness.

As per Wikipedia:

'Penrose hypothesizes that:

Human consciousness is non-algorithmic, and thus is not capable of being modelled by a conventional Turing machine-type of digital computer.

Quantum mechanics plays an essential role in the understanding of human consciousness, specifically, he believes that microtubules within neurons support quantum superpositions.

The objective collapse of the quantum wavefunction of the microtubules is critical for consciousness.

The collapse in question is physical behaviour that is non-algorithmic and transcends the limits of computability.

The human mind has abilities that no Turing machine could possess because of this mechanism of non-computable physics.'


So, even if you can figure out the math formula, the problem/solution is itself non-solvable. (Or - if you're feeling generous - does not tend to produce only one correct answer. Therefore room for handwavium.)

74:

In all his books he covers far more physics than just that.
A rather excellent lecture:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbtxndUJHZI

75:

ghItlh Alex:

When the nefshons are collected, how is the set from one mind kept separated from anothers, so that only one mind is interacted with, not some sort of composite or multiple mind construct? If the idea of nefshon discreteness is correct, this makes nefshons non-fungible, which is rather different from known particles isn't it?

Yes, I think it's fair to say that nefshons (once encoded) are non-fungible. As to how a Speaker sorts through them, presumably this is occurring through some system of salient features which allows the individual to retrieve a specific person in the first place.

Some of this is touched on in the book, and other bits and pieces I've deliberately left out so I have something to mine in the sequels. I could elaborate here, but... spoilers!

76:

Wikipedia is correct, but it is not what Penrose claims, though I have read only some other writings; I should really check the details in that one to see if it is any better. I could explain Goedel's and Turing's results in a bit more detail, though I am no expert, but Penrose makes several assertions that are known bullshit. For example:

No, the simple deterministic Turing machine is NOT the only realistic computational model and, as far as I know, some others have not been proven to have the same constraint.

No, the human mind has NOT been proven to be immune from a Goedelian constraint, though clearly we can do better than ZFC, and we might be ZFC plus a few interesting axioms.

No, the existence of quantum gravity is NOT established, and that whole area can be politely described as pure speculation; it makes string theory look solid.

77:

ghItlh Jay:

All the author really had to say was four words: "I see dead people". The readers who are willing to follow the conceit are on board, and the others know enough to stop reading. I don't really see the point of trying to reconcile ghosts with particle physics.

Actually, Jay, I've repeatedly said (though not here, because it never came up) that the elevator pitch for Barsk was "Dune meets The Sixth Sense, with Elephants."

Though in response to an implication in the second part above, I never use terms like "ghost" or "soul" in describing nefshon constructs. And that was deliberate.

78:

ghItlh CatinaDiamond:

As a CP [no, chans, not that], do you apply hierarchy to said states?

Which "states" are you referring to here? And what system of hierarchy are you looking for?

I'll take a stab at an answer (though it's only a stab because I'm not clear on your responses to these points), but my thinking is more about the patterns of activation that describe the currently popular models of memory. One of the tricky (and to me, very interesting) aspects of this is that in addition to these patterns encoding memory, they by default have to reference once another (i.e., you have memories of your memories), making the whole thing more than a little recursive. Given this, hierarchies don't seem particularly necessary because you can spin off whatever organizing principle you choose on the fly.

'ej ghItlh:

What's your model of organizational priorities here?

If I'm understanding you correctly (and really, why would I assume that?), I think you're just asking the previous question in a fresh way. Which I appreciate, because it makes me a bit more confident that we're talking about the same thing. And because I've already answered it. Next question. :)

'ej ghItlh

Taking it at face value means that 90% of Homo Sapiens Sapiens within a Cultural Space are functionally identical, barring the minutiae of their everyday random scatter emotional relations.

We're going to have to disagree on this. However, your point does create a good opportunity to invoke schema theory. For those in the cheap seats, cognitive psychology uses the term "schema" to refer to a packet of information appropriate to a particular situation or setting. Thus you have schemata for what goes on in a restaurant, how to ride a public bus, what to do when you walk into a shoe store, etc. I'm thinking that these cover much (if not all) of the data you're invoking by your 90%, which is to say, generic information that is common to members of the same cultural reference points. And while those things are certainly included in an individual's episodic memory, they lack the unique bits of top-down processes that move it from an memory that's identical with your neighbor's memory of the event to something that is truly personal.

'ej ghItlh:

And this hasn't gone unnoticed:

Propaganda Games: Sesame Credit - The True Danger of Gamification - Extra Credits
[YouTube: Discussion: 7:38] Dec 16 2015

No doubt you'll see this as a cheap cop-out, but I'm going to plead lack of time (hey, just released a book, okay?) and not follow through on that link. But I do thank you for it, and I look forward to taking a peek when I can spare the cycles.

'ej ghItlh:

Is there a reason, as a CP, that you've chosen interactions with simulacrums?

Only to the extent that my background in psych led me to the idea that memory, defined as a highly organized collection of patterns of activation, didn't necessarily expire when its host did.

It's been frustrating to me that some people think I'm talking about "souls" or "ghosts" here, because none of that was my intention. Rather, I view nefshon constructs as a kind of interactive recording. Though I'm a bit concerned that telling you that will only engender even more questions. Then again, you took the time to pose your questions so I owe you the best answer I have the time to share.

79:

Okay, coming up for a breath before going back to work (yes, even on New Year's Eve, can you believe it?).

I just wanted to say, I wish I had you folks to bounce ideas off of when I was tweaking my nefshon ideas back in the day. I'm not saying it would have resulted in something that made you any happier, but I'd have at least been better educated.

I hope that when I get to working on Book 2, that some of you will be open to chatting with me, preferably very slowly and with small words. Thanks!

80:

If that is all you are aiming for then I concede the point, but it does comprehensively fail the usefulness test.

81:

I can get behind that. We will get the information about the doom fortress, but first the speaker channeling the dark lords ex chief scientist needs a bone and his tummy rubbed.

82:

Not at all. In every universe I bring back the dead to the degree they match every known fact and memory. And in one universe at least, the person is identical in every way to the original ie is the original.

83:

You have failed to demonstrate that.

your claim was that you could do it with an arbitrarily small amount of information. If that information is "contains carbon" then you are more likely to match a bag of coal than a person.

You claim otherwise because multiverse woo, but there is a massive hole around result selection, even if I am generous about the accessibility or otherwise of multiverses.

84:

On the other hand, if you attempted to bring back a certain dead person, the probability that you would succeed is nearly zero (or, if you prefer multiverse interpretations, the value of one you that succeeds is outweighed by the nigh-infinity of yous that fail). As a method of discovering anything that you didn't already know, it's substantially worse than guessing.

85:

Re: 44 Tim H

'Star-farers ... and new life arising on a world that crossed our trail would not be entirely random.'


I like this! --- Pansapientia?

What happens when a supernova blows, or a super black hole forms: are there nefshon versions of these? Imagine nefshons from other stars (constellations - alien civilizations) streaking through the cosmos and entangling within a newborn ... all of a sudden astrology turns into a science.

86:

One does not need to access other parts of the multiverse to make it work.

87:

It's not about discovering anything new - it's about bringing back the dead.

88:

Hmm, schema theory. I'm an organizational psychologist by training, so I'm a little out of my depth here, but I can certainly buy the idea that memory (let's include both procedural and sub-conscious memory) is a collection of activation patterns. There are models of the mind that propose that different activation patters compete with each other for processing resources, and that our brains use environmental outcomes to assign emotional weights which determine how often each of a set of related patterns get selected, and therefore strengthened, over time. Who we are does not remain the same.

IIRC new activation patterns override old ones, but the old ones dont go away, they remain in a weakened state, so that they cannot be activated until a set of familiar stimuli in the environment recall them. This would be why relearning a skill after we have forgotten it is easier than it was the first time we learned it. You may have forgotten every word you learned from your college french class, but it you took another course today, chances are you would pick it faster this time than the first. Who we are at any one moment of time depends on where we are.

So- simulacrums. I suppose the nefshons represent the mind of the original as it was at the moment of death? That has interesting implications as far as interacting with it. The very idea implies that the nefshons do not merely represent a static snapshot of the original mind at a particular moment, they can also simulate the unique mechanisms by which the original processed new information (otherwise it couldn't engage in a conversation post-death). IIRC in schema theory new information is integrated via assimilation and accomodation- to oversimplify by either expanding existing schema or break them down into new, more precise ones. The criteria for that is presumably also unique to each individual. Even if these mechanisms (and the data they operate on) were precisely and accurately preserved, once "re-incarnated" they would be exposed to a new environment that the original never was- and so the simulacrum isn't the original person anymore, but something like what the original might have been if they could somehow have experienced what the simulacrum has. If a sense of continuity has been preserved then one could claim that the simulacrum is the original in some sense, but is it really? And what does all this imply about our sense of identity?

And another question- could you "roll back" the simulacrum to an earlier point in the original's life? Those old activation patterns are still in there, somewhere. Could we run them back to early childhood, then simulate different experiences to find out what the original would have done if their life had been different?

And if you can do it with the dead, can you do it with the living?

And what would this do to the sense of identity of the people living with this technology?

Hmm...

89:

It would help to keep nefshyons discrete, because no two nefshyons could have the same quantum numbers. AFAIK thge fact matter is made of fermions might be one of the reasons walking thorugh walls is somewhat difficult. ;)

Oh, and photons are bosons, BTW, which might have something to do with how lasers work.

Actually, I have been thinking about this somewhat, though my thoughts about WIMPS. gravitinos etc. don't fit on this margin. Maybe tomorrow, err, later today.

BTW, happy new year everybody!

90:

Think statistically. For ANY technique to work, nefshons would have to be tagged or at least probabilistically identifiable as to source, but you wouldn't need to do a perfect job to get a usable result. Memory isn't perfectly reliable, after all! So that's OK, IFF the condition I mentioned holds.

On this matter, I have so far not seen even an academic paper that has used a multiple universe approach with any other meaning than "I have started writing implausible fantasy, and am waving my hands vigorously in the hope you won't notice." God help me, that goes back to Rabin and Scott :-(

91:

ghItlh DeMarquis:

could you "roll back" the simulacrum to an earlier point in the original's life? Those old activation patterns are still in there, somewhere. Could we run them back to early childhood, then simulate different experiences to find out what the original would have done if their life had been different?

theoretically, yes, and this is a trick I play with in the sequels.

92:

Whoa, when I saw the boldface, I thought I was in trouble somehow. It sounds intriguing, cant wait until it appears in the US.

93:

I'm pretty sure it's just that Laurence has fumbled an HTML close tag.

94:

Here's a few nice, short reviews, including "Barsk", from The Washington Post

95:

Yes, he had. I've now fixed it

96:

" Who we are at any one moment of time depends on where we are. "

I wonder if the laying down of memories connects somehow with the brain's spatial mapping function. During bike rides I used to listen to books on tape, and when later reflecting on lines of dialogue from the story I could recall precisely which street corner or bridge approach I was biking at when the line was spoken. Music pieces apparently don't get captured the same way in my memory, since I couldn't then link up any one to one correspondence between section and place in the same way. Ever hear any speculation about this, or has it even been researched?

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