Monday, April 27, 2009


As I grow older and forgetful, I realize that my memory isn't failing. Nearly everything I ever knew is still stored. It is only that it's more difficult and takes longer to access. Twenty years ago the name of my kindergarten teacher would have come off my tongue instantly, even automatically. Today, if you asked me who she was, my slower processor would have to do dig through nearly 48 years' worth of accumulated files, and I might hesitate for few moments. I may even appear to have forgotten her name altogether. But it's still there, under the detritus collected over many years. My processor works sluggishly in the background until it does find the data at 3:00 a.m., by which time I have forgotten why I was trying to recall it. Or, at 6:00 a.m., as happened recently, in a dream I hear the name, slightly distorted, of someone I have not thought of in nearly 30 years. My processor burped it up randomly.

Although I don't know much about either the human brain or its favorite toy, the computer, I believe that how they work is based on similar principles. Mechanically, they are different, but in some ways their ultimate functionality is the same. Walking on land, swimming through water, flying through air—no matter how it's accomplished, it's a form of locomotion that moves you from Point A to Point B. And so it is with human and electronic minds—both store, both access, both process, both calculate, both communicate. Surely by now science fiction writers have touched on every conceivable integration of human being and machine from sentient computers (HAL 9000/2001: A Space Odyssey) to computerized humans (Roger Corby/Star Trek) and, of course, androids (Data/Star Trek). The question is: Do computers think like humans because that is the only way of thinking we know and understand? Will the next revolution in human thought come when we discover other ways to perceive, compute, and think? Or are we married forever to one way because it is the only one we can imagine? Is our own thought, and the electronic extension of it, limited by our design?

My brain is like a computer whose hard drive is full, whose memory is faulty, and whose processor is failing, and life is like a program. If X, then Y. Everything, no matter how complex, could be reduced to choice. Events may be cumulative, but at each step there are choices and events that determine the next choices and events that determine the next, running parallel to one another, for the duration of each creature's life—and potentially beyond, because what we do and have done affects other humans, other creatures. We're in the program, so it's hard to see it from a detached perspective. We live on the plane of our existence, not above it.

Somehow this reflection brought me to the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates.

As we know, under orders from President Barack Obama to do what was necessary if Captain Phillips were in "imminent danger," Navy SEAL sharpshooters killed the three remaining pirates, the ringleader having already given himself up. It was a reasonable plan that was well executed and, most important, successful.

But it might not have been. If any one of a number of things had gone wrong, the results might have been quite different. Captain Phillips might have been killed, which would have been a tragedy for him, his family, and his friends, and a disaster for President Obama and the Navy. Even if the mission had simply failed to retrieve Captain Phillips, we'd be asking hard questions about what went wrong and why the world's strongest and most advanced military couldn't rescue an American citizen from a handful of thugs. Obama and his administration would still be haunted by the mistakes made and trying to reestablish the public's trust in their leadership. If A happens, Captain Phillips is retrieved. If B happens, he isn't. If C happens, he is killed. Imagine all the branches that would lead to each of those outcomes, and all the branches that would stem from them. That's how life works, or at least that's how we see it. It's all about possibilities, probabilities, and choices.

Perhaps that's why virtual reality, games, and role playing are so popular. Unlike life, there are no real consequences of going with choice A, B, or C. In a "Somali Pirate" game, Captain Phillips would not be real, and neither would be the choices, decisions, or blood.

But the world is real, at least it seems so to us, and so is the program, faulty as it and the hardware and the operating system may be.

Still, I wonder how many worlds there are, and how many ways in which to perceive them. We'll never know as long as we are trapped within our own limitations, which prevent us from escaping them.

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