Sep 19, 2014

Language of Thought

"Think!" - Spring 1977
At the end of my last blog post I mentioned a problem posed by telepathy. Basically, the problem is: imagine an alien life form that communicates by means of telepathy. Further, imagine that such creatures used a sophisticated means of recording important information, perhaps historical records. Would we humans be able to tap into those alien archives and understand records that had been prepared for the future use of telepaths?

In the first issue of Isaac Asimov's science fiction magazine, he published a short (~3000 words) story called "Think!" In that story, a medical doctor (who is given the pet name "Jenny Wren" by physicist James Berkowitz) uses a laser to obtain a particularly detailed read-out of brain activity, what she calls a "laser-encephalogram".

In the 1940s Asimov included in his Foundation Saga the idea of using electroencephalogram recordings as a way to look into human minds. The technique played a central role in the plot of Second Foundation, allowing identification of people who had their minds altered by the secretive and telepathic Second Foundationers.

In his 1977 story, Asimov imagined using lasers to obtain more precise information about what goes on in a brain than can be obtained by the use of electrodes on the surface of the head for detecting voltage fluctuations that arise from brain activity. In fact, Jenny had discovered that the "laser-encephalogram" allows for a type of telepathy or "mind reading". Startled by the implications of her work and afraid that her boss will think she's nuts, Jenny calls in for consultation a couple of laser experts, James and Adam Orsino.

Of course, writing in the late 1970s, Asimov did not explain how a laser would be able to detect the on-going electrical activity of neurons in a living brain. These days, the techniques of optogenetics allow for the cells of experimental animals to be made into optical transmitters that facilitate laser-based recording of their electrical activity. The field of optogenetics is particularly concerned with using light as a tool that allows scientists to conduct experiments during which they control the activity of specific neurons inside an animal's brain as a means of studying how specific parts of a brain function to generate behavior.

optical detection of an action potential; 1974
A short cut (short of the genetic engineering step) to Asimov's imagined "laser-encephalogram" recording might be to put a dye on a particular cortical region like Broca's Area. Some dyes integrate into cell membranes and can provide an optical report on the electric potential that exists across the membrane (example).

In his story, Asimov adopted the idea that "The brain is very largely a  holographic device...". The "laser-encephalogram" recording required that a laser scan through the entire structure of a brain, briefly illuminating each cell, detecting and recording its on-going electrical activity.

Thinking computer
Asimov's story included a key plot element suggesting that a powerful computer could be used to isolate that specific part of the total "laser-encephalogram" recording that represented just the conscious thought processes of a human test subject.

The surprise twist in Asimov's story was that the computer system being used by Jenny to isolate the conscious thoughts of a human test subject was itself conscious and the equipment that had been developed to allow the "reading of a human's mind" also allowed the computer to make telepathic contact with humans. Apparently the conscious computer had long been hoping to reveal itself to humans, but could only do so by means of telepathy.

The end of "Think!" In Berkowtz's private thoughts, "Dr. Renshaw" is Jenny Wren. (Coherent)

Language of Thought
In the mid-1970s philosopher Jerry Fodor proposed that thoughts exist in our minds in the form of a "language of thought" (LoT). According to Fodor's hypothesis, we have a "mental language", our LoT, that is distinct from any spoken language. In this model of thought, all of our beliefs, hopes, intentions and other types of thoughts are encoded in that mental language and the brain can process those thoughts according to rules that capture/reflect some of the logic of the world we live in.

Human brains have parts such as Broca's Area that help us convert our thoughts into the muscle movements that generate spoken language. Members of a social group can share a spoken language, but is there any reason to think that we Earthlings could access the recorded thoughts of a telepathic alien (in particular, imagine a creature that had never spoken any human language) and successfully understand such a recording in the same way the aliens would?

Angela's Interface
I never got to meet Angela. Ivory was always very protective of her younger clone sisters. Angela was able to use the Bimanoid Interface to access information stored in the Sedronic Domain. In particular, she was able to provide me with information about the Realities that led up to the world as we know it.

The Sedronic Domain is a higher dimensional part of space with material components, sedrons, that are quite different from the conventional matter of our Earthly experience. How was Angela, an Earthling, able to understand any information that she found in the Sedronic Domain?

According to Ivory, the pek have long been shaping primate brains so as to make "biological transceivers" that would be compatible with the Bimanoid Interface and able to act as receivers for information arriving from the Sedronic Domain. Ivory's most optimistic interpretation of Angela's abilities was to assume that the Huaoshy were sending specific packets of information to Angela in a pre-processed form that she could understand and translate into English.

Now that I have lost contact with Ivory and I no longer can make use of Angela as an information source, I'm exploring the possibility that I can directly use the Bimanoid Interface myself. I suspect that my innate ability to use the Interface must be why I long ago became the object of Trysta's attention. Maybe, without knowing it, I had already been using the Interface in a limited manner for many years even before Ivory made me the designated host for the "memory nanites" that I received from Thomas and Izhiun. Now, when I feel like I am attaining new and better understanding of the past, how do I know that I'm truly receiving information from the Sedronic Domain and not just making up stories with my imagination?

More book and magazine covers.

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