frank wilczek’s universe – being there

by Frank Wilczek

The absence of an empirically identifiable meeting point between the non-physical mind and its physical extension has proven problematic …

— article on Mind-body Problem, Wikipedia

Philosophers love to invent thought experiments, imagining mad situations that shake up slumbering dogmas. One of their favorite targets is your everyday sense of identity. Are you sure that you are what you think you know that you are—a mind firmly attached to a specific, physical human body? Maybe you’re really a brain in a vat or a program running in some vast computer, mistaking a simulation for reality. Or maybe you’re actually your spouse, having a dream of role reversal. How would you know?

Those issues came to life for me last December, when I had an unforgettable experience of being in two places at once. So will you, very likely—soon, and then often. Routine out-of-body experience doesn’t require esoteric spiritual discipline, drugs or psychosis. It is a coming, practical technology.

My story: I had sent effusive, genuine regrets to the organizers of last year’s Nobel Week Dialogue in Sweden, a day-long, high-level science conference run by the Nobel Foundation’s media arm, saying I couldn’t attend due to scheduling conflicts. The dialogue’s theme was “The Future of Intelligence,” a long-term obsession of mine, and it looked to be a grand event.

The organizers in Gothenburg came back with “an interesting opportunity”: I could participate in a new way, without leaving my home in Cambridge, Mass., by using the BeamPro platform. From my desktop, I would control a large robot—roughly human-sized, though not humanoid. The robot would display live video and audio feeds, so people could see and hear me. It would also support typed messages. I too would be able to see and hear, using sensors attached to the robot and sharing its perspective. Naturally, I jumped at the chance.

My first voyages were tentative. I looked at the robot’s upper screen to decide where to go. Then I looked at the lower screen to check for obstacles, swiveled and slowly inched forward. Rinse, lather, repeat. At this stage, I was very aware that I was sitting at home, at a terminal in Cambridge, operating a machine in Gothenburg.

But after just a few minutes, I gained confidence. The process became fluid. Soon I navigated effortlessly and moved quickly. I could focus on the remote environment, taking in its sights and sounds. I was there.

A few early arrivers—a group of students visiting from Malaysia—entered the discussion area. I strolled up and introduced myself. The conversation began awkwardly. Usually, body language conveys lots of basic information, such as whom we’re addressing and whether a message has been understood. At first, I had to attend consciously to a checklist: I’d turn toward the person I wanted to address, somehow make eye contact (doing a little jig, if necessary, to get their attention) and type out, “Am I loud enough?” But in sustained conversation, the strangeness of the situation quickly faded, and we got to a meeting of minds. Several of us went for a stroll together, followed by an orgy of selfies.

Then, in an adjoining auditorium, the session proper began. I was scheduled to make a surprise appearance. It was dark backstage and (as is the way of these things) chaotic. On cue, I entered through a long narrow runway, demarcated by dozens of dazzling lights, moving at a good clip for dramatic effect. I had the uncanny but exhilarating feeling that I was living inside a videogame. I made it onstage, and the audience got a glimpse of the future of robotics, communication, and reality.

I have seen the future, and it almost works. With more powerful sensors and actuators, out-of-body experiences will become even more compelling. It is easy to imagine brilliantly attractive possibilities: immersive tourism to anywhere, anytime, without needing to leave home. Fragile human bodies are ill-suited to deep-space environments, but human minds will experience them richly.

We’ll need to rethink how we answer the question “Where am I?”—and then, inevitably, “What am I?”

Dr. Frank  Wilczek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent book is “A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design.”

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal


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