Abstract of talk given at Tucson conference "Toward a Science of Consciousness" (2010)

Quantum computing: the first 540 million years

David Pearce


Is the mind/brain best modelled as a classical computer or a quantum computer? No classical computer can solve the binding problem - the creation of a unified percept from widely distributed neural processing of individual object characteristics. Hence even the most sophisticated silicon robots are lame in a real-world setting. By contrast, evidence that the mind/brain is a quantum computer lies right before one's eyes in the form of the unity of perception - an unfakeable signature of quantum coherence. The evolutionary success of organic robots depends on the ability of our central nervous system to generate dynamic simulations of fitness-relevant patterns in the environment. Unlike classical computers, organic quantum computers can "bind" multiple features (edges, colours, motion, etc) into unitary objects and unitary world-simulations with a "refresh rate" of many billions per second (cf. the persistence of vision as experienced watching a movie run at 30 frames per second). These almost real-time simulations take the guise of what we call the macroscopic world: a spectacular egocentric simulation run by every vertebrate CNS that taps into the world's fundamental quantum substrate. Our highly adaptive capacity to generate data-driven unitary world-simulations is strongly conserved across the vertebrate line and beyond - a capacity attested by the massively parallel neural architecture of the CNS. Unitary world-simulation enables organic robots effortlessly to solve the computational challenges of navigating a hostile environment that would leave the fastest classical supercomputer grinding away until Doomsday. By contrast, the capacity for serial linguistic thought and formal logico-mathematical reasoning is a late evolutionary novelty executed by a slow, brittle virtual machine running on top of its quantum parent. Contra Tegmark, the existence of ultra-rapid thermally-induced decoherence in the mind/brain doesn't refute the case for naturally-evolved quantum computing. For just as a few cubic millimeters of neocortical tissue can encode an arbitrarily large immensity of phenomenal space, likewise each ultra-short quantum-coherent "frame" can encode hundreds of milliseconds of phenomenal time. Contra the Penrose-Hameroff "Orch OR" model of consciousness, quantum mechanics can't explain the Hard Problem as posed by materialist metaphysics i.e. how a brain supposedly composed of insentient matter could generate consciousness. But macroscopic quantum coherence can explain how a unitary experiential field is constructed from what would otherwise be a mere aggregate of mind-dust (cf. Galen Strawson's "Does physicalism entail panpsychism?") The theory presented predicts that digital computers - and all inorganic robots with a classical computational architecture - will 1) never be able efficiently to perform complex real-world tasks that require that the binding problem be solved; and 2) never be interestingly conscious since they are endowed with no unity of consciousness beyond their constituent microqualia - here hypothesized to be the stuff of the world as described by the field-theoretic formalism of physics. By contrast, tomorrow's artificial quantum computers may manifest modes of unitary consciousness unknown to contemporary organic life.

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