Archive for October, 2009

I Compute, Therefore I Am

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | October 22, 2009 6:06 pm
Science-fiction has long tackled the biggest questions about the human condition: What is reality? What makes us human? What is consciousness?
So to Susan Schneider, [http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~sls/index.html] an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, sci-fi seemed a logical way to illustrate some of the existential conundrums of philosophers over the ages, from Plato to René Descartes to David Chalmers.
“Science fiction fires the imagination and can get across conceptual ideas and thought experiments, or scenarios, that test philosophical theories,” she says. “Consider Isaac Asimov and his stories about robots and what happens if they become conscious. What does that tell us about the notion of a person?”
Also, with science fiction rapidly becoming science fact, many of these questions have practical implications.
In her new book, Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence (Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2009), [http://www.amazon.com/Science-Fiction-Philosophy-Travel-Superintelligence/dp/1405149078/ref=ed_oe_p] Schneider mines time travel, artificial intelligence, robot rights, teleportation and genetic modification to discuss the nature of space and time, free will, transhumanism, the self, neuroethics and reality.
Each chapter tackles a different philosophical question via essays by Schneider and academic colleagues with titles like Could I be in a Matrix or a Computer Simulation? and Free Will and Determinism in the World of Minority Report. These discussions draw parallels between such sci-fi stalwarts as Star Trek, Blade Runner and Brave New World, and philosophical classics like Plato’s The Republic and Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy.
The book sprang from a 2007 undergraduate Penn course of the same name, which she plans to resume in the 2010-2011 school year. The course grew of out of Schneider’s quest for a compelling way to introduce students to philosophy, plus her own research on the nexus of philosophy and cognitive science.
“Cognitive science regards thinking as computational. I examine how it shapes our understanding of the mind, the self, and consciousness,” says Schneider. “If both computers and humans arrive at answers in a computational manner, then how much of a difference is there between us and them? Not all philosophical questions involve cognitive science. But the area of philosophy I’m most interested in—the nature of our minds and thinking—is in constant dialogue with cognitive science.”

sci-fi-losophy225Science fiction has long tackled the biggest questions about the human condition: What is reality? What makes us human? What is consciousness?

So to Susan Schneider, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, sci-fi seemed a logical way to illustrate some of the existential conundrums of philosophers over the ages, from Plato to René Descartes to David Chalmers.

“Science fiction fires the imagination and can get across conceptual ideas and thought experiments, or scenarios, that test philosophical theories,” she says. “Consider Isaac Asimov and his stories about robots and what happens if they become conscious. What does that tell us about the notion of a person?”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Philosophy, Time Travel

A Problem for Residents of the Future: Powering Those Futuristic Residences

By Eric Wolff | October 14, 2009 12:29 pm

S.A.R.A.H. (Self-actuated Residential Automated Habitat), the talking, thinking, usually helpful house on Eureka is such a regular on the show that  she could qualify as just another wacky genius in a town full of them. But though she’s smarter than any smart house ever known, she has a bit of a problem: her power source.  We’re told that her radioisotope thermoelectric generator supplies plenty of power for energy independence, but these devices only output power at low levels, albeit for a long time, plus they depend on radioactive materials—which is why in real life they’re used on long-lived unmanned probes and satellites.

S.A.R.A.H.’s designer, Douglas Fargo, should take some cues from the Solar Decathlon, a biennial contest hosted by the U.S. Department of energy. This year, representatives from 20 teams have reconstructed their high-tech solar-powered houses on the National Mall in Washington D.C. for inspection by the public and judges alike. (See 80beats’ gallery of some of the houses.) Houses are scored on 10 criteria, from efficient appliances to market-worthiness.

Most of the houses share a few themes: They maximize the insulation to minimize heat and cool loss; they have large sections of walls that can be opened onto decks and patios to increase the amount of livable space in the house; they had ways to access appliances or climate controls remotely, whether from an iPhone app or an Internet connection; and all of them can, at the minimum, operate without electricity from the grid, though many generate excess power.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy
MORE ABOUT: Energy, Eureka, S.A.R.A.H., solar
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