The Third Culture Stuart Hameroff

The Imminent Paradigm Shift In Understanding The Conscious Mind

Today's most important unreported story is an imminent paradigm shift in understanding consciousness. Quantum computation will soon replace our familiar classical computation as primary metaphor for the brain/mind. The purported brain=mind=computer analogy promising robot/computer superiority and human/machine hybridization from near-future classical computers is a myth promulgated by the "silicon-industrial complex. "

Quantum computation was proposed in the 1980's by Feynmann, Benioff, Deutsch and others to take advantage of the mysterious but well documented quantum phenomenåa of 1) superposition (particles existing in multiple states or locations simultaneously) and 2) entanglement (instantaneous, non-local communication among quantum states). Whereas classical computers represent information digitally as "bits" of either 1 OR 0, quantum computation utilizes "qubits" in which information exists in quantum superposition of both 1 AND 0. While in superposition, multiple entangled qubits may interact nonlocally, resulting in computation of near-infinite massive parallelism.

In 1994 Peter Shor of Bell Labs proved that quantum computers (if they are able to be built) could factor large numbers into their primes (the key to modern cryptography, banking codes etc) with unprecedented efficiency, rendering conventional systems obsolete. Shor's work sparked major funding in the general area of quantum information (quantum computation, quantum cryptography, quantum teleportation). An apparent roadblock to quantum computation — the problem of decoherence by environmental interactions — was potentially solved in the mid 1990's by groups who developed quantum error correction codes which can detect and repair decoherence before quantum computation is destroyed.

In the past several years numerous quantum computational prototypes have been developed, and various technologies for full blown, large scale quantum computers are being explored. It seems almost inevitable that quantum computation will have an enormous impact on information technology.

The brain/mind has traditionally been compared to contemporary vanguards of information processing (dating from the Greeks' "seal ring in wax" as a metaphor for memory, to the telephone switching circuit, to the hologram, to the modern day classical computer in which consciousness "emerges" from complex computation among simple neurons). As quantum computation comes to the forefront of technology, human nature (and ego) will surely resist the notion that technology bears superior intellect, and search for quantum computation in the brain.

There are cogent reasons for believing that quantum computation does indeed operate in the brain, and such suggestions have been made by theorists including Sir John Eccles and Sir Roger Penrose. However critics quickly point out that the warm, wet, noisy brain must be inhospitable to delicate quantum effects which (in the case of superconductors, Bose-Einstein condensates etc) seem to require complete isolation and temperatures near absolute zero to prevent decoherence.

On the other hand "quantum-mind" advocates suggest that biological quantum coherence is metabolically "pumped", point to several lines of evidence suggesting that biological evolution has solved the decoherence problem, observe that only quantum computation can solve the enigmatic features of consciousness, and propose testable predictions of quantum-mind theories (on the contrary, experimental predictions regarding classical computational emergence of consciousness have not been put forth). The implication, and potential theme for the next century, is that we are not strictly emergent products of higher order complexity, but creatures connected to the basic level of the universe.

STUART HAMEROFF. M.D. Professor, Anesthesiology and Psychology Associate Director, Center for Consciousness Studies The University of Arizona Tucson, Arizona.

LINK: Stuart Hameroff Home Page.