What is consciousness?
Where did life come from?
How did the universe begin?
These are three of the biggest questions we have ever asked and in the last few decades we have made more progress towards answering them than we did in the last few millennium. They are questions embedded in all of our philosophical and religious traditions and stem from three simple thoughts we all have,
Who am I?
How did I get here?
Where did all this come from?
We are about to answer all three.
What is Consciousness?
This is a tricky one to pin down, for one, we can’t even agree on a definition of consciousness. Are animals conscious? Are trees conscious? Is consciousness embedded in the universe? If backed into a corner many neuroscientists would say, ‘consciousness is subjective experience‘.
Whatever it is, we believe it to be fundamental to our existence. The best test of our existence may still be what Descartes wrote 400 year ago, cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. It is tied, on some fundamental level, to our ability to think and act independently, to have free will. Whatever it is, it is an integral part of what makes us who we are.
A consensus has emerged that some time in this century, we will create artificial general intelligence. A form of intelligence that will surpass us in every conceivable way. A synthetic intelligence capable of acting, and presumably, thinking, independent of us. A disembodied consciousness. If we succeed then it becomes clear that consciousness is an emergent property of large scale information processing.
Where did life come from?
The unraveling of the human genome gave rise to the fields of genetic engineering and synthetic biology that have allowed us to tinker with the fabric of life itself. Those disciplines have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time and have revealed some stunning truths about what life is, and how to create it.
For a better understanding of just how close we are, and how far we have come in the last few decades, watch this excellent talk by Dr. Craig Venter who was one of the first to sequence the human genome and the first to transfect a cell with a synthetic genome.
How did the Universe Begin?
This one we are probably furthest away from being able to answer. But even here our best theories to describe how it might have begun, and how everything in the universe exists, have emerged in the last half century, namely string theory and supersymmetry. The problem with these are it is impossible to say how close or how far away we are from proving them. It is also possible that the universe itself is simply too complex for our feeble minds to master. Thankfully, if that is the case, the answer to the first question might help us answer this third question. In the mean time we are taking some rather bold steps to try and reveal the answer ourselves…
“What I can not create, I do not understand” – Richard Feynman
The test of whether or not we will have answered these questions is simple, we will be able to create them. If we truly understand what consciousness is we will be able to recreate it. If we really know how to make life we will be able to make it. And if we can grasp how the universe began, we will, in theory at least, or in a simulation, be able to begin it again.
The reason why this is happening now is that we have more people working to answer these questions today than in all of history combined with more money, better tools, a better base of knowledge and a global interconnected network of people working towards similar goals.
Of course, answering these questions will not mean we are done, they will undoubtedly reveal more questions that we had not thought of before. Still, that we are on the verge of answering questions that have been plaguing us for as long as we can tell is reason enough to get excited about the state of things.
But even if we don’t answer them, the quest they have taken us on has given each of us access to a deeper, more profound, and more complete understanding of the universe than Newton or Darwin or Einstein had. That knowledge is deeply humbling and empowering and should be used to enlighten and embolden each of us as we journey through life.