Thursday, March 18, 2010

Are people digital or analog?

So I was watching the latest episode of Caprica, which features a digitized person trapped inside of a computer chip. The computer scientists were talking about why they were unable to make a copy of the chip, and the reason that they come up with is that the chip encodes something analog instead of digital.

But this makes no sense. The whole reason that computer chips work at all is that they're digital in nature; it all comes down to 1s and 0s. Though there were electronic analog computers, they were used mostly for solving problems that were also analog; circuits would be set up to represent hydraulic pressure. There are a huge number of problems with analog computing, which is why we don't use analog computers anymore. A possible fan wank explanation for the show would be that the chips they're using are actually some kind of hypereffective analog device, or that their computer chips run in a way that's completely different from how ours run, or that this computer chip was corrupted in such a way that it behaves in an analog fashion (though this is also stupid). But it brought up an interesting question for me, mostly because the underlying assumption is that people are analog. And I really like interesting questions.

So obviously the question will eventually come down to how the brain works. You might think people are analog simply because they're complex; people certainly seem to be partly irrational*. I know I'm making a large leap here by arguing that people are nothing more than their brains, and that this precludes the possibility of the soul or some kind of other outside force, but that's for another time. As for what neuroscience says about the nature of the brain, my quick Googling of the subject reveals quite a bit of disagreement on that subject. Since I'm not a neuroscientist, obviously my opinion on the subject holds little weight.

However, having a blog is all about making observations that hold no weight, so I'll go ahead with it. The brain is a feedback control mechanism; it has inputs, outputs, does something with them, and "controls" the body. For the purposes of digitization, it almost doesn't matter whether the brain is analog or not. Digitizing something that's analog means a loss of fidelity, but at a certain point that loss is so negligible that it's not worth worrying about. While that point might well hold true for something like music, it's another thing entirely to talk about the very essence of your being rather than something like music (which, because of the way our eardrums communicate with our brain, ends up being digital anyway).

*This is a pun; π is analog, 3.14 is digital. Digital computers, for example, are forced to use approximations, while analog computers could theoretically use the actual irrational numbers (but they can't, because of noise).

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