Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Edward Frenkel, math professor at UC Berkley, revisits on the NYT web site (which was recently revamped to make it “sleeker and faster”) the burning question: “Is the Universe a Simulation?” Apparently, there is a view among mathematicians that mathematical discoveries in fact reveal strings of the computer code underlying the “Matrix” we take for “reality.” Seriously? This immediately reminded me of Nicholas Carr’s now classic “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

In that often considered alarmist piece, Carr worries that all that searching  and clicking tweaks our brain wiring  in unhealthy ways – not just making focus, patience, and “deep reading” more difficult, but also inducing a sort of “artificial intelligence.” The main feature of the latter is ostensibly a degree of emotional numbing and mechanical, algorithmic analysis – at the expense of a more intuitive and empathetic grasp of any larger meaning or significance. As an illustration, Carr points to Kubrick’s prophetic Space Odyssey 2001 where the spaceship’s board computer appears more emotional and, indeed, human, than the human space travelers seeking to disable it.

If this is, indeed, happening – to some degree – there are a couple of potential side effects. One, the whole idea that in “reality” we inhabit a computer simulation could seem intuitively plausible or at least intriguing – not just to math nerds, but also to movie audiences (hence the smashing success of The Matrix franchise). Second, we won’t be able to sense – and tell – the difference; and it won’t matter, other than as an intellectual puzzle.