Beyond Zero and One



“Andrew Smart deftly shows why it’s time for us to think deeply about thinking machines before they begin thinking deeply about us.” —Douglas Rushkoff, author, Escaping the Growth Trap, Present Shock, and Program or Be Programmed

“Provocative and cool.” —Cory Doctorow

“Forget the Turing test—will the supersmart AIs that we hear so much about these days pass the acid test? In this playful, informative, and prescient book, Andrew Smart brings psychedelics into dialogue with neuroscience in order to challenge the whiz-bang computational views of human and machine sentience that dominate the headlines. Giving robots LSD sounds like a joke, but Smart is dead serious in his critique of the hidden and sometimes dangerous biases that underlie both popular and scientific fantasies of digital minds.” —Erik Davis, host of “Expanding Mind” and author, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information

“Philosophy, psychedelics, robots, and the future; consciousness and intelligence, what else do you desire? Here you will see why those machines that reach singularity will be smarter than us and take over the world—and shall need to be conscious…and maybe they can only be conscious if they are human enough. The thesis of the book, and the path shown us by Smart, leads to a great trip, of imagination and philosophy, of maths and neuroscience.” —Dr. Tristan Bekinschtein, Lecturer, Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge

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About the Book

Can we build a robot that trips on acid? This is not a frivolous question, according to neuroscientist Andrew Smart. If we can’t, he argues, we haven’t really created artificial intelligence.

In an exposition reminiscent of crossover works such as Gödel, Escher, Bach and Fermat’s Last Theorem, Andrew Smart weaves together Mangarevan binary numbers, the discovery of LSD, Leibniz, computer programming, and much more to connect the vast but largely forgotten world of psychedelic research with the resurgent field of AI and the attempt to build conscious robots. A book that draws on the history of mathematics, philosophy, and digital technology, Beyond Zero and One challenges fundamental assumptions underlying artificial intelligence. Is the human brain based on computation? Can information alone explain human consciousness and intelligence? Smart convincingly makes the case that true intelligence, and artificial intelligence, requires an appreciation of what is beyond the computational.

Publication December 3, 2015 • 268 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-682190-06-7 • E-book 978-1-682190-07-4

About the Author

andrew smart author photo

Andrew Smart is the author of Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. A scientist and engineer interested in consciousness, brains and technology, his work traverses the boundaries of neuroscience, philosophy, culture, radical politics and metaphysics. He was raised in the U.S., educated and married in Sweden, lived in New York and Minneapolis and now lives in Switzerland.

Read an Excerpt

After spending three days above 20,000 feet descending from the summit of the massive Himalayan peak Nanga Parbat with his brother Günther in June 1970, the famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner began experiencing the classic high-altitude hallucination: the appearance of a third phantom climber who was accompanying the pair on their descent.

Above an altitude of 6,000 meters without supplementary oxygen, mountaineers commonly experience hallucinations, bodily distortions, and visual or auditory pseudohallucinations. The hallucinations associated with severe hypoxia at extreme altitude mimic those found in schizophrenia. These same perceptions can also occur with hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, mescaline, or psilocybin. Hallucinations are fascinating phenomena that have captivated human culture as far back as we know. During dreaming we are comfortable with people, landscapes, and things that do not really exist. However, if we see or hear these things while fully awake and are the only ones able to experience them, it is (at least in Western culture) alarming.

Schizophrenia exists universally, even though the experience of it is culturally specific. A recent anthropological study of schizophrenia revealed that people with schizophrenia in the United States have very negative relationships with their voices, while people in Africa and India report rather positive relationships with their voices. In India and Africa perhaps there is a bit more latitude regarding how we should perceive reality. Our Western epistemology dictates that things that do not conform to a rational explanation must be feared and controlled. Thus people with schizophrenia in the U.S. are much more tortured by the disease, not because of the condition, but because of the surrounding culture.

When the Virgin Mary heard an angel speak to her was she hallucinating? Socrates was convinced that a benevolent spirit called a daimon warned him when he was about to make a logical mistake. Joan of Arc was supposedly guided by the voices of various saints and even God, who helped her command the French army to defeat the British. Even Descartes is rumored to have heard voices. These voices came from behind and were so vivid to Descartes he was often convinced that he was being followed.

Today we are inclined to explain away these kinds of perceptions as “hearing voices that are just not really there.” But within the framework I would like to develop, these hallucinations are real perceptions. I don’t claim that angels, spirits, or God spoke to these famous historical figures, but the same physiology generates the conscious experience of God speaking to you and the conscious experience of your spouse speaking to you.

Neuroscience is revealing that there is a common underlying neurobiology that creates hallucinatory phenomena and altered states of consciousness in such disparate conditions as high altitude hypoxia, hallucinogen intoxication, and schizophrenia. Why should people experience similar hallucinatory reactions to extreme environmental conditions, a brain disease, or hallucinogenic drugs? What are hallucinations, really? What is the difference between normal conscious awareness, altered states, and hallucinations? What if these different types of consciousness, which seem so mutually exclusive, are actually the result of the same brain mechanisms? In other words, what if our everyday waking experience is itself a hallucination?

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