In Today’s World: Turning Science Fiction into Science Fact
Amanda Seipel I have just finished reading Greg Egan’s “Quarantine” (1992), not because it is a >H classic, but because someone at a party mentioned that it contained some profound quantum physics. This book really impressed me…
Amanda Seipel, August 29, 2002
As I�ve mentioned before, I'm relatively new to the Transhumanist (>H) movement. While fairly well read in the science-fiction genre, I do still need to read some of the >H fiction classics. I have just finished reading Greg Egan�s �Quarantine� (1992), not because it is a >H classic, but because someone at a party mentioned that it contained some profound quantum physics.
This book really impressed me. In case you haven't read it, it's about a search for nanotech modifications that will allow a person to bias probability per the laws of quantum physics. The book, by focusing on the person (or observer), has captured the idea that the cutting edge of quantum physics isn't quantum computing; it�s in defining our relationship (as the observer) to reality.
Quantum theory tells us that the changeover from energy to matter ("collapse of the wave function") requires an observer or a �measurement� by an observer. In a nutshell, this suggests that nothing exists without observation. Theories about the observer problem have abounded for decades, but facts to support any of these ideas are a bit harder to find. In order to resolve the observer problem, we'd first need to know something about whether the human brain is sensitive to the presence or absence of the subatomic particles at the heart of quantum theory. Today's science has identified microtubules as a possible subcellular structure in the brain that is sensitive to quantum-level events. 
These cylindrical polymers of protein tubulin have been suggested as the structures that facilitate information processing in the human brain. These macroscopic tubulin proteins are sensitive to the presence or absence of a single electron, which is enough to shift the entire protein configuration. This has led some researchers to speculate that a type of quantum computing is going on in the human brain, and may even be at the heart of the mystery of consciousness. Enough research is being done in this area to warrant a (second) four-day conference at the University of Arizona specifically devoted to information relating to the quantum mind.
The quantum computing/human cognition connection has not gone unchallenged. Perhaps the most notable challenge has come from Max Tegmark, a physicist from the University of Pennsylvania, who used neural decoherence rates to point out that there is nothing wrong with the classical approach to cognitive modeling. 
The question of whether or not consciousness and the human brain have a quantum connection is critical in determining how to resolve the observer problem: that pesky transition point between energy and matter. If quantum effects are present in the human brain, then the human brain becomes part of the system. In this case, the system encompasses the observer and the outer world that s/he observes. It can then be argued that our perception of reality is an interaction between two parts of the same system. If, however, quantum effects have no place in the brain, then the observer is somehow isolated from the system that does exhibit the quantum effects.
But assume for a moment that we accept the idea that subatomic-level events are at the very heart of consciousness� We now have a direct link to the �outer� world; a relationship to our perceived reality that has hitherto been relegated to the realm of metaphysics. This relationship is made possible by what�s known as quantum entanglement.  The next step is to map the nature of that entanglement. We�d want to know about physical structure changes in the human brain, and any corresponding changes in "outer-world" probabilities. We�d then want to define the relationship between physical structure changes and cognitive constructs (thoughts, emotion, etc.).
This is where science is now. We have the technology to study smaller and smaller structures in the brain. We�ve (largely) lost the fear that �quantum� means �unspeakably spooky�. Within a decade, a model will emerge that will link various cognitive constructs to their neurophysiological correlates, and from there to elements of the �outer world�. Nanotech will take a little longer to catch up to Egan's level. And that's a topic for a future edition of this column.
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