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Stanford University School of Medicine

Stanford scientists discuss the “hard problem” of consciousness with playwright Tom Stoppard

img_9018I've been a fan of Tom Stoppard's plays since I had to read his great play "Arcadia" for a class years ago. In it, Stoppard wove in questions of certainty and uncertainty amidst math, physics, gardening and romance.

I recently jumped at the chance to attend Stoppard's latest play, which tackles issues of neuroscience and consciousness - leading to its title, "The Hard Problem" - followed by a panel discussion with scientists from Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.

The scientists didn't solve the problem of consciousness, either in the play or in the panel, but they did probe differences between humans and machines. Stoppard asked: When he's driving a car and loses focus when a song from his youth comes on the radio, is he any different than a self-driving car? That question echoed one posed by a character in the play, questioning whether humans were any different than a thermostat.

Computer scientist Fei Fei Li, PhD, who directs the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, said that by some definitions a self-driving car is thinking, just as Stoppard is while driving down the road absent-mindedly listening to music. But that doesn't necessarily make the car conscious.

Another character in the play questioned whether neuroscience research in animals can do anything but help us understand the mind of an animal. Neuroscientist William Newsome, PhD, whose own work focuses on how individual neurons in the brain mediate vision, brought up a famous essay by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, PhD, called "What is it like to be a bat?" (to resounding nods by other members of the panel).

Newsome said that through his own work and that of other neuroscientists, we might one day understand the inner workings of the brain in intricate detail, but we might never know what it's really like to be a bat -- or another person.

Previously: Stanford anesthesiologist explores consciousness -- and unconsciousnessExploring zombie consciousness and Exploring the "ridiculously exciting" opportunities for artificial intelligence
Photo by Amy Adams

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