day 337: ted chiang

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Ted Chiang has the capacity to dazzle. I am reading his second collection of stories, Exhalation, and the title story is a sentient robot's meditation on its own consciousness and what a machine posits as the origin of the cosmos. To answer his questions about how memory works, the robot disassembles its own brain—you'll have to read the story—and comprehends how its own cognition occurs:

...I then turned my microscope to the cognition engine. Here too I observed a latticework of wires, but they did not bear leaves suspended in position; instead the leaves flipped back and forth almost too rapidly to see. Indeed, almost the entire engine appeared to be in motion, consisting more of lattice than of air capillaries, and I wondered how air could reach all the gold leaves in a coherent manner. ... the leaves formed temporary conduits and valves that existed just long enough to redirect air at other leaves in turn, and then disappeared as a result. This was an engine undergoing continuous transformation, indeed modifying itself as part of its operation. The lattice was not so much a machine as it was a page on which the machine was written, and on which the machine itself ceaselessly wrote.

My consciousness could be said to be encoded in the position of these tiny leaves, but it would be more accurate to say that it was encoded in the ever-shifting pattern of air driving these leaves.

The machine's universe is under a chromium dome and the energy source, as well as the lifeblood of the robots, is argon. Entropy in this universe will not be the same energy stasis as in our cosmos, but the cessation of pressure gradients that move the argon around. When the robot's universe experiences full pressure equilibrium, it will cease to be. With every breath and every thought, the robot realizes, there is less air pressure, therefore, less order, therefore eventual entropy.

With every thought that I have, I hasten the arrival of that fatal equilibrium.

In Chiang's imagined machine universe, the Big Bang was a Big Breath:

The universe began as an enormous breath being held. Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I am glad that it did, because I owe existence to that fact. All my desires and ruminations are no more and no less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe. And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on.

That is lovely, but not as lovely as this:

Though I am long dead as you read this, explorer, I offer to you a valediction. Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.

That sublime final sentence echoes Mary Oliver:

Ten times a day something happens to me like this—some strengthening throb of amazement—some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest, and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

and Marilynne Robinson:

This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

To which I concur, all in.


the day's reading

  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • Exhalation, Ted Chiang
  • “Silent Dancing,” Judith Ortiz Cofer, The Georgia Review
  • “The Telltale Heart,” Lauren Smiley, Wired