Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Could Quantum Mechanics Explain Intelligence?

In recent weeks, I've seen some remarkable research to show that at least something can travel faster than light. What that something is, we don't quite know yet. All we know so far is that we're onto something: a measure of entanglement.

Loosely explained, quantum entanglement indicates a connection between two particles where measurement of the state of one particle will indicate the state of the other. For example, if two particles are entangled, one particle will have up spin and the other particle will have down spin at the time that we observe or measure them. If we flip one of the particles, the other particle will seem to flip, too. Instantaneously, as if they are connected somehow.

Chinese scientists have measured the speed with which entangled particles respond to a manipulation of spin. That speed is estimated to have a lower bound of 10,000 times the speed of light. Even peer review has so far been unable to show any errors in the results of this experiment.

This is pretty amazing news. Unfortunately, quantum mechanics says that no useful information can actually be transferred by manipulating entangled particles. For now, anyway.

This experiment reminded me of another fascinating example of quantum mechanics at work. A few years ago, scientists at the University of Rochester figured out how to store an image of a letter on a single photon and retrieve it. This is also mind-blowing. The experiment shows that we haven't even touched the upper limits for storage density of information systems.

While these experiments are fascinating, there is a point here that is often missed about inquiries into the work of quantum mechanics  Take another example, the humble central processing unit of a computer, the CPU as we know it. The CPU relies entirely upon quantum mechanics to work. Quantum mechanics is not a science of certainty, it is a science of probabilities. One might then see a certain sense of irony that the discovery of quantum mechanics gave rise to all of the electronics we see and use today. quantum mechanics isn't just a science of probabilities, it is the best tool we have today to predict the behavior of particles at very small scales.

What makes quantum mechanics and the experiments noted above so interesting to me is this: the behavior of particles at very small scales observed in the lab is happening all the time in nature. The lab is used to create the environment that allows us to observe and measure it. Spooky Action, as Einstein called it and what we know now to be entanglement, is happening all the time. The storage of information on a photon is happening all the time. Spooky Action is at work all the time. We just don't see it every day.

I think that life depends on quantum mechanics  to the point that many life systems exploit quantum mechanics  Photosynthesis in plants relies on quantum mechanics to convert sunlight into stored energy. Our eyes exploit quantum mechanics to capture light as images that our brains interpret.

Have you ever been in a crowded room or say, a lunch room and had the feeling that someone is looking at you, then turned around to see that you were right? I think that's quantum mechanics at work. Entanglement probably allows us to feel someone looking at us even when we would have no other reason to believe anyone is looking.

What if quantum mechanics is what makes intelligent life possible? I think it does. The chemical processing of information in our brains doesn't even come close to explaining the speed of computation that we are capable of performing. But quantum mechanics could explain that speed, with room to spare. Intelligent beings, through no fault of their own in the process of evolution, could have figured out a way to exploit entanglement for information processing and storage.

Intuition, it seems, could just be entanglement at work. Imagine that.
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