Friday, November 7, 2014

Nocturnal Emissions

I share a fortunate ability/facility with a good percentage of software developers. After working on a knotty but unresolved problem during the day, I often wake at some point in the night with a solution. Happily, and unlike memories of dreams that quickly melt away, I can always be confident that the night-time solution will be fresh and available to me in the morning when I get back to work. In almost every instance, the solution is viable and optimal although on odd occasions it needs a tweak or two to reach that state. More strangely, I sometimes wake during the night aware that my brain has identified a bug in a block of code written the previous day – with which, as far as I am aware, I was pretty content.

What this says about how brains work or even about consciousness I have not really put too much thought into – well until recently. I read a reply from “The Woz” to a correspondent on the arcane subject of electrical noise on one of the power busses of the Apple 1 board. It included the following:

I awoke one night in Quito, Ecuador, this year and came up with a way to save a chip or two from the Apple II, and a trivial way to have the 2 grays of the Apple II be different (light gray and dark gray) but it’s 38 years too late.

Truly wonderful. I doubt that I would ever have an experience like that but then again I am far from sharing the genius of Steve Wozniak and his mind boggling ability to reduce hardware and software to its bare essentials and then build the simplest thing that “just works”. I am just happy that I also have the odd night time emission. But what does this say about our brains and their abilities?

I suppose we have come to understand from pop science texts that our brains do stuff and then let the bit that runs our conscious selves know about whatever it is in time to make our conscious selves think we are in charge. But “knowing” that and believing it are two distinct things. The evidence is there but largely we choose to ignore things that we experience that might otherwise support the notion that “we” are not in charge – with our conscious selves just along for the ride. Apart from anything else the criminal justice implications are moot to say the least – it is much simpler to accept the premise that the bit of ourselves we call “me” is responsible for what we do.

So, do I have a “Turing machine” that runs code in my head? [Can’t be an Intel chip emulation because it rarely tussles with Assembler.] Does Woz have an Apple II board emulated in neurons? How does this work? More - how does detailed and skilled analysis get done without conscious direction and intervention? Simplest answer is, of course, that conscious intervention has no part to play – probably just turning up at the end of the show to take an undeserved bow. The unconscious portions of our brains are just working as normal. One wonders, just how many tasks can our brains work on simultaneously and autonomously?

I think that just about all car drivers will have experienced moment on the road when they realise they have been driving for some time without conscious intervention. This can occur during periods of relatively complex city driving as well as during simpler dual carriageway motoring. Given that we have to acknowledge that those unconscious driving episodes were apparently well executed and risk free, just what does it say about the part played by consciousness?

Does any of this have anything relevant to say within the context of a company blog?

Well sort of.

We did not make the cut on the second round of SBRI funding for the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board 10% challenge. Our reaction was one of disappointment and relief. We were disappointed that we could not execute on our plan because we had a great deal of confidence in its potential to deliver the necessary benefits. There was also some relief, as it was clear that the second round funding level was going to fall well short of the full requirement and the task of raising the full sum required to deliver was looking somewhat daunting and (inevitably) tangential to the main objectives. We had been pretty surprised that the second round selection process quite simply failed to address what we saw as key issues – namely the viability and financial health of the projects and the businesses involved. There again, this was far from the most astonishing experience or discovery made during the proof of concept stage.

Given that we developed Intellectual Property (as it is grandly referred to) and technologies and proven their relevance to the SBRI project objectives, what are we doing with those concepts and ideas now? Just what are we up to?

All I can say is that there is an ongoing process and that this is proceeding in an organic sort of way without a lot of direct conscious intervention. See – I said the preamble would have some relevance. There is a long background process we are executing on and we are confident that the right solution and direction will pop out and set us off running – shortly. We just have to decide which elements we are most attached to and which can be supported by a viable business plan. Once our processes have arrived at the optimal solution the conscious part of the business can start in on managing the execution.