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Are you a machine?

By John Krisch

Section: Arts

March 23, 2007

Some high school students played Sonic the Hedgehog after school. But Eliezer Sternberg 09 spent day and night of his senior year of his high school writing a book that will be published this week, available at the Brandeis Bookstore, Amazon.com, and bookstores across the nation.

Are You a Machine? The Brain, the Mind and What it Means to be Human asks two basic questions. Are we machines? Are all our actions, such as love and helping others, based on biological interactions? Sternberg said. Secondly, could we design a machine to be human?

The book takes the average, non-science major through a journey of the consciousness, the mind, in simplified terms. The book is written for college students or people with no background in neuroscience or philosophy of the mind, yet it is not a textbook. My biggest fear is that it would end up sounding like a textbook, he admitted.

The book:

Instead, the book contains examples, puzzles and thought experiments. Rather than teach, it investigates the question of whether humans are machines, and takes the reader on a journey to find a conclusion. Sternbergs conclusion is given, after considering all the facts in the book, but the reader can come to his own answer.

The book takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of fascinating questions about the mind. For example, if a neuroscientist were to know everything about the brain, would he be able to predict your behavior and opinions? Would he be able to understand your experiences? Is the brain solely biological, just a very complicated computer?

If so, if we are just brains and there is no element of human consciousness, then we have no free will. If we are machines, then humans do not have any essential nature that makes them humans.

The book addresses the unique problem of the brain, and the possibility that the reductive approach, searching smaller and smaller in the brain, misses something. In other words, the small may not describe the large. Could incredibly complex machines really produce such beauty as the productions of Shakespeare and Picasso? Some say not, others believe so.

Religion plays an implicit role in the book. After all, religions believe in a soul, something non-physical. Those who believe that we are machines would not believe in a mind beyond the brain. Neuroscience challenges every religion, Sternberg said. If we are machines, then there is no place for God.
Though the humans are machines argument is gaining strength, Sternberg argues that there has not yet been a Darwin or a DNA discovery, or any big discovery that solves the consciousness conundrum. Gaps are being filled, complexity is being explained in science, but consciousness is still far from being closed, he said. There still have been no major strides toward unraveling the mind.

The Books Beginnings:

It all started in Sternbergs sophomore year science class, when the idea of consciousness began floating around in his mind. His teacher was speaking about why humans love, choose certain actions and why they exhibit certain behaviors. Why do people help others? How do people make decisions and choices? Sternberg asked. The professor believed that it was all due to biological factors. His science teacher had concluded that it was all a result of neurons and nerves, frontal lobe perception, and complicated brain processes. But Sternberg wondered if there was anything that couldnt be reduced to biological interactions.

After all, if everything that is human comes from neuron interactions and does not include consciousness or choice, then are we just organic robots? he asked. Additionally, if interactions were solely determined by this complex, biological machinery, can we build conscious machines?
In his junior year of high school, for his AP English class, his final paper was to be a twenty to thirty-page essay of any topic. He wrote on these questions, and completed his English project, but did not stop there.

I had always had a separate dream to write a book;

so, I thought, what the heck, Ill send it to a publisher. He found Prometheus Books, in Buffalo, close to his home in Williamsville, NY. Prometheus is a medium-sized publisher, producing almost 100 titles a year. Prometheus has a fair collection of books for those in their teens and twenties regarding philosophy, and their motto is bring insight, open eyes, which fit Sternbergs audience perfectly.

The publisher expressed their interest. They basically said Expand it into a book, and well take a look at it. For the rest of his senior year, he expanded it. He used his free periods, he wrote during the day, he took fewer classes, and he even took a hit academically in order to focus purely on the book. He worked with his English teacher. She was interested in opening your mind, creative insights, deep ideas, higher-level thinking, Sternberg said. I needed someone to argue with, bounce off the concept. She helped him along the way, asking questions and helping him proofread.

Random peers also helped him review, as the uninformed were his main audience. I gave the book to jocks, nerds, Goths, my twelve-year-old brother and I kept changing it until all of them were happy, he said. He e-mailed computer-scientists and neuroscientists. He attempted to ensure that there were no boring sentences, in order to keep every word gripping.

It was an investment. It took a lot of out of me. I put everything in it, he said. He submitted his book of 170-pages to the publisher in March 2005.

In August 2005, Sternberg suffered through orientation like the rest of his peers, but also had the manuscript on his mind. It was a nerve-wracking wait. I would have been crushed (if the manuscript was rejected).

But it wasnt. It was accepted in September.

Publishing:

Now that his book was accepted, Sternberg needed to turn his text into one. First, I needed to find an illustrator to clarify the concepts, he said. The book contains drawings, diagrams, and models, and Sternberg found a college student at Pitt who would do it for free. He also solicited photos of robots at MIT smiling, showing emotion, and Deep Blue, the computer that beat the smartest human chess-player in the world.

Then, he needed to solicit blurbs, those complimentary pieces on the back of the book. Sternberg chose experts in the field and sent them letters. He needed to contact a professional to write his forward, to lend some credibility to the book via the validation of an expert. Meanwhile, Sternberg went through a process of edits and final proofreading. He also wrote his acknowledgments and introduction.

He finished editing in November 2006 and had his final-proofreading in January 2007. In the meantime, he had taken courses in philosophy and neuroscience. Taking another look at his book, he had a choice.

I had become more knowledgeable, and I asked myself whether I should go back and change it. He decided not to add any more. He liked that it was for beginners, and he had formed his original conclusion after knowing nothing. He did not want to change it.

In the meantime, Brandeis professors also helped along the way. Professors Robert Sekuler (PSYCH), Eli Hirsch (PHIL), and Jerry Samet (PHIL) looked over it. Professor Andreas Teuber (PHIL), who was part of the reason Sternberg came to Brandeis, wrote the forward to the book. Sternberg had even tested his ideas in one of Teubers summer classes at Harvard. Teuber allowed Sternberg to lead a discussion on the idea of consciousness.

The book will be released on March 29. Prometheus is paying for the costs of production and Sternberg will initially get 5% of all book sales (as more are sold, he will get a higher percentage).

[The book] is my greatest accomplishment, Sternberg said. He is still in disbelief that he pulled it off, that a publisher was interested in a 17-year-olds twenty-page English project. It almost never happens. I feel very lucky and fortunate, he said.

He hadnt told anybody when he arrived at Brandeis, but now that publicity has started, he has told his peers. He will be publicizing through radio shows, the Boston Globe, and more media outlets. He hopes that classrooms can put the book to use to excite discussion, broaden understanding, and whet readers' appetite for the concept.

Sternberg is currently working on a new book, dealing with the concept of free will. It will be called, Neurons Stole my Wallet: How Modern Neuroscience Threatens Moral Agency.

Sternberg will be discussing Are You a Machine? as part of the Meet the Author series at Brandeis on April 19.

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