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Book Review

A Memoir of “Self” Discovery

What is consciousness? How does our brain work? Is there a line between brain and mind? In God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning 1, Meghan O’Gieblyn sets out to unpack these questions in the context of God, human, animal, and machine. She reflects on what we can learn about ourselves through our own creations. Going through her own struggle with God and religion over the years, her book is both deeply personal and universal. O’Gieblyn references many others in her book including scientific and religious philosophers, physicists, computer scientists. None of them have all the answers, but the journey and questions are timely and eye opening. If you’re eager to engage in dialogue with these topics, this book is a great place to start. You will end up with many more questions than when you began.

I recently found myself asking these questions about consciousness and the mind when I was in a bike accident and sustained a serious concussion. I have no memory of the accident or the entire day. Throughout the recovery process, I was prompted to assess my brain. What was different? What was normal? What was my goal to get back to? Throughout most of the process I did not know. My brain was still healing while trying to process these questions. I went through the motions of life, but was not present. I felt like a robot that had to be recharged, be told what to do, and relearn how to be me. Did my consciousness change throughout this process? Am I the same person I was before my concussion? During the process of recovery, I learned a whole lot about myself and what it means to be me.

At some point we are all prompted by these moments of self awareness and discovery. Luckily, we do not need to get concussions to learn about ourselves. We are confronted every day with machines created by us and for us. What do they tell us about ourselves? What questions should we be asking? O’Gieblyn tackles these issues, beginning with her experience reviewing a robot dog. Throughout the reviewing process, she gains more and more affection for the robot, and by the end treats it like a real dog. Her husband cannot fathom this. Was the robot conscious, or is it in her imagination? Does this perception make a difference? After all, the robot dog is for people who want companionship but cannot undertake the responsibility. Do humans crave seeing consciousness where it may not exist? (Humans often experience pareidolia – seeing faces in ordinary non-face objects.) The robot dog puts these questions into perspective for both machine and animal.

As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more advanced, people will ask more questions about its level of consciousness. Is consciousness inherent in a neural network? What is the role of developers? When we believe we perceive consciousness in an AI system, how much is just our imagination? How strong is our desire to see consciousness in the systems we build? AI forces us to confront these questions as it becomes a bigger part of our lives. O’Gieblyn’s work can help us through this process with empathy, examples, and resources. It provided me with new ways of thinking, new questions, new sources to read, and more. I really enjoyed her book and I highly recommend it.


If you enjoyed God, Human, Animal, Machine2 , and are looking for more, I would recommend skimming the bibliography at the end of the book. You may also enjoy the TV series Upload by Greg Daniels, Mike Lawrence, Shepard Boucher3, as well as the books Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths4, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig5.


Thanks to Joshua Mendel for writing, editing, and proofreading this article.


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