Engineers Dreams19 Jul 2008
As Ed traced the low-frequency harmonic oscillations that reverberated below the digital horizon, he lost track of time. He realized he was hungry and made his way upstairs. The oscilloscope traces had left ghosts in his vision, like the image that lingers for a few seconds when a cathode-ray tube is shut down. As he sat down to a bowl of noodles in the cafeteria, he realized that he had seen these 13-hertz cycles, clear off the scale of anything in the digital world, before.
It was 1965, and he had been assigned, under a contract with Stanford University, to physiologist William C. Dement, who was setting up a lab to do sleep research. Dement, who had been in on the discovery of what became known as REM sleep, was investigating newborn infants, who spend much of their time in dreaming sleep. Dement hypothesized that dreaming was an essential step in the initialization of the brain. Eventually, if all goes well, awareness of reality evolves from the internal dream—a state we periodically return to during sleep. Ed had helped with setting up Dement’s lab, and had spent many late nights getting the electroencephalographs fine-tuned. He had lost track of Bill Dement over the years. But he remembered the title of the article in SCIENCE that Dement had sent to him, inscribed “to Ed, with thanks from Bill.” It was “Ontogenetic Development of the Human Sleep-Dream Cycle. The prime role of ‘dreaming sleep’ in early life may be in the development of the central nervous system.”
Ed cleared his tray and walked outside. In a few minutes he was at the edge of the Google campus, and kept walking, in the dark, towards Moffett Field. He tried not to think. As he started walking back, into the pre-dawn twilight, with the hint of a breeze bringing the scent of the unseen salt marshes to the east, he looked up at the sky, trying to clear the details of the network traffic logs and the oscilloscope traces from his mind.
For 400 years, we have been waiting for machines to begin to think.
“We’ve been asking the wrong question,” he whispered under his breath.
They would start to dream first.