After fifty-five off-Broadway performances in New York since March 1st, I took a short break over the past few weeks for some family time, and also to attend the legendary Sci Foo Camp at Google in California. The organizers curated a group of 350 scientists and science innovators, and one science rapper, to discuss the present and future of human problem solving acuity. The highlights? Talking with geneticist George Church about the possibility of consciousness in the organoid brains his lab is growing in vitro (probably soon), and talking with Larry Page about whether Google’s AI systems will ever be conscious (he doesn’t think it’s a coherent question).
I also had a blast teaching my first-ever freestyle rap workshop to a group of scientists and computer programmers at Google. I wasn’t sure whether I could get total rap novices to perform in just a one hour session, but the enthusiasm and spirit of play took hold and the results were hilarious and impressive. Until you’ve seen a senior particle physicist going head to head in an 8-Mile style battle with a stem cell biologist over a G-Unit instrumental, both for their first time ever, you haven’t fully explored the limits of hip-hop’s potential.
And now Rap Guide to Consciousness continues off-Broadway for another five weeks of fun, starting tonight. The official press release with showtimes and review quotes is available online here, and even though most of you on this mailing list are not in the media, maybe you know someone with a blog or a news platform you could forward it to. Or if you’ve seen the show please add a review of your own to my listing on Show Score, the Rotten Tomatoes of NY Theatre.
In recent podcast news, Heather and I recently told the story of how we first met and fell in love on a wonderful science podcast called Story Collider, and Star Talk recently released an updated version of my guest appearance at BAMfrom a few months back, in which Brian Greene, Chuck Nice, and Neil deGrasse Tyson mix it up for half an hour on the origins of the universe and astrophysics, and then I’m given five minutes to summarize their discussion in a half-written, half-freestyle track about free will and the brain. My favourite line of the freestyle is: “I can’t stop, I’m stuck here tryin’ to bust raps / I could no more stop than Neil could shave off his moustache!” Should we think of free will as the freedom to make arbitrarily random swerves in our behaviour? Or the freedom to explore opportunities in accordance with our goals? Obviously I could quit rapping and Neil could change his signature look, but that doesn’t sound to me like the kind of freedom worth wanting.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett proposes a “hard question” of consciousness to replace the supposed “hard problem”, in an excellent essay entitled “Are We Explaining Consciousness Yet?” that sparked my original interest in the subject more than eight years ago. The hard question is: first some activity occurs in the brain, and then what happens? The idea is that it’s the aftermath of neural events that determines whether those events count as conscious or not, rather than the events themselves. But this principle applies to life as well. What are the important moments, achievements, and ideas in our lives? It all depends on the sequel events that follow them.
First you have an idea for an experiment, first you meet someone and feel an attraction, first you write a hip-hop theatre show about consciousness, and then what happens?