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Zenith Grant Awardee

Lidia del Rio

ETH Zürich – Institute for Theoretical Physics

Project Title

Conditions for sentience in physical theories

Project Summary

Naturally, we would like physical theories to be consistent with available experimental data. We acquire this data through subjective experiences, while at the same time knowing ourselves to be physical systems, which should also be modelled by the theory. Therefore, a base requirement for a physical theory is that it contain a mapping from subjective to outsider views of experiences. For example, several interpretations of quantum mechanics allow us to model the observer’s memory as a quantum system, which may become entangled with the system measured in a reversible manner, while from the observer’s perspective a collapse has occurred. In thermodynamics, looking explicitly at Maxwell’s demon’s memory (and the need to erase it) allowed us to understand an apparent contradiction of the Second Law. In many proposals for new physical theories, however, the explicit modelling of observers as physical systems is lacking: this is the case of quantum gravity, string theory and other attempts to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics. In this project, we will model agents as physical systems within different theories, from memories to processors, and simulate the processes of performing observations, combining information and making predictions. We can then study the limitations that these theories place on the rationality of such agents.

Technical Abstract

The physical modelling of agents as physical systems equipped with explicit memories and informationprocessing mechanisms, together with a mapping from subjective to external views, is a crucial step towards completing and testing theories such as quantum gravity and generalized probability theories. We approach the task of characterizing intelligence and consciousness in arbitrary physical theories from the perspective of information and complexity theory. Agents are explicitly modelled as physical subsystems, and we find conditions for them to develop a sense of identity and awareness of their surroundings and of each other. We apply this approach quantum theory and its foils, and to relativistic theories.

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