We live in a universe full of rich mysteries and lovely puzzles that have been attracting the curiosity of our particular hominid offshoot for as long as it has been running around Earth's crusty surface.
Where did everything come from? How does life start? What is this thing we call consciousness?
That latter question, folded together with the broader question of the origins and nature of awareness, has proven to be a particularly tough nut to crack. But I think it's arguably one of the outstanding conundrums. One of the ways I like to pose this is the following: if I placed a glass of water in front of you and said that if you wait for a couple of billion years that water will become sentient, you'd probably think I was crazy. Yet in a very real sense that is precisely the kind of thing that the universe has done. Back 13.7 billion years ago the universe was dense, hot, and extremely uniform - devoid of meaningful structure. Somehow, after those billions of years, structures have formed out of the cosmos that are not just aware, they're consciously aware of themselves and of the place out of which they formed.
That's astonishing, that's the ultimate bootstrap maneuver.
And to try to further our inquiry into this, and all the extraordinary science surrounding it - from cognitive origins to neuroscience, social behavior, artificial intelligence and much more - myself and some remarkable colleagues have started a new institute. It's called YHouse, and here's what it's about:
You'll notice if you go to the YHouse website, that in some of our many startup research projects we're thinking about how interstellar travel and artificial intelligence might be related. We're also looking into proto-cognition - how simple organisms like bacteria process information and literally make decisions. Those decisions could impact entire planetary biospheres.
If we want to both understand ourselves and any other sentient life in the universe, we need to decode awareness and consciousness. Maybe these phenomena are quite unique to us. Or possibly consciousness is something deeply connected to the fabric of reality, and is almost physics-like. Equally, perhaps awareness and consciousness are simply part of biology's toolkit of information-processing and decision-making systems, driven by natural selection - a type of efficient data compression that emerges in cells and synapses. And perhaps machines can do the same - or something completely different.
It's going to be fun.