Sentience Quotient

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the secret life of plants by kelsey garrity

The sentience [sen-shuhnsquotient [kwoh-shuhnt] (SQ) was introduced by nanotechnology researcher Robert A. Freitas Jr. in the late 1970s. It defines sentience as the relationship between the information processing rate (in bits per second) of each individual processing unit (neuron), the weight/size of a single unit, and the total number of processing units (expressed as mass). This is a non-standard usage of the word ‘sentience,’ which normally relates to an organism’s capacity to perceive the world subjectively (it is derived from the Latin word ‘sentire’ meaning ‘to feel’ and is closely related to the word ‘sentiment’; intelligence or cognitive capacity is better denoted by ‘sapience’).

The potential and total processing capacity of a brain, based on the amount of neurons and the processing rate and mass of a single one, combined with its design (e.g. myelin coating, specialized areas) and programming, lays the foundations of the brain level of the individual. Not just in humans, but in all organisms, even artificial ones such as computers (although their ‘brain’ is not based on neurons). The SQ of an individual is therefore a measure of the efficiency of an individual brain, not its relative intelligence.

According to Freitas’ equation, humans have an SQ of +13 (a human neuron has an average mass of about 10−10 kg and one neuron can process 1000-3000 bit/s). All other animals with a nervous system (or all ‘neuronal sentience’) from insects to mammals, cluster within several points of the human value. Plants cluster around an SQ of −2. Carnivorous plants have an SQ of +1, while the Cray-1 (a 1976 supercomputer) had an SQ of +9. IBM Watson (a computer built to play ‘Jeopardy!’), which achieves 80 TFLOPS (trillion floating point operations per second) and consists of 90 IBM Power 750 servers weighing approximately 100 kilograms (220 lb) each, has an SQ in the range of +11—+12.

A computer made of theoretically perfect superconductors (called Josephson junction electronic gates) could weigh 10−12 kg and process 1011 bits/s, giving an ‘electronic’ SQ of +23. The lowest SQ possible (-70) would result from just one neuron with the mass of the whole universe (1052 kg) and require a time equal to the age of the universe (1018 seconds) to process just one bit. It has been argued that under multiverse theory (in which alternate realities exist), an infinitely low SQ is theoretically possible, though Freitas is not known to have commented on this possibility himself. The fundamental upper limit to brain efficiency is imposed by the laws of quantum mechanics: all information, to be acted upon, must be represented physically and be carried by matter-energy ‘markers.’ According to the Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics, the maximum possible SQ is +50.

According to Freitas, an alien civilization having their consciousness running on non-biological hardware (such as quantum-mechanical circuits) could have an SQ of 23+, 10 orders of magnitude beyond humans. Freitas states that such a gap in SQ ‘may affect our ability, and the desirability, of communicating with extraterrestrial beings…It may be that there is a minimum SQ ‘communication gap,’ an intellectual distance beyond which no two entities can meaningfully converse.’ For example, an alien civilization may form a Matrioshka brain (a star sized computer) or a black hole and communicate using neutrinos or gamma-ray bursts at bandwidths that exceed our receiving capabilities.

Freitas said: ‘At present, human scientists are attempting to communicate outside our species to primates and cetaceans, and in a limited way to a few other vertebrates. This is inordinately difficult, and yet it represents a gap of at most a few SQ points. The farthest we can reach in our ‘communication’ with vegetation is when we plant, water, or fertilize it, but it is evident that messages transmitted across an SQ gap of 10 points or more cannot be very meaningful. What, then, could an SQ +50 Superbeing possibly have to say to us?’

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