Once you do shake free of the world of IF/THEN statements, you find that there are many forms of computation in the world beside algorithms. When you hit a bell and it rings with a characteristic tone, it doesn't sit there applying sequences of rules to decide which of the millions of vibrations from the collision should be kept and which discarded; they just interfere with each other and themselves, and those that interfere constructively almost instantly win out over those that don't. When we try to understand the computations of life, and especially of brains, it's these sorts of processes we should be looking at (as Steve Lehar points out in your interview with him). The digital computer was originally based on analogies of how the mind was supposed to work: memory, central processing unit, rules, procedures and suchlike. But this paradigm is unhelpful and holds us back -- the brain is not like a computer at all. Happily, the computer is a fantastic device for pretending to be other kinds of machines, so we can use digital computers to simulate parallel, analogue machines, and then arrange those virtual machines inside cyberspace to produce more interesting, more biologically relevant systems. That's what I try to do -- I design circuitry using virtual objects. It's an art form.
MLU: A big part of discovering answers is asking the right questions. What are the questions you are asking yourself these days?
SG: Hmm, good point. Maybe the question I should have been asking myself is "what are the questions I'm asking myself?"... Let me think about that...
Actually, maybe that's a good place to start. Breakthroughs so often occur when people examine their own previously unquestioned assumptions and find that quite fundamental things they'd always taken completely for granted aren't actually true. The snag with this is the implicit paradox, of course: if your assumptions are unquestioned, how do you know what they are? I think this is where it helps to see the world with childlike eyes -- all innocence and ignorance. Experts are the last people to question the foundation stones of their towering edifice of acquired knowledge, for fear the whole thing will topple.
Basically I try to ask really dumb questions about life in general and the brain in particular, in the hope they'll uncover assumptions that need abandoning. In broad terms I'm trying to understand consciousness, since that's the most precious commodity in the universe to me (and I presume to most conscious entities). But since nobody yet has a clue what consciousness actually is, I try to answer more tangential questions, like why did it evolve, and what structures and functions are needed to support it?