If you are new to the consciousness project, please take a look at the introduction and the first and second instalments, dealing with sense and memory before reading this post.
I think I just had a breakthrough. One of the most obvious things about consciousness is the subconscious.
I don’t think anybody can deny the existence of the sub conscious. And it seems to have arisen from the evolutionary development of the brain.
We start with the reactive brain stem, the lizard brain. That is the kind of brain we find in a thermostat, or a car that can navigate from Frankfurt to Beijing without a driver. We pile on functionality until the sensors and controls can do everything a snake or a chicken can do – deal with all the necessities of reality determined by programming and algorithms that ensure survival.
On top of all of that we add a level that monitors the emotions, drives, and decisions made by these unconscious functions, and makes value judgements on whether goals are achieved or desires met. This level can monitor the fantasies and memories being reviews by the decision making process, and again make value judgements on past and future outcomes. This level can recognize the difference between self and not self. This level might be able to learn about all the functions that are active in the subconscious level, but it can never have direct access to all the processes as they a engaged in the business of guiding and running things.
Can this be programmed? Would it then amount to consciousness? What exactly is consciousness? Is it not simply awareness of the outside world, plus awareness of the “inner” world, plus awareness of the self versus the not self?
Help me out here, folks. Am I being too simplistic? I think we (meaning smart people who have programmed complicated spacial mapping and sensory responses, not me specifically) have already solved what Pinker called “the easy problem”. Isn’t what I’m suggesting the solution to the hard problem? And don’t we solve that just by using the easy problem solutions to look at the inner and outer world?
Oh fuck, I’m talking nonsense. What does it mean to “monitors the emotions, drives, and decisions made by these unconscious functions, and makes value judgements on whether goals are achieved or desires met”? How does that translate into a functioning program? What is a goal? What is a desire? What is a value judgement? It may be the vodka and tonic talking, but I’m feeling overwhelmed.
Does anybody have any thoughts to share on all of this? Please speak up.
Good news. Obama is on board with my interest in understanding consciousness, though he frames it in terms of understanding how the brain functions. A hundred million dollars thrown at real scientists is a good start to attacking this problem.
I am currently working on part 3 of my Exploration of Consciousness. So far I’ve only had one person contribute any brain power, and that was much appreciated. I wish the rest of you would climb on board. My suspicion is that, just as Wikipedia could show up Encarta with the shear brain power of Internet volunteers, we humble non-scientists can do just as much if we seriously put our heads together. Let’s see if we can beat Obama and his millions to some interesting answers.
My suspicion, hope, and belief is that most if not all the components of consciousness have already been invented – sensing software that can control a driverless car from Frankfurt to Beijing, voice recognition software, voice synthesis software, character recognition software, facial recognition software, logic software that can win at Jeopardy over a human opponent, touch sensors for robotics, sniffers for drug and bomb detection, spacial mapping and navigation software, smart programs that can learn. My guess is that all it will take is an integration of all these existing technologies. We have memory density equivalent to the human brain. Couple that with the right programing and we should be able to create consciousness. Let’s get to it.
If you haven’t read them yet, please go back and read Part 1 and Part 2 of Considering Consciousness. Then contribute some thoughts before I make a complete fool of myself all by myself.
If this is your first visit to Darwin Harmless, you’ve stumbled into an ongoing project to discuss consciousness. Part one was an introduction and discussion of what consciousness is capable of doing in humans, a list of requirements for a simulated consciousness. If you want to join this discussion, I’d suggest you start there. I’m now moving on to consider specific components of consciousness, starting with …
Senses – hearing, sight, smell, taste, touch
First a question: Are senses necessary for consciousness, and if so, what senses? Helen Keller got along without ears and eyes. Many people do okay without taste, or smell. I assume there are people in t his world with no senses at all other than perhaps touch or the sense of vibration. We’d hardly call them unconscious. While I can see making some kind of abstract consciousness that had no sensors at all, it seems that input and output are going to be necessary to simulate anything like human consciousness. Even Helen Keller could be reached by her teacher.
Let’s assume we can provide at least two of the five senses. Let’s start with the easy ones, sight and hearing. We can leave touch, smell, and taste for a further sophistication. Or maybe those inputs could be put in right now. I don’t know what the state of the art is for computers that can taste and smell. Research needed.
Touch, taste, and smell require a body. Come to think of it, so does sight and hearing. It’s just that the body’s sensors for touch, taste and smell must come into physical contact with the outside world, which requires a body with sensors that can take air samples and do a chemical analysis, or sample a liquid or solid and do that chemical analysis, or be physically touched.
So to simulate our consciousness we will also need to simulate a whole body. We might as well make that body resemble the humans form, and give it an avatar. We could also give it a simulated heart, adrenal gland, hormones, brain chemicals, so that it can respond to sensations and emotions and give feedback to our simulated brain so that our simulated consciousness can assess and respond to both external and internal circumstances.
We can hook up sensors to our simulated body, microphones for ears, speakers for voice, maybe pressure sensors for touch and later at some point chemical receptors for taste and smell. We could leave the sense of taste, and smell as very rudimentary senses, maybe only able to detect a small number of chemicals compared to the vast number of organic compounds our senses can detect.
Memory and Memory Retrieval
The simplest thing to do of course would be to record everything and file it away. But given that we want a lot of sensory input, that is going to eat up a huge amount of memory space very quickly. And that’s not how our memory seems to work anyway.
So let’s split it into long term and short term memory. In humans, the duration of short-term memory (when rehearsal or active maintenance is prevented, is believed to be in the order of seconds. A commonly cited capacity is , the duration of short-term memory 7 ± 2elements long and lasts just enough to remember a phone number until you can write it down. So let’s set up our simulation with an equivalent short term memory.
Then we have the long term memory. We’ll need some way of deciding what goes into long term memory, and what simply gets forgotten. We need some way of weighting the value of any particular factoid or impression or memory. Let’s assume that this is a role for emotion, which we will get to soon.
Once we have memories, we need some way of replaying them, and filing them so we can find them again. How will that work? We need association – one memory triggering another. We need reality mapping in our memory, so that we can find our way to the car in the parking lot.
All of this is part of working memory, the memory that allows us to keep things in our head long enough to solve puzzles and consider possibilities, examine ideas and see how they fit together.
I’m assuming infinite memory capacity, but that probably isn’t practical. Should memory degrade with time, except for something we might call core memories, memories with such strong emotional value that they resist fading? Okay, then we need a core memory tank.
Or, we could make memories stronger with revisiting them? Or both.
So we need three types of memory:
short term memory
long term memory, possibly with some core memories that will never degrade
and working memory
Memory recording, storage and retrieval, and reviewing protocols will be a significant part of consciousness. That’s enough to think about for this post. Next time I’ll go on to talk about mapping space and time, recognizing meaningful shapes, patterns, beings (first we must decide what “meaningful” means and how our program will evaluate and assign meaning), map space and time, and create fantasies. I think all of these elements are tied in together but before I get into that I’m hoping for some feedback from my readers.
This is something I’ve been musing about for a couple years now, as have a lot of smarter people all over the world. The puzzle is consciousness. And the first question is, why is this a puzzle? What is it about consciousness that makes it so mysterious? I don’t have the knowledge and training to explore this question, but that has never stopped me before. So with all due humility, let’s take a look at this strange thing called consciousness.
I’m asking for your help here. Please stay with the tour and tell me if I’ve gone off-roading with the bus. Deep breath. Here we go…
We say with some confidence that we are conscious, to some extent, simply because we feel conscious, but how do we tell if another creature, or even a machine, is conscious?People argue about whether dogs are conscious. If dogs, what about mice, what about mosquitoes? What about uncle Lloyd, before and after the onset of Alzheimer’s? If a car can drive from Frankfurt to Beijing with no human driver, is it conscious? Most people would say no.
I am a materialist. I do not believe in a mind-body dichotomy. I do not believe in a soul. But I do believe in consciousness. It seems to me that our consciousness is housed in a meat basket, our brain. Without our brain there is no consciousness, no “I”. I think consciousness is an emergent property of the sensory inputs, recording ability and computational complexity of the human brain. I want to to explore the question of whether consciousness could be housed in some other material. Silicon is the obvious choice.
Computer memory now equals the density of the human brain. Couple that much memory with the right programming and maybe consciousness would be the result. To claim otherwise seems to me to be just more human pleading for exceptionalism, more arrogance. But let’s be humble. Let’s say that we don’t hope to create “real consciousness”, whatever that is. Let just take a run at simulating consciousness. We’ll just create a computer program that pretends to be conscious, just like you and me.
I say that we pretend to be conscious because our consciousness is apparently an illusion. Our self identity is cobbled together from any number of competing brain processes, all working below the level of consciousness. It’s as if we’ve elected an idiot to act as spokesperson for a country of mute but influential citizens, many with competing interests and values. It took modern neuroscience to begin to identify and know those citizens. They will be the basis of our simulation.
To date, efforts to prolonged our lives have focused on our bodies. But I want to think of our bodies as just the car that our brains (or in Dawkin’s words, our selfish genes that created our bodies and brains) are driving, and our brain as the meat basket for our consciousness. If we can figure out what consciousness is, maybe we can figure out how to house it in something other than a meat basket. It could be a start toward that science fiction dream of a replicatable, backupable, immortal consciousness. After all, it isn’t our body we care about, or the selfish genes that created our bodies, it’s our consciousness, which the believers call our soul and which, so far, has not been able to survive the death of our meat basket brain.
Long Term Goal -create a model that simulates consciousness
Since I have no idea how one goes about coding a computer program for the things we want to simulate, this will be a requirements analysis only. Let’s see if we can figure out what a program-memory combination that simulates consciousness would look like. Then maybe we can find people willing to code it. I think the coding part should be easy by comparison, but what do I know?
On second thought, let’s just look at this as an exercise in understanding consciousness. I personally don’t want the responsibility of having created a sentient being. I have no desire nor reason to see our results coded into a working program, though it might be necessary just to refine the idea, balance the competing functions, and prove the concepts.
So, let’s get started. What do we need to simulate one of us?
What must consciousness do?
1. Sense the external world: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell.
2. Recognise meaningful colours, shapes, patterns, beings (first we must decide what “meaningful” means and how our program evaluates or assigns meaning.)
3. Map space and time
4. Remember, retrieve, sort and review sensory input.
5. Fantasise possible futures, recognise the difference between memories, fantasies, and reality.
6. Decide on beliefs and actions (a belief is just an estimate of probability about the nature of reality. Our program should be able to recognise and test beliefs against data.)
7. Recognise and understand abstract concepts and categories
8. Feel, experience emotions (so we must simulate emotions and a feedback or monitoring method so our consciousness can recognise an emotion)
9. Use emotions to make decisions (Which is what we do. Without emotions there are no decisions.)
10. Recognise other consciousnesses and recognise the difference between conscious, merely animate, and unconscious/inanimate. Must be able to empathise (mirror neurone activity).
11. Must have an aesthetic sense (Based on what criteria?).
12. Must have emotional drives – self-preservation, preservation of the social group (What would determine the social group? All humanity?), to achieve goals, solve puzzles, see patterns, learn, communicate, to be understood, to be part of a community. (optional?)
13. Reflect on self and recognise self versus not self
14. Free will or the illusion of free will, which in our simulation will be restricted to decisions and choices, since our simulation can’t actually do anything in the physical world, at least not until we give it control of some kind of body, in which case we’re really building an android.
15. Simulate instincts, reflexes, impulses and controls or dampers on these functions.
16. Develop and use language.
17. Develop and use logic and mathematics.
14. Simulate neurotransmitters and psychotropic brain chemistry (assuming we’re trying to develop a human like consciousness, not just an abstract consciousness)
18. Direct and focus attention while ignoring peripheral details or irrelevant data unless triggered to shift attention.
19. React and take notice or focus attention when triggered by such things as movement, colour change, specific patters.
20. Creativity – finding solutions to problems that come from “outside the box” thinking. Also, doing things for the fun of it, or the mental exercise, with no obvious reward.
Sheesh, the human brain sure can do some remarkable things. I said I was intimidated by this project. And this list was really just off the top of my head. I’m sure there is complexity I haven’t even noticed, and probably whole categories of function that haven’t occurred to me. This is where you all come in.
What’s your opinion? If we created a program with all these capabilities, would consciousness emerge, i.e. Is consciousness an emergent property of this list of ingredients?
That’s the question I want to explore with you. I’ve written a lot more on this, breaking down this list into things to consider for each category of function and possible courses of action and components or subroutines to simulate each category, but that’s enough for now. I want to put this question to you, my subscribers, first. What have I left off this list? What else must consciousness be able to do?
I hope I hear from you. This thinking by myself gets lonely, and it’s hard work.
I went to see The Hobbit yesterday, in IMAX 3D. That reminded me of Bob Altemeyer’s book, The Authoritarians”, which you can download for free just by clicking here. If you haven’t read it yet you are in for a treat. Professor Altemeyer spent decades researching the questions about authoritarians, and more importantly, authoritarian followers. His book is engaging, entertaining, and full of insights that help explain why some people seem so willing to follow leaders no matter how obviously destructive those leaders may be. To repeat myself, it’s free. What do you have to lose by checking it out.
Why did seeing The Hobbit remind me of Altemeyer’s Book. Because the dwarfs in the movie are such perfect examples of authoritarian followers. Especially Balin with his line, “There’s a leader I can follow.” And even when he argues with Thorin, his chosen leader, against the wisdom of the quest, he goes along, the loyal supporter. Because he’s an authoritarian follower to the core.
The movie is the usual good versus evil nonsense, in which evil is always very ugly with bad teeth and complexion. I think deus ex machina occurred about five times before I lost count. It’s good fun if you can shut off your brain, and not wonder how all those creatures who live underground manage to feed themselves. It’s full to the brim with the usual tropes – collapsing rickety wooden structures over bottomless abyss, snarling beasts ridden by monsters with bad personal hygiene, extensive use of gravity with structures, stones, and characters falling constantly but never suffering any damage. It’s a lot more interesting after you’ve read the book, and I’m not referring to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Read “The Authoritarians“. Far more entertaining and you most likely will learn something.
For those who don’t play the guitar or banjo, a brief lesson on how such things work may be needed here. The beauty of what I am about to explain takes some background to understand.
A guitar, or a banjo, has strings that run from the saddle, at the body end of the instrument, down to the nut at the end of the neck. Along the way there are frets, which are bars of metal inlaid into the neck. Pressing a string down against these frets effectively shortens the string, thus creating a higher tone when the string vibrates. The thing to notice here is that everybody who has ever played a guitar or a banjo has thought about raising the tone as something one does by pressing down on the string, to hold the string against the fret.
The strings are tuned relative to each other. Which means that if you hold different strings down against different frets, you create different chords, notes that harmonize with each other. A song usually has a number of chords that go together to make up the key that the song is played in. Most of the time a key will have only three chords in it. For example, the key of C has the chords C, F, and G7.
Sometimes a guitar player, or a banjo player, is accustomed to playing a song in a certain key with certain chords. But then he or she gets together with other musicians, or with a vocalist who needs to sing in a certain range, and maybe they want to play the song a bit higher or lower. Say they want to play the song in D instead of in C. That means instead of C,F, and G7 you would need to play D, G, and A7, each chord one note higher than the chords in the key of C. A good player will just play those chords. But sometimes it gets all complicated, with special bass runs and other frills that are really hard to work in to the new chords. It’s a lot easier to do this if the same chord “shapes” could be used and one could simply tune up all the strings by one note. And this turns out to be easy to do. You can use a “capo”, a kind of specialized clamp that holds down all the strings on a fret, thus raising them all by any number of notes desired. Note that, again, the idea is that the strings are held down against the frets. That’s how everybody thinks about raising a note. By holding strings down against the fret.
Now we come to the problem with the five string banjo. Such an instrument has four long strings and on shorter string that only goes part way up the neck. So if you use a capo on such an instrument, the four long strings stay in tune with each other, but you need some way to raise the note on the fifth string. A banjo player can do this by just tuning that string up to match the capoed strings. That takes time and only works for a couple of notes before the string gets too much tension on it. So the fifth string needs a separate capo of its own.
I bought my banjo when Earl Scruggs died and I decided that the world needed to maintain the same number of banjo players. I’m relatively new to playing the banjo. The book I bought explained that one can buy a specialized fifth string capo, but that many banjo players use the tiny spikes used in building model railways. These are embedded in the neck, and the string can be hooked under a spike head to hold it down on the fret. Note again, hold it down on the fret.
Not liking the idea of having somebody drill holes in my banjo neck and put in little railway spikes, I investigated fifth string capos. They also call for drilling and screwing into the banjo neck, so that a rail can be attached to the neck and a clamp can be swivelled down on just one string. That’s when I found this little video showing how to make a fifth string capo out of a ball point pen cap. What?
This blew my mind. Not just because it is so simple and effective, and doesn’t require compromising the integrity of my banjo neck, but because this dude, or somebody, completely inverted the thinking required. You don’t have to press down on a string to hold it against the fret. You can raise the fret to press up against the string. Genius. So simple. But duh, nobody thought of it in all the long history of banjo players playing banjos. I didn’t think of it until I watched this video.
I told this method of capoing the fifth string to a banjo maker, Grant Wickland, on Saltspring Island in British Columbia, and suggested that a more elegant version of the capo could be machined out of brass. He came up with this, the worlds first, as far as I know, brass fifth string capo inspired by the ballpoint pen cap. I now have it hanging from a tuning peg on my banjo and I think Grant is adding one to each banjo he makes.
When I think about all those banjo players drilling holes into their banjo necks so they could glue in tiny railroad spikes, or screw on a rail on which a capo could slide, it really makes you wonder how it could take so long to discover this simple method. Why isn’t this the standard way to capo the fifth string?
Considering this time lag between necessity and technological improvement helps me to understand why the hand axe was the only human tool for a million years. Think about that. A million years using the hand axe and nobody thought of putting a handle on it. Something as obvious as putting a handle on that tool only seems obvious once somebody has thought of it and done it. Until then, we all keep doing things just the way we’ve always done them.
Here’s a wonderful TED talk by Carl Schoonover, full of fascinating information about the how we see inside the brain, the history of cell staining, and different cutting edge research tools. But it has a problem. I tried to embed this, but WordPress won’t accept it for some reason. So please just click on the link below.
This guy really knows what he’s talking about. He’s a scientist. He knows the state of the art. I’m fairly sure he isn’t a creationist. I’m sure he isn’t arguing for Intelligent Design. But he ends his talk, speaking of antibody staining and green fluorescent protein, with: “These are functions that we could use in our own research tool pallet. And instead of applying feeble human minds to designing these tools from scratch, there were these ready made tools right out there in nature developed and refined steadily for millions of years by the greatest engineer of all.”
No doubt he is speaking of evolution and nature as “the greatest engineer of all”. But what a dangerous way to put it. Personifying evolution and nature gives the I.D. people the impression that there was intelligence behind these developments. These tools were not developed by “the greatest engineer of all”. They came about as a result of evolution and natural biology. Let’s not confuse the fundies any more than necessary.
I’ve watched that video clip of the American Apache helicopter murdering civilians, two of whom were a journalist and her driver, in Baghdad a couple of times recently. Each time I watch it, it gets worse. There is something that is is such a contrast between the disciplined request “Permission to engage?” and the callous disregard for human life displayed by what I presume to be a very young soldier. No, calling him a soldier insults all soldiers. Soldiers face the enemy, and risk getting killed. This guy is just a technician. He’s sitting back about a quarter of a mile away, with technology doing all his work for him. All he has to do is push the button. I’m not going to call him a soldier. He’s like those drone operators in America, thousands of miles away from any danger, who kill people half way around the world. Somehow America has found a way to filter out humanity and create killers with no conscience who can be trained to hold back until unleashed, but who actively itch to be unleashed and allowed to kill.
The language use is also instructive. “Come on. Light ‘em all up.” Not “Kill them in cold blood.” but something that sounds more like setting off a Fourth of July fireworks display.
“We’ve just engaged with all eight individuals.” Is this kind of one sided slaughter really engagement?
And what is his comment when he learns that he’s murdered children? “Serves them right for bringing kids to a battle.” A battle? This was a battle? No, this was not a battle. This was a cold blooded massacre. Does this kid think he’s a glorious fighter for democracy?
So many questions flood my mind when I watch this clip: What kinds of filters does the military put on its training to get rid of people with any sense of humanity or compassion? How do they test their recruits, and find the ones who have no heart, the real killers, the sociopaths?
I imagine this murderer, this heartless, compassion free, monster going back to America. He finds a girlfriend. He gets married. He goes into business. He’s a hero, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He gets respect. He’ll probably be very successful. How many people will recognize him as the monster that he is?
Since this clip has been released, and gone viral, will he be able to hide from his past, from what he’s revealed himself to be? Will he laugh it off. Will he strut and wear that T-shirt about loving to kill, loving to hear the wailing of the widows and children? Will he turn to alcohol and drugs? Or will he go to church every Sunday, and make sure the kids go too?
Well, who cares about him? My question is, how do we protect society from rapacious killers when we have an institution that filters them out of the population, trains them, rewards them, and then sends them home to blend in among the good people we see all around us.
If anybody thinks we don’t need Wikileaks, they should watch that video clip a few times. Then think about what we know, what we don’t know, and what we will never discover without organizations like Wikileaks shedding light on behavior that should sicken us all.
So Arizona has a bill in the works to “protect people from one-on-one harassment”, according to Rep. Vic Williams, a Tucson Republican who helped sponsor the bill. He sees this as a “bona fide” need. And the solution to one-on-one harassment? Make it illegal to “annoy” or “offend” anybody on line. Sheesh. There goes this site, and most of the other sites I enjoy, plus ninety five percent of the posts on Facebook. This is obviously another example of control freaks looking for an issue to get their names in the news, while not having clue one about how the Internet works or what its values are.
I do see a problem with cyberbullying, stalking, and harassment. But the answer is not to make laws against it. The answer is to teach people how to deal with it. Just about all of our communications systems allow us to block messages we don’t want to read. Or we can just ignore the idiots who are harassing us, which is a fate worse than death for most of them. If you are of a more reactive temperament, you can engage in flame wars and insults back at the bully. On the Internet we can all be ten feet talk and talk like a drunken sailor on leave. And if somebody is really being bothered, we need Internet savvy support people who can administer a cyber spanking to the perpetrator. We don’t need a law making annoying somebody illegal.
For the past few months I’ve been harassed by an elderly troll. He’s been sending out emails in all caps to everybody on his mailing list, calling me a coward and a liar. I know they’ve gone to everybody on his mailing list because the idiot puts his entire list in the CC field instead of the BCC field. I was really enjoying ignoring him, but finally somebody on his mailing list , some friend in his MLM downline, took him to task for being a jerk. That seems to have stopped the harassment. That’s the way you deal with cyber harassment.
I watched a TED talk the other night by Rick Falkvinge, the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, on the subject of controlling the Internet. Falkvinge put the surveillance proposals in a different frame. What would the previous generation, the generation before the Internet, have said if the government made it illegal to send a letter anonymously, gave itself the right to open each and every letter and copy the contents, and put a microphone on every restaurant table. There would have been a huge outcry and protest. But because the Internet is new, and the older generation doesn’t really understand that it is just a communications medium, they think equivalent controls on the Internet communications are just totally okay. They aren’t. We need the right to be anonymous. We need the right to privacy. We need the right to offend and annoy anybody.
Here’s another article that really sums up the battles over control of the Internet. It’s long, but really worth reading. I obviously favor anarchy and chaos when it comes to controlling the Internet. But I do see the need for security. Heavy security, so that hackers can’t access my bank account, steal my identity, or discover my real name and come to kill me. Unfortunately it looks like the controls that various governments are pushing for are not going to protect me. They are going to protect the governments, the establishment, and prevent me from being a part of a global community that is just now starting to take shape.
I often fear that we may someday look back on these past few years as the golden age of the Internet, before it froze us all out. Of course if that happens, we’ll create dark nets and society will simply fracture. And I guess that could be okay too. But the fact is there is an old guard establishment that doesn’t understand the Internet and doesn’t use it very much, if at all. The whiteout on the screen people. But they do see that the Internet is changing the world, and this is making they very nervous. We need to sooth them, educate them, and make sure they don’t do anything stupid that destroys what we love about this new world.