Monthly Archives: June 2011

Artificial Consciousness: Awareness is Thinking About Thinking

In the previous post of this series, I argued that artificial consciousness is a matter of degree. Now we will begin to consider: degree of what?

This is a blog, not a book, so I will be content with the informal definition of consciousness that most people have: awareness of the environment and especially awareness of self. By awareness, we mean something more than the ability to think. What we have in mind is thinking about the fact that we’re thinking. This is the difference between a problem-solving sort of intelligence and consciousness, is it not?

A common chess-playing computer is an excellent problem-solver. As such, it exhibits its own specialized intelligence. However, we don’t consider it to be conscious, even in its specialty. That’s because it doesn’t think about what it’s doing, no matter how well it does it.

Could a machine think about thinking, and thus possess rudimentary self-awareness? I suggest that it could. To see why, let’s take a step back and ask what distinguishes thought from unthinking reflex.

Keeping this informal, rational thought consists of “mulling things over.” In order to gain distance from the raw, sensory input, we construct symbols that we can mentally arrange and rearrange. We are so used to doing this that we don’t even think of it as symbol-manipulation. Yet whenever we use language as an aid to thought, we are using symbols, even if we’re not using language out loud. And whenever we picture something in our minds, that picture is a symbol (it is certainly not the real thing).

We might think of an unthinking reflex as a direct reaction to stimulus without any intermediary symbols, and thought as the introduction of a symbol-processing phase in between stimulus and response. (This simplifies the situation. The distinction between direct reaction and reaction through symbols is not very clear. I’ll develop this theme in the next post.)

Recursive PaintingIf thinking is symbol-processing, then thinking about thinking consists of constructing a second level of symbols about the first level, and manipulating those.

Humans can think about thinking about thinking about thinking, and so on, to an arbitrary depth.

Could a computer program do the same thing? Yes. Easily. In a future post I’ll explain one way to do it. But first we must ask whether an intelligence must understand this reflection on its own symbols in order to be conscious. That, too, will be considered in the next post.

View from the Outside; View from the Inside

I was at an eclectic gathering of philosophically minded people recently and there was a five-minute flurry of conversation in which all of the following took place.

  • A gentile said that the Jewish religion was rule-based. Some Jews present objected that there’s a very strong mystical tradition in Judaism.
  • A theist (broadly speaking) opined that atheists have lost their sense of the mystical and wondrous. An atheist replied that life has become more vivid and wondrous since he moved from his long-standing religious views to atheism.
  • Someone came to the meeting with the impression that Eastern meditation meant emptying one’s mind. He learned that some varieties, at any rate, are the exact opposite: being mindful of everything that’s happening, starting with one’s own breath and radiating to encompass the entire universe.

This drove home to me once more what a difference there is between how a worldview looks from the inside and how it appears from the outside.

When I was an evangelical Christian, I agreed with Francis Schaeffer, who said,

If the unsaved man [i.e., the non-Christian] was consistent he would be an atheist in religion, an irrationalist in philosophy (including a complete uncertainty concerning ‘natural laws’), and completely a-moral in the widest sense.

and then doubled down on his view of the ‘unsaved’ with

However, most unsaved men are not atheists, irrationalists, or completely a-moral. Inconsistently, most unsaved men do have a part of the world-view which logically can only belong to Bible-believing Christianity. I personally believe this very inconsistency is the result of common grace. …illogically the unsaved man accepts some of the world as it really is.

When I was a Christian looking on atheism from the outside, Schaeffer made a lot of sense. Today, as an ex-Christian, I find those statements not only insulting but ignorant. (Someday, I will do a whole rant post on why even the godless person has reasons to be good, and those reasons do not require a god bestowing “common grace” on all mankind.)

Schaeffer and I had the problem that most of us have: we judge other people’s frameworks by the logic of our own. When we proceed that way, of course the other frameworks don’t make sense.

24 Colors for Blinky

from 24 Colors for Blinky. Paintings by Imi Knoebel at the Dia: Beacon Museum

It’s like the person who judges modern art by the standards of a Renaissance artist and concludes, “A kindergartner could have done that.”  He misses the whole point.

I’m not saying that all frameworks are “equally valid” (an oft-used phrase that I still despise). What I am saying is that when we judge someone else’s framework as an outsider looking in, it is very easy to make all sorts of wrong assumptions based on the logic of our own framework. Like a scientist who devises expensive, double-blind experiments to guard against his own biases, we ought to be wary of our own prejudices and misconceptions.

Perhaps we can approach other people’s ideas like we visit a museum of unfamiliar art. We can try to leave our preconceptions at the door and enter with an open heart and open mind. We might leave the museum totally hating what we saw, but at least we’ll have given it a fair shake. And who knows — we might even learn something new.

The Fish Trap

I may have my frustrations with Western philosophy and religion, but I feel like a complete ignoramus when it comes to the Eastern varieties. To learn more, and also to learn about the life-journey of a friend of mine, I attended a meeting of an Eastern philosophy group.

There was much material worth blogging about there, so here goes with the first bit.

Fish Trap

An ancient Chinese philosopher by the name of Zhuangzi  said,

The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?

So much of Western philosophy is about pinning down definitions. So much of our religion is dogma. Could that be because we have not yet caught the fish? Could it be that if each of us really had a fish as we claim, we would not be arguing over what kind of trap is best?

I don’t know. What do you think?

Artificial Consciousness: Consciousness is a Matter of Degree

This is the second post in a series on artificial consciousness. For an introduction and a road map, see Artificial Consciousness: Introduction.

Let’s consider whatever informal definition of consciousness you happen to have.  Chances are, it centers on the concept of awareness of environment and of self. Is awareness a yes/no proposition, or is it a matter of degree?

Nap Time

Nap Time

If you have ever awakened from a nap, or ever had too much to drink, you know that awareness of one’s environment is a matter of degree. Case closed.

Awareness of self is trickier. At first blush, it seems that either one is aware of oneself or one isn’t. But consider the tragic situation of dementia. I knew someone (now deceased) who was sliding deeper into Alzheimer’s Disease. He was largely unaware of his condition. In one of his lucid moments, though, his wife said it was time for him to move out of their home so he could have better full-time care. “Am I as bad as that?” he said, quite upset. He had had only a vague awareness of his condition.


Human Blastocyst

Consider a developing human, from the moment of conception onward. Surely he or she is not self-aware when he or she is a single cell. That is not to say that a single cell is unresponsive to its environment, but we’re talking about self-awareness.  Does self-awareness suddenly pop in at x weeks after conception? Isn’t it more likely that it develops gradually, just as the brain itself does?

In short, it seems obvious that awareness of self and awareness of environment can scale gradually down to zero.  I’ll venture that the same is true of the other aspects of your own definition of consciousness. If you disagree, please leave a comment on this post, and let’s talk.

Next time, we will think about which attributes of consciousness are the essential ones.

Artificial Consciousness: Introduction

The one Halloween costume I can remember from my childhood was a robot. My mother made it for me out of ordinary houshold materials such as a large box painted silver for the body and a large tin can for the head.  No, my head was not so small that it could fit in a tin can!  Get that image out of your mind right now! There was a screen in the body through which I looked out. In fact, that was one of the costume’s best features: in it, I was at least a foot taller than my normal, shrimpy self. My teacher was so impressed with the costume that she paraded me down the hall and showed me to the principal. One of my proudest moments was when I was a robot.

Although the costume was pretty lame by today’s standards, in the late 1960’s it was quite a hit.

Robot from Lost in Space

Robot from Lost in Space

The same could be said of real robots. The ones on TV shows in that era were a hit, but they were just as lame by today’s standards as my costume. They weren’t good for much beyond saying, “Warning! Warning!” and “That does not compute.” In fact, the full name of the robot who uttered those words (pictured at left) was General Utility Non-theorizing Environmental Control Robot.  Non-theorizing: it did not think.

The question for us, almost 2 generations later, is whether our robots will ever get a fundamental upgrade. Will they ever learn to think?

Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence (VIKI)

Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence (VIKI), from I, Robot

Actually, I’d like to recast that question. They can certainly think: robots (or computers — same difference) now hold world championships in chess and Jeopardy. What we really mean when we ask whether robots can think is whether they could ever gain consciousness, even in principle.  Could an artificial intelligence like VIKI in I, Robot ever be built?  And if it were, would it be truly conscious?

That is what I’ll explore in this series of posts: is artificial consciousness possible?

As usual, it all comes down to definitions.  The next several posts will consider what it means to be conscious. Then, I will conclude that artificial consciousness is indeed possible.

This will be a largely stream-of-consciousness effort, but as I think about the topic today I can foresee this broad outline. (July 10: Edited to reflect how the series turned out.)

  1. Consciousness is a matter of degree.
  2. Awareness is thinking about thinking.
  3. Thinking is symbol-manipulation.
  4. The substrate for the symbols does not matter.
  5. Neuroprosthetics already exist.
  6. If we accept a modest definition of consciousness (small degree, minimal attributes, specialized), it is already possible to create artificial consciousness.
  7. From that modest beginning, there is no reason in principle that artificial consciousness could not expand until it rivals our own in size, although the scope may differ.

If my arguments are successful, consciousness may become less of a mystery, but more of a wonder.

The 500-Dollar Switch

My 2003 Grand Marquis has recently acquired the habit of turning its headlights off while I’m driving. Not good.

The remedy, I’m told, is to get a new “multifunction switch” — the module that controls the high beams, the low beams, the turning signals, the windshield washer and the windshield wipers. Probably the nose-wiper, too, if I could figure out how to use it. There is no aftermarket supplier, and the dealer wants over $500 for a new one.

What does this have to do with anything? I’ll tell you in a moment.

I have always had a fetish about the switches in cars. “If a 20-dollar switch breaks,” I’d say (I had no idea how much they really cost) … “If a 20-dollar switch breaks, your 20-thousand-dollar car is out of commission.”

I once bought a used Mercury Topaz that had higher mileage than others of the same price just because its turning signal felt more solid. When that great car finally died at age 168,000 its crankcase was incontinent but it had the turning signal of a teenager.

How ironic that on my current car that exact switch has failed. To replace it will cost approximately one tenth the value of the entire machine. My mechanic suggested that I scavenge eBay for something of less-than-pristine provenance — something he himself would not guarantee for 90 seconds, let alone 90 days, but whose cost is better aligned with the value of my rapidly aging automobile.

I still haven’t said what this has to do with anything, have I?

Only this: that I was right all along about switches. If they stop working, you may find yourself driving around in the dark.

It makes me wonder: How are my switches? Do the lights in my mind arbitrarily turn off once in a while? Is my brain still supple and responsive, or have I become unwilling to listen?

If my driver, whose name is Reality, were to say it’s time to shine those headlights, would they come on, or would I come up with reasons why the lights should stay off even though it’s dark out?

In this blog, I hope to share the ways Reality has nudged me and how I am learning to respond. Please subscribe if you’d like to hear the ongoing saga.