Monthly Archives: July 2011


[Warning: This post is a Beagle’s Bark. Follow the link to see what that means.]

There was a very upsetting story on a couple of weeks ago. What disturbs me most is that few people seem to have noticed the story and even fewer apprehended its horror.

It involves decades of torture and ultimately murder, all at the alleged behest of one of the most revered father-figures in the world.

This personage has many sons (the exact number is the subject of intense argument) but the story concerns just three of them: Paul, Peter and Baptiste. According to the official records, Baptiste was the youngest, although one of the odd things about this family is that each son insists that he is the first-born.

For years, Paul and Peter picked on Baptiste. They would put him down and leave him out, but that’s normal in most families. What was not normal were the tortures. For example, on more than one occasion, the two older boys tied Baptiste so he could not move, lit a bonfire under his bare feet and kept him there until he could not cry out anymore. Other tortures were more clever and I cannot bring myself to describe them.

That would be bad enough, but the father made it worse. Although Baptiste begged his father to make the other boys stop torturing him, the older boys claimed that their father actually encouraged this behavior. The father’s wishes in this matter are a matter of dispute, but it is known that he has sanctioned extremely violent behavior toward people both inside the family (for discipline) and outside it (for not showing proper respect) on more than one occasion.

Whatever the case, all parties agree that the father kept a very close eye on his sons and could have stopped the tortures at any moment. Nobody is sure why he did not, but suggestions have included that he wanted to toughen Baptiste’s character, that he wanted to test Baptiste’s loyalty (would Baptiste run away or not?), or that he simply felt Baptiste’s safety was not as important as Peter and Paul’s freedom to do whatever they wanted.

Left unchecked, Peter and Paul eventually tortured their brother to death.

Peter and Paul were put on trial for murder, and the father for conspiracy, but the jury could not reach a verdict. Although the evidence was compelling, most jurors had so much respect for the father that they could not bring themselves to believe he had done anything wrong. As for the sons, by the time the trial took place, the media scrutiny had motivated them to largely reform their violent ways. That, plus the fact that most jurors were relatives of the family, was enough to bring about a hung jury.

As I said, this story went almost unnoticed on CNN. Maybe that’s because the whole thing was buried in a couple of throw-away sentences in the main story.

The throw-away sentences:

Anabaptists had the distinct notoriety of being tortured and killed by both Catholics and Protestants…. Anabaptist men and women…were mocked by neighbors, burned at stakes and drowned in rivers.

The main story was written by one of Baptiste’s descendants, yet is inexplicably concerned with whether it is proper to sing the national anthem at sporting events. (What???) You can read it here.

Forget about the national anthem! Don’t people see that there are larger issues and disturbing questions here??

Artificial Consciousness: Neuroprosthetics

After I had posted my thoughts on synthetic neurons this morning, I came across this article in Discover: Brain Implant Restores Memories in Rats by Recording and Playing Them Back. Turns out the future is arriving even faster than I had thought!

You might also be interested in the Wikipedia article on Neuroprosthetics.

Artificial Consciousness: Does the Substrate Matter?

So far in this series on Artificial Consciousness, I have suggested

  • We will use the definition of consciousness that most people have: awareness of the environment and especially of self.
  • Consciousness is a matter of degree. That’s certainly true between species, but it’s even true for one individual. We are more aware at some times than others.
  • Thinking is essentially symbol-manipulation. When we think about something, we are manipulating symbols about that thing in our minds.  (We are certainly not manipulating the thing itself!)
  • Consciousness, or self-awareness, is therefore manipulating symbols about our own symbols.

Now I would like to suggest that it’s the symbols themselves that matter, not the substrate that supports them.

Neurons - Credit symbols that we are talking about, of course, are the patterns of neural firings and chemistry in our brains. Suppose medical science were to advance to where new neurons could be created from stem cells. Further suppose that the process were perfected so that an individual neuron could be swapped in for a damaged one and exactly mimic its functioning. Would the patient’s consciousness be affected in any way? It’s obvious that it would not. The new neuron, by supposition, is functioning exactly as the old one did. The patient literally could not be aware that anything had changed. (He could be told, of course, but that’s different.)

A few years later, and advances in nanotechnology have obviated the need for stem cells. Now the neuron can be replaced by something that works exactly the same on the outside (same exchange of neurotransmitters, etc.), but is entirely different on the inside. Again, the patient cannot tell the difference because every cell in his brain, including the artificial one, is functioning exactly as before.

More years go by. Now whole portions of the brain can be replaced by synthetic neurons. Is it not clear that this is just more of the same, and that consciousness is not affected?

One day, the entire brain is decoded, just like the human genome was way back in the 2003. A man visits a brain-scanning center. Every neuron’s connections to other neurons and the other cells of the body, the state of every connection, and every neuron’s own state of excitation are recorded at one instant as he lies on a bed. As he leaves the center, a cinder block falls on his head from some construction taking place ten floors above him. He is rushed to the hospital and becomes the first recipient of an artificial-brain transplant, using the data that were scanned just hours before. His eyes are kept closed, and he is taken back to his bed at the brain-scanning center, where he opens his eyes. He thinks he is getting up from the bed for the first time (right?). He wonders where the stitches on the top of his head came from.

Is he conscious?

If not, what aspect of consciousness does he lack? If so, isn’t his consciousness fully human yet fully artificial?

We have just thought about an artificial consciousness that’s exactly like our own. Next time, we’ll ask what the minimal ingredients are for artificial consciousness.

Artificial Consciousness: Symbol Manipulation

I left two items of unfinished business in the last post of this series:

  • the distinction between direct reaction to a stimulus and what I called reaction through symbols and
  • whether an intelligence must understand that it is reflecting on its own symbols in order to be considered conscious.

To illustrate these ideas, as well as to marvel at the symbol-processing abilities of our brains, let’s consider what happens when I ask you, “How are you feeling today?”

Pushed along by the flapping of my vocal chords, tongue and lips, some air molecules bump into other air molecules until the chain reaction reaches your ear, where the bumping around eventually causes your stapes (“stirrup”) to move like a piston against your cochlea.

The movement of the stirrup bone in the video reminds me of a telegraph. At that point in the chain reaction, my words as well as all the emotion behind them are encoded in symbolic form, much like a computer program. We’re not down to the level of ones and zeroes, but the up-and-down motion of the stirrup brings us darn close.

From there, an elaborate decoding begins.

  1. The 20,000 hair cells in your organ of Corti parse the pitches from the waves that the stirrup creates.
  2. Adjacent cells transform those hair-vibrations to impulses on your auditory nerves. You could spend 1,000 years inspecting the chemical reactions that are taking place around those nerves and you would never suspect that they were a symbolic representation of “How are you feeling today?” but that is exactly what they are.
  3. Those nerves stimulate other nerves in various areas of your brain and the resulting pattern of nerve-firings as match, to various degrees, other patterns that you have stored over the years — specifically the patterns for the words I used as well as my tone of voice.
  4. The “tickling” of those matching patterns produces the effect that you know what I said.

Although this is wondrous in the extreme, we do not need to resort to ghosts and spirits to understand it. No supernaturalist I know claims to hear other people with his spirit. It is a purely physical process.

During that process, symbols are built from other symbols, in layers of increasing sophistication: movement of the stirrup bone, movement of hair cells, electrical pulses along the nerves, and finally patterns of neural activity throughout your brain. None of that was my actual speech or the human emotion behind it; it was all symbolic representation of my speech and emotion.

So, returning to the first question for this post, where does direct reaction leave off and symbol-processing begin? It’s not clear, is it? If we accept that unconscious, machine-like reaction is a simple response to a stimulus, then which links in our chain of events were machine-like and which were something more? To me, they are all purely mechanistic. What makes your hearing my question a conscious act is the sophistication of the machinery. Once more we see that consciousness is a matter of degree.

And what about the second question? Does a conscious being have to understand that it is reflecting on its own symbols? I suggest it does not. Until the last couple of centuries, almost none of the mechanism of hearing was understood, People were unaware of the symbols, much less their reflection on them. Yet, people were conscious. Even now, we are cannot be aware of the lower levels of symbol-processing, no matter how much we try. (Can you feel your stirrup bone hammering up and down?  Are you aware of individual neural firings?)

In fact, of all the many symbol-layers involved in as simple an act as hearing me ask, “How are you feeling today?” the only one we’re able to access is the top one — the layer of the most sophisticated symbols. No wonder it seems like it couldn’t possibly arise from a machine-like process! We’re unable to perceive the machine even though we know it’s there!

Next time: Does the substrate for the symbols matter?