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The myth of human consciousness and accidental AI

Intuition is a wonderful thing. But being self-aware is really over rated. Most animals apparently manage very well without a consciousness. So does it matter so much that we can blush? As for choice, such things might be nothing more than an intricate illusion…

Intuition is a wonderful thing. But being self-aware is really over rated. Most animals apparently manage very well without a consciousness. So does it matter so much that we can blush? As for choice, such things might be nothing more than an intricate illusion…

I suspect intuition is a mental attribute not unique to humans. In fact, many of what we perceive as uniquely human attributes are shared with other animals. Intuition always feels like an involuntary response to me, like a reflex, and not an artifact of my consciousness. And to my mind at least, consciousness always seemed to be something we make too much of.

There’s not much chance of me making a case against being self-aware, or our apparent consciousness. But to me, there are more important things to consider. Such as how best to control the mental faculties we have at our disposal, instead of squandering them, as we often do, on trivial personal agendas.

So imagine how keen I was to watch an episode of Horizon on BBC2 earlier this week, entitled The Secret You:

“Professor Marcus du Sautoy goes in search of answers to one of science’s greatest mysteries: how do we know who we are? While the thoughts that make us feel as though we know ourselves are easy to experience, they are notoriously difficult to explain. So, in order to find out where they come from, Marcus subjects himself to a series of probing experiments.”

Marcus works his way through some very heavy material in an engaging fashion, helping to shed light on the processes deep within the soft folds of our brains. My suspicion was that I might not learn a great deal, but I was hoping I would be wrong. I wasn’t wrong and most of what was discussed I’d either read about before, or simply confirmed my own theories.

Marcus spoke of his own feelings of a duality; that his soul and his body were separate entities. A symbiosis? I for one have never felt that way. My intuition tells me that my consciousness is simply a byproduct of neurological complexity and not a deliberate evolutionary adaptation.

To some, this might seem counter-intuitive. But ask yourself this: why is it that no scientist has an explanation as to why we blush? It’s a pointless physiological response to being arguably too self-aware. Moreover, it reveals our emotional state, which isn’t particularly advantageous.

Delving deeper, Marcus was the subject of an experiment that he found deeply unsettling. He was given two click devices (two small buttons), one for each hand, and asked to click at random while being scanned with a fMRI (function magnetic resonance imaging) machine, a device capable of scanning the brain very quickly and in great detail.

The results of the experiment left him shocked and clearly shaken. The scientists were able to predict his apparently random decisions a whole six seconds before he was aware of making those decisions. To him, he saw this as being “held hostage” by his subconscious mind. To me, this demonstrated that our intuition was hard-wired. And when you think about it, that makes perfect sense.

In a more natural environment, away from the world we live in now, the criticality of rapid decision making is the difference between life and death. Why delegate such things to the conscious mind, when the entire process is so long? This to me is yet more evidence that our consciousness is a relatively recent mental attribute, one still being fine tuned and honed. An attribute that one could argue just gets in the way of things.

For me, this experiment didn’t go far enough. Sure, a left and a right click might tell you something, but what about making more complex decisions, based on more variables? Of course, the apparatus used would need to be more sophisticated, and more would need to be known about the brain and how certain decisions are represented within the brain. But my intuition tells me that although we would see the self same deep responses emerge from our subconscious, the complexity of the tests would require a conscious interpretation, therefore possibly over-riding, adjusting or even enhancing those subconscious decisions with more abstract details.

Marcus’s interpretation of this was curious; he appeared to see the subconscious as being separate to the rest of his mind. That I found odd. While I can see why he might feel that his sense of self control is being undermined, I have to wonder how he thinks his subconscious arrives at those decisions in the first place. Our subconscious is making decisions based on our knowledge, in the same way we believe our conscious mind does. I have to admit, at the point when this revelation unfolded, I was wearing a rye smile.

So what is consciousness?

No one knows for sure what consciousness is (if indeed there’s any way of providing a clear definition), but neurologists at least have an understanding of where our consciousness resides — consciousness exists in the upper surfaces and layers of the brain. There is no one lobe or region. It would appear that consciousness bestrides many regions of the brain, and in line with my own intuition, our consciousness would appear to be almost like the glow or the hum and buzz of our brains.

This would also go some way towards explaining why so few other animals exhibit self-awareness; the brains of most other animals lack sufficient complexity to give rise to something as complex as a consciousness.

Humans are very social creatures and we have enjoyed a surplus of time during our lives, time enough to ponder and reflect. Being able to draw upon past experiences and consider them afresh is also an artifact of our conscious mind.

So if complexity is part of the reason for consciousness, what are the implications for so-called Artificial Intelligence, or AI? It’s clear that intelligence and consciousness are two entirely different things; many animals have demonstrated problem-solving abilities in the absence of what we might view as being self-aware.

Let’s then consider a robot of humanoid proportions with the wherewithal to perform similar activities to a human. Right now, there are scientists all over the world working on different aspects of robotics, such as cognitive abilities and the associated skills required to deduce and analyze the real world, visual systems such as object acquisition and face recognition, problem solving, as well as physical dexterity such as walking, catching moving objects and carrying.

Of course, we humans are capable of much more, but if these abilities were to be combined into a system that is built around the same physical structures as a neural network (the essential fabric of the brain), might we not see some kind of consciousness arise out of this apparent complexity? If this sounds all overly simplistic, then we must consider that life itself is complexity derived from simplicity.

Since we don’t fully understand what consciousness is, would we recognize such a thing if it did emerge within a robot? Moreover, even if we did identify some unexpected mental state within these machines, might we interpret them as being somehow aberrant, or defective? Many a science fiction novel and film has a robot with a consciousness on the run as their principle protagonist.

The prospect of accepting these self-aware robots as emergent forms of life presents even greater challenges — those robots would be entitled to rights of their own.

I have another theory, one that segues neatly with an observation shared with science writer David Bradley: our failure to grasp such things as quantum physics, as well as human consciousness, may well be because we’re incapable of comprehending such things. For all the imagined power of the human brain, I believe we have hit a fundamental barrier.

So what’s next? A leap. An adaptation of the human brain that gifts that person with a capacity to reason and the faculties of logic beyond that of anyone who has come before them. If I’m right, even the greatest minds throughout history would be cast into deep shadow by the mental prowess of this person. And if we have learned anything about the patterns of the universe, if there’s one of anything, then many more will follow.

While we ponder the almost imponderable complexities of consciousness, life moves on — people still murder, save endangered species, pay their taxes, conscientiously object to conflict, eat processed foods, fight wars, help the poor, wonder why their kids are so unruly and recycle some of their household waste.

What decisions we make are ours to make. Their outcome often reflects only upon the lives of the people making those decisions. But there are those amongst us whose decisions affect us all. And it is to these people we entrust our lives and hope that their decisions are made in good conscience, above all other things…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

15 replies on “The myth of human consciousness and accidental AI”

Consciousness is more than an intricate illusion, but perhaps not much more. As to other animals not having it? I think my labrador would beg to differ. As would apes, elephants, whales, and octopuses. There is also the possibility that social animals like ants, termites, honeybees might have some sort of collective consciousness…who knows? We can’t ask them and just because they don’t “blush” doesn’t necessarily prove it one way or the other.

Oh, meant to say. Blushing could have an evolutionary advantage for the individual as it reveals that someone may be feeling guilt or remorse when caught doing something they shouldn’t, the blush makes them look vulnerable and so may lead to a lesser punishment, it’s like rolling my dog curling her ears back when she knows she’s done something wrong…she might even be blushing under all that fur…

Hi David!

I don’t exclude apes, elephants, whales, and octopuses, since they’re the ones I reference specifically in the first link of the article (entitled: “Humans are not unique”).

They are the ones (although not named) that apparently do exhibit characteristics linked to consciousness.

As you say: who knows? And if such a learned scientist as yourself should shrug your shoulders at the prospect of refining a definitive opinion of what consciousness is, then perhaps it’s beyond us all.

But your first par contradicts what you’re saying is said in that first link, which I admit I didn’t have time to follow.

I don’t think understanding consciousness is beyond us, certainly didn’t mean to shrug my shoulders, it’s just not fathomable at the moment. Certainly, the idea that it’s something unique and special is in some sense overrated given that there have been billions and billions of us who think we’re all unique and special!

Well…in your opening you state:

“But being self-aware is really over rated. Most animals apparently manage very well without a consciousness.”

then you say:

“I suspect intuition is a mental attribute not unique to humans.”

So, as I read that you first say that most animals do not have consciousness but then suggest that it’s not unique to humans…

I know what you’re getting at, but it’s like you’ve got to anti-parallel introductions to the same post.

I hope you don’t mind my intrustion. I was going to point out the same contradiction about animals and consciousness–and this is the problem with “consciousness” its never clear what we mean by the word so it shifts as it is used in different contexts.

Sometimes it seems to mean a constant sense of self-awareness, sometimes it seems to mean a higher order intelligence, and sometimes it seems to mean a unrelenting inner monologue.

And sometimes it seems to mean some vague understanding of autonomy.

But Mr. Bradley is right, animals do seem to have some form of consiousness. An animal can still operate with more authentic autonomy than even the most experimental AI innovations, and mostly this is because of the failure of AI to be able to find a “program” that represents the self to the self in a way that allows us to operate with some degree of autonomy in the world.

I say some degree–because of course we are socially embedded and that means there are things that act through us without us realizing it. And we certainly seem to have a lot going on at subcognitive levels that influences our behavior. But as your example with Marcus’ experiment points out, subcognitive impulse and influence doesn’t suggest a complete lack autonomy.

Craig Delancey—borrowing some from Andy Clark–has argued that autonomy is the central puzzle of cognition that AI will have to solve before it can make a satisfying model.

I’d also say autonomy is what makes the elephant painting different than Michaelangelo. The elephant never would have taken up painting on its own, and won’t innovate the way a human does. (Though I suppose if we evolve elephants could too.) There is a degree of autonomy to the elephant’s actions but it pales (blushes?) in comparison to human autonomy.

Very interesting read. I, for one, cannot wait until the day when we have to actually consider these questions regarding AI in the present tense. As computers become better at simulating intelligence, it seems that our understanding of intelligence and self-awareness becomes less mythical. It could be nothing more than an illusion that fits as a good description for the incredibly complex processes that occur in our brain.

Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking read.

I’m an uneducated idiot, but here is my intuition: Why is consciousness more than awareness of causal relationship? Isn’t consciousness just assumed when we self-reflect or in retrospect.

Awareness being knowledge of actions associated with the self? What is more to it than an advanced feedback loop? I don’t have any expertise except being human and supposedly myself conscious and I think it is sufficiently defined by that, knowledge being verified by applied feedback.

I should also note that I always thought that free will and choice do not exist. I see my subconscious as part of myself like the rest of the universe. My subconscious is part of a vast amount of causation that leads to various desires which are in turn shaped by a complex process of unfolding within myself to eventually cross a threshold and become conscious volition. There is no control at all.

There is just a knowing observer we call consciousness. Check what I wrote here, it’s an interesting comment thread on FriendFeed: (“What I wonder is how outside stimuli differs from inside stimuli.”)

Hi David! I’m not entirely sure how you managed to write that and not spot the obvious.

In the first instance: “most animals”, and in the second: “not unique to humans”, which quite clearly indicates there are some, as is mentioned in the article itself.

Hi Alexander!

“Why is consciousness more than awareness of causal relationship? Isn’t consciousness just assumed when we self-reflect or in retrospect.”

Awareness is a broad church, so it’s hard to know where to begin. A dog is aware of its home, it’s domain, it’s food, it’s wounds etc. But is a dog self-aware?

“Awareness being knowledge of actions associated with the self?”

But is that just being aware that you did something? As a dog would be aware of where it buried a bone, or was kicked by the postman.

“I should also note that I always thought that free will and choice do not exist. I see my subconscious as part of myself like the rest of the universe.”

Which has always been my feeling, too. For what reason would I think that my thinking and reasoning self is separate to my body, when it’s my brain that processes the very sensory input that I derive my thinking and reasoning self from?

The problem is, we live in a world of fallible people who would feel more sure about their daily lives if they thought they amounted to more than a series of chemicial reactions.

So the more ducated amongst them construct meandering and ponderous theories and nuanced philosophical exercises to fend off proper inquiry, in case uncomfortable facts are discovered.

Strange philosophical and theological complexity is always a good place to hide an idle idol from scrutiny.

As for the blush response, I’ve read similar research before and it’s not conclusive; we also blush (or good red) when angry, which is a very different emotional response.

Surely if blushing had a function, it’s physiological appearance would differ from that of anger? And, why is it we don’t all blush?

In my opinion, ‘causation’ is an illusion. I think we change over time mentally (consciously or otherwise) in exactly the same way as we do physically, although a great deal quicker but both are indeterminate and always dependent upon the chance symbiotic relationship between our chemestry and our environment; in other words evolutionarily, and there’s nothing the so-called independent, free-thinking self can do about it. Your penultimate paragraph provides some of the evidence.

I don’t think understanding consciousness is beyond us, the idea that it’s something unique and special is in some sense overrated given that there have been billions and billions of us who think we’re all unique and special!

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