Wednesday, October 17, 2007

How do the machines know what Tasty Wheat tasted like?

Like a lot of people, I am pretty obsessed with consciousness. Ever since I was like 20 years old and I used to get high and stay up all night drawing (completely inaccurate) schematics of how the human brain must process information and emotion, it's been very easy for me to accidentally slip into this fantasy world of trying to "figure it out," with no formal training or expertise whatsoever.

So in the Pinker + Goldstein interview I posted, Steven Pinker reminded me of David Chalmers' work. Pinker said:

"I'm also sympathetic to Chalmers' view. It might not be the actual stuff of the brain that makes us conscious so much as it is the information processing. I don't think Chalmers' view would give much support to a traditional religious view about the existence of a soul. He says that consciousness resides in information. So a computer could be conscious and a thermostat could have a teensy bit of consciousness as well. Still, the information content requires some kind of physical medium to support the distinctions that make up the information. And the Cartesian idea that there are two kinds of stuff in the universe -- mind and matter -- doesn't find a comfortable home in current views of consciousness, even those of Chalmers."

Which is as good a synopsis of Chalmers' work as I think you'll ever get.

Anyway, I was thinking about that all night and for most of yesterday. I was thinking about how yes, obviously there is no one material place in the brain where consciousness "lives" (a concept illustrated beautifully in Dan Dennett's book Consciousness Explained, which I never finished reading but still recommend), but it is rather an emergent phenomenon. I was thinking about how consciousness is really the interaction of the mind and the body, because as we know from Candace Pert's work (which I'm not sure is mainstream yet, but is definitely groundbreaking and should be fucking paid attention to), "emotions" are not all in your head. They take place in your body at the molecular level, as neurotransmitters and hormones (like seratonin and testosterone) are not acting simply in the brain but being dispatched to all parts of the body (which is why when you feel that happy love feeling, your heart gets warm--happy juice is binding to receptors on the cells in your heart).

It's interesting to think of drives and desires from this perspective. Think of your body as a machine. So you've got the evolution juices--oxytocin, seratonin, dopamine, adrenaline, testosterone, endorphins, all the other ones...the ones that are designed to keep you alive and breeding. And then you've got a body that's designed to receive those juices to achieve particular states, and then a brain that's designed to document information about what situations lead to what states, and strategize about which states are desirable and which states are to be avoided. So when you consider Chalmers' "information" to include the concept of drives and desire that your body/mind feels, as well as memories and conceptualizations that your brain tissue is storing, then that's a pretty explosive theory of consciousness. It makes you think well no wonder people feel like they have a soul--there is information pouring out of every cell in your body and organizing itself into a coherent strategy for existence--and part of that strategy btw is that your brain tells you a narrative about the whole thing.

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Obviously none of this makes any sense here as I'm babbling about it, but it made sense in my head. I have terrible habit of reading just tiny bits of people's work and then sloppily ripping off their theories (I like to entertain the illusion that I can figure all this stuff out for myself). ANYWAY, after thinking about this stuff for the better part of a day I went on TED and, for some relief, decided to watch a talk on robots. Well THERE IS NO RELIEF, because these fucking robots are conscious. Or, approaching consciousness. By introducing desire (through reward mechanisms) into robot design, this Hod Lipson guy and whoever he works with has created robots that learn and evolve. It's fucking cool and also terrifying in that potential-Matrix-style-apocalypse sort of way. Watch--it's only 6 minutes.

Hod Lipson: Robots that are "self-aware"

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