19 October 2009

The Long Awakening and Oft the Long Goodnight

Recent articles in the website Machines Like Us (by Eric Schwitzgebel and Peter Hankins) send me into a bit of a whimsy. Both articles are fairly short, and the points being made are easily grasped.

Eric Schwitzgebel is amazed that consciousness can arise sometime between the moment of conception and the age of two years. He says he has difficulty understanding the idea of a "not quite consciousness", and the nature of such an intermediate state between the conscious and the not conscious.

And yet, Eric -- like all the rest of us -- loses consciousness every evening, and comes back to consciousness every morning. It is not usually like a light switch turning on and off, either. The transition usually takes time, although many humans lack the awareness of the intermediate states.

There are also intermediate states of intoxication, of emotional overload, of extreme fatigue without sleep or sleepiness, of extreme pain, pleasure, and of hypnotic tunnel vision that are not quite conscious and not quite unconscious.

Some of us are aware of our not-so-conscious states and our hyper-conscious states, in contrast to "normal" consciousness. Some of us are not.

Obviously there is not one exact moment when a developing infant acquires consciousness, and is conscious from that moment on. Instead the infant over time approaches richer and more meaningful conscious states, then draws away from them -- losing them altogether in anger or sleep -- then must often struggle to regain lost ground. It is an oscillating sweep of consciousness, a ragged rise, then a plateauing, and an inevitable subsequent fall over long time to the inevitable long goodnight.

Peter Hankins ruminates over a three year grant given a researcher to unravel the mystery of "common sense." The idea is to give machines the ability to generalise, to use inductive inference to build ever more complex models of the world -- subject to confirmation or falsification.

Hankins expresses skepticism over whether machines can ever truly emulate human thought. He suggests that since we do not actually understand how humans perform the act of "common sense", that we may have to be satisfied with machines that only imitate human thought -- as long as they imitate human thought really well.

Both short articles have a whiff of the "dorm room bull session", which may be unavoidable using common language terms in such a small allowable space. Both articles are connected to each other at an intimate level by the mysterious pre-verbal metaphor. Being pre-verbal, it is almost impossible to express in words. But to try to grasp the essence of the origin of consciousness, or the nature of "common sense", without at least trying to shine a light on the essential embodiment of consciousness, seems not so much misguided as "unguided."

And of course, it is the "unguided" nature of education and child-raising as much as the misguided nature of the same, that occupies too much of my time these days. But it is unavoidable, given my compulsion to try to understand root causes of complex multi-causal phenomena.

We have only so much time to grab the essentials of conscious thought, and to run with them. Because it is not so long before the powers of cognition -- that we once thought would only grow stronger -- begin to fade. Another transition.

It is important to understand these issues in order to maximise our consciousness over the course of our lives. When we do better understand the origins of embodied consciousness, we will be in a better position to evolve consciousness within a machine. We lack the hardware tools yet, but they are beginning to come along.

The problem of decline may be a much more difficult problem to solve. Even without atherosclerosis, amyloid plaques, genetic transcription / translation error, metabolic diseases, and mitochondrial dysfunction, the failure of the human brain to deal with building complexity of overlapping categories and memories over time can place unwelcome limits upon the growth of consciousness.

The intermediate goal is a lifespan of multiple hundreds of years old. But can the human brain continue to function at a high level for that long? No one knows. But it is worth finding out.


Bookmark and Share


Post a Comment

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts