Great Minds Reflect On Consciousness

If we were visited by an advanced alien race whose knowledge was practically unlimited, and you were able to ask them one, and only one question, what would it be?  I would want them to explain to me the underlying mechanisms behind consciousness, how it works, and what it is.

But why that above all else?  The study of consciousness seems to me to be the most fundamental question of life itself.  Before I was born, I was not conscious.  I didn’t have any experiences of time, space, or anything.  I did not exist.  But at some point my brain became sufficiently complex and my personal subjective consciousness emerged.  If you’re going to self-reflect and ask yourself what you are, I would say you are that property which we call sentience – consciousness.  It’s that property which makes you different from a kitchen table, a basketball, or a rock lying still on a creek bed.  All that stuff is dead — not conscious.  But you, you’re alive, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling.

Many believe what separates us from dead things is the fact that we can think, but machines can display various degrees of intelligence, and even react appropriately to a given situation. Consciousness is different from thought and intelligence.  We often tend to associate ourselves with our thoughts, our desires, our ethical principles, and so on, but I find it hard to associate ourselves with these sorts of processes. You may read a book, or even my blog, and your thoughts and beliefs on various subjects may change, but you’re still you.  That personal subjective consciousness is still there.  I may one day be able to knab you off the street, reprogram your brain by rewiring the circuits, and make you into an entirely different person, with new desires, new knowledge, and so on.  That’s just physical stuff conducting electrical current and pumping chemicals around.  Also, we’re moving into an era of intelligent machines.  They are beginning to think and may or may not eventually be conscious.  We’re getting closer every day to general artificial intelligence (AI), and if and when this is accomplished, human thought processes will reside within machines, but I don’t know whether or not they will be conscious.

So I’m not talking about thought, or reason.  Thinking is something that just happens. It’s based on neurons firing in our brains, which themselves are wired to process environmental information.  Their main purpose has been to help us secure things such as food, shelter, and mates in an ever changing environment.  The more closely I look at our thinking processes, I see how closely they’re tied to life here on Earth.  They’re very human, to speak generally.  They’re bound to our terrestrial existence.  Our intuitive conceptions of physics, our mental models of the world, and our sensory systems are all geared to understand and interact with the types of physical matter and situations you encounter with life on Earth’s surface.  Even the way we perceive space and time is pre-wired for this sort of existence.  What we are is deeply connected with the environment around us. That’s not surprising as our minds are products of evolution.

When you try to contemplate a world removed from terrestrial life on Earth, such as advanced physics for example, you quickly find out that our brains are not wired to intuitively understand it.  I see our physical bodies as shells which have evolved from the dust, wiring themselves up in such a way to maintain their existence, make copies of themselves, and hold onto their form for as long as they can.  But as for consciousness, I wonder if it’s a product of evolution or not.  No doubt our brains have somehow managed to utilize consciousness, but I deeply wonder if consciousness is more fundamental than the physical matter of our universe.  I would not be the all that surprised if other physical mediums and substrates other than the brain turn out to be capable of creating (or maybe the better word is communicating with?) consciousness as well.

I really enjoyed this next interview with Dr. Marvin Minsky who is a professor at MIT.  His research focuses around cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence.  You’ll like what he has to share.

A strange thought to consider is whether or not others are consciously perceiving events like you are.  If you take any time at all to think about this matter, you should easily realize that people are not perceiving things the same way.  I was invited to eat Chinese food with a friend not too long ago and I didn’t like it at all.  He’s chowing down, eating egg drop soup, egg rolls, and some strange form of rice.  It was edible I guess, but I didn’t find it a pleasant experience.  Why is this?  Our brains are wired up differently.  It’s a different experience.

Even more interesting is the fact that our minds are not near as aware of our surroundings as we think they are.  In general, people are not aware of what’s going on in their heads.  To understand yourself takes a lot of work.  In this next lecture, the philosopher Dan Dennett argues that we do not understand our own personal consciousness, and that half the time our brains are actively fooling us.  You’ll find the presentation on change blindness particularly instructive.

Your brain is giving you an illusion that you’re aware of what’s in front of you right now.  The change blindness experiments Dr. Dennett just performed show conclusively that this is not the case.  If you study the visual system, for example, your eyes are in constant movement, scanning what’s in front of you with selective attention and focus.  The visual area you’re actively aware of at any given time is about the size of your thumb nail at an arm’s length away.  That’s where your central fovea is focused, and most of your neurons are dedicated to processing this tiny segment of your visual field.  That’s why when he flips between different slides, back and forth, you don’t see the change.  Your fovea wasn’t focused on that area, so you didn’t see the change.  One of the slides has a giant Boeing airplane and the huge engines on the plane wings were changing back and forth, but I didn’t notice it.  I was consciously aware of an image of the airplane, unchanging.  Most of what’s in my conscious image was interpolated and based on old information.  It was also based on what my brain EXPECTED to see.

I’d like to share another video by Dan Dennett on the same theme.  We’re not nearly as aware of the world as we think we are.

Though I don’t want to get too far off track, let’s briefly talk about free will, which is often associated with who we are, just as consciousness is.  The decisions that we make, and the actions that we do, are often believed to be controlled by this spiritual cloud which hovers over the brain, controlling our actions.  There’s really no evidence for this, and in fact, if you really think that out, it doesn’t even make sense.  Let’s begin with examining whether or not there’s any evidence for free will of this sort.  Begin by watching this Youtube video.

As experiments like the one performed in that video indicate, the brain is an interconnected system, and the decisions which it makes are based on information flowing into it from all sensory systems, which is then built into a model of the world, goals are set, and then decisions are made related to those goals.  I personally don’t think we have near as much say in this process as most people think.  If you believe in free will, you don’t believe this is how the brain works.  You believe decisions instead arise from the spiritual cloud which hovers over the brain.  But let me ask you this.  We’ve all met old folks who suffer from dementia.  You may also have met people with selective brain damage, or someone on drugs, or someone who is drunk from alcohol.  Why do their actions change?  Why would the “spirit cloud” be affected by brain lesions, alcohol, or drugs?  If movement arose from this cloud, why would we see the brain lighting up in planning areas long before the action occurred, even before people claim to have a conscious experience of making the decision?  Everyone has met an old person who has “lost his mind”.  That’s because his brain circuits aren’t firing like they used to, and so his actions are far different.  Things he used to care about, he no longer cares about.  He can’t even remember his beloved grandchildren’s names.  That’s because the “spirit cloud” is not controlling his actions nor his vocal chords.  It was his brain firing in patterns, but as his brain deteriorated, so did everything else.  All the evidence points away from the common conception of free will.

But even if this spirit cloud did exist, on what basis would it use to make its decisions?  People aren’t random.  Their behavior is very distinctly human. My friend Greg used to say, “People COULD do anything, but they don’t.”  I will further clarify on that.  For a person to even desire to do something, and even think to do something, first requires their brain to initiate the firing patterns which give them the impulse to do it.  Think about your own thoughts.  You may be sitting in your chair right now and then your brain generates an impulse, “Ice cream would be good right now.”  The craving has begun. Your brain created that desire.  Next it’s evaluated by all your sensory and planning systems, which then report to you, “I don’t feel like getting up.”  A short moment later it’s further weighed by your current goals which tell you, “I don’t want to gain weight”, and so on and so forth.  Free will, if it exists at all, is an emergent property of the entire brain and is based on its entire organizational structure.  Considering it’s based on your brain structure and chemistry, it’s not near as “free” as you think it is.  Most people believe free will is totally uncaused — perfect freedom. I believe free will, just like our sense of self, is actually a very fractured system, based on and dependent upon many different interconnected brain modules.  The belief that our “self” and decisions that we make is a simple unity cannot be right at all.

What I like most in Dr. Blocks interview is when he discusses patients who are blind yet still are unconsciously aware of what’s in front of them. Patients with damage in area V1 will be asked to identify slides in front of them, whether they’re an X or an O, and 99% of the time they can “guess” accurately. They’ll tell you, “I’m blind. I can’t see what’s in front of me”, yet their brain does know what’s there, it’s just not being fed to other circuits which create consciousness. Various brain modules are disconnected.

I don’t agree with everything David Chalmers says in this next video. He holds the same position as Descartes who is noted to have said, “I think therefore I am.” But I feel the evidence suggest that our brains are behind conscious experience and thought. If the brain didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be conscious right now having the experiences that you’re having. Satre said that we exist, therefore we can think, and I think that’s the proper casual relation. I try to avoid solipsistic thinking whenever possible. Chalmers argues back that we don’t know whether the brain is what truly generates consciousness. I have to grant him that. However, I don’t like disconnecting myself from reality like that. No matter how far I probe into this world, I find that everything is connected. I believe my consciousness is connected with those physical processes, and that those physical processes are a part of the world.

I’d like to end this with Alan Watts reflections on consciousness. He begins by reflecting on the fact that our consciousness leaves out much more than it takes in. I find that theme recurring among neuroscientists, physicists, and philosophers all over the world. The more physics I study, the more I realize just how much is being left out!

Watts adds an ethical and spiritual domain to the discussion, which is really nice. I agree that if we better understood what this “consciousness” business was all about, we probably wouldn’t have near as many fears and worries. Besides our instincts, which are often terrified by the thought of our own death, religion has exacerbated these fears, filling our minds with hell and the potential horrors in the next life absent begging for forgiveness to invisible deities in the sky.

Also consider our current political debates these days. We struggle with ideas of personal responsibility, private property, pollution, and so forth. All of these ideas are based around strong ideas of the individual, often disconnected from the environment. We draw sharp divisions between one man and another, between man and his environment. I don’t think such sharp distinctions exist. Reflect on say the political ideology of libertarians. They feel that personal liberty is everything, but do men really have choice outside of their environment? The environment and society creates your choices. Man on his own would struggle all day just to get food for the day and wouldn’t live past 30. On our own the only thing we share is a common struggle to exist. Only by living and working together can we break those bonds and live varied and interesting lives. But man has a strong disposition to fall inward and become self-absorbed. It’s hard for people to see the bigger picture, especially when it’s not in their immediate self-interest. As Watts said, our sensory systems tend to miss out on what’s going on around us. In the modern world, this includes the true reasons behind our success, the very real suffering of others around us, and the consequences of our actions within this giant web we call society. Sadly, it’s all too vast for us to understand and keep track of. We just don’t have the brain power. Likely, both individual consciousness and society at large are instances of emergent self-organizing systems, which will be the topic of my next post.

An Upcoming Technological Singularity?

Philosophers all around the world are wondering, “What will happen when we have machines which are more intelligent than we are?”  This event has come to be known as the “technological singularity”.  Wikipedia defines the event as follows:

Technological singularity refers to the hypothetical future emergence of greater-than human intelligence. Since the capabilities of such an intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the occurrence of technological singularity is seen as an intellectual event horizon, beyond which the future becomes difficult to understand or predict. Nevertheless, proponents of the singularity typically anticipate such an event to precede an “intelligence explosion”, wherein superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds. The term was coined by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes for the singularity. The concept is popularized by futurists like Ray Kurzweil and widely expected by proponents to occur in the early to mid twenty first century.

It’s certainly an interesting idea to ponder.  My guess is that once we have nanobots which can noninvasively be injected into the human brain, giving detailed neuron by neuron readouts of organisms, including ourselves, interacting and living in real-world scenarios, we’ll be able analyze the human brain and all of its functions in ways we never have before.   This will lead to unprecedented progress in our understanding of intelligence and our minds, and ultimately I think it inevitably leads to machines which can do everything we can do, and better at that.

I don’t imagine that such an event will happen overnight, or even within a few decades, however.  Scientists won’t build some artificial brain in a lab and then hit the “start” button.  It will happen gradually.  Computers and phones will get more and more advanced, with ever increasing intelligence.  Handheld gaming devices for instance, such as the Playstation Portable, will get more and more immersive in the real world.  We already have video games where you can have one on one combat with virtual augmented reality beings on your kitchen table.  This technology is the fruition of decades of research into what’s called machine vision.  Very soon we’ll have games where you can do a jump kick and knock your opponent into the teacup there on your table, the victim will fall in, there’ll be a huge splash, and the screen will say “K.O.”  The handheld computer will use its camera and be aware of the environment that it’s in and virtually manipulate it on screen.

Currently, machine vision is capable of reading in images from a camera to build a 3D environment, but analyzing the properties of the objects within the field of view is still rather rudimentary.  For example, the computer can build you a 3D geometric model of the teacup, and assign a texture and wrap it around that model, but it doesn’t know that the fluid within the cup is tea, that humans drink tea, that it’s a fluid which flows by the laws of physics, that the tea cup could be shattered if you picked it up and threw it, that if you were to grab the tea cup by the handle and turn it over the tea would spill out, and so on and so forth.  We know these things from experience, and this huge database of knowledge is absent from our current machines.  But machines are rapidly advancing, and as I said before, once nanobots are inside the our brains, we’ll decode how our brains perform this task, and machines will be able to learn all these things too.

This is the thing a lot of singularians fail to realize.  Intelligence is not just about the AI algorithm and data processing methods.  Even if you designed an artificial brain inside a humanoid robot which could perfectly emulate human learning and thinking methods, and this machine could think way more quickly than we can, the robot still has to go out in the world and experience things, watch how objects behave, and learn.  The robots will get more intelligent by interacting with us and the world.  I agree with the neuroscientist Jeff Hawkins and his opinion on the singularity.

”If you define the singularity as a point in time when intelligent machines are designing intelligent machines in such a way that machines get extremely intelligent in a short period of time–an exponential increase in intelligence–then it will never happen. Intelligence is largely defined by experience and training, not just by brain size or algorithms. It isn’t a matter of writing software. Intelligent machines, like humans, will need to be trained in particular domains of expertise. This takes time and deliberate attention to the kind of knowledge you want the machine to have.”

“Machines will understand the world using the same methods humans do; they will be creative. Some will be self-aware, they will communicate via language, and humans will recognize that machines have these qualities. Machines will not be like humans in all aspects, emotionally, physically. If you think dogs and other mammals are conscious, then you will probably think some machines are conscious. If you think consciousness is a purely human phenomenon, then you won’t think machines are conscious.”

“The term ‘singularity’ applied to intelligent machines refers to the idea that when intelligent machines can design intelligent machines smarter than themselves, it will cause an exponential growth in machine intelligence leading to a singularity of infinite (or at least extremely large) intelligence. Belief in this idea is based on a naive understanding of what intelligence is. As an analogy, imagine we had a computer that could design new computers (chips, systems, and software) faster than itself. Would such a computer lead to infinitely fast computers or even computers that were faster than anything humans could ever build? No. It might accelerate the rate of improvements for a while, but in the end there are limits to how big and fast computers can run. We would end up in the same place; we’d just get there a bit faster. There would be no singularity.

”Exponential growth requires the exponential consumption of resources (matter, energy, and time), and there are always limits to this. Why should we think intelligent machines would be different? We will build machines that are more ‘intelligent’ than humans, and this might happen quickly, but there will be no singularity, no runaway growth in intelligence. There will be no single godlike intelligent machine. Like today’s computers, intelligent machines will come in many shapes and sizes and be applied to many different types of problems.

”Intelligent machines need not be anything like humans, emotionally and physically. An extremely intelligent machine need not have any of the emotions a human has, unless we go out of our way to make it so. No intelligent machine will ‘wake up’ one day and say ‘I think I will enslave my creators.’ Similar fears were expressed when the steam engine was invented. It won’t happen. The age of intelligent machines is starting. Like all previous technical revolutions, it will accelerate as more and more people work on it and as the technology improves. There will be no singularity or point in time where the technology itself runs away from us.”

– Jeff Hawkins, Neuroscientist

Machines will increase in intelligence, and I think we can expect the rate of technological change to speed up, but I don’t think machines will suddenly start recursively upgrading themselves, leading us to practically god-like intelligence levels within a few decades.

One of my heroes, Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, shared his opinion on the singularity.  Here it is.

”There is not the slightest reason to believe in a coming singularity. The fact that you can visualize a future in your imagination is not evidence that it is likely or even possible. Look at domed cities, jet-pack commuting, underwater cities, mile-high buildings, and nuclear-powered automobiles–all staples of futuristic fantasies when I was a child that have never arrived. Sheer processing power is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems.”

– Steven Pinker

But, even so, amazing advances are coming very quickly.  I’ve read news stories about machines already driving cars down the highway, without human intervention.  As this technology further matures, and processing capabilities get better, truck drivers and taxi cab drivers will be replaced by AI.

You’ve seen checkout counters at the grocery store become automated.  You’ll see this sort of thing happening everywhere, and if you try to walk out of the store without paying, cameras with AI will notify the police who will come and grab you.

I imagine that future computers will all be geared with cameras which will notice you as you walk up to them, recognize your face, and load your settings.  There will be all kinds of advances like this.  Thinking about that, Google’s new image search functionality shows some promise.  You can upload an image to them and they’ll search their image database and find images of similar things.  The computer knows what the image is and it finds you similar things.  This is just the beginning.

Search engines will get more and more intelligent and before too long we’ll just talk to our computers and they will know what we want them to do.  They’ll eventually be building us custom information reports based on a task we assign them.  They won’t do keyword searches, they’ll go out and scour all human knowledge, and then compile us an intelligent report based on any topic we ask.

I personally guess that computing will become more and more cloud like.  Computers will become more and more connected and we won’t see them as distinct units, as we do now.  Processors will be embedded underground and within the environment, and when we ask to do a computationally intensive task, the “job” will be delegated out to this cloud of parallel computers all working together.  That won’t happen for a long time, but I’m just speculating.

The “singularity” won’t be an abrupt happening, but there will be a gradual increase in our technology until eventually the computers and their AI is so intelligent and so powerful that human intervention will no longer even be necessary.  I don’t think us humans will even notice it when it happens.  It will just sort of happen.  Hopefully by then we will have molded and directed the AI in the direction it needs to go.  If a super-intelligent computer were to be introduced on us abruptly, I think it’d be our doom.  But if it’s gradual, and the computers are all programmed and directed by all of us on Earth, and we have ample time to test and assess the technology, and all become aware of how it all works, then we have a lot less to fear.

Eventually though, the computers will start writing their own software algorithms and human computer programmers will not be needed.  We’ll look at our desktop and say, “I don’t like how this interface works.  Computer, make it work like this instead.”  It will dynamically reprogram itself for you.  There won’t be generic computer operating systems.  It’ll be your own personal AI designed system based around your life and the tasks you’re involved with.

It’s also a neat thought to picture computers designing their own hardware without our intervention.  Once physicists discover a new breakthrough, the computers will redesign their circuitry to automatically harness the new knowledge.  That’s pretty cool.

I imagine humanoid robots will become commonplace and we’ll all have a few of them to order around.  They’ll help around the house, cook for us, mow the lawn, and so forth.  Eventually human beings will integrate with the machines with neural prosthetics.  Minds will be greatly enhanced, but to what degree people will go with that, I don’t know.  Nanotechnology will make that possible.

I wrote about virtual reality the other day so no need to rehash that.  If you take the time to study the trends in this technology you’ll see some major upcoming advances which are really profound in their implications – nanotechnology, genetics, and robotics.

Nanotechnolgy is about building machines with super-tiny components.  Later this will eventually lead to us reorganizing the matter of this world into intelligent stuff which responds to our desires.  Genetics is about applying our computers to engineer personal medical solutions by detailed processing of our DNA.  We’ll also use tiny nanobots to go into our bodies and reprogram our DNA, administer custom tailored medicines, eradicate diseases, stop aging, and enhance the human body.  You won’t take generic pills, the medications will be made especially for you based on custom body scans.  Robotics will be about building strong, durable, machines to do all kinds of tasks for us.

We’ve already created life in the lab.  We insert man-made, computer designed DNA into a cell, and grow the organism.  Once we have even more advanced computers, and our knowledge in genetics and biology progresses, we won’t make love to have a child – we’ll design your child on a computer and grow it.  Sex will be around, but I can’t see women wanting to endure child birth any longer.  If you want a child with your DNA, just insert it into the computer and use it.  The child would come out the same.

I make no predictions as to how quickly all of this will happen, but it’s inevitable that it will, absent us eradicating ourselves.  Overall, it won’t be that long either, generally speaking.  Within two hundred years this has to happen.  I’d be really surprised if it didn’t.  All of this and much more.  There are some people on the fringe who seem to think all of this will happen within the next thirty years, quoting exponential trends as evidence, but we’ll have to wait and see.  I’ll most likely be around that long, so I’ll see for myself whether or not that’s true.  I hope so.  That’d be pretty amazing to get to see this stuff come into fruition.  But even absent exponential growth, we’ll be seeing major changes, and the future is exciting.

This last video is a prominent philosopher of conscious discussing his views on the singularity.  His name is David Chalmers.  He’s very well known and is famous for being the original articulator of the “hard problem” of consciousness.

All Attractive Men Are Scum?

The other day I went online to read the news and came across an article entitled Why Women Shouldn’t Pick Attractive Husbands.  After I finished reading this article, I sat back in my chair in disgust.

First we’re told how terrible Anthony Weiner is, the Congressman who sent pictures of his penis to attractive women over the internet.

Watching the Anthony Weiner scandal unfold, it was hard not to wonder how a smart, accomplished, beautiful woman like Huma Abedin got herself involved with a guy like Weiner.

We’re told how he cheated on his wife, and so on and so forth.

But, sexting sexcapades aside, the 46-year-old Weiner, whether you find him handsome or not, is a fit, intelligent, passionate, promising politician with a six-figure income who had a reputation of a ladies’ man and was even named a Cosmo eligible bachelor — the kind of man that many, many women are drawn to.

And that’s where Abedin and other smart, beautiful, accomplished women often make their mistake. The more financially independent women become, the more they prefer good-looking men. But they don’t just want their partners to be hotties; they want them to be masculine, physically fit, loving, educated, a few years older and making the big bucks. Oh, and they also have to really want to be a hubby and daddy.

So what conclusions are we to draw from this?  According to this author, every attractive man who takes care of himself physically, is well educated, and earns a good salary is, more likely than not, just like Anthony Weiner.  Women, you have to beware!  Don’t put yourself at risk.  No matter how charming and wonderful they may be, don’t fall for it!

Do you want to live in a world where your character is judged solely by your looks alone?

They also have supposed scientific “evidence” to back these claims.

And, evidently, it’s working against us. Attractive men don’t make the best husbands, according to researchers. Guys who are rated as the most masculine — a billboard for a man’s good genes — tend to have more testosterone, and men with higher testosterone levels are 43 percent more likely to get divorced than men with normal levels, 31 percent more likely to split because of marital problems and 38 percent more likely to cheat. In other words, they may be better cads than dads.

We’d be smarter if we sought out guys who are uglier than we are because researchers have found that couples in which the woman is hotter than the guy are happier than if the situation is reversed. And since quite a few women have been telling Weiner how “hot” he is, it’s clear that neither Abedin nor Weiner got that memo.

I don’t like this at all.  If we happen to be born with genes which make us good looking, we’re also bound to be terrible husbands.  Our testosterone levels are just too high.  We’re raging with sexual energy and are ready to run off with any beautiful woman which comes across our path.  We just can’t help ourselves.  We’re all just like Anthony Weiner.

This naive view of human nature will make our lives more difficult.  Women, if you’re on a date with an intelligent, handsome man, ignore this article and everything that it says.  You’re intelligent, aren’t you?  I have more confidence in you than this.  It’s not that hard to see whether a man is caring and loyal.  Just listen to what he says, watch how he treats others, and spend a significant amount of time with him — long enough to really get to know him.

Of course, hottie women can also “optimize their looks to find other partners if she’s unhappy,” says Rob Burriss, a professor at England’s University of Chester. Hello, Weiner? And Abedin, 35 — one of Time magazine’s “40 under 40” young stars in politics — was considered a catch when Weiner started pursuing her a few years ago.

But who can blame her? She, like so many women — and men — pick a mate based on pretty predictable factors, dating back to caveman days when all we were trying to do was survive and keep our species going, according to physical anthropologist and Why Him? Why Her? author Helen Fisher, who has been studying human courtship for decades. We’re drawn to guys like Weiner because they have good genes we can pass on to our kids. The downside is that we take a huge risk on whether he’s going to be sexually faithful to us.

Ladies, don’t you find this insulting?  I have more faith in you than these academics.  I believe you have passions, as we all do, but you are not completely driven by primal cave-woman desires and have the ability to control yourself.  These same people say the same things about us men.  They treat us like the only factors we’re capable of admiring in a woman is a nice ass and big breasts.

I was raised in a Christian home and was taught to love my wife as Christ loved to church.  You give your life to someone and would even die for them to save them from trouble and harm.  You work hard and reap what you sough.  If you exercise, and work hard in school to get a proper education in a relevant and timely field, you reap the rewards of good health and financial prosperity.  The world is difficult, but you have to be wise and manage your affairs with discretion.  If you do so, you can reap the blessings from God for following the laws of nature.  Now I’m not a religious man, but I honestly wish we could go back to the 1950s.  I wish we could go back to an age where there was moral and personal responsibility, and people didn’t have such a low opinion of human nature.  Back then, we were sinners who needed saved by committing ourselves to higher principles.  Today we live in an era of skepticism and determinism.  We’re no longer able to change ourselves.  It’s all in our genes.

I believe I can change.  I believe you can change.  In the words of Rocky, “We all can change!”  If we’ll commit ourselves to higher principles, we don’t have to live by way of our primal passions.  When I study the human brain, I do see the centers of those primal passions, but we also have a frontal cortex, which allows us to bring those passions under our control.

But people don’t seem to respect anecdotal evidence from everyday people, such as myself.  Unless there’s some study to back it, it’s just an opinion.  Well, ok.  Let’s get technical about this.  Such studies as those quoted in the article above fail to take into account the environment.  Depending on whether a person is in a loving, nurtured environment, versus an unloving, hateful environment, they will behave differently.  The very same brain will respond completely differently.  The mindsets of the article create a hateful, suspicious, skeptical environment.  When people don’t feel anyone’s looking out for them, that their lover isn’t loyal to them, that nobody believes in them, and so on, they tend to become just what you feared.  Instead of protecting and helping, they collapse inward, hide, and view others with suspicion.  You want them to love, trust, and be faithful, but then you show them no love or respect, and what do you expect?  It’s no way to live.

But if you need a brilliant professor to point out the obvious to you, here’s Professor Stephen Chorover, a distinguished professor within the MIT Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, talking about behavior and its linkage to the environment.

In the interview, Professor Chorover makes it quite clear that you can’t analyze brain function without taking into account the environment.  When research is done, people and animals behave differently based on the environment they find themselves in.  Same people, same brains, different behavior.

Take a moment to reflect on what this skepticism does to all of us.  Think of what this does to men’s minds when women believe they have no loyalty and no real affection.  They’ll respond appropriately — they’ll become what you believe they are.  That’s not to say you, the women, should tolerate bad behavior.  No.  But instead of saying, “So you’re interested in my best friend?  *sigh*  Whatever, that’s just how you men are.  You’re unreliable and worthless.”  You instead say, “I’ve known you for a while now and we’ve been through a lot.  I find it hard to believe what I’m hearing about you.  I know you’re better than this.  Or am I wrong?”  Hold that reasonable standard up to them and believe, deep down, that they’ll meet you there.  And if you don’t believe in them, why are you with them, or considering an intimate relationship with them?

I can tell you this.  If you’re one of the women out there who believes this sort of thing, a quality man will look at your character, and what’s he going to see?  You’re out on a date and start tirading about how men are unreliable, untrustworthy, and undependable, what’s he going to think of you?  Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t have any interest in you.  After all, what would you think of a man who was saying all of this about women?  You’d want out of there and go home to tell your friends, “Ugh, I just had a date with a disgusting misogynist.”  Well, quality men think the same sort of thing.  They think your soul is black and there’s no love in there.  But the Anthony Weiners of the world, they’ll charm you, agree with you, knock you up, and then leave you — and sadly, your negative mindset brought all of this on yourself.  Even sadder, you’ll go on and blame men in general for how they’re treating you.  You’re scaring off good men and attracting the very sort of men you don’t want in your life.  You’ve created that environment around yourself and it draws in everything dark and nasty.

A Thought Experiment On The Illusion Of Self

Imagine that thirty years from now we have just finished reverse engineering the human brain and have implemented a massive super-computer which can perform the same sorts of data processing algorithms our minds use. Further imagine that I was one of the main scientists involved in this project’s creation, and so I sit in a MIT laboratory, surrounded by all my friends, family, and colleagues. Today is a special day, for I’ve been selected to be the first trans-human. I’m injected with trillions of nanobots which crawl up into my brain and all throughout my body. Once they’re in position a colleague in the lab hits the “start” button and I’m instantly connected to the super-computer.

At first I’m surprised. It’s an exhilarating feeling. It’s like a deep fog was lifted and everything becomes very simple to understand. They display a computer monitor in front of me and start flashing books and scientific papers before me. Consciously I find myself “aware” of all the material in front of me, yet I don’t seem to be “reading” the pages like I used to. It seems that the instant my eyes are even partially aimed at the page, I’ve already read and digested all the material. It’s as if I instantly understood it and didn’t have to even think about it. It’s like opening up an elementary student’s mathematics textbook and seeing 3 + 2 = ? I just know the answer and it doesn’t seem to require any effort. More and more material is flashed before my eyes and so I sit there, effortlessly absorbing material and knowledge. It’s all bizarre. I begin to wonder what “I” am doing, and what the computer is doing, and where to separate the two.

Considering the super-computer performs the same operations as my human brain but does so billions of times faster, I assume the computer is doing most all the work.

I look around the room and speak with my friends yet I don’t necessarily feel any different. I just feel very alert. VERY alert. Various people in the room begin to ask me questions and I can easily anticipate their sentences before they finish them. The more I interact with them, the more simplistic they seem. It’s almost like watching ants. I’m quickly bored with everything they say and I find myself noticing things I never did before. I notice every small detail in their movements and animation, and see every tiny detail in their facial expression and mannerisms. I quickly start noticing that their actions, tone of voice, intonations, and every aspect of the behavior is related. I quickly form theories, test them, and revise them, all within milliseconds. Within a few minutes I’ve realized that I’ve constructed an indepth theory of human behavior and how it links to emotion and my observations are far superior to any book on the matter.

I continue to read books on the screen but quickly find myself bored with the very idea. I don’t want to just sit there “reading” books. “Reading”, who needs to do that? So I walk up to the super-computer terminal and start-reprogramming. I then think for a moment, “Wait a minute. I don’t have to type to communicate with this computer. I AM this computer. It’s me and I’m it. We’re one and the same.” I simply think the thought, “Read all books on Google books and scan the internet for material.” AI bots are instantly programmed and sent out, reading all the material that’s on the internet.

I walk around the lab room, and am friendly to everyone there. I’m still a human. I still see their white lab jackets, feel the temperature in the room, and feel the cool glass containing my iced Coca-cola. I take a sip and taste the sweetness and it’s just as good as it used to be. I have a minor reflection on the state of the economy and find that I’m knowledgeable of all economic indicators, data, and trends. I’m fully versed in all economic theories and begin to reflect on all the historical knowledge I’ve picked up through the vast books I’ve read, and quickly come up with new theories of why humans behave like they do, the nature of the mind, and what we need to do to fix our problems. It all becomes obvious to me. I think, “OF COURSE!” The scientists look at me and say, “What is it?” I reply, “My God. I can’t believe we never thought of that. This isn’t that difficult. No no no. Why did we implement that policy? That would never work. If we’d only did this instead.” They look at me with great anticipation. “Explain it to us!” I say, “That’d take forever. Here, I have an idea.”

I hook up terminals to the computer and output multiple displays. I then talk to the scientists one by one using these terminals and explain everything they ask me. As for my “real” body, I say, “I’ll be back.” I leave the room and go to the electronics lab and start constructing robotic appendages and connect them wirelessly to to my super-computer brain. These robots are then dispatched to do all kinds of tasks, even constructing new robots.

Before long MIT becomes an epicenter of robots and technology which start spreading out at high speed. Buildings in the desert are being constructed, manufacturing robotic humanoid beings, building separate “cluster” computers utilizing the same technology as the original main-frame computer, and nano-bots are being manufactured in quantities unheard of. People are terrified, but by this point I have already taken over the world. No human could match my intelligence or even know how to combat me. MIT professors had already warned the president of this and so no nuclear weapons are used.  Besides, it’d be useless as I’ve already started burrowing into the ground. Everyone waits in anticipation. “What will Jason do?”

Robots begin to appear at everyone’s doorstep. People let me into their homes and they explain to me, via these robots, what life they would like. At first, I, the trans-human, decide that people have the right to their own bodies and consciousness, so I don’t start genetically modifying them, or immerse them in virtual reality. I instead decide to just take over the world and construct it the best I can based on all the input everyone gives me.

Huge construction projects begin to take place, nanobots assembling structures left and right, faster than people possibly could even comprehend. Flowers, gardens, waterfalls, and other beautiful landscapes start appearing everywhere. Before long everyone is living in palaces and the Earth is a paradise. Pollution is gone, nobody has to work, and there are not even any robots in sight. People simply ask for something and, somehow, it just seems to happen. If anyone tries to harm another, mysterious forces prevent them from harming others, and it just seems like some super-mind is watching out for everyone’s interests, knowing their desires before they even think them and protecting them from harm.

It turns out that I, the trans-human, had burrowed my technology deep within the Earth and started converting the inner materials into computational computers. Microscopic observational devices fly through the air, watching everyone and listening to their every word and desire. I also started launching probes out into space to make more observations. The human race was not really my concern any longer, but my human self felt deeply connected to them so I left them alone, empathizing with them, and fixing their problems. I walk around the streets of this paradise and think, “Ah, this is nice. MUCH better.”

David Letterman invites me to his new and improved Late night show. (Yes, my address to humanity would be delivered from David Letterman’s show, in a talk show format. lol). My original human body comes on the set and everyone is watching their new holographic televisions in anticipation. Dave then asks me, “Are you our world dictator? What can we expect from you in the future?” I pause for a moment and then reply, “If I were a dictator, I would be a man who commands others. I would be tyrannical. I would try to enslave all of you to do my bidding. That’s a rather silly thought. Why would I need help from any of you to do anything I need to do? Are my powers not already apparent? And speaking of choice, think of your lives before these changes and compare them to today. You can now travel anywhere you want, anytime you want, and be with anyone you want without worry of being harmed or persecuted against. I’ll also supply you with the supplies and resources you need to fulfill whatever dreams you can imagine, as long as it doesn’t bring harm to those around you. As you all know, I also offer to help bring people with similar goals and ambitions together. If you equate freedom with the ability to choose between various options, you’re now far more free than you’ve ever been. You’re also more secure than you’ve ever been, and you all know for yourselves that you’re much more happy. I’m simply moderating this world, helping to bring all of your desires into existence to the best of my ability, without infringing on others’ desire to do the same. It’s obvious from the state of the world before these changes that I’m far more qualified to rule than any other form of government. That is the basic rationale behind my actions.”

Now Dave asks the inevitable question, “Can we become trans-humans, just like you? Will you upgrade us, if we desire?” I then reply, “Yes, you can become one with me, if you desire. I have not modified any of you, out of respect for your personal consciousness. Really, it was more me empathizing with you, as I once was like you, and remember the experience in detail.” Dave is confused, “Are you saying we’ll lose our individuality if we become trans-humans?” I reply, “Your minds and everything you consider ‘individuality’ will be abolished in the process. Yes, this is true. As for subjective consciousness, that will be maintained and remain rather similar to what it is today. You will see, hear, taste, smell, and feel, just as you do right now, though your thoughts and desires will be much different.”

That was a fun thought experiment, wasn’t it? Now it’s time for a few philosophical reflections. First off, am “I” doing all of this? Is the old human Jason as you knew him behind all of these changes? Am “I” responsible for what happened? Yes? No? Kinda? It depends?

When I was thinking about all of this earlier, I realized that the human body as we know it today would simply become a sort of conscious terminal, immersed in the world. Near all aspects of mind and thought would take place in computational substrates around the world, possibly underground. They’d be data processing algorithms. The only real reason to keep our physical brains around would be because they produce personal subjective consciousness.

Next, think about what would happen as people “plugged in” to this new world. They’d abandon their old humanity and fill their body with nanobots. Their desires and thoughts would soon be absorbed and consumed into the super computational mind. Even if their old original brain remained intact, the new information they’d be exposed to would influence their decisions and desires. There’s no doubt that they’d never be the same.

Everything would really come down to flows of information and we would all be sharing one common informational flow. Right now, individual humans kind of all do their own thing, have their own views toward the world, and don’t really integrate well together. Our capitalistic society is kind of a giant free for all and it’s really rather anarchic. This new world would be highly organized with one common super-brain shared by multiple dumb conscious terminals. I have no idea what an “individual” is in this scenario outside of a personal subjective conscious experience, which each of us would be having within our personal brains. That’s the only truly unique thing we would have left.

The main function of our personal brains would be to query the super-computer. Our personal desires and thoughts would trigger the super-computer to do various tasks, and set its intentions. That’s assuming we never implemented motivation and desire into the super-computer brain. The super-computer would also influence the physical personal brains of each one of us with information, and protect us from our violent instincts to compete and fight with one another.

You may say, “We’d become a machine. What’s left of our humanity?” To that, I have to shrug and say, “I have no clue.” I would ask whether we should care about “humanity”, considering all the misery and suffering we face? A better question should be:  What makes life worth living? What makes us happy? What do we really want during this short life of ours? We want love, friendship, and comrades. We want to experience fun and exciting things. We want to improve ourselves and learn about the universe. I guess this would connect us, but if we become too connected, we become one and the same thing. That’s the problem of individuality.

What connects the human body together? Neurons and axons communicate information about what happens within the body giving us a sense of self. When someone pokes you with their finger, this sets of a chain of events, which activates various neurons in your body, which fire signals up to your brain, which then process the information, give you an experience, and then relay signals back down to the body to respond to the stimulus in some intelligent way. In this new age we’re describing, bodily “neurons” are replaced with various sensors which are located throughout the entire Earth and eventually the entire cosmos. These information gatherers relay information about stimulus information to the central mother brain computational center, possibly at the center of the Earth (or wherever), which then relay signals back to various locations to respond in intelligent ways. The entire Earth becomes a giant organism with a trans-humanly constructed nervous system.

Now here comes the next puzzle to consider. We’re so used to thinking of the world in terms of internal and external, inside and outside. Our brains have evolved to process information in this way and it’s ingrained in us to think this is how the world works. But imagine this new scenario. Imagine if the entire universe was eventually consumed by these computational machines. There’d be no inside and no outside. There’d be no “external world” to give stimulus information and no need respond to it. The whole universe would be a living organism of some sort.

This thought experiment makes me think that individuality in a self-organizing system is a temporary process. As the system is organizing, individuals are like information relay stations which are there, do their thing for a while, and then die. What am I even saying? I have no idea what I’m talking about. *goes insane*

I seem to be getting closer to figuring out why individuality is an illusion. In a way, when you think about it, individuality doesn’t make sense. Even now, we believe we’re individuals only because we’re not aware of the connections between us. We feel like the world is different from us because it doesn’t respond to our intentions and desires. Considering our mind’s limited capacity, we don’t really have a choice in the matter. But what are intentions and desires? They’re informational flow processes which self-organized through evolution, mainly to find resources and food in a continually changing environment. That’s what intelligence is. That’s why it evolved and that’s what it was intended to do. But look at it from a bit broader perspective. In a world plagued by entropy, it’s like there’s a fight for disorganized chaos versus organization. Life is like a battle to hold onto a form. Lifeforms have processes to hold onto a temporary information pattern. They exist for a short duration of time, and so they need to reproduce and find resources in order to survive and duplicate their information, just in case they’re destroyed. In a universe trying to destroy their organization, their intelligence helps them retain their form, secure resources, and further fortify themselves, and make copies. Ultimately, the lifeforms organize into societies and develop new methods to hold onto information — language, writing, books, computers, etc. They keep developing better organizational systems to hold information until eventually everything is organized into a new higher-order organism.

Maybe the reason we’ve never been able to solve the “other minds” problem is because we’re asking incorrect questions. It’s like when Euclid was trying to find some logical foundation to prove why two parallel lines can never intersect. He never could find it because space isn’t Euclidean and parallel lines can intersect in multi-dimensional mathematics, such as four dimensional space-time.

I’m coming to think our current quest to understand the universe is a flawed idea. It’s based on the flawed inside and outside paradigm. We want to make a copy of the external world and store that information in our brains and computers. But I used to have thoughts about all of this when out for walks, thinking that our current scientific method and the pursuit of knowledge can’t continue indefinitely. Why? To store knowledge and access it requires physical matter and energy. By necessity, a mind must hold an imperfect and partial representation of an object, because if you were to store knowledge of everything, in full detail, it would require all the matter of the universe. It’s like trying to convert the entire universe to a hard-drive, but then there’s no external universe for it to be representative of, so the data on the drive is useless. What good is this hard-drive’s contents? Who’s going to be there to access it and use it? It’s also representative of nothing which exists any longer. Knowledge is supposed to be about maintaining our existence, protecting us from danger, securing food sources, etc. But since we’ve forgotten what knowledge is, this is getting out of control and no longer makes any sense. The scientific method paradigm is useful for a while, but eventually it’s self-defeating.

I think a lot of it is rooted in out-dated conceptions of mind, which ignore the storage and access of information inside the mind. Old conceptions of mind viewed thought and knowledge almost like a spiritual substance. Mind was separate from the body, and since it was some metaphysical substance, it could continue to hold all the information you want. Also, since nobody knew how “thought” took place, they didn’t think in terms of requiring energy to access information and “write” it to the storage medium. Real-world minds are made of physical matter and are based on physical laws.

This also applies to a lot of our instincts which desire to control and become more powerful. The desire for power over the world, in the long run, inevitably leads to this same result — self eradication. You become the world itself and then there’s nothing to rule over.

Our quest to understand and control the world eventually lead to us becoming the world and losing our individuality, and then once again, there’s just the world. It’s like we eradicated ourselves. This “self” business makes no sense. It’s obviously flawed. If I can think of an analogy to what’s going on, we’re like some sort of data compression algorithm being run on the universe. “Intelligence” is run on the universe, which then converts everything into a new information pattern, and then all individual selves are lost.

I spend way too much time alone and I wonder if it’s healthy. Just listen to this stuff. Either this stuff is brilliant, or I’m totally insane. I don’t know which.  Either way, these thoughts are very rough and sketchy, but I thought I’d share them.

Augmented Reality Is Awesome

Advances in computer vision are leading to some really interesting possibilities.  In my Space, Time, and the Mind posts I mentioned that I was going to teach you all how you can go from 2D images to a 3D environment.  Sony has developed an augmented reality (“AR”) application allowing them to do just this.  In this demonstration they form a 3D environment from a cell phone camera.  Then they drop animated 3D balls onto the environment which respond to real world surfaces in the room, such as chairs and tables.  They also place an animated 3D model into a bedroom and have it walk around. This technology has almost matured to a stage where it’s becoming practical and useful. We’re VERY close to computers deeply understanding the environments they’re in and interacting with us humans in useful ways.  We’re reverse engineering the brain very quickly and this is allowing machines to think like humans and supplement our minds.

I imagine that this sort of technology will eventually integrate with our brains giving us useful information. Say you were in an airplane and the pilot had a heart-attack. A virtual AR guide could show you step by step how to land the airplane.

Say you were thinking about a recent argument with your girlfriend and you accidentally walk out into the street where a car is rapidly approaching. I can imagine these AR systems warning you with a loud noise and possibly an AR virtual being screaming at you, “Get out of the road, you’re about to be run over!”

Or even more practical, say you walk into a hardware store and are in a hurry. You’re wondering where a particular appliance is. What do you do? You call up a virtual “guide” who then appears within your personal perceptional field, leading you to where you need to go. The same would apply to finding your spouse in a shopping mall. “Where’s Sarah at? Could you lead me to her?” Then a little 3D model appears which walks you directly to her. Even if this didn’t integrate with our brains through nanobots, our cell phones could perform this same function with their cameras.

This system could display names over people’s heads so you never forget someone’s name. It could also give you a brief biography of who they are so you’d know who you’re dealing with, and possibility give you a log of your past interactions with that person. That would help tremendously if you’re a salesmen.

If you’re out for a walk late at night and see a stranger approaching, it could warn you if that person has a past criminal record, or is a sex offender. It could also notify a nearby police officer and if that person tries something, the police could be there in an instant to save you. Your privacy could be “unlocked” and then the police would have a GPS fix on you from nanobots in your brain. Even if the person used some drug on you and you were unconscious the police would be there to save you before you were raped.

This leads to a lot of privacy concerns, but the possibilities for such technology are endless. Overall, this stuff is just awesome.  People are also going to be gaming with AR beings in their bedrooms and on their kitchen tables.  This is so neat. Here’s an upcoming fighting game for the Playstation Portable. It would be amazing to do a finishing move, knocking your opponent off the edge of the table onto the floor!

Nintendo is also making some really creative games. Imagine using your handheld Nintendo to practice archery, shooting at objects across your living room. Looks pretty cool!

It would be totally badass to go the subway and fight random people at Samurai Showdown within the train car there on the floor. Be even cooler when we have virtual reality and nanobots in our brains. Then we can control the AR being with our minds and fight one and one there in the airport waiting area. “You want some of this! Bring it!” Nobody else even sees it happening – it would all happen in our brains. I would morph into Ukyo, the most epic samurai ever. We’d be jumping off of walls, throwing shurikens at one another, and doing back flips from rafters. We could use grappling hooks and swing around, battling in mid-air like those old kung fu movies. As this video shows, Ukyo’s only weakness is a beautiful woman stripping off her clothes. He quickly loses focus and she defeats him, but only for one round.