July 8, 2011
In a recent post entitled All Attractive Men Are Scum?, I complained about a news article’s claim that a man’s capability to commit to a relationship is genetically determined. I argued that the studies in the article fail to take into account the environment, and that a person’s character shouldn’t be judged until you actually get to know them. But to tell the truth, I was a bit disingenuous and didn’t state that there’s also some interesting evidence building up indicating a large degree of truth to what was being said. Unfortunately, my own personal bias was getting in the way. I don’t personally like the conclusions some of this evidence seems to suggest, as it doesn’t line up with my view of the world. As a man, I like to believe it’s my choice whether or not I commit to a relationship, and I can choose my own values. But considering I try to be intellectually honest at all times, I found myself lying in bed with a deep sense of guilt. I stared up at my bookshelf at all my neuroscience books and thought to myself, “Do I tell them about the prairie and meadow voles?” After a fifteen minute deliberation while eating a bowl of Raisin Bran, I decided I would share with you the evidence I was previous withholding. So, here goes.
If you travel to the heartland of the United States and walk through the grasslands, you’ll come across two species of adorable creatures – prairie and meadow voles.
Aren’t they cute? I think so. So, why in the world are we talking about voles? Scientists noticed that while both species of voles are very closely related genetically, prairie voles are monogamous, completely dedicated to one partner, while meadow voles are not. Prairie voles live with their spouses in the same nest, are both actively involved in raising their young, and the males will passionately defend their spouse and children from harm. Meadow voles on the other hand, their males live in their own bachelor pads. They knock up the women and then run off, and even the women only care for their young briefly before letting them fend for themselves in the world. How could two closely related species exhibit such different reproductive and parenting behaviors?
The scientists captured the little guys and took a close look at their brains. They eventually found out that the only real difference between them was the concentrations of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. It’s experiment time! First they injected the faithful, loving prairie voles with drugs which inhibited the vasopressin receptors. The once devout husbands soon lost interest in their wives and exhibited the promiscuous behavior of meadow voles. If the unfaithful meadow voles were injected with extra doses of vasopressin, they quickly bonded with their sexual partners and became monogamous family men, like the prairie voles. You can also turn the flighty meadow vole females into good caring mothers by injecting them with oxytocin.
Wow. I don’t think I really need to say much else. We all want to believe we can choose who we are, and the values which we hold, but do we really? Quite a question, isn’t it? Could it be that us human men are driven by the same factors? Are some men born with more vasopressin receptors in their brains, causing their level of commitment to their partners? Is the same true for females? Is a woman’s dedication to her spouse and children dictated by the number of oxytocin receptors in her brain? The neuroscience textbook I’m reading concludes with the following:
The vole story is a fascinating example of how brain chemicals can regulate critical behaviors. However, by now you are undoubtedly wondering: Does this have anything to do with human relationships, faithfulness, and love? We have only incomplete facts. There is some evidence from primates that vasopressin and oxytocin levels vary with sexual arousal, and that oxytocin facilitates nurturing behavior in females and sexual assertiveness in some males. It has also been found in human fMRI experiments that regions of the brain dense with oxytocin and vasopressin receptors are activated when mothers look at photographs of their own children but not when they look at photographs of the children of their friends.
Are oxytocin and vasopressin important for romantic and parental love in people? Maybe. It’s too soon to tell.
I think we can all safely conclude that this is an important issue which needs to be investigated further. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we humans are more complex than the voles, so it’s not all about just vasopressin and oxytocin, though they’re both critical.
To further illustrate this concept of brain chemistry determining our morality, think about the drug ecstasy. If you take it, your conscious state is sent into euphoria, you develop a very strong feeling of intimacy with others, everything becomes “one”, and all fears and anxieties go away. Isn’t it interesting that these are the same factors spiritual gurus talk about? Letting go of fear, seeing the interconnectedness of everything, self-acceptance, forgiving others, developing emotional intimacy, and so on. Before ecstasy was made illegal, research was done on it and neuroscientists summarized its therapeutic effects.
“Three neurobiological mechanisms for the therapeutic effects of MDMA have been suggested: “1) MDMA increases oxytocin levels, which may strengthen the therapeutic alliance; 2) MDMA increases ventromedial prefrontal activity and decreases amygdala activity, which may improve emotional regulation and decrease avoidance, and 3) MDMA increases norepinephrine release and circulating cortisol levels, which may facilitate emotional engagement and enhance extinction of learned fear associations.”
- Source, Wikipedia
Studying what drugs do to people’s brains is one of the most fascinating things things to research. Now don’t go off and start taking ecstasy; it’s a dangerous drug and has some nasty side effects. I think that meditation, focusing on various peaceful ideas, and other mental imagery causes various vibrations in our neural networks, which stimulate and activate these chemicals, altering our conscious states. It’s not random that all these things correlate with one another – forgiveness, oneness, intimacy, and so forth.
Along this same idea, one evening I was having dinner with a Christian financial planner because we were working together on a software project. He started sharing his religious ideas and told me how he believed that when he went to heaven and stood before God, all of his fears would be washed away, he’d become one with everything, his sins would be forgiven, and that he’d be surrounded by love and goodness. Does that sound familiar? It’s the same thing! Give him some ecstasy and he’d have the same experience. What’s he’s really wanting is a different state of brain chemicals. There’s no need for anything supernatural, only a deeper awareness of science and how his brain works.
This is a good place to bring up the environment. Notice that ecstasy decreases amygdala activity, which is our center for fear. The world is a rough place, and we form mental associations which fire off those fear centers, ruining our conscious state of peace and security. We all know that if a person has suffered one traumatic experience after another, it has strong effects on their personality. We also know that some people are able to more easily bounce back from such experiences. I think it’s ultimately the combination of native brain chemistry and the associations we develop throughout our lives, which dictate our conscious states. Some people’s brains are more inclined to kindness, intimacy, oneness, and so forth, than others, probably based on the density of vasopressin, oxytocin, and some other types of receptors and chemicals.
I’ve had those types of questions on my mind for years now. One question I’ve been deeply wondering about is whether or not these sorts of receptors can atrophy from lack of use, or become disconnected from other brain areas. Everything else in my body seems to wither away if it’s not used. If I don’t exercise, my muscles deteriorate. Knowledge I don’t use, I forget. The brain can also rewire itself, reallocating neurons to different functions. Can you become more emotional and loving by actively taking part in those sorts of activities, and less so if you rarely have the experiences? Or is it hard wired?
We’re now rapidly moving beyond my level of neuroscience knowledge. I would have to dedicate myself more fully to neuroscience if I was to more deeply understand the interplay of all these brain chemicals, so I better stop now.
Society’s beliefs about personal responsibility, values, and what dictates our behavior are being overturned by this sort of science. Our greatest moral teachers tell us to love one another, as if it’s something we do by willpower alone. We praise a person who has been married for a lifetime, and condemn those who have never deeply committed themselves. But let me ask you this: What if that inner empathy to love your spouse (or anyone else for that matter), which is so passionately espoused by gurus and sages, is really dictated by brain chemistry? What if the degree of passion a person is capable of exhibiting is dictated by these same chemical receptors? What then? And even more intriguing, will we later be able to alter ourselves with targeted drugs, and nanobots, and make ourselves into perfectly loving human beings? I like the idea that it’s just chemicals and brain receptors because if that’s the case, we can always invent devices to change our brains.
July 7, 2011
Don’t ask me why, but today I was in the mood to search Youtube for clips of some of my favorite games from my childhood. Where shall we begin?
Day of the Tentacle:
Now there’s a classic for you. You play the role of Bernard, an intrepid computer nerd who is forced by dire circumstances to save the world from the evil disembodied purple tentacle, who, after drinking industrial waste from Dr. Ed’s basement laboratory, turns into an evil genius bent on world domination. The mad professor builds you a time machine out of three porta potties, sending you and your friends to different eras in time to save the world. This is one of the most creative games you’ll ever play. It’s old school, but if you ask me, the graphics still look great. Laverne’s face is priceless! Look into those eyes! Hay Baby! I remember buying it right when it came out and playing it on my old 486 66 computer. *pushes up nerd glasses* This was back in 1993, so it’s been quite a while. I was only ten years old at the time so I wasn’t old enough to drive, but my older brother took me to Walmart to get it. This game came out on MS-DOS! This was before Windows ladies and gentleman. You had to type in commands to get a game going. That’s hardcore!
Or how about Sam & Max Hit The Road? This was another puzzle game. I don’t even know how to describe this game. You play the role of a freelance detective who gets involved in a rather bizarre plot. You’re accompanied by your sidekick, Max, who is a deranged rabbit prone to violence and wild swearing.
That cat at the end is spectacular. “Hey there little fella!” *Scratchy voice*, “You talking to me!” And do you notice the pigeons boozing it up on the ledge of the liquor store? When I was with my brother the other day, I saw that they offered new Sam & Max games on the PS3 and also PC. I just figured out about them a few days ago, and plan to buy them.
It’s hard for me to say which Final Fantasy is my favorite, but Final Fantasy VI is way up there. Does anyone remember Shadow, the mysterious ninja who joins your group several times throughout the storyline? He rarely spoke, and seemed to live in his own world. You only begin to learn about his tragic past when he suffers from nightmares as you sleep in the inns.
You can see he’s a man with some inner demons. He’s forced to leave his best friend on the ground, on the verge of death, and is haunted by it the rest of his life. At some point he was involved with an unnamed woman, but leaves her, wondering when his past life might catch up to him. He doesn’t want to get her involved. He’s is one of the deepest characters in the entire series.
Even at the game’s closing, you can see that he hasn’t come to terms with his friend’s death. He feels such a deep guilt for everything that happened, and hopes for the day he reunites with Baram once again.
Or take Final Fantasy VIII. This scene has to bring back some memories?
Rinoa was really something. Playing this game as a teenager, I always thought she was dreamy.
I don’t want to get too much into this, but the Final Fantasy series has gone downhill. I’ve been a huge fan since my early childhood, so I buy every new release, but I’ve been rather disappointed over the past years. I remember buying Final Fantasy X-2 from the store one evening and there was a cute girl at the register. I thought, “Oh great. Figures.” Imagine being a guy and having to buy a game with this cover.
The girl giggled, rung it up, and then told me how her roommate had bought this game, hated it, and left the DVD on the floor to be mangled by her dog and eventually scratched into inoperability. Now it was nothing more than a soda holder. I said, “It’s that bad?” She laughed, “Oh, I’ve never played it.” It was humiliating and I left thinking, “This better be good.” I fired up my PS2 and saw this for the game’s opening.
“What can I do for you. What can I do for you. I … can’t… hear… you…” Oh God, what had I gotten myself into? What had happened to my series? I wept to myself, quietly, all alone in my living room. The series used to have epic characters, such as Shadow, Cloud, and Auron. Now I was to play through the game as three scantily clad teenage babes. “Look at me, I’m cute and fun! Weeeeee! Let’s save the world and my boyfriend!” My older brother walked in on me playing this game one afternoon and said, “What the hell is this? The babe trio?” To go through this game, I had to endure losing my brother’s respect.
Imagine hanging out with the guys and they’re like,
The Guys: “Dude, is that the new Final Fantasy?”
Me: “Uh, yeah, I guess.”
The Guys: “Let’s play it. How far are you?”
Me: “Suit yourself.”
Then we play for an hour or so and come to this scene.
Look at those alien thingies waving their arms in the background like, “Wooohooo. Cuuuttteeee giiirrrlllsss!” I still can’t believe I played this game for like eighty hours to beat it. Was it dedication to the series? Was it so I can proudly say, “Yeah man, I’ve beaten every Final Fantasy.” I don’t know. Was it worth it? I don’t know. Just listen to that music in the hot spring scene.
July 6, 2011
Do you ever find yourself thinking that the world is set on some course? I often reflect on my life and feel that I’m sailing on a small raft down a rapidly flowing river. While I can somewhat steer the raft to the left and to the right, avoiding major obstacles downstream, overall I feel like I’m being carried someplace completely outside of my own control.
To give you a few examples, I think about aging. I’m getting older each and every day, and I have no control over it. I see myself in the mirror each morning and am noticing aging setting in. I think about society at large and how I’m subject to forces far beyond my control. Forces in Washington D.C., Wall Street, the educational system, the corporations, and so on, largely dictate what my life is and what struggles I experience. That’s not to say I can’t fight it, but if everyone around me is voting in stupid politicians, who are implementing stupid policies, I have to endure the consequences. If they waste all of our money on wars and bailing out fat cats on Wall Street, I have to live with the fact that our infrastructure is falling apart. I have to pay my share of taxes which go toward interest payments on a debt which was run up on fruitless endeavors. I have to drive down the road filled with pot-holes and make the best of whatever situation I’m in. I have to suffer as I watch more and more families fall into poverty, whether it’s from medical bills, job loss, or rampant inflation. Though I have some power, I’m almost entirely dependent on this “flow” which we call society.
I’ve always been fascinated by this “flow”. Take the economy for instance. It is pretty much a free for all — unkind and unforgiving, with every man and woman for themselves. Everyone’s competing for everything. They compete for homes. They compete for cars. They compete for jobs. They compete for mates. Everyone’s trying to advance and often beat one another senseless in the process. I see so much pain and suffering that I find myself deeply depressed reflecting on it.
But reflecting on this chaotic conflict, I notice that society isn’t random. The world isn’t anarchic, which is what you’d initially guess. There are patterns to the madness. There’s a flow pattern. There’s trends. There’s cycles. There’s ups and downs. You’d never guess that such a system would lead to any sort of structure, but it does. And even stranger, nobody ever designed it. Everybody else is just like me, immersed in this system, competing with everyone else, primarily concerned with self-interest, and amazingly a social order emerges. It’s incredible.
But what is this emergent order, looking at it from a deeper perspective? Here’s where things get really interesting. This concept of “emergence” runs very deep. It’s much deeper than human society. This same sort of process is happening at every level of reality, from elementary particles to the deepest depths of the cosmos.
Let’s begin by defining what emergence is. We can quickly summarize it by saying that when dealing with emergent properties, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. This is a very profound idea so let’s take a bit of time to explain it with an example.
Many thinkers believe consciousness is an emergent process. What does that mean? Imagine Pierre-Simon Laplace’s demon. If you’re not aware of his demon, it was a thought experiment he performed in 1814. It involves a hypothetical entity that knows the position and momentum of each and every particle of the universe, and can therefore fully predict all of time, past, present, and future by using the laws of physics. Now imagine Laplace’s demon and the neurons in your brain. If consciousness is an emergent process created by the organization of neurons in your brain, even if the demon could predict every little electrical pulse, and the position and firing of each and every neuron, that does not mean it could predict you eventually becoming conscious. Consciousness is a new thing which comes into existence when the neurons organize into that pattern, but it’s above and beyond the neurons themselves. It’s more than the sum of the neurons. A new property emerges — that brain is conscious. This form of emergence is called “strong” emergence.
Let’s go even deeper. All the matter in the universe is an emergent process, though this is a case of “weak” emergence. You start with random quantum fluctuations, you have inflation, and you get the universe. This process organizes into elementary particles, which then come together into atoms. The atoms then spread off into space, are compressed into stars by gravity, which then manufacture the higher elements up to iron, and even heavier elements are created when the star explodes in a supernova. Then the star guts float off into space and gravity pulls them together into new stars and solar systems. There is no designer or organizer. All the matter of our universe was “created” by a self-organized, emergent process. What physicists call classical mechanics is just the limiting case of quantum mechanics applied to to large enough masses. When you look at matter at a small scale, it’s different stuff than the “macroscopic” world we live in. It’s this fuzzy, cloud-like indeterminate stuff governed by the uncertainty principle, but it clumps together into matter and becomes the stuff of our observable universe.
Now these atoms start self-organizing, first into planets, and then into life. The laws of chemistry, which is the science behind how the atoms combine together, leads us to a new emergent property — living cells. For example, we have the spontaneous folding of proteins. We have the formation of lipid membranes, and so on. This is a new emergent property unlike the atoms by themselves. They self-organize into cellular components and then into individuals cells and more complex living creatures.
Next we get into the field of biology. We start to have ecosystems and all sorts of life-forms which are evolving based on natural selection and random mutations. Predators evolve hunting the prey and both evolve nervous systems which give them an awareness of the world around them in order to survive and reproduce. This evolution of nervous systems eventually leads to a new emergent property, consciousness, which we have already discussed.
Now us conscious sentient beings, including many animals, are all living together on the Earth. If you examine the life of these organisms in detail, you see all sorts of emergent behaviors and patterns. Whether it be an colony of termites building a giant mound, a flock of birds flying in harmony, or a school of fish moving as one, they all behave as if they have a leader, but no one ant, bird, or fish knows the big picture! There’s no orchestrator leading them, yet they all combine together, following their instincts, flowing in organized patterns.
In the case of us humans, we start organizing into tribes and communities, and as everyone knows, the individual behaves much different when placed in the context of society. The world starts to change as we organize into larger and larger communities. A new emergent thing comes into existence — society and culture.
This is one of the central themes behind Friedrich Hayek’s work. If you don’t know, he was a nobel laureate economist. He researched societies and cultures, and he saw that their organization evolved and that these changes take place by ordered processes. These observations are what drew me to his work because he ties them with all aspects of society, our morals, our language, their roots in nature and our instincts, how money, trade, and economic markets function, etc. That’s not to say this order is beautiful. It’s ultimately rooted in the same bases as nature and the animal kingdom. Everything is eating everything else, chewing on one another while they’re still alive, poisoning each other, deceiving one another, and impaling one another with razor sharp claws. There’s starvation, parasites, tape-worms, and more misery than I care to mention. About the only real virtue nature’s “invisible hand” seems to have is it’s efficient with resources. It has a brutal garbage collection system, weeding out the weak and unnecessary by letting them starve, bleed to death, or be eaten alive if they’re born with any defects. In nature, there’s random mutations and variation in each new generation, and if they have what it takes to survive in their environment, they’re able to survive, find food, and reproduce. As for the rest, they die of starvation, disease, and so on.
As society evolves, we begin to change our ways, going from wandering hunters/gatherers to farmers. As trade develops, we have the division of labor and people skilled in all kinds of different fields. New variations of existence are being created and new things are emerging which didn’t exist before. Today, the changes taking place are primarily ideas. These ideas had to be stored outside of our human mind, so we invented writing. Originally we wrote in clay, but later we moved to paper, and now computers.
It’s also important to note an interesting trend. More and more of our cognition is being outsourced into the external environment. The “dead” stuff of our world is becoming intelligent and alive. That’s what nanotechnology will eventually lead to.
It seems that a new sort of thing is emerging as our societies around the world connect — a global mind. This “mind” is now in its rudimentary stages, and we refer to it as the internet. It’s storing our thoughts and broadcasting them to various areas of the new extended “body”. It will also likely later control our machine intelligence systems and control robotic sentinels and all the technology embedded around us. I refer to it like it’s a single entity, but it will be a tightly connected network of machines serving collective goals.
If you read all the newspapers, they’re telling us we’re moving into the age of intelligent machines. Computer chips are going to be embedded in everything and AI is going to be everywhere. Your toothbrush will warn you if you’re brushing too hard, aisles in shopping centers will be able to create holographic guides to walk you through the store, and your car will drive itself. There’s fierce debate concerning what this all means for the future of human species and our place in the world. Will we eventually displaced entirely by the machines? Will we have to integrate with them? And if so, what does that mean? If you seriously think about it, it almost seems as if we are evolving into something new, but I have no idea what it is. Some of my previous posts speculated into this transition.
I posed a thought experiment where a trans-human takes over the world and starts to restructure it. When I wrote that, my main concern was what intelligence is, how that related to the individual, and what happens when we integrate with the machines. I don’t understand what happens to individuality and I think we’ll need to rethink it. All of those who integrate together will emerge into a new organism of some sort, which I don’t understand. Many brilliant men around the world speculate that these machines will take over the Earth and be in some sense conscious. A new super-species will emerge which will be completely connected with one another, all wired into a super-brain with all knowledge. The Earth’s materials may be converted into some sort of nano-technology, the planet itself becoming a new sort of emergent organism.
Everything has been self-organizing into more complex structures. Maybe the Earth will organize into a new structure, and then later the entire galaxy. I say the Earth will become a new organism because our technology will reach a point where we preserve it. If an asteroid is coming in, our technology will shoot it down before it strikes the surface. Our cities are like a skin for the planet, which self-repair if damaged. Our roads, subways, and trains are like veins transporting materials to and fro. I recently watched a video on the Edge website where a professor was talking about research he was doing related to urban development. Their research was showing how cities resemble living creatures. It was fascinating.
Hopefully now you guys understand what I’m talking about when I refer to being immersed in a “flow”. This is the river I was talking about. This self-organization of society and the world is taking place and I don’t know how to think about it. I feel it’s inevitable. The more I fight it, I’ll just die in poverty and misery. If I go with it, building the technology which makes it happen, and contribute toward a society which flows in this direction, things go well for me, and for all of us, it seems. We get better technology for healthcare, better homes, more living opportunities, neater technologies, cool video games, and so on and so forth. But ultimately, just look at the technology and think of its implications. Something is evolving before our very eyes. What do you guys think?
June 30, 2011
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.
June 24, 2011
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.