Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Computers and Consciousness


A direct link to the above video is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bXACTqKIII

In May one of of my most popular blogs was called News From the Future, an entry which fancifully portrayed a moment two decades from now where we finally use technology to realize that humans are not nearly as unique as we've convinced ourselves. We continued the discussion of such ideas a few entries ago in "Do Animals Have Souls?". You may or may not be surprised when I tell you that this all ties to the entry prior to that as well, "Logic vs. Intuition", where we talked about Monica Anderson and her Artificial Intuition project. Monica's company Syntience is developing new algorithms which may help to make computers able to process The Stream , a potentially overwhelming flood of sometimes flawed information, in ways that parallel how humans are able to deal with these contradictions and holes and an incalculably large amount of incoming data: using intuition rather than logic (see Illusions and Reality for more about how humans assemble all this data together). Would such processes allow computers to some day become more self-aware? If you look in the column to the right, you will see that we are currently running a poll question here at the tenth dimension blog which asks visitors for their opinions on that very question.

I've been following Blogging the Singularity for related ideas to all this, a very active blog with a wide range of topics, check it out. As we saw in the above video "The Singularity is Near", the idea that we live in times that are rapidly accelerating seems to be driving us to a moment of a major paradigm shift, a "flip" into a new way of existing: such ideas are connected to the transhuman movement, which believes in a future where technology seamlessly melds with humans to make our lives better. The ideas in the above YouTube clip are related to Ray Kurzweil's book and upcoming movie, "The Singularity is Near": Kurzweil predicts that humans some day not too long from now will be able to upload the unique patterns that make them who they are into a computer, and effectively live forever as a result! In order for such a thing to happen, computers would have to be able to duplicate the processes that allow each human to have their unique perspective, a concept we talked about not long ago in "Where Are You?".

The Turing Test was proposed in 1950 by computing pioneer Alan Turing, and although it has its critics, it has been an essential part of the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence ever since. The picture at left is from wikipedia, which describes the test as follows: "player C, the interrogator, is tasked with trying to determine which player - A or B - is a computer and which is a human. The interrogator is limited to using the responses to written questions in order to make the determination."

Nowadays it's not so uncommon to be fooled by a "bot" for a moment, where sly programmers convince you that you're talking to a real human who really wants to offer you a one-of-a-kind deal before you leave their webpage, or who has just written you a highly personalized email. I've talked before about the amusing "Chat with Einstein" window over at the excellent Journey By Starlight blog, which is somewhat similar to ELIZA, a simple psychotherapy program that first appeared back in the 60's. Even though such programs can sometimes seem to make interesting intuitive leaps, they are certainly not what we are talking about when we say Artificial Intelligence or Artificial Intuition.

Nonetheless, they do reveal two sides of an important coin: anthropomorphism doesn't just apply to animals, and when we see a computer responding in a human-like way we're more likely to believe the computer has a personality, a point of view, all those things that point towards consciousness. But what if we played with the Turing Test, were asked to decide whether A or B was the computer, but this time we were actually talking to two humans? How long would it take us to decide there was something "off" about one of the responders, and pronounce that person to be the robot?

This is the slippery slope we find ourselves on: if we are really moving to a time when people will be able to upload their consciousness to computers, then I would say it follows that we must also be moving to a time when a computer will be conscious on its own. Rather than interpret this to mean that humans and computers will then be superior to all other living things, we have to see this as being part of the continuum that shows us how all living things have varying degrees of consciousness. As computers start to become "aware", they will not just suddenly wake up one day to become indistinguishable from civilized adults: this will be a gradual process, much as an embryo first starts to become aware of its surroundings. Interestingly, award-winning science fiction novelist Robert Sawyer, who has been writer-in-residence at the Synchrotron here in Saskatchewan for the last few months, has just released a novel called "Wake" which talks about some near future time when the World Wide Web starts to wake up, to become conscious. Here's a quote from my local newspaper, the Regina Leader-Post, about the novel:

In Wake, Caitlin, a blind female math genius gets a signal-processing implant that may give her sight. Instead, she starts to perceive the actual structure of the World Wide Web. While she's looking at it, she becomes aware that there's an entity or consciousness starting to bubble up into existence out of the vast complexity of the Internet. Caitlin gets it into her head to play the role of Annie Sullivan, the famous teacher of her hero Helen Keller, to this "nascent consciousness" of the Internet.
I love the idea that things are growing and changing at an ever-increasing pace, and what that could be mean to our new future. We're going to continue this discussion next time with more about technology, AI, intuition, and connections.

Enjoy the journey,

Rob Bryanton

Next: Connecting It All Together

1 comment:

Thinkingman said...

I'm having a little bit of a problem with this. I think that the research you've compiled is huge. But I don't understand the logic process leading to your pro-motion that all of this stuff is located in dimension ten. That takes some pretty serious mathematics to come to that conclusion, and I must say that math is a bit beyond me (as of yet, but not for long I hope).

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