Of machines and consciousness…

Physics describes patterns in spacetime that correspond to particles moving around. If the particle arrangements obey certain principles, they give rise to emergent phenomena that are pretty independent of the particle substrate, and have a totally different feel to them.

A great example of this is information processing, in computronium. But we’ve now taken this idea to another level: If the information processing itself obeys certain principles, it can give rise to the higher-level emergent phenomenon that we call consciousness. This places your conscious experience not one but two levels up from the matter. No wonder your mind feels non-physical!

I think that consciousness is the way information feels when being processed in certain ways. This means that to be conscious, a system needs to be able to store and process information, implying the first two principles. Note that the memory doesn’t need to last long…

I think that a conscious system also needs to be fairly independent from the rest of the world, because otherwise it wouldn’t subjectively feel that it had any independent existence whatsoever. Finally, I think that the conscious system needs to be integrated into a unified whole, as Giulio Tononi argued, because if it consisted of two independent parts, then they would feel like two separate conscious entities, rather than one. The first three principles imply autonomy: that the system is able to retain and process information without much outside interference, hence determining its own future. All four principles together mean that a system is autonomous but its parts aren’t.

Imagine using future technology to build a direct communication link between two human brains, and gradually increasing the capacity of this link until communication is as efficient between the brains as it is within them. Would there come a moment when the two individual consciousnesses suddenly disappear and get replaced by a single unified one as IIT predicts, or would the transition be gradual so that the individual consciousnesses coexisted in some form even as a joint experience began to emerge?

The above paras are excerpts from Life 3.0 – Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, by Max Tegmark.

It’s an interesting book, pretty detailed in some parts, but a good read overall. This part on consciousness particularly intrigued me…how would we know if and when machines achieve consciousness…and what is consciousness in the first place?

Questions discussed and deliberated throughout this chapter, and a lot to ponder upon.

अविनाशि तु तद्विद्धि येन सर्वमिदं ततम् ।
विनाशमव्ययस्यास्य न कश्चित्कर्तुमर्हति ॥ १७ ॥

avināśi tu tad viddhi
yena sarvam idaṁ tatam
vināśam avyayasyāsya
na kaścit kartum arhati

That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul.

ईश्वर: सर्वभूतानां हृद्देशेऽर्जुन तिष्ठति ।
भ्रामयन्सर्वभूतानि यन्‍त्रारूढानि मायया ॥ ६१ ॥

īśvaraḥ sarva-bhūtānāṁ
hṛd-deśe ’rjuna tiṣṭhati
bhrāmayan sarva-bhūtāni
yantrārūḍhāni māyayā

Ishvara is situated in everyone’s heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.

सर्वत: पाणिपादं तत्सर्वतोऽक्षिशिरोमुखम् ।
सर्वत:श्रुतिमल्ल‍ोके सर्वमावृत्य तिष्ठति ॥ १४ ॥

sarvataḥ pāṇi-pādaṁ tat
sarvato ’kṣi-śiro-mukham
sarvataḥ śrutimal loke
sarvam āvṛtya tiṣṭhati

Everywhere are His hands and legs, His eyes, heads and faces, and He has ears everywhere. In this way the Supersoul exists, pervading everything.