Max Tegmark, in his book Life 3.0 – being a human in the age of artificial intelligence, has taken a different approach to defining consciousness compared to those that I have discussed previously in this blog which were based on synchronous firing of assemblies of neurons [see, for example, ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30, 2016 or ‘Illusion of self‘ on February 1st, 2017] and on consciousness being an accumulation of sensory experiences [Is there a real ‘you’ or’I’? on March 6th, 2019]. In his book, Tegmark discusses systems based on artificial intelligence; however, the four principles or requirements for consciousness that he identifies could be applied to natural systems: (i) Storage – the system needs substantial information-storage capacity; (ii) Processing – the system must have substantial information-processing capacity; (iii) Independence – the system has substantial independence from the rest of the world; and (iv) Integration – the system cannot consist of nearly independent parts. The last two requirements are relatively easy to apply; however, the definition of ‘substantial’ in the first two requirements is open to interpretation which leads to discussion of the size of neuronal assembly required for consciousness and whether the 500 million in an octopus might be sufficient [see ‘Intelligent aliens?‘ on January 16th, 2019].
I had been queueing slowly up the steps to board a plane thinking about nothing in particular when, as I stepped into the plane, one of cabin staff said to me ‘Are you getting ready for winter?’ I looked at her somewhat perplexed because it was only September, and she pointed to the book that I was holding ready to read on the flight home. It was ‘Winter’ by Ali Smith. It is a novel with much to say on many issues.
One of the central characters in the novel, Art writes a blog and someone challenges him to write about a real thing, something that he remembers happening and not a blog thing. He describes a real childhood memory and when it is suggested that he should write about it, his response is he could never put something like that on-line because ‘it’s way to real’. I have some empathy with Art, because it can be difficult writing about your thoughts and memories for anyone to read. However, I have noticed that the readership of the blog goes up when I do write about such things [see for example ‘Thinking more clearly by writing weekly‘ on May 2nd, 2018 or ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]. So, if people are interested perhaps I should do it more often.
Another passage that resonated with me was about age. The narrator is her sixties, which I will be soon, and comments that ‘You never stop being yourself on the inside whatever age people think you are by looking at you from the outside.’ I think that this is true but perhaps difficult to reconcile with consciousness being an accumulation of sensory experiences [see ‘Is there a real ‘you’ or ‘I’‘ on March 6th, 2019]
The conference that I attended last week was in Reno, Nevada and, on my way to it, I stopped over in Dayton, Ohio and visited the US Air Force Research Laboratory to present the results from our research project supported by their European Office of Aerospace Research & Development (EOARD). The journey from Liverpool to Dayton, via Manchester and Altanta airports, took 17 hours; however, that was short compared to the journey from Dayton to Reno, via Chicago and San Francisco airports, which took 24 hours door-to-door or rather hotel-to-hotel. ‘Only the name of the airport changes’ is a quote from Italo Calvino describing the city of Trude in his book ‘Invisible Cities‘; but it also described how I felt looking out from my window seats at successive airports over the four days that I travelled from Liverpool to Reno.
We arrived at Dayton airport at 5am for a 7am flight to be told that it was cancelled and we were re-booked on a flight leaving at 5.18pm. We tried to re-rent the rental car that we had just returned but were told every car was booked; so, we were stuck in Dayton airport for 12 hours. Your perspective of time changes in these circumstances. At 5am with nothing much to do, 12 hours seemed like infinity; but at 5pm when we were about to board our flight, the same 12 hours seemed short – almost as if we had only arrived at the airport an hour or so earlier. Augustine observed that our consciousness is based on memory and anticipation such that time is entirely present in our minds as memory and as anticipation. While Aristotle considered time to be the measurement of change. Hence, since I was anticipating no change during my 12 hours of waiting, my perception of time was of it passing very slowly. Whereas, when I was boarding my flight 12 hours later, my memory was of having done the same things that I would usually have done while waiting for a flight [reading and editing draft manuscripts from my research group]; and hence my perception of the elapsed 12 hours was compressed into the usual 2-hour period spent at an airport prior to a flight. The apparent unchanging view out of the plane’s window, both in flight and, to a lesser extent, on the ground also tended to distort my perception of the passage of time.
I have written recently about time and consciousness [see ‘Time at the heart of our problems‘ on January 30th, 2019 and ‘Limits of imagination‘ on February 13th, 2019]. We perceive some things as almost constant or changeless, such as trees and landscapes; however, that is just a consequence of our perception of time. Nothing that is in equilibrium, and hence unchanging, can be alive. The laws of thermodynamics tell us that disequilibrium is fundamental in driving all processes including life. Our perception of experience arises from registering changes in the flow of sensory information to our brains and as well as changes in the networks of neurons in our brains. Hence, both time and complexity appear to be essential ingredients for consciousness. Even when we sit motionless watching an apparently unchanging scene, as a consequence of the endless motion of connections and signals in our brains, our minds are teeming with activity, churning through great jumbles of ideas, memories and thoughts. Next time you are sitting quietly, try to find ‘you’; not the things that you do or experience but the elusive ‘I’. We assume that the elusive ‘I’ is there, but most of us find nothing when we look for it. Julian Baggini has suggested that the “I” is ‘a nothing, contentless centre around which experiences flutter like butterflies.’
Baggini J, The pig that wants to be eaten and 99 other thought experiments, London: Granta Publications, 2008.