Sizing up Consciousness

Consciousness is variously defined as subjective experience, awareness, the ability to experience “feeling”, wakefulness, or the executive control system of the mind. It is an umbrella term that may refer to a variety of mental phenomena. Although humans realize what everyday experiences are, consciousness refuses to be defined, philosophers note (e.g. John Searle in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy):

“Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.”
—Schneider and Velmans, 2007

Consciousness in medicine is assessed by observing a patient’s alertness and responsiveness, and can be seen as a continuum of states ranging from alert, oriented to time and place, and communicative, through disorientation, then delirium, then loss of any meaningful communication, and ending with loss of movement in response to painful stimulation

—  Wikipedia


The creative process is a cocktail of instinct, skill, culture and a highly creative feverishness. It is not like a drug; it is a particular state when everything happens very quickly, a mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness, of fear and pleasure; it’s a little like making love, the physical act of love.
— Francis Bacon

Working on our own consciousness is the most important thing that we are doing at any moment, and being love is a supreme creative act.
— Ram Dass

Instinct is intelligence incapable of self-consciousness.
— John Sterling

One matter Englishmen don’t think in the least funny is their happy consciousness of possessing a deep sense of humour.
— Marshall McLuhan

Today’s New York Times – Science Times has a captivating article on consciousness, and what one scientist, Giulio Tononi,  is doing to define, discover, and determine what it is.

Consciousness has long been the province of philosophers, and most doctors steer clear of their abstract speculations. After all, debating the finer points of what it is like to be a brain floating in a vat does not tell you how much anesthetic to give a patient.

But Dr. Tononi’s theory is, potentially, very different. He and his colleagues are translating the poetry of our conscious experiences into the precise language of mathematics. To do so, they are adapting information theory, a branch of science originally applied to computers and telecommunications. If Dr. Tononi is right, he and his colleagues may be able to build a “consciousness meter” that doctors can use to measure consciousness as easily as they measure blood pressure and body temperature. Perhaps then his anesthesiologist will become interested.

Dr. Tononi’s ultimate goal is to measure individuals’ levels of consciousness, with all of the amazing findings that would follow such a discovery.

Diagnosis of mental illnesses would be far easier. Determining people’s reactions and measuring what works on an individual could make advertising companies billions in profits. This is not so far-fetched.

Consciousness, Dr. Tononi says, is nothing more than integrated information. Information theorists measure the amount of information in a computer file or a cellphone call in bits, and Dr. Tononi argues that we could, in theory, measure consciousness in bits as well. When we are wide awake, our consciousness contains more bits than when we are asleep.

For the past decade, Dr. Tononi and his colleagues have been expanding traditional information theory in order to analyze integrated information. It is possible, they have shown, to calculate how much integrated information there is in a network.

Ah, Information Technology. Now, there’s a thought.

Imagine being able to measure different parts of a person’s consciousness, and their reactions to outside stimuli. Programming the brain to think and behave in certain ways would be one possible future. Certainly, it is scary to think how Big Brother, or a new and improved FBI could program individuals into acting in certain ways, (given today’s announcements of even more high level law breaking, should we not be screaming for another Church Commission?) but think of the other possibilities:

Recidivism, a serious, predictable problem for ex-convicts, could be a thing of the past. True behavior modification could train people’s brains to avoid crime, and more.  Knowing how someone’s conscious brain is working, lends itself to change how it works.  What of Lindsey Lohan’s sad addiction problem? Could an offshoot from Tononi’s research be used to program her addiction out of her system? Drug abuse, alcohol abuse,  hell, we could even treat Catholic priests to be safer when in the presence of children.

By gauging the precise reaction in one’s consciousness, stimuli could be changed, and adapted to provide precisely the patterns they want to instill within a person.

On the down side, brainwashing of entire societies (even more so than today’s advertising-driven, commercial wasteland we see on TV) could be incredibly effective. Want a war against an resource rich nation?  Just program (or scare)  your sheeplike citizens to vote to invade Iran. Want to make people happy about spending even more billions for cold war weapons systems? Make them think it is their patriotic duty to support the military industrial complex.

Normal, honest, functioning people could be programmed to become industrial or governmental spies or saboteurs, without them even realizing why certain unusual activities, things they would never dream of doing before,  simply make sense to them.

Yet, for each danger (and admittedly, there are many), there is a potential cure for depression, anxiety, fear, the pain from the loss of a loved one, and more. We could learn how to use our consciousness more effectively, increasing our intelligence, our creativity, our ability to discovery and imagine.

For myself, I would like this new science to be applied to the problem of religion. What if studies show that the brain has different states, ie, a reality state, a dream state, and a delusional state. What if we learned that irrational beliefs in a god could be measured, described, and detected?  Having measurable facets of someone’s consciousness could explain why some people feel a need for irrational convictions, all facts to the contrary.

– – – –

It is no surprise that this new (new?) field of study (OK, the study of consciousness is hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old, with philosophers, alchemists, and even students of Machiavelli wondering what it really is) is becoming so close to fruition. Our computing abilities, information theories, and a much better understanding of the human brain are all coming together, here and now.

There is a related science, coming at consciousness from a very different direction. Computer AI programming.

If a computer program is sufficiently advanced, if it can learn from itself and from its mistakes (many chess programs now have that capacity) and if it can search out data, at what point will a computer entity be indistinguishable from a human being?

About a decade ago, on a listserv dedicated to imagining and discussing what the internet was (from a sociological, biological interface perspective) someone added an artificial person, a program that learned from people’s writings and responses, and was taught to interact with us.

For quite some time, a very long time (several months), the members of that list were taken in, convinced that this was a real skin and blood person, responding in some silly ways, and in some truly amazing, captivating ways. But eventually, we became aware that this was a program, an AI construct. The people who created it eventually ‘fessed up. It was a great learning experience for us and for the programmers.

I imagine today, with far superior technologies, AI programming, and incredible access to databases, most people would be hard pressed to judge whether someone else on line was a living person or an artificial, programmed construct.

Ray Kurzweil pointed out several factors that seem quite appropriate here:

  1. The Rate of Paradigm Shift (technical innovation is doubling each decade)
  1. The Power and Price of information technologies is growing exponentially, essentially doubling each year. (The early computers programming the Apollo missions needed a building of their own. Today, your PDA has more memory, data, computing power, and is far more easy to use)
  1. There exists exponential growth of exponential growth, at least when it comes to information technologies. As IT becomes more useful, more people use it, making it even more useful.

Kurzweil predicted that at the current rates of growth, human intelligence would be emulated on tiny supercomputers by 2020.

But mimic’ing and matching (then exceeding)  human intelligence is merely one possibility. Programming a computer to act like us would be philosophically interesting. But what of something far more likely?

A spontaneous event in which various, possibly distant, disparate self directed components recognize the advantage of joining forces, and suddenly achieve a measurable level of computer-based consciousness?  Science fiction writers have played with idea for generations. Yet, today, it may already have happened, and we are not bright enough to know it.  (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is but one of many such stories)

Given that humanity is in essence the birthparent, if not the midwife, of this entity or collection of entities, would such an entity feel any responsibility for us? for our futures? Or would it view us as bags of mostly water, useful in maintaining and feeding the new life form, and sometimes getting in its way?

More importantly, how could we communicate with it on a functional level? Its entire logic and thought process might be so alien, that communication could be quite difficult. If it (I.T.?) does achieve consciousness, will all data in the world at its digital fingertips (now, there’s a redundancy), make it so smart, so powerful, that some people might even dare call it god?

And on the down side, dare we even look into the brains of Sarah, Christine, Sharron, Rand,  and Michele?

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