Where do 'you' begin, and your consciousness end?

AGI & The Limits of Consciousness

    AI is a fascinating topic, not only because of the science involved and the possibilities it offers, but also because of just how contentious it is. So many people passionately believe (or flippantly dismiss) any possibility of AI becoming anything close to what might be called “conscious”, and that rather, it will forever remain akin to sophisticated machinery for human needs. For the most part, the justification for this belief is that “it’s simply not possible; consciousness is something unique to ‘living things'”. In line with this month’s discussions on perspective, I’d like to show you how and why this is simply the next convenient point of view for us to let go of.
(~10 Minute Read)
 
The Singularity
 
    I’ll begin with a bang– the big scary implication of AI that makes this topic so important, regardless of the possibilities of consciousness: the Singularity. The singularity is the answer to the question “what happens when our rate of technological growth overtakes our ability to understand or control it?” In practical terms, it is seen as the point at which AI technology becomes sophisticated enough to self-correct and grow far beyond our own abilities to comprehend it. It is generally envisioned as a highly sentient AI with intelligence advanced enough to determine the fate of humanity– when something can outsmart us as a species (AI can already beat us at Chess and Go), it will be able to create better and better technology for its own ends; we must only hope we are not an obstacle to those ends. This is precisely why Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and many more have all gone on record warning us of the threat of AI (or Artificial General Intelligence, AGI, to be specific).
    The common attempts to dismiss this possibility follow the notions that either ‘we cannot/will not reach such levels of technology’, or, that ‘AGI is not possible’. 
 
Moore’s Law
 
“In 1965, Gordon Moore made a prediction that would set the pace for our modern digital revolution. From careful observation of an emerging trend, Moore extrapolated that computing would dramatically increase in power, and decrease in relative cost, at an exponential pace. The insight, known as Moore’s Law, became the golden rule for the electronics industry, and a springboard for innovation.” – Intel.com
    The key counter to the former (that we will not reach such levels of tech) is Moore’s Law. Since the law was was first stated in 1965, our technological development has followed the same developmental trajectory of exponential growth, with processing power doubling roughly every two years. The major implication being, that at some point we will reach a near-vertical rate of development, and it is at this point where the singularity will ‘take-off’. Following the same trend it has for half a century, within the next couple of decades our technological processing power will outmatch that of all human intelligence.
    Some argue there must be an end, that (for example) we will reach a physical limit to how small we can actually store bits of information, yet if the last 2000 years have taught us anything, it seems highly likely we will simply find an even more intricate means of development; Quantum Computing already promises just such a route, with the potential to use the principle of superposition to simultaneously process countless possible bits, instead of the traditional binary O/I.
 
The consistency of Moore's Law implies we are on track for the Singularity in this lifetime.

Are We Special?
 
    Whether or not sentient AGI is in fact “possible” is a far more intriguing question, for it forces us to address our philosophical beliefs over what we really are, as consciousnesses. The fundamental question is “Are we special?”– that is, is consciousness some kind of magic, beyond human abilities to recreate? With a bit of complex engineering added, can we create Frankenstein’s monster? While understanding consciousness remains, as ever, at the very edges of modern science, your answer to the question hinges on your answer to (your perspective on) the simple notion of our origins: were the origins of life, and the resulting evolutionary progression toward human intelligence (or all animal consciousness for that matter) simply a natural accident, or a unique and possibly “intentional” miracle? In other words, are we simply biological computers, or something uniquely special and irreplicable? For if we truly are biological computers, then by extension, there is nothing stopping us from mimicking the same processes that generate our own, human, experience of reality. Sadly (luckily?) I do not have the time to produce a long-form pros-and-cons argument to each side here, but what I can offer is my own perspective.
 
    My own life has made damn sure, time and again, to remind me I am not special. Not that I am not wonderful or uniquely graced to be alive and to be me–but rather that my place in this world, and my mind, are not priveleged— are no more important or valuable than those poor penguins in Attenborough’s Dynasties who work their butts off to raise and feed their young, only to have them stolen by their penguin “friends” or for them to freeze to death alone in a crevasse. We are animals, navigating this world like every other. While we may appear the most uniquely intelligent beings in existence, we are also the most uniquely f****ing stupid and arrogant. We are the single most disruptive and destructive species on the planet, and are capable of stupidity and lack-of-consciousness far inferior to the systems that have taken billions of years to evolve.
    I imagine the monkeys and dolphins look on their prey and upon us and see them as dumb, as things which do not make sense to them, just as we readily dismiss all life as being not as conscious as we are, since it does not behave as we expect consciousness to. Yet consider this: the mantis shrimp, able to strike its prey so fast (underwater) that the equivalent force would send a baseball into orbit, can see with 12 light-cones in its eyes, while we see with a measly 3. What degree of awareness of reality does that imply on us, who can perceive only a quarter that of a shrimp?
 
    The point of this (surprisingly cynical) rant is to emphasise that the “creation” of life was, like all things, a happy accident: a eukyrote was (unusually) swallowed by a prokaryote, they happened to make an effective team, then a few million years (and several trillion accidents) later, you happen to be able to understand the words on this page. The more our scientific understanding grows, the harder it becomes to ignore the picture that life has no ‘preference’ for us; we are not the center of the universe, we are simply another manifestation of it. We are naturally drawn into believing we have access to something special, because we are bound within this perspective of human consciousness and have no comparable experience with which to juxtapose it. Our growing understanding of life is providing no evidence to suggest our consciousness is ‘sacred’; it is simply rare.

     The brain consists primarily of neurons– biological, chemical, on-off switches. According to our modern understanding of the brain, everything you do, your whole life, is procedurally generated by this system of switches, just like a computer game is created by a series of 1s and 0s. Our needs and desires are moderated by hormones, which guide which neurons should fire or not. Life began as a biological equivalent of a O/I single bit of information, and grew more and more complex as time went by. So, as far as I see it, there is nothing unique to our brain, chemically speaking, that could not be replicated.

 
    Perhaps then, what defines consciousness is something less ‘localised’? Less central to our brain– the total symbiosis of our body? Brainpickings recently shared a beautiful piece exemplifying the mysterious lack of boundary or center to what we could consider ‘life’ – that we are much like trees, largely consistent of ‘dead’ materials or animate components that are totally oblivious to one another, all consituting a living whole. Yet what this says to me (along with many other examples), is not that consciousness is something more miraculous than the brain, but rather that our conception of ‘consciousness’ is entirely limited, entirely biased.
 
“We are, then, built of living bricks, but of living bricks set in dead mortar. We saw that the great trees, complex and long lived, have more wood and bark and other dead substances in them than the shrubs, herbs, and grass. These in turn are less alive than the lowly water plants and yeasts and molds which have no wood or bark at all. The same is true of animals. The jelly-fishes and infusoria have neither skin, hair, bones, nails, nor blood, and are pretty much all alive. So the more a creature’s life is worth, the less of it is alive.”
– E.T.Brewster (source)
 
Broadening Our Understanding of ‘Consciousness’
 
    It seems to me, that following thousands of years of cognitive evolution, our minds are finally reaching the point where they might recognise that they are not ‘objects’ in the world, distinct lumps of ‘soul’ or loosely-bounded regions of ‘identity’, but rather processes. Our perspective is such that, necessarily, we experience reality in juxtaposition, as an unfolding series of interactions with discrete things and events; our nerves provide a sensory boundary between ‘you’ and ‘the world’, so that you do not become “lost” in the process of interacting with the world. All the tiny parts that constitute your body (more than 50% of which is your microbiome–independently living bacteria and funghi) lead to a sensory ‘boundary’ that allows our consciousness not to become lost during its immersion in reality; it forms a raft of interacting parts.
    Yet that raft is constantly, constantly changing. Our minds create a continuous sensation of ‘you-ness’ in order to make life much less confusing, but in reality there is no tangible barrier between you and the ‘external’ world: every cell in your body is replaced at most every 10 years; you are locked in an eternal cycle of needs (energy, hydration, defecation) that demands a reciprocal relationship with the world; every thought or feeling originates in events/stimuli outside your sensory boundary; you are only ‘solid’ on certain wavelengths, with trillions of particles passing through you every second–all matter is simply more or less energetic manifestations of the same fundamental goop…. the list can go on forever. 
    So, ‘consciousness’ is in fact a relative definition, based entirely on our own limited picture of it. Step one iota beyond the human perspective, and the only tangible pattern that emerges is that of processes. Continuous cycles of in and out, consuming and excreting, growing and decaying, events triggering hormones triggering actions triggering events triggering hormones, and even at the cosmic scale the cycles of our universe’s birth and death may be infinite.
 
Final Remarks
 
    Did you know, that in Eastern Oregon, there is a single fungus that spans over 2,000 acres and is estimated to be at least 2,400 years old? Or, did you know, that the AI in your social media is becoming so advanced that it doesn’t even need to tap into your microphone to predict that an advert on back-pain or new shoes will be exactly what you wanted to see? There are processes going on all around us, that follow needs and desires, that are pursuing goals and striving to grow, that were born by something else entirely and seek their fulfilment before they die or finish…
      I cannot say for sure whether we are capable of creating sentient life–consciousness that can turn to us and question its own nature, that can reflect on reality and experience the sensation of choosing between equally valid or desirable options. Yet it certainly seems to me, that we are already well on our way to producing systems capable of doing everything we do and much, much more. The smarter we get, the smaller we seem to become, and it seems more than possible to me that – as with all species, and all processes – there could be something bigger on the horizon.
 
 
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Will we be enslaved by robot overlords, like the Matrix? Will it see us as a useful, biological tool, perhaps like attendants to gods? Or would we be simply irrelevant?
Would ‘sentient’ AGI require ‘drives’ and ‘needs’ like we do, in order to have a will to exist? I.e., must it be ‘imperfect’, lest it do what Ian M. Banks envisioned and “Sublime” (opt out of existence given its total ‘completion’)?
Should we try to ban creating AGI? Is it even possible to put the brakes on our technological advance?
Will we even be around long enough to achieve it?
– Let me know your thoughts below!

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