Famous Last Words
The big question, the final mystery of artificial intelligence that we constantly struggle to grasp, is where the illusion of consciousness comes from. I have the answer to that question and in some sense it’s not as mysterious or hard to understand as we would like to believe it is. Scientists, like many people struggle to overcome certain cultural biases that blind us to objective reasoning and critical analysis of facts. Humans have a strong desire to see ourselves as somehow “separate” from the fabric of the Universe we live in as though we are alien beings that were simply placed here out of context by a divine entity. This tendency to see ourselves as “removed from nature” probably has strong religious roots. A purely scientific view of the human condition would find it impossible to separate ourselves from a continuous fabric of life and physics. Ideas like “Anthropomorphic Climate Change” inherently assume that humans aren’t products of the same environment we create and participate in. The idea that our existence is somehow separable from physics is part of what makes comprehending ourselves seem so difficult at times. Objectively speaking humans are part of nature, part of the climate, part of physics and part of The Universe just as much as anything else is. We are not somehow “outside” or “independent” of the rules in any sense. To the extent that humans are conscious then the Universe which encompasses us must be said to be conscious as well. This observation about our place in the fabric of physics has led some to conclude that if The Universe is somehow conscious, then everything is.
Others assert that NO, consciousness is an emergent feature of a brain. I refute this position by observing that brains are not built by other brains but by swarms of independent cells that somehow manage to cooperate to construct a working human mind… without a mind to help them accomplish it. In my previous blog I attempted to make the case that swarms of cells “think” via slow hormonal messaging systems that ripple across an organism via inter-cellular contact. In other words, there is a “slower” non-electrical mind that exists before their is a physical wired brain. I further observe that this proto-mind is as sophisticated if not more sophisticated than the complete wired human brain.
The idea that the brain includes a conscious sub-brain that communicates via slower calcium signaling and is the basis of consciousness and creativity may also explain why animals with brains need to sleep. In fact most die within a few days without it. The purpose of sleep may be to give the 90% of the brain that does not participate in fast electrical signaling a chance to catch up and digest the information that the real-time brain overloaded on during the day. The sub-brain isn’t fast enough to add a lot of value to thought during waking hours, it may also need time to transcribe short-term electrical memories into long term genetic and neural structures.
If colonies of cells achieved “thought” via slower hormonal signaling mechanisms millions of years before they figured out how to assemble brains for themselves, this would provide a somewhat reassuring evolutionary continuity in ideas about how sentience evolved without requiring that a caveman named Thag spontaneously invented fire about 40,000 years ago giving rise to human tool making and modern human intelligence.
To defend this assertion I would have to defend the observation that if cell colonies can be sentient without forming brains then it’s possible that even a tree or a coral reef is equally conscious, just on a much slower time scale than we can observe in a human lifetime. It may also be observed that plants can be incredibly ingenious at making tools out of themselves. If you can only think on time scales of decades, isn’t yourself the only building material you can rely on having a consistent supply of? To further illustrate this point I refer to my earlier blogs on other primitive creatures that have some remarkable intelligent properties that we like to overlook precisely because they are primitive.
Are these organisms conscious like we are? Definitely not. The purpose of our emotions are to serve the memory tagging needs of a brain designed to control a mobile organism. Our senses trigger feelings that our brain uses to identify important from unimportant information and to figure out what primal instincts an experience is related to. Our brain has to make snap reflex decisions based on fear in order to keep us alive in a predatory world. Our mammalian survival motives are also very different from single cell organisms. Cells reproduce by simple division, each subsequent generation is a near clone of itself. They don’t worry about their individual survival so much as the survival of their colony which will inevitably be composed of many identical copies of themselves. Hence cells have a fairly altruistic view of their relationship to their neighbors. I read a big article about how theorists have finally explained “altruism” in evolution as though it was a complicated idea that we just couldn’t figure out! The CELLS that make up the world are all clones of themselves and therefore don’t experience an evolutionary distinction between self-preservation and colony-of-self preservation. Natural selection kills cells that don’t stick together! Literally…
The idea of “self-preservation” is more important to complex organisms that reproduce via sex because we are each the ONLY cell colony of our kind. When we die, our colony dies. Although our children are related to us, they are not the same cell colony as US.
Returning to the subject of “consciousness”, a fish with a brain has reflexes triggered by more primitive emotional queues, fish can also learn from experience. Are fish conscious? Probably more so than a coral and less so than we are. This is a good thing, we are looking for a logical continuum rather than a spontaneous magical event in history. If human consciousness has an essence, what is it and where does it emerge from? I assert that the most remarkable thing humans do is to engineer. We write code, create music, solve equations that describe physics and tell stories about impossible events. Emotions and reflexive responses to events are robotic in nature. Feeling an adrenaline rush isn’t special, being able to look inward to examine the feeling and explain it is remarkable.
I assert that the root of consciousness is actually intimately bound with our creativity and problem solving skills. The ability to make elaborate tools requires a very powerful ability to anticipate very complex future events, to mentally visualize and model the exterior world under some controlled conditions with extraordinary precision, then, given that mental model, imagine a tool that solves a problem within it. I can understand how a brain, functioning as some form of GIANT neural network might model the world… what I can’t understand is how it would IMAGINE a complex tool to manipulate it in a controlled way. Neural networks don’t have ideas, they don’t code, they don’t solve problems so much as learn to recognize patterns. Neural networks also don’t have initiative, they don’t motivate themselves. Some might say that the complex interplay of emotions triggered by external stimuli drives our strategies for survival and procreation and provides the prime motivation for our brains… but where do we get new insights and ideas from? What makes us engineers unlike any other animal species? Would we be conscious if we couldn’t experience insight?
Back in the 1980’s I was a huge fan of the physicist Roger Penrose. He wrote a pretty controversial book called “The Emperor’s New Mind” in which he (correctly I believe) pointed out that human consciousness was impossible to model with a classical computer. He went a step further off the deep end when he suggested that the brain might contain quantum structures essential to emergent consciousness culminating in his book “Shadows of the Mind” published in 1994. Penrose basically goes on to link his theory to the discovery of nano-tubules in neurons that he contends are the conduits for quantum computation that give rise to sentience. It’s a very popular premise even today. I would contend however that Penrose is CORRECT that quantum noise is essential to the computation of life and consciousness but I would further observe that no magical quantum organelles are essential to explaining it, water does the job.
Water is not only the basis of life, it’s the basis of consciousness. Doped with just the right enzymes to thicken it, at the right temperature and a pinch of salt to make it a semiconductor, water is the three dimensional liquid silicon of life. Unlike the rigid frozen silicon that we make computer chips out of, water is a liquid that at room temperature is literally alive with thermal and quantum noise. Water surrounds every organic molecule and vibrates at just the right frequency to help them fold into the correct shapes, electrically orient themselves towards targets and thermally propel themselves. In my earlier blog titled “Life Needs Noise” I explain that living organisms compute very differently from our computers, they rely on noise and vibration to perform fuzzy probabilistic calculations rather than rigid deterministic ones. One of the reasons that humans have persistently failed to be able to correctly model basic protein folding in living organisms is partly due to our inability to simulate the water surrounding all proteins and the quantum interactions between the proteins and water molecules that enable certain folding transformations. Water, like most molecules engages in frequent quantum teleportation called a fluxional process. The quantum physics of simulating this phenomena even under very simple conditions is beyond our computational capacity and most organic chemistry involves interactions with trillions of water molecules.
The process is not RANDOM, it’s just largely uncomputable by us. I assert that the thermal and quantum interactions of water with organic molecules are the basis of what drives life and evolution. I further assert that evolution is not accurately characterized as a random process by which less fit organisms are eliminated from survival but is also a proactive process of selecting FOR beneficial traits in subsequent generations. I assert that one of the essential features of “life” when it first evolved included the ability to self-select for improvements in its own design. Life is like the change sorter in my Life Needs Noise blog. Sure it spins the coins around chaotically or randomly but it also always sorts them the same deliberate way. Even the most primitive living systems systematically select for beneficial improvements to their own design during cell division. Scientists missed this observation for the longest time because they subjected organisms to random radiation induced mutations rather than natural selective pressures that allowed them to exhibit self-design. More recent studies with bacteria show that exposing them to natural selective pressures result in bacteria naturally favoring beneficial mutations over lethal or adverse ones.
I’ve written about how these specific mechanics work in previous blogs, but the underlying principal for self-design is easily understood. Life found a working template for itself within an enormous range of valid solutions. Mutations within that working envelope are generally non-fatal and may be beneficial. Before cells invented sexual reproduction they relied on exposing themselves to self-directed mutation during mitosis to produce “nearly” identical copies of themselves. To an external observers point of view it’s nearly impossible to discern the difference between a truly random event and an event chosen randomly from an enormous set of valid solutions, but finally as of just this year we actually have video of this process working as described.
It’s going to take everyone a few years to figure out what they’ve discovered here but I can already guess what it is. They’re SHOCKED to discover that genetic replication occurs in an apparently haphazard uncoordinated way subject to many possible “errors”. Scientists have been trained to think of these things as “errors” because all of the math and the computers they use consider ambiguity in a computational result a FAILURE that has to be expunged or accounted for. As I’ve said before, life doesn’t compute like that, it NEEDS noise to work correctly, including allowing for replication “errors” within a survivable to possibly beneficial envelope. What this paper and video are showing is that mitosis includes a safe mechanism for selective mutation. Genes can hop around, they can get mixed and matched, they can get too many copies or put in the wrong place but they’re almost always all there. One end of the DNA is low risk and produces a highly dependable copy the original strand and the other end? Well… the world needs ditch diggers too. In a previous blog I’ve also referenced a fascinating example of how RNA synthesis can systematically produce protein mutations that are neutral to beneficial but NOT harmful to an organism. What they’re going to brilliantly “discover” next is that when two cells divide, they’re not really identical. One is a relatively faithful clone of the original and the other is a mutant with psychic powers.
In the case of my change sorter, the “structure” of the change sorting machine selects from an infinite range of chaotic possible noise patterns for the useful subset of noise patterns that always correctly sort change and exclude junk. Life did the same thing as soon as it existed. The primal source of the right kind of noise for life is supplied by the thermal and quantum interactions of water molecules under the right bounding conditions. THIS is the primal basis of invention, coding, tool making, insight and introspection that make “consciousness” more than an autonomic response to sensory stimuli. A living cell, even without a nucleus is “conscious” in the sense that it has a safe laboratory in which it is free to INVENT powerful revolutionary new genetic tools that it can systematically test in the real world at the moment of replication. A successful new invention out survives and out replicates its parent and comes to dominate its niche in the ecosystem. Hence Darwinian natural selection is only half of the correct evolution equation, the other half includes self-optimizing organisms.
All great scientific theories should be testable and falsifiable. This theory has many great ways to test it. As my previous blogs have discussed, I believe there is already tremendous supporting evidence in existing academic literature if you just learn to squint a little to look past the terribly misguided terms “random” and “error” that you find in many otherwise very informative studies. To me the most interesting possibility that my “theory” presents is a pathway to successfully actually simulating living systems with silicon computers despite my many previous contentions that it should be impossible. The possibility arises from the observation that my change machine ALWAYS gets the correct results in the presence of a HUGE range of possible noise functions. Simulating all of them with a silicon computer is probably impossible… simulating and caching just one valid noise function may be computationally intensive but feasible. This idea is akin to a related idea that made realistic real-time 3D graphics feasible without being able to fully simulate the dynamics of light interacting with atoms. The innovation that made real-time gaming practical, possibly decades before we had the computer power to correctly simulate light, was the zbuffer. A zbuffer is a type of two dimensional threshold array that enabled specialized hardware to compute sufficiently realistic lighting effects in real-time. It wasn’t a proper simulation but it was good enough to consistently fool us. If life and self-design emerge from narrowly bounded hyper-dimensional quantum noise functions associated with water, we don’t have to be able to compute ALL of them to get a correct computer simulation of life, precomputing any valid one will do the trick. Furthermore a small subset of the dimensions of the threshold array may be essential while the rest are irrelevant.
The great differentiating leap of the human mind was to be learn to convert slow genetic self-programming into electrosensory insight. We’ll close this deeply insightful blog with another fun article about brilliant scientists being completely baffled by widespread genetic mutations taking place in functioning adult brains…
“The main point,” Kazazian continued, is an emerging consensus among neuorscientists “that these insertions are occurring somatically, both in progenitor and—probably—in adult cells.”
The precise roles of L1 transposons in somatic mosaicism of the human brain remain unclear. Neurons are unique among the body’s cells because they do not regularly turn over, but instead can stay with a person for his or her entire life. Genetic changes that occur when a neuron is formed can therefore have permanent effects.
Chun noted that it is “highly likely” these changes have functional implications, but establishing direct evidence “has been a hard nut to crack.”
They are SOOOO confused about what is going on…
“So what is the consequence when retrotransposons preferentially jump within genes that play key roles in normal brain function? They cause normal gene expression to shut down, disrupting normal gene function. Affected genes include those genes encoding receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine and membrane transporters. Others integrated in tumor-suppressor genes, which are deleted in several different types of brain cancer. Jumping genes were also found within genes encoding regulatory proteins linked to psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. As well as generating mutations by inserting themselves into and disrupting genes, retrotransposons can alter gene activity if inserted into adjacent regulatory regions of DNA. Such alterations can have a valuable or harmful outcome, without doubt a powerful tool driving evolution.”
I took the liberty of highlighting all the human bias in judging these evil mysterious mutations. It’s a wonder brains can work at all they’re just so error prone and broken. Some genius needs to cure these DISEASES! They find systematic, organized mutation and see disease not answers to ultimate human questions.