Many traditional philosophical questions take new twists in the context of intelligent machines. For example: What is a mind? What is consciousness? Where do we draw the line on responsibility for actions when dealing with robots, computers, programming? Do human beings occupy a privileged place in the universe?
Two researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) have come up with a new theory of consciousness. They have long been exploring the nature of consciousness, the question of how and where the brain generates consciousness, and whether animals also have consciousness. The new concept describes consciousness as a state that is tied to complex cognitive operations--and not as a passive basic state that automatically prevails when we are awake. Professor Armin Zlomuzica from the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience research group at RUB and Professor Ekrem Dere, formerly at Université Paris-Sorbonne, now at RUB, describe their theory in the journal Behavioural Brain Research. The printed version will be published on 15 February 2022, the online article has been available since November 2021.
" 'When we hear it said that wireless valves think,' [Sir Geoffrey] Jefferson said, 'we may despair of language.' But no cybernetician had said the valves thought, no more than anyone would say that the nerve-cells thought. It was the system as a whole that'thought', in Alan's [Turing] view…" -- Andrew Hodges (from his book Alan Turing: the Enigma). In his rewarding book, How to Create a Mind, Ray Kurzweil tackles John Searle's Chinese room argument. That said, I do find its philosophical sections somewhat naïve. Of course there's no reason why a "world-renowned inventor, thinker and futurist" should also be an accomplished philosopher.
For an empirical science, physics can be remarkably dismissive of some of our most basic observations. We see objects existing in definite locations, but the wave nature of matter washes that away. We perceive time to flow, but how could it, really? We feel ourselves to be free agents, and that's just quaint. Physicists like nothing better than to expose our view of the universe as parochial. But when asked why our impressions are so off, they mumble some excuse and slip out the side door of the party. Physicists, in other words, face the same hard problem of consciousness as neuroscientists do: the problem of bridging objective description and subjective experience. To relate fundamental theory to what we actually observe in the world, they must explain what it means "to observe"--to become conscious of. And they tend to be slapdash about it. They divide the world into "system" and "observer," study the former intensely, and take the latter for granted--or, worse, for a fool.
What might its relationship to matter be? And why are some things conscious while others apparently aren't? These sorts of questions, taken together, make up what's called the "hard problem" of consciousness, coined some years ago by the philosopher David Chalmers. There is no widely accepted solution to this. But, fortunately, we can break the problem down: If we can tackle what you might call the easy part of the hard problem, then we might make some progress in solving the remaining hard part.
The quest to understand consciousness, once the purview of philosophers and theologians, is now actively pursued by scientists of many stripes. We examine consciousness from the perspective of theoretical computer science (TCS), a branch of mathematics concerned with understanding the underlying principles of computation and complexity, including the implications and surprising consequences of resource limitations. In the spirit of Alan Turing's simple yet powerful definition of a computer, the Turing Machine (TM), and perspective of computational complexity theory, we formalize a modified version of the Global Workspace Theory (GWT) of consciousness originated by cognitive neuroscientist Bernard Baars and further developed by him, Stanislas Dehaene, Jean-Pierre Changeaux and others. We are not looking for a complex model of the brain nor of cognition, but for a simple computational model of (the admittedly complex concept of) consciousness. We do this by defining the Conscious Turing Machine (CTM), also called a conscious AI, and then we define consciousness and related notions in the CTM. While these are only mathematical (TCS) definitions, we suggest why the CTM has the feeling of consciousness. The TCS perspective provides a simple formal framework to employ tools from computational complexity theory and machine learning to help us understand consciousness and related concepts. Previously we explored high level explanations for the feelings of pain and pleasure in the CTM. Here we consider three examples related to vision (blindsight, inattentional blindness, and change blindness), followed by discussions of dreams, free will, and altered states of consciousness.
Last year, the cover of New Scientist ran the headline, "Is the Universe Conscious?" Mathematician and physicist Johannes Kleiner, at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Germany, told author Michael Brooks that a mathematically precise definition of consciousness could mean that the cosmos is suffused with subjective experience. "This could be the beginning of a scientific revolution," Kleiner said, referring to research he and others have been conducting. Kleiner and his colleagues are focused on the Integrated Information Theory of consciousness, one of the more prominent theories of consciousness today. As Kleiner notes, IIT (as the theory is known) is thoroughly panpsychist because all integrated information has at least one bit of consciousness.
Human consciousness is one of the grand mysteries of our time on earth. How do you know that you are "you"? Does your sense of being aware of yourself come from your mind or is it your body that is creating it? What really happens when you enter an "altered" state of consciousness with the help of some chemical or plant? While you would think this basic enigma of our self-awareness would be at the forefront of scientific inquiry, science does not yet have strong answers to these questions.