Scientific advances based on exponential computing progress are presently taking turn in a direction that resembles science fiction, like the story behind the movie, The Matrix. The advances being made in genetics, robotics, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence are creating new questions and challenges in philosophy, ethics, and religion. The Blue Brain Project, in which scientists are collaborating to build a synthetic version of the neocortex of the human brain along with the mapping of brain function through reverse engineering and Randal Koene’s Substrate Independent Minds (SIMSs) are current projects that bring up questions about the nature of consciousness that have not been dealt with in the past. Specifically, are these machines conscious? Is consciousness constrained to biological entities? And, is it possible for scientists to create consciousness?
The Blue Brain Project, founded by Henry Markram, involves scientists from many scientific disciplines–including computer programming, neuroscience, and biology, among others—to work together in creating a simulation of the brain using special software designed to model the interactions of neurons. The neocortex of the brain, which is considered responsible for higher functioning such as thought, creativity, and emotion, is composed of columns. Single columns of neocortex have already been constructed through the reverse engineering process. The simulation of the entire human neocortex is predicted to be complete between 2023 and 2030. Throughout last twenty years, Ray Kurzweil, the computer engineering scientist, inventor, and futurist has already predicted many technological advances correctly such as exponential computing growth power. He noticed in 1980s that the speed of computation have been doubling every three years, and that comparatively, this acceleration resembles to the exponential growth of transistors using the Moore’s Law.
Kurzweil explains the exponential computing growth in the following way: “Despite many decades of progress since the first electrical calculating equipment was used in the 1890 census, it was not until the mid-1960x that this phenomenon was even noticed (although Alan Turing had an inkling of it in 1950). Even then, it was appreciated only by a small community of computer engineers and scientists. Today, you have only to scan the personal computer ads—or the toy ads—in your local newspaper to see the dramatic improvements in the price performance of computation that now arrive on a monthly basis.” (Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.)
Today the scientists have determined the goal to construct computers that have all of the functioning of the human brain, and this progress will soar as these computers begin to program themselves, and at a much faster rate of processing. It is important to note that with this technology the ultimate goal of scientists like R. Kurzweil and R. Koene is to be able to download the entire human brain into what is called Substrate-Independent Minds, which would mean that minds would be able to continue to exist without the use of biological bodies.
More thorough explanation of the Blue Brain Project:
Randal Koene’s Substrate Independent Minds:
The questions that arise regarding consciousness are difficult to address without some kind of definition of what conscious actually is. The definition itself has been debated for centuries and remains unclear today, which is a part of the problem in addressing such questions. There seems to be some consensus in the idea that consciousness is an individual’s awareness. This awareness encompasses recognition of perceptions from both internal and external stimuli. The important words here are awareness and recognition. For example, the human brain unconsciously controls the autonomic nervous system, regulating many of the body’s functions, such as temperature, digestion, circulation, and breathing. The effects of these processes may occasionally be recognized but generally go on without consideration. It is rather thought to be actions, decisions, and reactions to both external stimuli and an internal thought life that one is aware of that comprise consciousness.
It seems then, that consciousness can be directly tied to the idea of the will, being that consciousness is required to determine one’s will when processing and considering certain sensory information, and the will is required to carry out any action decided on through conscious contemplation. It can also be said that, in the most basic sense, consciousness and will are both driven by certain instincts for survival which correspond to what have been called emotional states. For example fear, lust, envy, and greed serve to motivate certain actions that ensure the survival of an individual through self-protection, procreation, and the establishment of material security, and of course one must be aware (conscious) of one’s surroundings in order to process stimuli and to take action. There has been much philosophical debate as to what extent human behavior is driven by instincts and to whether or not instincts actually exist in humans. This goes directly to the question of what is consciously recognized in the human mind. A person may feel lust for another as a basic biological drive for procreation, but the conscious recognition of both the mental state accompanying this drive and the conscious recognition of the potential consequences of acting on it, would influence the behavior of the person. It would be difficult fully understand the way the person decides, but there are two possible explanations; a person would act on an impulse (hubris, passion, drive), without a complex cognitive practice, or a person would deliver a conscious decision, to cheat or not. On the other hand, with no conscious recognition, every human, from infant to adult, will automatically cover their stomach and chest if being beaten by a baseball bat.
This does well to give a very basic definition to consciousness and to explain why it exists, at least in humans, but does little to explain exactly how it develops or the exact mechanism or mechanisms at work. The philosophical viewpoint of materialism, the idea that absolutely everything that exists, including consciousness, consist of matter and energy, has been around for thousands of years. Only in the past one hundred years has the terminology for this type of philosophy changed to physicalism, though in most discussions it is synonymous with materialism3. This is the stance most scientists take today, particularly those working on advanced technology involving transhumanism. And, in the last one hundred years, advances in technology, biology, and especially neuroscience have done much to back up materialist claims. For instance, certain emotional states have been related to different levels of hormones and neurotransmitters produced by the body. Testosterone has been linked to aggression, norepinephrine to anxiety, dopamine to pleasure as well as depression and addiction, and even a feeling of love has been linked to the chemical oxytocin.
Even certain genes are currently being linked to predisposition to certain emotional states.
Furthermore, PET and fMRI imaging has been able to map certain areas of the brain to the processing of certain types of stimuli, and advances in EEG technology are allowing scientists and doctors to read and interpret brain signals more accurately, and the NEURON software used in The Blue Brain Project is able to replicate the activity of individual neurons6.
There are several problems, however, with the current materialist point of view in science and technology regarding consciousness itself. The first is purely philosophical. Scientists like Ray Kurzweil and Randal Koene, generally materialist in viewpoint, believe that in the not-so-distant future, when computers have bypassed the level of human intelligence, humans will be able to download their entire minds onto a substrate other than the human body. Kurzweil calls this a “cloud” which would be similar to an internet for minds. The idea that the human mind is separate from and can exist without the human body or even the brain is the main tenet of Rene Descartes’ dualist philosophy7. The problem is that dualism has always stood in direct opposition of materialism. The two approaches to the mind-body problem are considered to be mutually exclusive.
Second, there are still many things that are unknown about the functioning of the human brain and the exact mechanism for the consciousness of the mind. Though there are computer programs that replicate pattern recognition algorithms, this is likely only part of the entire process. As mentioned before, all sorts of chemical processes occur with hormones and neurotransmitters and there has been no real evidence that entire brain function could be replicated with these removed from the equation. Furthermore, though there have been discoveries about biology that specifically affects emotional states, these in no way describe why we are aware of these emotional states.
Third, John Searle’s Chinese Room argument8 can be extended to cover the possibility of “conscious” machines. Let’s take, instead, John Searle inside a large mechanical bear suit. Based on external stimuli he would be told which buttons to push in order to make the “bear” behave exactly the way a bear behaves, and to the outer world he would appear to be the same as any other bear. This would not, however, give Searle an understanding of what a bear actually perceives, what it is aware of, and why that brings about certain responses. He would simply be processing data and following instructions. The “bear” would be no more conscious than an airplane.
Finally, there is a problem that encompasses more than just the idea of consciousness, and it stems from the overconfidence of humans in the ultimate ability to have the answer to every question. As Thomas Nagel points out, there is still a significant deficit in science and the materialist viewpoint in describing the nature of consciousness9. These answers may or may not come from the purely physical world. Consciousness is subjective to the individual, and so too is it subjective to the species. We “think” in terms of human concepts, language, and understanding, and it is only through interactions with others like us that our conscious “thought life” has any context. We then try to understand our own consciousness through the context of this social construction. This may, however, be too narrow a view to see the entire picture. After all, there exist concepts recognized by humans, the full understanding of which is beyond our comprehension, including the concept of infinity, and the nonexistence of one’s own mind.
Like Plato’s account of Socrates’ Analogy of the Cave, we do not want to be blinded by focusing solely on hollow images that are projected before us. The same theme follows in the story of The Matrix as nearly all of humanity is kept prisoner while believing whole-heartedly in the simulated world constructed entirely by the programming of super-intelligent machines. And much like the Analogy of the Cave, the process of coming face to face with reality is extremely painful and difficult to accept. Even in The Matrix, though, the mind cannot exist without the body, and the body cannot live without the mind. With many of Ray Kurzweil’s predictions coming true, and many of them seeming eerily similar to the background of The Matrix, shouldn’t we be a little more concerned about the future of both body and mind as we look toward life in “the cloud”? Also, in the current materialist view of science, spiritual matters are completely abandoned. So it seems that when approaching the future of technology and Artificial Intelligence, the watchwords ought to be caution and humility. Also, in the current materialist view of science, spiritual matters are completely abandoned.
1. “Blue Brain Project.” Blue Brain Project. Artificial Brains, 14 Aug. 2012. Web. 02 Nov. 2013.
2. Koene, Randal A. “Substrate-Independent Minds – Carboncopies.org Foundation.” Substrate-Independent Minds – Carboncopies.org Foundation. Carboncopies.org, 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 02 Nov. 2013.
3. Stoljar, Daniel. “Physicalism.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 13 Feb. 2001. Web. 02 Nov. 2013.
4. “Love Hormone Oxytocin Can Cause Emotional Pain, New Study Says.” Breaking Science News SciNewscom. Sci-News.com, 11 Aug. 2013. Web. 02 Nov. 2013.
5. “Brain Molecule Regulating Human Emotion, Mood Uncovered.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 06 Aug. 2013. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.
6. Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
7. “What Is NEURON?” NEURON. Yale.edu, 01 Apr. 2010. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.
8. Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat.” The Philosophical Review 83.4 (1974): 435-50. Print.
9. Searle, John. R. “Minds, Brains, and Programs.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3 (3): 417-45. 1980.
10. Robinson, Howard. “Dualism.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 19 Aug. 2003. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.