Can computers ever be conscious?

This question is posed in an interesting paper True Artificial Consciousness – Is It Possible? from Sean Webb on the IONS blog. The paper is quite detailed and worth a read if you’re interested in the subject. My take is somewhat simpler, as follows.

Everything has an ‘inner’ and an ‘outer’. Science and technology deal with the ‘outer’, consciousness is a feature of the ‘inner’. Could the twain ever meet? Explaining consciousness is regarded as a ‘hard problem’ of science – too right – they operate in different domains.

So-called artificial intelligence is basically technology that emulates the real intelligence that flows forth from consciousness. This emulation can increasingly appear to be conscious, and even pass the so-called Turing Test of intelligent behaviour, but I would suggest it is not really conscious – could its ‘inner’ conceivably emerge from the ‘outer’ algorithms?

So, if we let machines control things we finish up with a mechanistic universe that is devoid of the spark of consciousness, indeed could become its persecutor.

Featured illustration of the Turing Test by By Mushii , via Wikimedia Commons

 

Vision

“Without Vision the People Perish…”

Proverbs 29:18 King James Version

The above quote was one of the inspirations behind our original lectures on Visions of a New Renaissance, and it remains just as important today.

It strikes a particular chord with me having just watched the gripping film Darkest Hour, which portrays Winston Churchill working his way towards the vision that he ultimately expressed to parliament and the British people, inspiring them to resist the Nazi tyranny.

Cassandra Vieten of IONS has published an excellent post Creating an Inspiring Vision for Our Future, which indicates the importance of a vision that will inspire people on the way forward to a better world. She refers to the example of Dr Martin Luther King, whose inspiration continues to motivate people today. Vieten says

In his book “Stride Toward Freedom,” King noted that the outcome of nonviolent resistance was the Beloved Community – not an idealistic utopia free from conflict, but a community ruled by agape which he described as “understanding, redeeming goodwill for all,” or an “overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative.” He said

“It is this type of spirit, and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

In these divided Brexit / Trump times, how the UK and US need to transform the current deep gloom of the divisive old age into the ‘exuberant gladness of a new age’. How could it be other than a vision based on agape?

Science and Spirituality

Are science and spirituality compatible?

yin_yangOf course they are. Science deals with the ‘outer’ of things and spirituality is of the ‘inner’ of things – which science has little to say about, other than correlation with the outer. Readers of my posts on Materialism and Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm will be familiar with this. In a sense, they are complementary.

I recently came across a neat way of expressing the difference in a report of a talk given by Ravi Ravindra to the London Group of the Scientific & Medical Network.

Ravi is reported as defining his understanding of the word spiritual as pointing to subtler levels of reality than the body, or indeed than the mind – and the mind is the tool to acquire knowledge of the spiritual through approaches such as meditation. Such knowledge is directly apprehended knowledge – objective in its own way. “With a quiet mind spiritual mysteries can become dissolved and realised.” This knowledge cannot be directly transmitted to others.

Science also starts with mysteries to be solved, but using the active, intellectual, logical mind. The unknown sought by science is knowable, and once understood, this understanding can be transmitted to others. Science becomes institutionalised to organise this knowledge – which is not actually possible with spirituality – although of course individual religions can organise their own paths which can help along the way.

Ravi compared the processes involved: science uses experiments and spirituality uses experience. Experiments are external; experience is internal – which is where we came in…

Footnote

This whole subject of inner and outer is of course related to the question of consciousness, which is now the subject of much focus, after being on the ‘too hard’ pile for decades. There is an interesting recent IONS paper pointing to the fundamental role of consciousness: Consciousness and the New Paradigm, by Adrian David Nelson.

Reality and consciousness

Nasa_blue_marble
NASA image of Earth

The space programme of the 1960s and 1970s had a profound effect on the psyche of its astronauts, and indeed upon us all. For the first time we could really see the beauty, the wholeness and yet the vulnerability of our planet.

Ed_Mitchell_Apollo_14
Ed Mitchell, astronaut

I first became aware of Edgar (Ed) Mitchell as an astronaut, the sixth man to walk on the moon as part of the NASA mission Apollo 14 in February 1971. That experience changed his whole perspective on life, as reported by Cassandra Vieten in a recent ‘in memoriam’ following his death in 2014. Contemplating the earth and its history from space, he ‘was engulfed by a profound sense of universal connectedness’.

“I realized that the story of ourselves as told by science—our cosmology, our religion— was incomplete and likely flawed. I recognized that the Newtonian idea of separate, independent, discreet things in the universe wasn’t a fully accurate description. What was needed was a new story of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.”

As a scientist and engineer, Mitchell had grown accustomed to directing his attention to the objective world “out there.” But this experience from space had a profound effect.

“My understanding of the distinct separateness and relative independence of movement of those cosmic bodies was shattered. I was overwhelmed with the sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos. The restraints and boundaries of flesh and bone fell away…”

This experience led him to the idea that ‘reality is more complex, subtle, and mysterious than explained by conventional science, and a deeper understanding of consciousness was needed’.

After retiring from NASA in 1972, Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), which aimed to sponsor research into the nature of consciousness. I first became aware of IONS maybe 20 years ago and was delighted to find an organisation in the US which had a similar breadth of interest on the boundaries between science and consciousness as that I had earlier found in the UK through the Scientific & Medical Network.

Being essentially UK based I have only admired the work of IONS from afar, but the organisation is clearly still going strong and has achieved much over more than 40 years since its foundation. For more detail on just how influential Ed Mitchell and IONS have been over the years, I recommend you read Cassandra Vieten’s words in full.

The study of, and hence truer understanding of, consciousness will result in profound change to our world.

Pictures courtesy of NASA