Thursday, September 29, 2005


Read this interesting article about human learning abilities today. I continue to be amazed by the capabilities of human consciousness. Now, I know that this is not my field of expertise; but over the course of my readings I have become deeply amazed and interested in the studies about "consciousness". Consciousness is that illusory something which gives us the awareness that we exist. That same something probably is also the reason that we are aware of being aware. Gets a bit complicated soon, doesn't it? This article gives me hope not be deterred. Apparently a lot of scientist are trying to figure it out too!

The first time I came across different ideas about consciousness was when I read the books 'The Tao of Physics' and then 'The Web of Life', both by Fritjof Capra. To learn more, I read Roger Penrose's amazing book 'The Emperor's New Mind'. Now I want to read Ray Kurzweil's books 'The Age of Intelligent Machines' and 'The Age of Spiritual Machines'.

There are many pieces of this puzzle I guess, starting with "What is thinking?", leading to "what is the mind?" and ending with "what is consciousness?"; with a whole host of other things to figure out before a complete picture can emerge. I am most intrigued by the idea of consciousness being an "emergent property" of the body (not just the brain). The idea is that our sense organs, the nervous system and the brain form a network. An emergent property is something that emerges out of the multitude of small local interactions between the various nodes of the network. So consciousness is something that we feel when this whole network is working and exchanging signals back and forth. Surprisingly we are also aware that we are aware.

Taking this to the next level then, will consciousness emerge spontaneously if a certain level of complexity is established? Imagine the consequences. Cars have become incredibly complex these days and will keep getting even more complex. Someday there will be numerous sensors on the car feeding information to a central computer. The computer will be much more complex than the one on which I am working right now. (its already a Pentium 500MHz dinosaur!). There will be sensors to steer and drive the car, to detect problems before they arise in the engine and transmission, to operate the A/c system and a whole host of other things. Imagine if one day you take the car to the shop to get it installed with a new sensor and suddenly you realize that consciousness has emerged! At this point the car will be able to be consciously aware of its own existence!

You may want to be elated at first, now that the Age of Spiritual Machines has arrived. But imagine the problems this may cause. The car will have feelings and emotions. On a cold, wet day it may feel like not starting up at all when you will be in a hurry to get to work. It may be jealous of the shiny new Corvette parked beside it in the parking lot. It may be angry and grumpy if you miss an oil change or don't take it to the car wash. May be it will take itself to the car wash whenever it is in a mood for a shower. The newly conscious cars may rally against the destruction of the old "unconscious" cars and may declare them to be endangered species.

Somehow the idea that human beings could someday be able to create "conscious" machines seems a bit frightening to me. My fear is not about some "Matrix" like scenario where the machines take over. We aren't doing half a good job of taking care of all the sentient beings that exist naturally right now! Imagine a day when we add to that, sentient being created by "us".

We have come a long way from hunting the saber toothed tiger with clubs and rocks, largely due to our wisdom. However, I don't think that our capacity to use our wisdom wisely has evolved all that much. We still use our brains to do as many stupid things as good. So it would be good if some things are left for nature to do on its own.

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