Friday, January 20, 2017

Westworld’s Consciousness Riff

The HBO remake of Westworld is superior TV in a number of ways. But its most intriguing aspect may be its foundational riff on what makes up consciousness. The basic premise is that recursive experience plus an emotional occurrence that anchors memory – especially an episode of painful loss – ignites (self) consciousness. Intriguing, yet not finally convincing. The ability to experience emotion itself requires consciousness – one must be aware of feeling such-and-such. Westworld’s premise begs the question of where that awareness comes from.

There seems to be no a priori reason to suppose that machines cannot be intelligent. It may be useful to think about intelligence as existing in more or less distinct forms. Generically, intelligence might be defined as the ability to acquire, process and apply knowledge. (Animals have varying degrees of this kind of intelligence and so may plants.) Machines have the ability to store and process information. Machine intelligence is the orderly processing of information according to governing rules (software). Both the information and the rules are externally derived and stored within the machine. The machine itself may be contained in discrete units or widely distributed (the cloud). Machines can learn – by adding and elaborating rules based on previous cycles of processing – but they can’t process information without instructions stored in memory. Cloud intelligence is machine intelligence taken to a higher level by accessing massive information from many data sources using more and many powerful processors and sophisticated software with built in “learning routines.”

Human intelligence is what we human beings have. It is what we know as manifested in thought and action. Our knowledge is stored in two places, our heads and in our culture. Culture is contained in language, traditions, techniques, art and artifacts, beliefs and whatever else carries collective knowledge across time and generations. The basic unit of human intelligence, however, remains the individual mind, which itself can be thought of as an organically based “machine.” But there seems to be a ghost in the human machine that we experience as consciousness. Mere machines cannot feel emotion – or pleasure and pain – no matter how massive the memory and computing power. And the movies Matrix and Terminator aside, machines do not inherently strive for self-preservation. Machines are not alive nor do they have “souls.” Whether because humans are organic life forms evolved over hundreds of millions of years after having crossed-over somehow from an inorganic strata or from deeper principle of the universe, we feel and experience pleasure and pain. Why is the unknown. Westworld, for all its brave speculation, sidesteps this question.