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.


MBishton said...

Interesting thoughts. I would add that current artificial intelligence has passed the point of; if presented with condition X, respond condition Y, and has moved on to adaptive learning and reasoning about how to respond to a changing environment, including responding to humans. One could think that it's hard to make a machine "human" because we humans are still learning what human is. But artificial intelligence will bring us much closer. We are not logical, sometimes rational intuiting machines constructed on prior experiences.

Artificial learning and intelligence is parallel to that aspect of being human. While the underlying code must be logical or it won't run, it builds it's world knowledge like we do; trying alternatives to see which fail or work and adding that to it's knowledge pool. That's how machines will get close, like Data on Star Trek. The hardest part to build in are emotions like fear and love, because the composition of those feelings and reactions derived from nature and nurture are still too subtle and many to catalog and boil down to a series of elements like a periodic table that can be recombined to form other things.

I think that our journey in that direction will merge two streams. One stream is robotics that we will use to augment ourselves, like prosthetics. The code that runs those is purely logical. The other steam is computer code that tries to understand and interact with us to provide services. Once you merge the human with the machines and the code, you won't have to solve emotions for the machine. You will have become the machine. The machine will have become you. You will have reached the singularity.

Gerard Gallucci said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, MB. But even if we humans merge with machine, we will bring our emotions with us unless all that is merged is a simulation of us. Emotions are probably, almost certainly, rooted in the organic. The greatest mystery remains what is life?