The Ancient Origins of Consciousness

The Ancient Origins of Consciousness, by Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallatt, published by MIT Press, addresses the question of the rise of consciousness in living organisms from three different viewpoints: the philosophical, the neurobiological and the neuroevolutionary domains.

From a philosophical standpoint, the question is whether consciousness, i.e., subjective experience, can even be explained by an objective scientific theory. The so-called “hard problem” of consciousness, in the words of David Chalmers, may forever remain outside the realm of science, since we may never know how physical mechanisms in the brain create the subjective experience that gives rises to consciousness. The authors disagree with this pessimistic assessment by Chalmers, and argue that there is biological and evolutionary evidence that consciousness can be studied objectively. This evidence is the one they propose to present in this book.

Despite the argument that the book follows a three-pronged approach, it is most interesting when describing and analyzing the evolutionary history of the neurological mechanisms that ended up created consciousness in humans and, presumably, in other mammals. Starting at the very beginning, with the Cambrian explosion, 540 million years ago, animals may have exhibited some kind of conscious experience, the authors argue. The first vertebrates, which appeared during this period, already exhibited some distinctive anatomic telltales of conscious experiences.

Outside the vertebrates, the question is even more complex, but the authors point to evidence that some arthropods and cephalopods may also exhibit behaviors that signal consciousness (a point poignantly made in another recent book, Other Minds and Alien Intelligences).

Overall, one is left convinced that consciousness can be studied scientifically and that there is significant evidence that graded versions of it have been present for hundreds of millions of years in our distant ancestors and long-removed cousins.

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The Evolution of Everything, or the use of Universal Acid, by Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley never disappoints but his latest book, The Evolution of Everything is probably the most impressive one. Daniel Dennett called evolution the universal acid, an idea that dissolves every existing preconception we may have about the world. Ridley uses this universal acid to show that the ideas behind evolution apply not only to living beings but to all sorts of things in the world and, particularly, to society. The universal acid is used by Ridley to deconstruct our preconceptions about history and to present his own view that centralized control does not work and that bottom-up driven evolution is the engine behind progress.

When Ridley means everything, he is not exaggerating. The chapters in this book cover, among many others, topics as different as the universe, life, moral, culture, technology, leadership, education, religion, and money. To all these topics Ridley applies the universal acid to arrive at the conclusion that (almost) all thas is planned and directed leads to bad results, and that all that evolves by the pressures of competition and natural selection provides advances and improvements in society. Bottom-up mechanisms, he argues, are what creates innovation in the world, be it in the natural world, in culture, in technology or in any other area of society. To this view, he gives explicit credit to Lucretius who, in his magnum opus The Rerum Natura from the fourth century BC, proposed essentially the same idea, and to Adam Smith’s who, in The Wealth of Nations, proposed the central role of commerce in the development of society.

Sometimes, his arguments look too farfetched like, for instance, when he argues that the state should stay out of the education business, or that the 2008 crisis was caused not by runaway private initiative but by wrong governmental policies. Nonetheless, even in these cases, the arguments are very persuasive and always entertaining. Even someone like me, who believes that there are some roles to be played by the state, ends up doubting his own convictions.

All in all, a must read.

 

Other Minds and Alien Intelligences

Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds makes for an interesting read on the subject of the evolution of intelligence. The book focuses on the octopus and the evolution of intelligent life.Octopuses belong to the same class of animals as squid and cuttlefish (the cephalopods), a class which separated from the evolutionary line that led to humans more than 600 million years ago. As Godfrey-Smith describes, many experiments have shown that octopuses are highly intelligent, and capable of complex behaviours that are deemed to require sophisticated forms of intelligence. They are, therefore, the closest thing to alien intelligence that we can get our hands on, since the evolution of their bodies and brains was, in the last 600 million years, independent from our own evolution.

The book explores very well this issue and dives deep into the matters of cephalopod intelligence. The nervous systems of octopuses brains are very different from ours and, in fact, they are not even organised in the same way. Each of the eight arms of an octopus is controlled by a separate “small brain”. These small brains report to, and are coordinated by, the central brain but retain some ability to act independently, an arrangement that is, to say the least, foreign to us.

Godfrey-Smith leads us through the branches of the evolutionary tree, and argues that advanced intelligence has evolved not once, but a number of times, perhaps four times as shown in the picture, in mammals, birds and two branches of cephalopods.

If his arguments are right, this work and this book provide an important insight on the nature of the bottlenecks that may block the evolution of higher intelligence, on Earth and in other planets. If, indeed, life on Earth has evolved higher intelligence multiple times, independently, this fact provides strong evidence that the evolution of brains, from simple nervous systems to complex ones, able to support higher intelligence, is not a significant bottleneck. That reduces the possible number of explanations for the fact that we have never observed technological civilisations on the Galaxy, also known as the Great Filter. Whatever the reasons, it is probably not because intelligence evolves only rarely in living organisms.

The scientific components of the book are admirably intertwined with the descriptions of the author’s appreciation of cephalopods, in particular, and marine life, in general. All in all, a very interesting read for those interested in the evolution of intelligence.

Picture (not to scale) from the book, adapted to show the possible places where higher intelligence evolved.

Meet Duplex, your new assistant, courtesy of Google

Advances in natural language processing have enabled systems such as Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant or Cortana to be at the service of anyone owning a smartphone or a computer. Still, so far, none of these systems managed to cross the thin dividing line that would make us take them for humans. When we ask Alexa to play music or Siri do dial a telephone number, we know very well that we are talking with a computer and the replies of the systems would remind us, were we to forget that.

It was to be expected that, with the evolution of the technology, this type of interactions would become more and more natural, possibly reaching a point where a computer could impersonate a real human, taking us closer to the vision of Alan Turing, a situation where you cannot tell a human apart from a computer by simply talking to both.

In an event widely reported in the media, at the I/O 2018 conference, Google made a demonstration of Duplex, a system that is able to process and execute requests in specific areas, interacting in a very human way with human operators. While Google states that the system is still under development, and only able to handle very specific situations, you get a feeling that, soon enough, digital assistants will be able to interact with humans without disclosing their artificial nature.  You can read the Google AI blog post here, or just listen to a couple of examples, where Duplex is scheduling a haircut or making a restaurant reservation. Both the speech recognition system and the speech synthesis system, as well as the underlying knowledge base and natural language processing engines, operate flawlessly in these cases, anticipating a widely held premonition that AI systems will soon be replacing humans in many specific tasks.

Photo by Kevin Bhagat on Unsplash

European Commission releases communication on Artificial Intelligence

Today, April 25th, 2018, the European Commission released a communication entitled Artificial Intelligence for Europe, and a related press release, addressing what could become the European strategy for Artificial Intelligence.

The document states that “Like the steam engine or electricity in the past, AI is transforming our world, our society and our industry. Growth in computing power, availability of data and progress in algorithms have turned AI into one of the most strategic technologies of the 21st century.

The communication argues that “The EU as a whole (public and private sectors combined) should aim to increase this investment [in Artificial Intelligence] to at least EUR 20 billion by the end of 2020. It should then aim for more than EUR 20 billion per year over the following decade.” These values should be compared with the current value of 4-5 billion, spent in AI.

The communication also addresses some questions raised by the increased ability of AI systems to replace human jobs: “The first challenge is to prepare the society as a whole. This means helping all Europeans to develop basic digital skills, as well as skills which are complementary to and cannot be replaced by any machine such as critical thinking, creativity or management. Secondly, the EU needs to focus efforts to help workers in jobs which are likely to be the most transformed or to disappear due to automation, robotics and AI. This is also about ensuring access for all citizens, including workers and the self-employed, to social protection, in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights. Finally, the EU needs to train more specialists in AI, building on its long tradition of academic excellence, create the right environment for them to work in the EU and attract more talent from abroad.”

This initiative, which has already received significant press coverage, may become Europe’s answer to the strong investments China and the United States are making in Artificial Intelligence technologies. There is also a fact sheet about the communication.

The Second Machine Age

The Second Machine Age, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two MIT professors and researchers, offers mostly an economist’s point of view on the consequences of the technological changes that are remaking civilisation.

Although a fair number of chapters is dedicated to the technological innovations that are shaping the first decades of the 21st century, the book is at its best when the economic issues are presented and discussed.

The book is particularly interesting in its treatment of the bounty vs. spread dilema: will economic growth be fast enough to lift everyone’s standard of living, or will increased concentration of wealth lead to such an increase in inequality that many will be left behind?

The chapter that provides evidence on the steady increase in inequality is specially appealing and convincing. While average income, in the US, has been increasing steadily in the last decades, median income (the income of those who are exactly in the middle of the pay scale) has stagnated for several decades, and may even be decreasing in the last few years. For the ones at the bottom at the scale, the situation is much worst now than decades ago.

Abundant evidence of this trend also comes from the analysis of the shares of GDP that are due to wages and to corporate profits. Although these two fractions of GDP have fluctuated somewhat in the last century, there is mounting evidence that the fraction due to corporate profits is now increasing, while the fraction due to wages is decreasing.

All this evidence, put together, leads to the inevitable conclusion that society has to explicitly address the challenges posed by the fourth industrial revolution.

The last chapters are, indeed, dedicated to this issue. The authors do not advocate a universal basic income, but come out in defence of a negative income tax for those whose earnings are below a given level. The mathematics of the proposal are somewhat unclear but, in the end, one thing remains certain: society will have to address the problem of mounting inequality brought in by technology and globalisation.

MIT distances itself from Nectome, a mind uploading company

The MIT Media Lab, a unit of MIT, decided to sever the ties that connected it with Nectome, a startup that proposes to make available a technology that processes and chemically preserves a brain, down to its most minute details, in order to make it possible, at least in principle, to simulate your brain and upload your mind, sometime in the future.

According to the MIT news release, “MIT’s connection to the company came into question after MIT Technology Review detailed Nectome’s promotion of its “100 percent fatal” technology” in an article posted in the MIT Technology Review site.

As reported in this blog, Nectome claims that by preserving the brain, it may be possible, one day, “to digitize your preserved brain and use that information to recreate your mind”. Nectome acknowledges, however, that the technology is fatal to the brain donor and that there are no warranties that future recovery of the memories, knowledge and personality will be possible.

Detractors have argued that the technology is not sound, since simulating a preserved brain is a technology that is at least many decades in the future and may even be impossible in principle. The criticisms were, however, mostly based on the argument the whole enterprise is profoundly unethical.

This kind of discussion between proponents of technologies aimed at performing whole brain emulation, sometimes in the future, and detractors that argue that such an endeavor is fundamentally flawed, has occurred in the past, most notably a 2014 controversy concerning the objectives of the Human Brain Project. In this controversy, critics argued that the goal of a large-scale simulation of the brain is premature and unsound, and that funding should be redirected towards more conventional approaches to the understanding of brain functions. Supporters of the Human Brain Project approach argued that reconstructing and simulating the human brain is an important objective in itself, which will bring many benefits and advance our knowledge of the brain and of the mind.

Picture by the author.