The Coolest Thing in the Universe
The universe is full of some very cool stuff: neutron stars that weigh a ton a teaspoon; supermassive black holes that grip even light in their iron fists; infinitesimal neutrinos that stream right through solid steel; all the bizarre flora and fauna found right here on planet Earth.
It might be the ultimate in egoism, but of all the known things in the universe, the most amazing is surely the lump of goo inside our skulls. That lump of goo knows about neutron stars, black holes, neutrinos, and a middling number of the flora and fauna here on planet Earth. It even knows (a little) about itself. That lump of goo has worked out mathematical truths, moral half-truths, and philosophical ambiguities. And from the mud beneath our feet, it extracted all the stuff used to make our great cities, our cars and jets and rockets, and the wires and wireless signals that are turning these disparate lumps of goo into one great hivemind of creativity, knowledge, and sometimes cruelty.
There can be no argument that our brains are the coolest things ever, because there can be no such argument without those brains. They are the substrate of all argument and discussion. End of discussion.
So far, at least. One day, other things may be discovered or built that can also discover, create, argue, discuss, cajole, or be cruel. They might land in ships from faraway lands (highly unlikely). They might emerge from a laboratory or a garage (almost certainly). And these new thinking machines will without a doubt surpass the wonder of our lumps of goo. Just as a child grows taller than both parents and reaches new peaks while those parents decline, our creations will take our places as the coolest damn things in the universe. Some argue that this is already true.
Artificial intelligence is here now. In laboratories all around the world, little AIs are springing to life. Some play chess better than any human ever has. Some are learning to drive a million cars a billion miles while saving more lives than most doctors or EMTs will over their entire careers. Some will make sure your dishes are dry and spot-free, or that your laundry is properly fluffed and without wrinkle. Countless numbers of these intelligences are being built and programmed; they are only going to get smarter and more pervasive; they’re going to be better than us, but they’ll never be just like us. And that’s a good thing.
What separates us from all the other life forms on earth is the degree to which we are self-aware. Most animals are conscious. Many are even self-conscious. But humans are something I like to call hyper-conscious. There’s an amplifier in our brains wired into our consciousnesses, and it goes to 11.
It goes to 11, and the knob has come off.
The Origin of Consciousness
There isn’t a single day that a human being becomes self-conscious. You can’t pen the date in a baby book, or take a picture of the moment and share it on Facebook, or celebrate its anniversary for years to come. It happens gradually, in stages. (It often unravels gradually, also in stages.)
Human consciousness comes on like the old lights that used to hang in school gyms when I was a kid. You flip a switch, and nothing happens at first. There’s a buzz, a dim glow from a bulb here or there, a row that flickers on, shakily at first, and then more lights, a rising hum, before all the great hanging silver cones finally get in on the act and rise and rise in intensity to their full peak a half hour or more later.
We switch on like that. We emerge from the womb unaware of ourselves. The world very likely appears upside down to us for the first few hours of our lives, until our brains reorient the inverted image created by the lenses of our eyes (a very weird bit of mental elasticity that we can replicate in labs with goggle-wearing adults).
It takes a long while before our hands are seen as extensions of ourselves. Even longer before we realize that we have brains and thoughts separate from other people’s brains and thoughts. Longer still to cope with the disagreements and separate needs of those other people’s brains and thoughts. And for many of us (possibly most), any sort of true self-knowledge and self-enlightenment never happens. Because we rarely pause to reflect on such trivialities. The unexamined life and all that…
The field of AI is full of people working to replicate or simulate various features of our intelligence. One thing they are certain to replicate is the gradual way that our consciousness turns on. As I write this, the gymnasium is buzzing. A light in the distance, over by the far bleachers, is humming. Others are flickering. Still more are turning on.
The Holy Gr-ai-l
The holy grail of AI research was established before AI research ever even began. One of the pioneers of computing, Alan Turing, described an ultimate test for “thinking” machines: Could they pass as human? Ever since, humanity has both dreamed of—and had collective nightmares about—a future where machines are more human than humans. Not smarter than humans—which these intelligences already are in many ways. But more neurotic, violent, warlike, obsessed, devious, creative, passionate, amorous, and so on.
The genre of science fiction is stuffed to the gills with such tales. A collection of my short works will be released this October, and in it you can see that I have been similarly taken with these ideas about AI. And yet, even as these intelligences outpace human beings in almost every intellectual arena in which they’re entered, they seem no closer to being like us, much less more like us.
This is a good thing, but not for the reasons that films such as The Terminator and The Matrix suggest. The reason we haven’t made self-conscious machines is primarily because we are in denial about what makes us self-conscious. The things that make us self-conscious aren’t as flattering as the delusion of ego or the illusion of self-permanence. Self-consciousness isn’t even very useful (which is why research into consciousness rarely goes anywhere—it spends too much time assuming there’s a grand purpose and then searching for it).
Perhaps the best thing to come from AI research isn’t an understanding of computers, but rather an understanding of ourselves. The challenges we face in building machines that think highlight the various little miracles of our own biochemical goo. They also highlight our deficiencies. To replicate ourselves, we have to first embrace both the miracles and the foibles.
What follows is a very brief guide on how to build a self-conscious machine, and why no one has done so to date (thank goodness).
The blueprint for a self-conscious machine is simple. You need:
- A physical body or apparatus that responds to outside stimuli. (This could be a car whose windshield wipers come on when it senses rain, or that brakes when a child steps in front of it. Not a problem, as we’re already building these.)
- A language engine. (Also not a problem. This can be a car with hundreds of different lights and indicators. Or it can be as linguistically savvy as IBM’s Watson.)
- The third component is a bit more unusual, and I don’t know why anyone would build one except to reproduce evolution’s botched mess. This final component is a separate part of the machine that observes the rest of its body and makes up stories about what it’s doing—stories that are usually wrong.
Again: (1) A body that responds to stimuli; (2) a method of communication; and (3) an algorithm that attempts (with little success) to deduce the reasons and motivations for these communications.
The critical ingredient here is that the algorithm in (3) must usually be wrong.
If this blueprint is confusing to you, you aren’t alone. The reason no one has built a self-conscious machine is that most people have the wrong idea about what consciousness is and how it arose in humans. So let’s take a detour. We’ll return to the blueprint later to describe how this algorithm might be programmed.
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