Monthly Archives: November 2011

Where is the “I” in Artificial “I”ntelligence?

One of the issues that has come up in my musings about technology is whether a computer can ever become “human” and what it would take.

This was the basisof the so-called “Turing Machine” speculated about by Alan Turing in 1936 where he wondered whether a machine that manipulated data could ever perform at a level where a human who interacted with it could not tell it was a machine.

More recently in a piece I wrote on “Thoughts on IBM v. Jeopardy” I contended that being able to manipulate information at a spectacular speed doesn’t make you human.

I would suggest that most people when confronted with this issue would say something like: to be human is to “have a sense of self” – to know oneself as separate and have an identity.

Indeed that is how we are deeply conditioned. From birth we are given a name and learn what is ours and what isn’t, and later on we’re given a social security number and finally a death certificate.

But as neuroscientist David Eagleman has pointed out so eloquently in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (along with many others), the self is not indivisible. Eagleman points to the latest brain research that says that there is not one part of the physical self that contains the “I”; indeed he explains that the brain is such a complex entity that is many networks are like a “democracy of committees” which coordinate behavior by consensus and make choices in ways we don’t fully understand.

Taking this a step further, let’s consider animals. There is no doubt that many of our pets learn their “names” and even come when called. Being somewhat territorial, they may also have a sense of “my toy” and of course “my yard” – but where does that really come from, or is it the owner’s projection of her own set of concepts?

Going into the wild can yield an interesting perspective. Let’s say a jaguar eats an antelope.

Does it think to itself, wow, I (Joe the Jaguar) really nailed that one?

In fact does it think of itself as an individual at all? Think about a pride of lions—do they identify individually? And can’t we take a broader perspective that in fact the entire jungle or forest is one big Ecosystem in which energy is being transformed as one creature dies and another is born and lives.

Sort of the like the Cycle of Life in Lion King, come to think of it.

So getting back to us, where does our notion of “I” come from and develop?

I would speculate that it is somehow connected to the size of our brain, cognitive ability, and most specifically the emergence of language.

Once we began to articulate and conceptualize names for things (that belonged to us not to “them”) our identities as individuals crystallized in a way that is “artificial” – these names or concepts do not exist in the real world.

For example – Wednesday or the border between Texas and Mexico would never exist without humans. We conceptualized it and named it.

And our language, when placed inside the computer, has become programming. Two simple examples can illustrate where I’m going.

One programming method is an “If/Then” statement. If the user puts a number 21 or higher into the form for “Age”, then he gets to register to vote, or do something naughty.

A similar linguistic convention that works in programming lets the machine “count” – it’s summarized as “next i” – so that a loop begins where the machine looks at successive “i’s” (or instances) and sees if they’re true. Then in the ten thousandth record (found in less than a tenth of a second) the software finds the “Bunzel” that lives in Zip Code “90025”.

In this way we have built incredibly powerful machines that can take us to Mars and beyond.

Let’s go back to the jungle—this time a primitive soul is walking along and there is a rustle in the bushes but our ancient ancestor has no language yet.

Does he think – If lion then run but if antelope then hunt?

Not really, he has no vocabulary—but on some level he still responds chemically and biologically to the stimulus and moves accordingly.

In this way we can see how the development of language however led to survival—a few million years later his offspring can go back and tell the others – “hey, there’s a freaking lion in there.”

But this shows how entirely “artificial” our own “I” really is – because to the extent that it is a function of higher evolution and the complexity of the brain – and we really have many different “selves” operating habitually and through our conditioning – it’s not real.

It’s a concept. A function of our evolving capacity to think in words and become conditioned in a series of “I”‘s that were once critical for survival, but now can cause problems.

This can be incredibly liberating if we meditate on it and take it in.

It means that when “we” don’t get that job, the girl doesn’t call us back, or the market crashes, it’s our habitual programming that makes us upset—and the more we notice it the more space we can create and the less we suffer.

If we get sick, it still hurts—but the additional layer of “this shouldn’t be happening to ME” is buffered—to the extent that we begin to take in that “me” it shouldn’t be happening to exists only between our ears.

On the other hand, the conditioning that let our ancient ancestor determine that if it’s a lion, then run, which we sometimes call instinct, is also purely chemical – and it turns out that it’s also programming.

We now know that the DNA of all living organisms can be sequenced or decoded into a series of four letters, A, C, T and G that represent chemicals that interact a certain way under certain circumstances.

We are all running If/Then statements and i loops that we did not program. And it’s not just us—anything with DNA, which includes the simples organisms known, are interacting with the environment energetically according to instructions (code) that runs as a computer program.

It is only now, in our own evolution, with our own facility with language, logic and technology, that we have succeeded in creating primitive machines (in contrast to those found in nature) that can run code (software) that lets us interact with the program as a flow of intelligent energy.

I would propose that this is a pretty good start at defining consciousness—a flow of intelligent energy. We have created it “in our own image” as computer software. In nature, we call it Life.

We do know that at the quantum level, we have discovered that processes mysteriously occur in what seems a paradox—an electron can be both a wave or a particle, and it can seemingly be in two or more places at once—and the realization of its potential “state” is dependent on an observer—seemingly consciousness…

And — if we return our focus to the Jeopardy-programmed IBM computer, we know that it is running software programmed by a team of brilliant minds that created billions of these programming statements, using language, to calculate at immense speeds and appear to be almost human.

Again, the key component to this endeavor, which we’ve all experienced whenever we’ve used a computer or a smart phone is Mind. Someone thought of the program. A team of minds programmed the software.

Similarly if we consider deeply, how DNA and our own cells and organs interact with an environment according to concepts that we can decode linguistically, and ALL OF THIS was here presumably before any human had the ability to think, speak or use language – what does that suggest?

Especially when we look out into the heavens that we cannot intellectually fathom, or into the “inner space” of the brain which is just as vast, the sense of awe and reverence must arise that there is a far greater Mind somewhere else…

To speculate just a bit further—actually it’s a pretty large leap—what if it turned out that energy that we don’t begin to understand in the universe—such as dark matter or even black holes—were immense facilitators of the flow of an intelligent energy that we are just beginning to comprehend?

And perhaps, even within ourselves, in the midst of the many “I’s” and selves to which we haphazardly attribute our own identity, if we look deeply enough, another far more advanced level of mind is at work – life as a flow of intelligent energy.

It is not the “Us” we so often take ourselves to be. We encounter it infrequently—but it is a deeper energy that is far more intelligent than what we can put into words.

And again, interestingly, it is an energy of potential mental quality that even our current religion, Science, is just now coming to know and grudgingly acknowledge at both the quantum and galactic level.


Incognito: An Exploration of the Vastness of Inner Space

Let me start with an admission: I talk to myself. Out loud.

I’ve done it to goad myself, motivate myself and too often to criticize myself, and if I’m not careful, people can catch me doing it out in public.

I’ve lived alone for most of my life and I’m an only child, but the question has come up, who is speaking to whom?

In Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman uses this very example to raise a common question: who or what exactly is the “self” that one is always referring to? When I talk to my “self”, which self is speaking and which is listening?

In one of his videos Eckhart Tolle suggests that during meditation one follow any train of thought down the path of “Who Am I?” as a mantra, going deeper and deeper to try to locate who the “I” may be when we refer to the self during speech or thought.

Similarly the leader of my Eckhart Tolle group, Michael Jeffreys, has suggested that we literally scan our bodies to try to identify a specific location where this “I” resides.

When first confronted with this issue I suggested it may be in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which indeed neuroscientists consider the “Executive” area which seems to have some control over which of the many “selves” are active at any one time.

But Eagleman, a neuroscientist of some renown who recently appeared on Jon Stewart, doesn’t locate a single physical area of the brain that is “in charge.” On the contrary, most of his book compares the various areas of the brain and their “subroutines” (patterns of conditioned behavior) to political parties that ultimately lead to behavior based on conflict and compromise.

And the prefrontal cortex, which can give attention to a habit (overeating for example) and ultimately put a gap between a thought and an execution by observing thoughts effectively enough to intercept them (mindfulness), but Eagleman writes:

“But we do not find parts of the brain that is not itself driven by other parts of the network. Instead every part of the brain is densely connected with—and driven by—other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore ‘free.'” (Page 166)

The title—Incognito—literally means “with identity concealed.” He quotes from the lyrics by Pink Floyd to underscore the unknown identity of who or what we are: “There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.”

Eagleman uses examples of people with impaired or injured brains and also celebrities like Mel Gibson, who was “not himself” when drunk, and turned into a raging anti-Semite, and was conciliatory when sober.

The one area where this has far reaching ramifications is the law, and Eagleman suggests a legal system based not on blame, which he considers an outmoded concept, but rather on the prospects for modifiability—if we know a criminal will not repeat (act of passion) or can be rehabilitated (behavior modified) then one course of action can be taken, otherwise he suggests that the person obviously must be separated from society.

Eagleman compares the achievements in neuroscience to those in astronomy which challenged conventional beliefs about the earth at the center of the universe—in the case of the brain the notion of the single responsible and cohesive Self is exposed as a vast oversimplification of something much greater.

Again he writes, “in the same way that the cosmos is much larger than we ever imagined, we ourselves are something greater than we had intuited by introspection. We’re now getting the first glimpse of the vastness of inner space. .. What a perplexing masterpiece the brain is, and how lucky we are to be in a generation that has the technology and the will to turn our attention to it. It is the most wondrous thing in the universe, and it is us.”

I find this language both inspiring and a bit daunting—it is always humbling to confront the reality of the vastness of what we don’t know (yet) – and in fact may never know.

But I think that even as lay people we have a hint.

In a telling way Eagleman uses computer terminology throughout Incognito. I noted the use of the term “subroutine”, which is the same term programmers use for chunks of programming that perform a specific (habitual or repetitive) task, often triggered by a stimulus (mouse click).

And of course the entire brain itself is referred to as a vast network of interconnected cells that can even develop and grow (neuroplasticity).

What I’m suggesting here again is that our experience with our own technology, primitive as it may be in comparison to what Life itself has revealed to us as our own hardware and software — we do understand that the mental component and its level of intelligence can be programmed to exist and manifest its conceptual will within a human-created inanimate system (computer)—but only as a result of a large and powerful network of minds (programming team) creating the machine (“In Our Image” –I could not resist…)

In just this way our response to our findings both in what Eagleman calls the “vastness of inner space” as well as our discoveries of the macro universe (outer space) can appropriately first be awe and reverence—and then the inevitable expansion of our current religion (Science) to drop our prejudice against immaterial reality and intelligence (sometimes called Spirit) and being an earnest inquiry into reality that embraces both empiricism (science and experimentation) and awareness (sensory information that goes against “common sense”).

Perhaps the reverence for the immensity of what exists as opposed to what we currently think we are can be inspired by the following statistic in the opening pages of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, where Eagleman writes, “There are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.”

When you combine the implications of the “vastness of inner space” suggested in this comparison with the suppositions of quantum physics—that suggest that everything unfolds out of a potentiality that is not realized until an Observer/Mind/Consciousness perceives it.

So that just as it took a mind (programming team) to conceive of our primitive simulation of what nature has created in our own craniums, we can only imagine the level of Mind that must ultimately exist within us, and without us.

Be the Scientist: Experiments with My “Self”

I’ve noted in the past that I’ve gained a lot from reading Eckhart Tolle and more recently participating in Michael Jeffreys’ group studying his work. Among many benefits was the realization that I am hardly alone in feeling that “something is off” in the current culture.

It’s interesting that many are focused on what might occur this Friday, which is the calendar date of 11-11-11 – numerologically interesting and of course also Veterans Day. Combined with the recent Wall Street protests there are worldwide meditations planned.

For many of us the first hint of things changing may well have been 9-11-2001, when our feelings of safety and tranquility were abruptly shattered by the realization that we were vulnerable in ways we’d never imagined.

Seven years later, the financial meltdown and some personal issues made me particularly anxious.

It has only been recently, as a result of a great deal of thinking, working and experimenting with new concepts that I have begun to embrace a sense of “not knowing” and being comfortable with it.

Before, the sense of impending doom and lack of control had contributed to my anxiety about the future, and I found that the first step to regulating my emotions and thoughts was a process of deep self observation. I now feel that it might be helpful to others to describe certain aspects of my process.

One of the things I discovered with some help was that there wasn’t just one of me—as Pink Floyd said, “there’s someone in my head and it’s not me.” This line is quoted in the beginning of a fascinating book by neuroscientist David Eagleman – Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

Eagleman, who also recently appeared on John Stewart, contends that there are “warring factions” in our brains that behave in many ways like political parties, negotiating for what becomes our behavior. He also makes a powerful argument that our capacity for free choice, if available at all, is like a small part of an iceberg that hides a deeply submerged, vast layer of automatic and unconscious activity. (this last analogy actually came from a class in Jung, taught by John MacLean)…

In any event, discovering that I was not just my thoughts gradually came as a big relief. This was facilitated in some work with Michael Jeffreys who also has a way of making one aware of the reality that, as Eckhart Tolle writes, that voice in the head has a life of its own.

The Ego, as used by Jeffreys and Tolle, has a bag of tricks for grabbing our attention, and it doesn’t always have “our” best interests at heart (good pun there). One such trick is that being “down” or acting as a victim is as powerful an ego identity and as useful for this aspect of our minds as seeing oneself as powerful.

And it’s an easy transition for many of us, when our feelings of invulnerability and control are suddenly shattered, to be plunged into a sense of powerlessness and victimhood.

While shifting the focus to thoughts of what gives us fulfillment or pleasure can be helpful, the answer for me is not positive thinking, neurolinguistics or “the Secret” – which may work for some but not for me.

For me it has been a deeper process of accepting first of all that there may be no intellectual “answer” at all – that Life is a verb and not a noun, as Buckminster Fuller wrote. This needed to be discovered, first through an analytical inquiry, and then brought home to me emotionally through actions.

This line of inquiry was helped by Michael Jeffreys’ concept of “being the scientist” instead of a victim. A scientist, after all, experiments and tries things in life, presumably with an openness and not a sense of knowing the outcome in advance (although some modern scientists do seem to have preconceptions along these lines).

However, this perspective can (temporarily) allow for a suspension of the need for control, as one begins to actually wonder what might happen if – instead of thinking one can always effect a desired outcome. In some teachings this might translate into “being in the mystery.”

Another way Eckhart Tolle might put it would be surrendering—or being at peace with the present moment.

My first really powerful experience with performing an experiment instead of going with my preconceptions was in adopting my cat. All of my previous beliefs went against it but something in me wanted to “just see what would happen.” I had been isolated for too long and wanted to shake things up. The result was fulfillment in ways I had never imagined.

Of course there is immense risk. Things don’t always go well. You can attend a party as “the scientist” and discover that you have nothing in common with anyone, much less the person(s) you most thought you wanted to connect with.

But this goes back to which “one” of “you” is in charge of deciding what there is to gain or lose.

Once your self observation confirms, or you begin to suspect that for you, there are many competing “Seekers” within you, none of which are actually the real you by themselves it can be a sense of immense relief to not be “responsible” for outcomes, and blame the “you” that presumably screwed up.

This can go a long way toward alleviating negative self judgments, that can lead to that sense of victimhood that is so destructive to personal growth and happiness.

Here are some other results of my own experiments that have led me discoveries that are not really that profound, but the acceptance of which has helped improve my daily life:

  1. Getting up sucks – so take a shower, meditate, have breakfast and clean the cat’s litterbox – and just accept that that’s how the day begins.
  2. Be nice and patient in spite of automatic reactions – this becomes apparent on the 12 items or less checkout line- thinking “you” are entitled to be snarky doesn’t feel good and leads to other issues.
  3. Work can be a good distraction-and again it doesn’t have to feel good. Just accept that that’s what it takes to get things done that need to be completed.
  4. A nap after lunch doesn’t make you a bum.
  5. Getting out of the house (especially if you work from home) is a necessary daily event.

Watching my reaction to being tired and lying down put me in touch with deep feelings of powerlessness, for example, which abated when I just accepted them. I needed less rest. This confirmed something Michael had suggested.

I will be writing more about Incognito in the coming weeks, but you don’t have to be a neuroscientist (although it probably helps) to begin to shift your approach from one of knowing who you are to one of discovering a series of layers that can lead to some deeper insights.

As Eckhart Tolle also writes, “when someone says ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’, I say congratulations.”

The God Theory: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Science and Spirituality

A few weeks ago, while searching for another book in the shelves of my local library, I serendipitously noticed a book with an intriguing, presumptuous title: The God Theory, by astrophysicist Bernard Haish.

Since I’ve come to believe in opening up to my intuitive faculties I first looked quickly at the book and then began reading, noting to my surprise that the author’s intention was very similar to my own, on this blog and in the book I am expecting to publish based on these ideas.

What really appeals to me about Haish’s perspective is that he addresses the false dichotomy between spirituality and science, and directly goes after the scientific preconceptions about what is and is not “scientific”—opening his own view on reality to anything and everything.

He directly addresses the current scientific bias against anything that smacks of mysticism, pointing out that many physicists including Einstein expressed ideas that resonate with Eastern philosophy.

He goes on to take on the other false polarity of evolution versus fundamentalism or Intelligent Design by expanding the notion of what God may be beyond the material, and ultimately beyond our own ability to comprehend or conceptualize nature in the absolute sense.

He writes, for example, “I suggest that the evolution of living things may occur through a combination of strictly physical, deterministic processes, and a nonphysical tendency toward order and information.”

For Haish, and for me, this opens up the Pandora’s box that material science refuses to address, but that we both sense is an inevitable area for both inquiry and hopefully discovery: mind or consciousness.

Haish has the courage to deal directly with a possibility that few scientists, much less physicists, would risk their careers on—that “there exist realms of reality beyond the presently known particles and forces of modern physics”—a profoundly mystical concept that he embraces to open the door to a speculative inquiry into what these realms may represent.

He goes on to present a complex theory of physics called “the zero-point field inertia hypothesis,” that as I understand it provides an alternative concept for the existence and movement of mass—unlike Newton’s cause and effect theory Haish claims to prove or strongly suggest that the motion of mass, and its very existence, is a function of a “zero-point field” – or perhaps more easily thought of as space.

Like the mystics, he claims to scientifically suggest that there must be something that isn’t (the unmanifested in our material sense) that can know what is (information, reality, the manifested).

I don’t want to misinterpret or distort Haish’s theory which is elegantly stated—he goes on to connect modern physics to ancient wisdom like the Kabbalah, suggesting that the being that uttered “Let there be Light” was beyond gender or form (uttered is itself an abstraction) but that indeed this phrase refers to levels of being beyond our comprehension, beyond the speed of light, beyond the notions of time and space, that even preceded the creation of the heavens and the earth, by a few cosmic days.

He suggests that as the Kabbalah also says, the Absolute was even beyond light, and light itself is beyond time and space, connecting this ancient text with Einstein’s General Relativity.

He writes, addressing God-limiting theorists like Hawking and Dawkins, that “my theory, in short, proposes that we regard the laws of physics [and mathematics] as the manifestation of God’s ideas, not the limits of God’s creative potential.] I might add, since the very “concept” of God is unlimited and infinite.

I don’t pretend to follow or understand all of the notions propounded based on modern physics; Haish’s credentials are impressive and he hasn’t been excommunicated by the scientific establishment.

What I love about Haish’s work is that it resonates with my own ideas that the experience of science itself points unmistakably to forces beyond the known material reality that imply intelligence.

To bastardize his concept—God can’t be a dummy if we look at the manifestation of the laws of mathematics and physics.

In this blog and my book I approach this possibility not from physics but from our experience with computers—where we actually live every day with the reality of a programmer’s mind or consciousness “operating” through material reality (software) and interacting with us to creatively manifest new “content.”

I suggest that software is created “in our Image” just as we in a sense represent one of creation’s evolutionary manifestations through our own “being.”

This becomes starkly apparent when we examine DNA as a complex system of meaning (software) that can be “decoded”, but which preceded our appearance on the planet and which we presumably did not create ourselves. It “evolved” based on some sort of conscious energy—unless you take the view of material science that the intentional manifestation of life toward order and self expression emanated from an electrical storm hitting an inanimate ooze as a totally random event.

Haish thinks that the age of pure scientific materialism is coming to an end and I believe that this is the essential “shift” in our deeply held beliefs that is happening on the planet today—as described by another great writer, Eckhart Tolle, whose books also seem to pop into peoples’ hands serendipitously at tipping points in their lives.

“The God Theory posits the existence of an infinite, timeless consciousness that, in religious terms, can be called ‘One God.’ In principle, this God is the same for all religions…. It is worthy to note that Kabbalah clearly—and wisely—cautions that all descriptions of God are necessarily wrong.”

The exciting thing to me is that another renowned scientist has reached the limits of intellectual inquiry in terms of describing reality and recognized the need to transcend material presuppositions and open all such investigation up to an examination of our own “field” of understanding—consciousness itself.

For those who can reach this perspective in other ways, through faith, yoga, meditation, charity or whatever, this book may be superfluous. But for many of us who have been conditioned by and form our belief systems according to the “religion of science” a book like this can open us to other possibilities.

For me, this process was triggered by a profound understanding of computer software as consciousness manifesting beyond matter. For Haish it apparently came through his investigation of cosmic laws and principles. For others, it may happen in ways we cannot yet imagine…