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.