Category: Mind

Artificial Consciousness

With fewer courses this term, I’ve had a lot more time to work on the topic I’d like to pursue for my doctoral research, and as a result, have found the authors I need to start writing papers. This is very exciting because existing literature suggests we have a decent answer to the Chalmer’s Hard Problem, and from a nonreductive functionalist perspective, can fill in the metaphysical picture required for producing an account of phenomenal experiences (Feinberg and Mallatt; Solms; Tsou). This means we are justified in considering artificial consciousness as a serious possibility, enabling us to start discussions on what we should be doing about it. I’m currently working on papers that address the hard problem and qualia, arguing that information is the puzzle piece we are looking for.

Individuals have suggested that consciousness is virtual, similarly to computer software running on hardware (Bruiger; Haikonen; Lehar; Orpwood) Using this idea, we can posit that social robots can become conscious like humans, as the functional architectures of both rely on incoming information to construct an understanding of things, people, and itself. My research contributes to this perspective by stressing the significance of social interactions for developing conscious machines. Much of the engineering and philosophical literature focuses on internal architectures for cognition, but what seems to be missing is just how crucial other people are for the development of conscious minds. Preprocessed information in the form of knowledge is crucial for creating minds, as seen in developmental psychology literature. Children are taught labels for things they interact with, and by linguistically engaging with others about the world, they become able to express themselves as subjects with needs and desires. Therefore, meaning is generated for individuals by learning from others, contributing to the formation of conscious subjects.

Moreover, if we can discuss concepts from phenomenology in terms of the interplay of physiological functioning and information-processing, it seems reasonable to suggest that we have resolved the problems plaguing consciousness studies. Acting as an interface between first-person perspectives and a third-person perspective, information accounts for the contents, origins, and attributes of various conscious states. Though an exact mapping between disciplines may not be possible, some general ideas or common notions might be sufficiently explained by drawing connections between the two perspectives.

Works Cited

Bruiger, Dan. How the Brain Makes Up the Mind: A Heuristic Approach to the Hard Problem of Consciousness. June 2018.

Chalmers, David. ‘Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness’. Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 2, no. 3, Mar. 1995, pp. 200–19. ResearchGate, doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195311105.003.0001.

Feinberg, Todd E., and Jon Mallatt. ‘Phenomenal Consciousness and Emergence: Eliminating the Explanatory Gap’. Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 11, Frontiers, 2020. Frontiers, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01041.

Haikonen, Pentti O. Consciousness and Robot Sentience. 2nd ed., vol. 04, WORLD SCIENTIFIC, 2019. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1142/11404.

Lehar, Steven. The World in Your Head: A Gestalt View of the Mechanism of Conscious Experience. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003.

Orpwood, Roger. ‘Information and the Origin of Qualia’. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, vol. 11, Frontiers, 2017, p. 22.

Solms, Mark. ‘A Neuropsychoanalytical Approach to the Hard Problem of Consciousness’. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, vol. 13, no. 02, Imperial College Press, June 2014, pp. 173–85. worldscientific.com (Atypon), doi:10.1142/S0219635214400032.

Tsou, Jonathan Y. ‘Origins of the Qualitative Aspects of Consciousness: Evolutionary Answers to Chalmers’ Hard Problem’. Origins of Mind, edited by Liz Swan, Springer Netherlands, 2013, pp. 259–69. Springer Link, doi:10.1007/978-94-007-5419-5_13.

man! i feel like a robot

Qualia Revisited

I wrote a rhetorical post a while ago that attempts to motivate a new perspective on qualia and why we ought to consider it as something philosophically valuable. My appeals to art and cultural products aim to be persuasive by connecting qualia to everyday experiences, however, I think it still comes across as too abstract or unclear because the arguments are not well articulated. One of my supervisors has been instrumental for pushing me to abstract away from the science and evidence, and I now have a general idea of where I went wrong in my previous attempts to clarify my own perspective. Emphasis on ‘general’ because there is a lot of work to be done before I fully understand the difference between where I was and where I want to go.

Qualia, ultimately, are just concepts, which essentially boil down to information. This information is applied to the lived experience of one’s own sense data, as received from the environment, either internally in the form of bodily feelings, for example, or externally, as generated by features of the physical world. When we notice this sense data, which I consider similar to phenomenal experiences or Chalmers’ registrations (Chalmers 214), we often need a way to conceptually organize it. As a functional system, the brain receives incoming signals and processes them through various functions or streams, subsequently creating perceptions from sensations (Wolfe et al. 3). Our perceptions, however, are malleable based on information the individual has access to. This ranges from subtle, unconscious shifts in perspective to deliberate thought processes aimed at rethinking the situation at hand. As the body turns data into information (Computer Hope) through functional biological processes, qualia serve to facilitate the mind as the body’s owner or central processing unit by providing additional information which structures and curtails the process of perceiving.

Qualia as information can be passed from human to human as expressions of subjectivity as a means of connecting with others, in addition to making sense of the world. If qualia seem to be illusory or unreal, perhaps it’s because the significance of this information is lost as we try to make sense of what the mind is really doing from a scientific perspective. It probably doesn’t help that ‘information’ is abstract, conceptual, and invisible, as its inherent subtlety enables one to easily overlook or neglect its importance for structuring human thought and behaviour. Perhaps we take our theory of mind for granted and ignore subtle forms of communication, deeming the exchange of knowing glances as something less significant than a well-formed linguistic phrase. Though the information expressed through these channels may not demonstrate a high degree of fidelity to the thought as it exists in the mind of the communicator, our mere ability to communicate this way suggests that additional information already exists in the mind of the receiver, information which can contribute to shaping of the act of perceiving data about body language.

Through qualia, we are better equipped to separate the signal from the noise to determine its meaning, however, we are also reminded through the sharing of these experiences via various mediums that even in our private subjectivity, we are not alone. The “what-it-feels-like” inherent in qualia may be unique to a particular body, but similarities may also exist between individuals. The knowledge of these similarities supports our endeavours to make sense of our feelings and sensations, ultimately allowing us to accept ourselves and our experiences as they are. Although the act of sharing personal, subjective experiences serves a practical social purpose like fostering cooperation and empathy, qualia are useful for individuals as well. The exploration of our subjective selves, along with some act of expression, also allows us to feel more comfortable as we process the deluge of sense data as received by various sensory organs within the human body. Through qualia, we are reminded that the body we inhabit is not a boundary between our inner selves and the subjectivity of others, but a structure that creates and presents information based on our experiences of incoming sense data. This information may be elusive, but it still exists and is significant for structuring human consciousness.

Works Cited

Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind: In search of a fundamental theory. Oxford university press, 1996.

Wolfe, Jeremy M., et al. Sensation & perception. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer, 2015.

https://www.computerhope.com/issues/ch001629.htm

Rescuing Qualia

In Quining Qualia, Dennett states “conscious experience has no properties that are special in any of the ways qualia have been supposed to be special” where qualia are considered “special properties, in some hard-to-define way.” His appeals to intuition aim to defend these ideas, however, the examples he provides may fail to convince the reader as objections can be drawn based on an understanding of nervous system functioning and through examining human behaviour. Here, I’m interested in providing an explanation for qualia which does not rely on some intrinsic property of the mind, but a product of culture which influences, and is influenced by, individual humans and their subjective experiences.

To be facetious for a moment, if qualia did not exist, how could one explain why it is that humans feel compelled to spend energy, time, and money on creating, sharing, and experiencing art? Dennett might appeal to the nature of subjective experiences or perhaps to our motivation for seeking pleasure, however there is much more to subjective experiences than one’s feelings or mental representations evoked by some stimulus. Knowledge surrounding a particular stimulus may shape the way it feels or appears from a first-person perspective; for example, mistaking a benign object for a threat of some kind. A coat and hat hanging on a wall hook inside a dark room may be mistaken for a person, perhaps causing one to feel threatened or startled by the apparent intruder, only to discover the truth after turning on the lights. The subjective experience prompted by the sight of the coat and hat is different than if the illusion had indeed been an unexpected guest, primarily due to the relief one is likely to feel at discovering the reality of the situation. In the case of experiencing art, subjective experiences may change over time or with repeated exposure, but our minds are also influenced by the minds of others. The ability to communicate our feelings to others introduces additional perspectives surrounding a particular stimuli, potentially altering one’s own perception and subsequent experiences. These shared ideas or experiences are then represented through cultural artifacts, practices, or beliefs, and aim to depict associations between sensations and perceptions. In this way, qualia are a features of the natural world insofar as they are a result of evolution and human intelligence, becoming “real” as they shape the ways individuals experience and interact with various stimuli.

Not all subjective experiences become qualia though, as some perceptions are more difficult to articulate than others. How to articulate one’s visual experiences of red? It may remind you of something, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like much to merely look at a red object. I can infer that you probably see the colour red like I do when I consider your behaviour around colourful objects. If someone were to indicate their inability to distinguish colours in the same way that I do, I might perform a quick test to verify the experiential discrepancy. Regardless of individual perception however, there is still “something it is like” to see the colour red as most of us do and are able to create representations appealing to this visual quality. Articulating the nature of ‘red’ on its own is rather tough because its qualities aren’t a composite of other visual qualities per say, at least not in the way that ‘orange’ is. From this perspective, qualia emerge through the act of communicating our experiences to others and through identifying the various phenomenological aspects they contain. Qualia feel real to humans because we use them to engage with artistic practices, almost like Dawkins’ memes but saturated in visceral associations to various sensations and perceptions.

If qualia aren’t real, then why does a collection of piano chords remind Debussy and other listeners of clouds? Language enables us to describe our subjective experiences using similes, where one environmental feature reminds us of something else. These associations are likely to follow certain regularities given the laws and constraints of our universe and our physiology, resulting in a similarities between subjective and shared experiences. I doubt any listener will associate Debussy’s pieces with the eruption of Krakatoa, but it seems reasonable to assume some individuals may think of water rather than the sky when listening to Nuages. Thus, it could be suggested that stimuli may evoke a potential set of qualia that humans may refer to when considering their own subjective experiences. Exactly which qualia are included and excluded is roughly determined by how a stimulus affects individuals as a result of their physiological functioning.

Qualia are products of human culture, not biology. The evolution of primates along with their tendency to socialize and enjoy participating in shared activities gave rise to a shared experiences and various ways to depict or describe them. Human cultures create classifications, distinctions, and ontological categories as way to explain natural phenomena and to share knowledge. This collective idea on how our subjective experiences appear to others facilitates bonding as humans learn they are able to relate to the private experiences of others.

Works Cited

Dennett, Daniel C. “Quining qualia.” Consciousness in modern science. Oxford University Press, 1988.

Postmodern Famine

I recognize this post will seem a bit tin-foily but I think it’s time we start acknowledging the consequences of a disrupted global supply chain. Perhaps things won’t get as bad as I am predicting but I think the underlying message will be relevant at some point. Ultimately, the standard of living we grew up taking for granted is about to change to some degree.

The majority of foods we consume and enjoy are dependent on global industries which are currently altering production and transportation protocols as demand and supply continue to change. Regardless of whether shortages arise due to nations restricting exports or locusts ravaging farmlands, it seems likely that by midsummer we will lose access to a variety of foods. Today, we see restaurants only offering take-away or delivery options in an attempt to find a balance between remaining open and upholding distancing measures. Grocery stores are either running out of products or limiting which items they order, as I hear shelves tend to be more empty these days. Before long, the service workers who prepare this food are likely to disappear too, as they themselves become sick or simply refuse to continue to put themselves at risk. Facilities where ready-made meals are prepared may also see a shortage of workers, limiting options for those who do not prepare their own food. We will be required to make everything ourselves, and before you call my a whiny millenial, remember that this is just the beginning. Processed foods will be next, including frozen meals, baked goods, canned soups and sauces, cookies, chips, crackers; anything that is not considered an ingredient. Eventually, however, personnel involved with all levels of the supply chain will be impacted in some way, leading to shortages of produce, dairy, and meat. I have been working on this post for a few weeks, and recently the talk of meat shortages has only increased. While we may not see wide-scale shortages until the end of the year, the decline in numbers of human workers is approaching and it will impact access to most foods.

While you may be able to survive a year without a decent burrito, these effects are not short-term as the entire world is in the midst of readjusting. You may have heard the stories of vegetables rotting in the fields or milk being dumped, but what you may not realize is these were ingredients for future foods too. The downstream effects will be a reduction in selection, and by selection I’m not talking about brands but categorical options. The only milk you may have access to is homogenized milk and cream; no skim, no 2%, and certainly no 1%. If you’re lactose intolerant, you may only be able to buy soy beverage given the recent nature of the American agricultural economy. Unilever or Kraft may have to cut production of certain items given these shortages, and suddenly we are in the midst of a type of food shortage in a time where emotional eating is at its height.

When you no longer have access to the things you love, the things that comfort you, what will you do? There are other forms of escapism and sugar comes in many forms, but we take variety for granted. We have become dependent on satisfying our appetites to some degree, regardless of whether it’s through alcohol, sugar, fat, or caffeine. We cope by consuming these substances and take pleasure in their effects, but there may also be other associations with these foods which contributes to societal well-being. Families and mealtimes go hand-in-hand all over the world, and it is difficult to determine how changes to supply chains will impact social relations.

Another option for coping is through various forms of media, as it entertains us and distracts our minds from the horror of reality. The problem arises from the tight coupling of food and visual media, irrespective of advertising. Since food is a cultural activity enabled by peak globalism, and a source of human happiness, we may suffer if this shared experience has been diminished to some degree. This may become especially apparent if images of our favourite foods are continuously popping up in our attempts to distract ourselves. Currently, social media posts include pictures of homemade creations or recommended recipes, and scrolling through staged photos may enrage us if we can’t have what we are seeing. It will remind us of a time when we had it all but didn’t even know it.

Until then, we will begin to value normalcy as type of currency, where our motivations aim to meet a luxurious set of basic needs. First-world lifestyles are built on options and variety in the things we consume, from Netflix shows to vegetarian alternatives. Notions of scarcity in a postmodern society seem ironic because it implies a reduction in standard of living, not necessarily a threat to survival. As we take our current way of life for granted, the more we put ourselves at cognitive and emotional risk. We have to acknowledge our personal dependency on this consumeristic environment we grew up assuming was normal. This has produced a level of entitlement which is about to be threatened or at least thrust into the spotlight, and perhaps leading to a reduction in emotional well-being. Some are frustrated by the actions of those who believe their freedoms are being restricted, and those protesting lock down orders inspire others to demand things “return to normal.” I don’t see it happening. Will this lead to societal unrest, especially as unemployment numbers grow? Of course it’s difficult to determine how society will adjust to this new normal, but I don’t like the way things are going today. Throw a change of available coping mechanisms into the mix and ask yourself, how are we going to handle this adjustment to a new normal? Maybe we won’t feel it until this time next year, but I believe our collective emotional well-being is about to deteriorate, for a number of reasons.

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Programming Emotions

Last summer, I was introduced to the world of hobby robotics and began building an obstacle-avoidance bot as a way to learn the basics. Once classes started last September, all projects were set aside until I graduated, allowing me to focus on school. Now that I have free time, I’ve been thinking about what kind of robot to build next. It will probably still have wheels and an ultrasonic sensor, but I want it to behave based on its internal environment as well as its external environment. Not only will it detect objects in its path, but it will also move about based on its mood or current emotional state. For example, if it were to be afraid of loud noises, it would go to “hide” against a nearby object. This specific functionality would require the robot have a microphone to detect sounds, and is something I have been thinking of adding. Otherwise, the only input the robot has is object-detection, and producing or calculating emotions based on the frequency of things in its path is kind of boring. I have also been interested in operationalizing, codifying, and programming emotions for quite a while now, and this project would be a great place to start.

One helpful theory I came across is the Three-Factor Theory (3FT) developed by Mehrabian and Russell in 1974 (Russell and Mehrabian 274). It describes emotions as ranging through a three-dimensional space consisting of values for pleasure, arousal, and dominance. For example, a state of anger is associated with -.68 for pleasure, +.22 for arousal, and +.10 for dominance (Russell and Mehrabian 277). After mulling on these averages for a second, I feel these are fairly reflective of general human nature, but let’s not forget these values are dependent on personality and contextual factors too. However, the notion of ‘dominance’ doesn’t feel quite right, and I wonder if a better paradigm could take its place. Personally, the idea of being dominant or submissive is quite similar to the approach/avoidance dichotomy used in areas of biology and psychology. ‘Dominance’ is inherently tied to social situations, and a broader theory of emotion must account for non-social circumstances as well. The compelling argument from the approach/avoidance model centers around hedonism, motivation, and goal acquisition; if a stimulus is pleasurable or beneficial, individuals are motivated to seek it out, while undesirable or dangerous stimuli are avoided in order to protect oneself (Elliot 171). Furthermore, this also works well with the Appraisal Theory of emotion, as it argues that affective states indicate an individual’s needs or goals (Scherer 638). Therefore, I will be using a value range based on approach/avoidance rather than dominance. While human emotions tend to involve much more than a simple judgement about a situation, the Appraisal Theory should suffice for a basic robot. One last modification I would like to make in my version of the 3FT is changing ‘pleasure’ to ‘valence’. This is merely to reflect the style of language used in current psychological literature, where positive values are associated with pleasure and negative values are associated with displeasure. I also like this because robots don’t feel pleasure (yet?) but they are capable of responding based on “good” and “bad” types of stimuli. ‘Arousal’ is perfectly fine as it is, as it reflects how energetic or excited the individual is. For example, being startled results in high arousal due to the relationship between the amygdala, hypothalamus, and other local and distal regions in the body, which typically prepare the individual to run or fight (Pinel 453-454).

To summarize, the three factors I will be using are valence, arousal, and approach/avoidance. As much as I would love to find a term to replace ‘approach/avoidance’, for the sake of a nice acronym, I have yet to find one which encapsulates the true nature of the phenomenon. Anyway, this modified 3FT seems to be a good start for developing emotional states in a simple robot, especially if it only receives a narrow range of sensory input and does not perform any other sophisticated behaviours. While this robot will possess internal states, it won’t be able to reflect upon them nor have any degree of control over them. Heck, I won’t even be using any type of AI algorithms in this version. So if anyone is spooked by a robot who feels, just know that it won’t be able to take over the world.

Works Cited

Elliot, Andrew J. “Approach and avoidance motivation and achievement goals.” Educational psychologist 34.3 (1999): 169-189.

Pinel, John PJ. Biopsychology. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2011.

Russell, James A., and Albert Mehrabian. “Evidence for a three-factor theory of emotions.” Journal of research in Personality 11.3 (1977): 273-294.

Scherer, Klaus R. “Appraisal theory.” Handbook of cognition and emotion (1999): 637-663.