Author: Tara DeWorsop, Ph.D. student in Multi-Sector Communications program
Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree when he was bonked on the head by a falling piece of fruit, a 17th-century “aha moment” that prompted him to suddenly come up with his law of gravity. This example illustrates the connection between the physical body and the conscious mind. Because of something external happening to Newton’s physical self, his mental self was able to not only think to question why the apple did not fall sideways or go upwards, but it took this question and focused his mind and body to the work of researching and creating the theory and law of gravity.
Our consciousness lives somewhere at the intersection of philosophy, biology, and technology but we have yet to be able to pinpoint what exactly creates the spirit and thought processes of an individual. Because we have not been able to clearly define the boundaries of consciousness and from where it stems, we have not been able to replicate it perfectly in artificial intelligence (AI) or through biomedical engineering. What would we need to know or be able to do to capture the essence of the conscious mind and either replicate it or transport it to a less fragile, mortal host than the human body? If the brain is made up of physical cells and neurons interacting to create consciousness, what would be lost or gained if we can create a synthetic duplicate of our brain? Would an apple falling on the head of a robot Isaac Newton spark the same sort of cognitive creativity that led to the law of gravity or would it simply be tracked as ‘external force’ hitting a mechanical object and be housed under the ‘wear and tear’ category of the robot’s dataset?
In order to explore the idea of being able to replicate the conscious mind or upload it into a robot we first need to be able to define what consciousness is. At its simplest, consciousness is sentience or awareness of internal and external existence. Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning (which represents the object) together with appropriate enabling conditions. Normally, we distinguish between (a) a conscious entity, i.e., an entity that is sentient, wakeful, has self-consciousness and subjective qualitative experiences, (b) being conscious of something, for example a rose, and (c) conscious mental states, i.e., mental states an entity is aware of being in, such as being aware of smelling a rose (Van Gulick, 2018; Gennaro, 2019).
For Hegel, human realities exist only insofar as they appear in the context of mutual recognition and collective life. “The higher accomplishments of Spirit–law, the state, art, poetry, religion, and philosophy–do exist for Hegel in material form (e.g. in texts, cities, stone, paint, language, etc.). But they do not exist as Spirit without being recognized as having a significance that transcends their embodiment. To recognize human expression is to be a member of a collective world in which that expression has meaning and to be capable of practices of interpretation and participation” (Durham Peters, 1997).
In philosophy, consciousness is often considered a physical phenomenon that is somehow independent of our material, corporeal brains or, at most, a separate entity tethered to the physical state. This was most famously first articulated by Descartes as ‘dualism’ nearly 400 years ago. Descartes’ mind-body dualism is the philosophical view that the mind and body are fundamentally distinct kinds of substances or natures. The seat of consciousness resides within the immaterial realm of thought (res cogitans), while material things exists within the realm of extension (res extensa), and the two interact within the brain at the pineal gland (the tether). Descartes proposed this physical tether for consciousness but posited that consciousness is a separate entity, in contrast to the neuroscientific take on consciousness that links it to our biomechanics.
According to Pretner, consciousness has a chemical basis but it is at the molecular level – where neurons assemble – that we find the mechanisms that “gives rise” or “correlates” to the contents of consciousness. This is connected to information-processing theories where consciousness is correlated to the properties of information processing networks realized by neuronal assemblies. The neuronal mind body connection and its impact on the mind and consciousness is particularly evident in the example of Alzheimer’s disease, which has been called “type 3 diabetes”because of shared molecular and cellular features among diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Insulin plays a critical role in the formation of amyloid plaques, and insulin is also involved in the phosphorylation of tau, which leads to neurofibrillary tangles. In other words, whereas insulin resistance in the body can lead to type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance in the brain can lead to the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease.
Another perspective on the mind body connection to consciousness is the Attention Schema Theory (AST), developed in the early 2000’s, which suggests that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right—and that has yet to be determined—then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species (Graziano, 2016).
Artificial Intelligence & Consciousness: Consciousness plays an important role in debates around the mind-body problem, the controversy over strong vs. weak artificial intelligence (AI), and bioethics. In the 1950s, the cognitive revolution led to a convergence of psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, linguistics, and computer science in the study of human cognition and its processes (Miller, 2003). Cognitive scientists of the era began to view the human mind as an information processor that takes in environmental input, processes the data, and generates an output (McCorduck & Cfe, 2004). Fueled by the rapid rise of computing power, researchers have since sought to develop intelligent computing systems that function in a similar manner to human beings (McCorduck & Cfe, 2004). Whereas most researchers targeted rational tasks such as logic and inference, a subset took an interest in developing affective computers that can recognize, process, and simulate human emotions (Picard, 2000).
‘Mind uploading’, also known as whole brain emulation (WBE), is the theoretical futuristic process of scanning a physical structure of the brain accurately enough to create an emulation of the mental state (including long-term memory and “self”) and transferring or copying it to a computer in a digital form. The computer would then run a simulation of the brain’s information processing, such that it would respond in essentially the same way as the original brain and experience having a sentient conscious mind. Among some futurists, and within the transhumanist movement, mind uploading is treated as an important proposed life extension technology. Some believe mind uploading is humanity’s current best option for preserving the identity of the species.
Elon Musk has taken the technology and corporate approach to mind uploading with two game changing AI technologies: the Optimus Humanoid robot and Neuralink. Neuralink is developing a chip that would be implanted in a person’s skull, with electrodes fanning out into their brain. The wires are equipped with 1,024 electrodes which are able to monitor brain activity and, theoretically, electrically stimulate the brain. This data is transmitted wirelessly via the chip to computers, where it can be studied by researchers. Optimus, on the other hand, is a general purpose worker-droid that is designed to complete repetitive, boring, or dangerous work. Musk, however, thinks it’s possible that people may one day be able to upload their brain capacities into an Optimus. “We could download the things that we believe make ourselves so unique,” he said. “Now, of course, if you’re not in that body anymore, that is definitely going to be a difference, but as far as preserving our memories, our personality, I think we could do that.” This raises the question of whether the Optimus would be the equivalent of a robot shaped USB drive or would it be able to take this data and create new meaning?
TV and film director, Joss Whedon, imagined a dystopian world in his series ‘Dollhouse’ where there are secret facilities known as Dollhouses (run by a shadowy corporation) filled with people called “dolls” who have had their minds wiped and who have new personalities and memories uploaded on command into their brains to serve wealthy and powerful clients. Individuals can ‘volunteer’ their bodies to pay off debts by becoming dolls. The dolls become the person the client needs, be it a sexual partner, a hostage negotiator, a criminal, or even a murder victim solving their own killing. In real life, corporations like Facebook and Neuralink are already manipulating our behavior by controlling our inputs on social media with the end result of commoditizing our brains and (consumer) behaviors. Without proper regulation, our innermost thoughts and biometric data can, will, and have been sold to the highest bidder like in Dollhouse.
A future where we can create a biological replica of the brain may not be so far as biomedical engineers have already created three-dimensional brain-like tissue that functions like and have structural features similar to tissue in the rat brain and that can be kept alive in the lab for more than two months. And advances in synthetic hydrogel design and chemistries have broadened the neuroscience field’s understanding of the role of matrix cues in directing cellular processes and enabled the design of improved tissue engineering scaffolds. The primary challenge of uploading our minds into an alternative host is the mind body connection that appears intrinsically linked to consciousness. As we have not been able to define the boundaries of consciousness and pinpoint its exact location and mechanisms for creation (yet), we cannot say with certainty that we will or will not be able to upload to an external non-human host or create a synthetic, perfect replication. Also, AI and biomedical engineering hasn’t been able to account for emergent behavior or punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution as it relates to consciousness – the unexplainable jumps and leaps in cognition (ex. Newton’s a-ha! moment) that lead to creative theories and solutions. There is, however, much evidence that our brain functions much like an information processor for a motherboard of data and neurons are merely an aspect of extremely sophisticated biomechanical engineering which leads me to believe that we will eventually be able to recreate the human mind and consciousness and then upload it into less fragile, degradable hosts than the human body? Until then, we could rely on Optimus to receive disparate pieces of information from deceased loved ones. Perhaps, a composite of testimonies from family members, pictures, handwriting samples, voice recordings, and more to create an interactive robot that could mimic the person. It would, undoubtedly, act as an emotional salve knowing that the memory the person would live on but would be no substitute for the real thing. For now, due to the limitations listed above, our inimitable spirit and consciousness are safe from the ever consuming maw of technology.
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