Friday, December 16, 2016

The Sentient Social


I'm working on a personal theory about sentience. Might as well: everyone does, and there is little agreement. I can trace its development along a few old posts. What started for me as the proper setting for a sci-fi plot, became more believable on further considering its merits. That post led me to write something about the machine intelligence--and sentience, tangentially. Here, I try to present those same ideas with less baggage.

Because consciousness (sentience, self awareness, I use these words interchangeably) is a deeply personal affair, an existential affair, any attempt at a logical description of it appears to reduce existence itself to chimera. It's an unfounded objection, for in the final analysis, that chimera is in fact what we call real. And if we should ever succeed in describing it logically, it shouldn't herald a new age of nihilism. Quite the contrary, it makes what remains, what we call real, ever more precious.

I have not been looking to the nooks and corners trying to "discover" something hidden from view. Nor have I tried to suspend my mind, as in a trance, in an effort tap into something more elemental. I gave up such approaches long ago. No, I now have a much more naive take. If it all sounds banal, that's okay. The obvious bears repeating, I say.

It Takes a Crowd to Raise a Sentience

The milieu of sentience is [in] numbers. That is, sentience does not occur in isolation; you cannot recognize or construct a concept of self if you are the only one in your environment. The (thankfully) sparse documented cases of feral children suggest an infant raised in complete isolation, say in a sterile environment maintained by machines, might never develop a sense of self. More likely, though, infants are born with a brain that has a hard coded expectation that there will be other humans in its environment. Regardless, from an information theoretic standpoint, it doesn't matter where this information (about the infant not being alone) comes from--nature or nurture. Whether baked into the genetic code through evolution or inherited from the organism's social environment, that you are not alone is a foundational given. Without a crowd, consciousness is hard to contemplate.

Sentience Before Intelligence

Few would argue that a cat or dog is not sentient. You don't need human-level intellect to perceive consciousness. Cats and dogs know there are other actors in their environment, and this knowledge makes them implicitly self aware. I say implicitly because you need not ponder the concept of self in order to be self aware; if you recognize that you are one of many, then you can distinguish yourself from the others. Isn't that self aware?

Sentience evolved well before human-level intelligence. It may be colored and layered more richly, the higher the intelligence of the organism that perceives it, but it has been there in the background well before hominoids stood upright.

Sci-fi gets it backward. The plot typically involves an AI crossing a threshold of intelligence when all of a sudden it becomes self aware. But because the AI is already smarter than humans as it crosses into the realm of consciousness, the story would have us believe, the inflection marks the onset of instability: all hell breaks loose as the child AI discovers less intelligent adults are attempting to decide its fate and perceives an existential threat. But this narrative is at odds with what we see develop in nature.

If You Know Your Name, You're Sentient

Suppose we've built a rudimentary AI. It doesn't pass the Turing test, but it does learn things and models the world about it, if still not as well or as richly as a human mind does. In fact, let's say it's not terribly smart, yet. Still, it has learnt your name, and can learn the names of new individuals it meets. It also knows its own name. This AI, then, is by definition self aware.

Could it really be that simple? Notice this is not a mere recasting of an old term ("self aware") to mean a new thing. It is the same thing. For to know a person's name implies a mental abstraction, a model, of an "individual" to which the name, a label, has been assigned. It may be a crude representation of what we consider an individual, but if the AI can associate names with models of actors in its environment, and if it can recognize that one of those names corresponds to a model (again, however crude!) of itself, then even in that perhaps imperfect, incomplete logical framework it is still capable of self reflection.

Knowing your own name is not a necessary condition for self awareness, but it is sufficient. In fact, it's probably way overkill. With animals, for example, scent is a common substitute for name as an identity label.

The Identity Problem

That matter is not conscious, but rather the substrate on which consciousness manifests, is not in dispute. But one question that vexes thinkers is how it is that you are you and not me. That is, if our identities do not depend on particular material constituents, the particular atoms that make up our bodies, etc. (much of them in flux as they're exhaled or flushed down the toilet), how is it that when I wake up every morning I find I'm still Babak? It all seems a bit arbitrary that I am not you or someone else.

Last summer, while trying to catch up reading on stuff I write about, I came across this same question in Ray Kurzweil's excellent The Singularity is Near. I offered my take on it in an email I sent him which I share below.

Hi Ray,
I just finished reading The Singularity is Near. Enjoyed it very much, though I'm a decade late. To your credit, your writing is not dated.
About the question you pose regarding identity and consciousness.. how is it that every morning you wake up you're still Ray and not, say, Babak? This is a question I too pondered. When I was a teenager I came up with a crude thought experiment (exercise, really) that I think sheds light on the matter.
I imagined what if consciousness was something hidden behind the scenes, a kind of 19th century ether that breathed life (qualia) into otherwise unsentient matter? I wasn't familiar with such terms  (ether, qualia), so I named this fictitious ingredient nisical: you add some to a physical system like the brain, and voila, you got qualia. In this model, memory was still a property of the physical system.
Now I imagined what would happen if I swapped out my nisical for yours on my brain. My conclusion was that your nisical would be none the wiser about the move since it would have no way, no recollection, of the move since the only memories accessible to it are on this here brain that it just moved to.
This train of thought led me to conclude this nisical idea was of little use. It provides virtually no insight into the nature of sentience. However.. it's a useful model for casting aside the identity problem you mention: if I wake up tomorrow as Ray, there wouldn't be any way for me to know that the day before I was Babak.
Indeed I've convinced myself that individuation and identity are higher level concepts we learn early in childhood and as a result, become overly vested in.
I think he liked this argument.

The Qualia Problem

How is it that we feel pain? Or the pleasure in quenching a thirst? These are difficult questions. A celebrated line of inquiry into any phenomenon you know little about is to compare and contrast conditions in both its absence and its presence.

And among its few advantages, the aging process affords a unique vantage point on just such an "experiment". The senses dull on two ends. On one end, the steadily failing sensory organs; on the other, a less nimble, crusting brain. The signal from the outer world is weaker than it used to be; and the brain that's supposed to mind that signal is less able. You remember how real the signal used to seem; now that it only trickles in, like fleeting reflections of passersby in a shop window, you can contrast the absence of qualia with its presence. I am not quite there yet, but I can feel myself slipping, the strengthening tug of a waterfall not far ahead.

So how is it that we feel pain? My personal take on pain, specifically, is that we think it, not feel it. Though I'm not an athlete, I've broken bones and dislocated my shoulder many a time (perhaps because I'm not athlete). Slipping my shoulder back in can be tricky and often takes several excruciating hours at the emergency room. For me, such experiences are a window into the extremes of pain on the one hand, and its quelling on the other. I recently commented about one such experience in a discussion about investigating consciousness using psychedelics.

I find the effect of mind altering drugs to be reductive. The more senses you dull, the better you can ponder the essence of what remains.

An example might help explain what I mean.. Once, I awakened prematurely on the table in the OR when I was supposed to be out under a general anesthetic. In addition to protesting that I shouldn't be awake (they were wrestling in my dislocated shoulder), I was also struck by the realization that as I had surfaced into consciousness, there was no hint that the pain had been dulled in any way. Hours later when I awoke again with my arm in a sling, I felt a little cheated. "That anesthetic doesn't erase the pain; it erases your memory of enduring it," I concluded. The merits of that idea aside, I would've never considered it if I hadn't experienced it.

Perhaps the wisdom of aging too has something to do with this dulling of the senses (I speak for myself).

That online comment, by the way, might contain the kernel that motivated me to write this article. Reflecting back on the experience of slipping from under the grips of a general anesthetic and coming prematurely into consciousness, that I still felt the pain, shouldn't have surprised me. A general anesthetic numbs the mind, not the body. Still, while I was prematurely awake on the operating table, I felt a degree of arbitrariness in the pain I was receiving. It was as if I had to remind myself that I was in pain, that moments earlier I had been in pain, and so this too must be pain.

A temporal dimension governs pain--and I suspect qualia, generally. Pain expresses itself in peaks and troughs: it's ineffective if it fails to occasionally relent. And to experience change, time, you need memory. Organisms are semi-stable structures of information, so they have memory, by definition. My hunch is that qualia is a mental abstraction of the growth and breakdown of that information structure. That abstraction, at its base, might be encoded in a few hundred neurons--so a worm might experience some qualia primitives. More complex organisms with brains must experience these primitives in richer, layered, more textured ways. And the still more intelligent ones, have developed the capacity to brood over pain and rejoice in bliss.

Now What

Really, what good is all this rumination? I don't know. I think if I put some things down in writing, I might put these thoughts to rest.

Looking to the future, it's reasonable to expect our intelligent machines will become self aware well before they become intelligent [sic]. If we come to recognize the human kind as one of many possible forms self awareness manifests, now what? We wrestle with these questions already in fiction--Westworld comes to mind. I imagine to the ancients myths musts have functioned as sci-fi does now.

Where will we recognize the first artificial sentience? I would put money on a sophisticated financial trading bot becoming the first artificial sentience. The survival of the bot depends on its making money, and at an early threshold of intelligence, it understands this. This is what I call being mortally aware. Moreover, the bot trades against other actors in its [trading] environment. Some of those actors are other trading bots, others humans. And when it models those actors, it also models itself. Thus within that modeling lies a kernel of self referentiality, and a notion of being one of many. I imagine the bot does natural language processing -- cause a lot of trading algos already do , and regularly tweets stuff too -- cause, again, there are already bots that do. So it might be a conversant bot that doesn't pass the Turing test. Still, if you can hail it by name, it is at the very least a sentient idiot savant. But when will we recognize this as sentience? When it's presented to explain why some bots seem to make desperate, risky bets if they suffer moderate losses, perhaps.