The Nature of Consciousness: How the Internet Could Learn to Feel
“The average human brain has a hundred billion neurons and synapses on the order of a hundred trillion or so. But it’s not just sheer numbers. It’s the incredibly complex and specific ways in which these things are wired up. That’s what makes it different from a gigantic sand dune, which might have a billion particles of sand, or from a galaxy. Our Milky Way, for example, contains a hundred billion suns, but the way these suns interact is very simple compared to the way neurons interact with each other. (…)
It doesn’t matter so much that you’re made out of neurons and bones and muscles. Obviously, if we lose neurons in a stroke or in a degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s, we lose consciousness. But in principle, what matters for consciousness is the fact that you have these incredibly complicated little machines, these little switching devices called nerve cells and synapses, and they’re wired together in amazingly complicated ways.
The Internet now already has a couple of billion nodes. Each node is a computer. Each one of these computers contains a couple of billion transistors, so it is in principle possible that the complexity of the Internet is such that it feels like something to be conscious. I mean, that’s what it would be if the Internet as a whole has consciousness. Depending on the exact state of the transistors in the Internet, it might feel sad one day and happy another day, or whatever the equivalent is in Internet space. (…)
What I’m serious about is that the Internet, in principle, could have conscious states. Now, do these conscious states express happiness? Do they express pain? Pleasure? Anger? Red? Blue? That really depends on the exact kind of relationship between the transistors, the nodes, the computers. It’s more difficult to ascertain what exactly it feels. But there’s no question that in principle it could feel something. (…)
Q: Would humans recognize that certain parts of the Internet are conscious? Or is that beyond our understanding?
That’s an excellent question. If we had a theory of consciousness, we could analyze it and say yes, this entity, this simulacrum, is conscious. Or because it displays independent behavior. At some point, suddenly it develops some autonomous behavior that nobody programmed into it, right? Then, people would go, “Whoa! What just happened here?” It just sort of self-organized in some really weird way. It wasn’t a bug. It wasn’t a virus. It wasn’t a botnet that was paid for by some nefarious organization. It did it by itself. If this autonomous behavior happens on a regular basis, then I think many people would say, yeah, I guess it’s alive in some sense, and it may have conscious sensation. (…)
Q: How do you define consciousness?
Typically, it means having subjective states. You see something. You hear something. You’re aware of yourself. You’re angry. You’re sad. Those are all different conscious states. Now, that’s not a very precise definition. But if you think historically, almost every scientific field has a working definition and the definitions are subject to change. For example, my Caltech colleague Michael Brown has redefined planets. So Pluto is not a planet anymore, right? Because astronomers got together and decided that. And what’s a gene? A gene is very tricky to define. Over the last 50 years, people have had all sorts of changing definitions. Consciousness is not easy to define, but don’t worry too much about the definition. Otherwise, you get trapped in endless discussions about what exactly you mean. It’s much more important to have a working definition, run with it, do experiments, and then modify it as necessary. (…)
I see a universe that’s conducive to the formation of stable molecules and to life. And I do believe complexity is associated with consciousness. Therefore, we seem to live in a universe that’s particularly conducive to the emergence of consciousness. That’s why I call myself a “romantic reductionist.”
— Christof Koch, American neuroscientist working on the neural basis of consciousness, Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at California Institute of Technology, The Nature of Consciousness: How the Internet Could Learn to Feel, The Atlantic, Aug 22, 2012. (Illustration: folkert: Noosphere)
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