Repent! The singularity is near (or maybe not)

Reading the June 2008 issue of IEEE Spectrum [1] left me impressed with the courage of the editors. The whole issue was about the “singularity”, meaning the point in time when computers become powerful enough to be able to define their own future. At that point development starts accelerating as powerful computers design even more powerful computers and so on. This point in time is also known as the “event horizon”, since we are not really supposed to be able to predict what will happen after that. Or so some people say.

This is of course a highly speculative topic quite suitable for the “Speculations” category of this blog. We all know what happened to the predictions from the 40’s and the 50’s. We don’t have flying cars or nuclear reactors in our back yards (on the contrary, we have the acronym NIMBY). On the other hand we do have more than 5 computers in the world (whether we need more than that, that’s an other question).

Whether or when the singularity will take place I don’t know and I’m not going to dwell too long on that question. Numerous experts give their own views in Spectrum and needless to say, they don’t agree. I think we may one day be able to build an intelligent computer but those predicting that it will happen in a few decades underestimate not only the sheer power of the brain but also the complexity of its architecture. And should the computer take off towards the event horizon against our will once we finally succeed, there is always the option of pulling the plug.

Instead I’m going to take issue with some views on “consciousness” expressed in the journal. Consciousness plays a central role in several articles. Can computers become conscious? Can we upload our consciousness into a computer and live for ever after the singularity?

What I found peculiar was that there was a lot of talk about consciousness but not a single attempt for a definition of the same (or did I just miss it?). This was particularly conspicuous in the article by Christof Koch and Giulic Tononi. They have written a five page paper about consciousness that starts out with “Pressed for a pithy definition, we might call it the ineffable (my emphasis) and enigmatic inner life of the mind.”.

After that less than stringent definition they go on describing that very same consciousness in rather concrete terms:

  • Consciousness doesn’t require sensory input since we are conscious when we dream.
  • Being conscious doesn’t require emotion since people suffering from [alexithymia] are conscious.
  • We can consciously perceive an event or object without paying attention to it.
  • Consciousness doesn’t require self-reflection since we remain conscious while being absorbed in a video game or similar.
  • And so on.

These are very exact statements from authors that earlier defined consciousness as “the ineffable and enigmatic inner life of the mind” and who conclude the article by describing the same phenomenon as “the most ineffable, the most subjective of all features of life”.

The problem with the above statements is that they are not falsifiable since the very object of the statements is left undefined (and is indeed said to be “ineffable”). Karl Popper would turn in his grave and I shudder slightly at my desk.

I don’t have an alternative definition. But I have a speculation! Maybe there is no “ineffable and enigmatic” thing in there that can be identified as the consciousness that is referred to in the article. Maybe consciousness is just a popular delusion that we have been imprinted with culturally. There is no lack of examples of similar delusions. People used to believe that God X (substitute X with a God that you don’t believe in) had a role to play in their day to day lives. The Vikings had Thor and Odin. Today very few people actually believe that these particular Gods exist. We have either become atheists like many Northern Europeans or have adopted a God that is somewhat more distant.

There may actually be a real connection between religious beliefs and consciousness. The American psychologist Julian Jaynes, at Princeton University at that time, claimed in his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind [2] that consciousness didn’t exist at all 3000 years ago. Instead people imagined that they had a personal God that talked to them and guided them through life. Consciousness emerged, according to Jaynes, with the rise of monotheistic religions.

I will surely return to this topic. In the mean time, here’s a simple experiment for you: Look at something green, like grass or leaves. Try to focus on the concept of “green”. Now close your eyes and try to recreate the concept of green in your head, the same concept that was so vivid just a moment ago. Any conclusions? Could it be that consciousness is as elusive as “green”?

Do you see the red and the green when you close your eyes?


[1] The Singularity – A Special Report
[2] Julian Jaynes is quoted in Märk världen, Tor Nörretranders, in Swedish (this may or may not be the same book as The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size by that author, available at e.g. Amazon).

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