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Friday, July 29, 2005

Emergent Properties & Computer Consciousness

Emergent properties come about when lower-level structures create higher-level structures with properties additional to those of the lower-level structure. (If that made sense to you, you are probably a genius!) Here's the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on emergent properties. Here's the Wikipedia's article. The Wikipedia uses the shape and behavior of flocks of birds as an example. The flock has properties that individual birds do not. Probably the most common use of the term is to explain consciousness*. Some people believe self-consciousness simply arises, as a new property, when you connect a lot of neurons.

In a recent post, I discussed a book by Bernd Heinrich, which was about how insects cope with being cold-blooded. Some of the behavior exhibited by social insects, namely bees, ants, wasps, and especially termites, is remarkable. They cooperatively construct elaborate and effective ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

Heinrich, and most scientists, agree that there seem to be emergent properties in such behaviors. However, I am not aware of any scientists who believe that social insects have a single controlling intellect, somehow guiding the behavior of each worker. Rather:

Many of the bee's responses are shaped by social needs, and in that sense the colony is like a machine, or "superorganism," with different parts that contribute to the functioning of the whole. Although this analogy acknowledges the obvious, it is not generally useful in specifying how coordination is achieved. It does not reveal how the individuals react, or why they react, in the way that we know how the various organ systems are controlled to produce an overall effect in an individual organism. Ultimately, the functioning of the whole can only be understood by dissecting it and learning how, when, why, and to what the individuals respond. Bernd Heinrich, The Thermal Warriors: Strategies of Insect Survival. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 180)

I was a little surprised to note Heinrich's use of "superorganism." There were, decades ago, influential thinkers who believed that there was, somehow, a collective consciousness in colonies of social insects, especially in African termites. Maurice Maeterlinck, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911, was one such. (See here, for an interesting complication to this.) J. R. R. Tolkien was not a scientist, of course, but this passage illustrates the idea:

As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1963, p. 227.

Scientists of today would almost all agree with Heinrich: "Ultimately, the functioning of the whole can only be understood by dissecting it and learning how, when, why, and to what the individuals respond." Natural selection, in other words, operates at the level of the individual. There is no "swollen brooding thing" in an ant or termite colony. The colony doesn't become self-aware as more individuals are added. At least we don't think it does.

As I noted above, there are important current thinkers who believe that self-consciousness is an emergent property of intelligent animals. That is, simply having all those connections in the brain is enough to cause consciousness to appear. Perhaps they are right. We have not reached general agreement on what self-consciousness is, and how it comes about. Most Christians suppose that consciousness was somehow imparted to humans, as part of the image of God, but I don't think that we have any better idea than anyone else how to explain what it is and how it works, nor can we prove that, say, dolphins or gorillas do not have self-consciousness. It is possible that, indeed, I am self-conscious because I have more connections than some threshold. That could be God's mechanism for putting self-consciousness in humans, just as DNA is His mechanism for passing on characteristics.

There are important current thinkers who believe that computers now have, or soon will have, consciousness as an emergent property. Kevin Kelly, in an important article on the state of the Internet, 10 years after the Netscape initial stock offering, seems to be one such example:

When we post and then tag pictures on the community photo album Flickr, we are teaching the Machine [The global Internet] to give names to images. The thickening links between caption and picture form a neural net that can learn. Think of the 100 billion times per day humans click on a Web page as a way of teaching the Machine what we think is important. Each time we forge a link between words, we teach it an idea. Wikipedia encourages its citizen authors to link each fact in an article to a reference citation. Over time, a Wikipedia article becomes totally underlined in blue as ideas are cross-referenced. That massive cross-referencing is how brains think and remember. It is how neural nets answer questions. It is how our global skin of neurons will adapt autonomously and acquire a higher level of knowledge.

The human brain has no department full of programming cells that configure the mind. Rather, brain cells program themselves simply by being used. Likewise, our questions program the Machine to answer questions. We think we are merely wasting time when we surf mindlessly or blog an item, but each time we click a link we strengthen a node somewhere in the Web OS, thereby programming the Machine by using it.
Kevin Kelly, "We Are the Web", Wired, July 27, 2005.

I don't think it is possible to disprove this notion, for one thing because we don't have a good handle on what self-consciousness is, but it is certainly possible to doubt it. I seriously question whether, if I added more and more RAM to our family computer, it would eventually become self-aware. So do others, of differing religious and philosophical beliefs. Adding more and more bricks to a building doesn't make it self-aware. I haven't heard anyone propose that the global phone system, with its myriad connections, is self-aware.

Perhaps the time will come when computers are allowed to vote, or to join a church, or when they will inspire evangelization. (How would one become a missionary to computers?) I don't think it is here yet, and am not certain that it ever will be. If it ever does occur, it won't be a surprise to God.

*In this post, I am supposing that "consciousness" is the same thing as self-consciousness, or self-awareness. That's probably being a little too loose with words.


Michael Brown said...

"...dividing assunder of soul and spirit..."

In the book "Spiritual Law in the Natural World" there are some excellent insights as to the source of consciousness. The book is posted:

Grant attributes self awareness to the soul, and God consciousness to the spirit. The animals are living souls, and as such may be self aware, but none worship God or even have a religion as far as I am aware. But man, by contrast, even in his most primitive state, does.

Anonymous said...

The original poster is right to doubt that simply adding more "RAM" to a computer would suddenly inspire consciousness within it. This is like expecting a human to somehow become conscious in a complete vacuum - without the aid of any of his senses. Consciousness is not merely an emergent quality of potential - rather, it is an emergent quality of a complex system of interactions. In the case of humans, this system includes complex entities such ad communication, and is backed by hundreds of millions of years of organizational attractors, which have indeed selected for consciousness, as a survival toolkit.

While consciousness is indeed a very complex subject, requiring skill in a multitude of studies, there is no reason to believe it cannot be understood through the scientific method... particularly in light of the apparent emergence of consciousness through natural selection. When can you say that consciousness suddenly emerges? Was it only in the last 10,000 years? Perhaps in the last 10 million years? Or 100 millions years?

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, anonymous. I agree that there is a possibility of understanding consciousness. We certainly aren't there yet.