A Scientific Approach

The concept of Consciousness is a subject of interest for scientists in the fields of psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience. Even though some scientists claim that it's no mystery at all (e.g. Crick's 'Astonishing hypothesis') and just a curious side-effect of our complex brains (e.g. Ramachandran) most philosophers of mind agree that it's not simply a matter of "the sum being greater than its parts". The ramifications that these types of reductionist of definitions carry and which to a great extent shape the world and our everyday lives, are not only great and far-reaching but is also potentially harmful to our society in ways that researchers of the social sciences are keen to point out (see for example Do Artifacts have Politics? or Science and Poetry). When our understanding of something as basic as Consciousness is incomplete, and some would claim, flawed, it taints our entire perspective of the world and everything in it, including nature (and all living organisms on this planet) as well as our place in this Universe.

Biomimetic Machines

Being somewhat disillusioned from an early age about the state of knowledge in the field of psychology, I, perhaps naively, thought that there could be no better way to try and understand something than by building it. This is why I chose to study robotics and intelligent machines. I became involved with the work of Professor Owen Holland at the University of Essex who introduced me to many interesting theories of mind, one of which was the approach of building a physical (as opposed to a simulated) model of the mind. A critical point in Professor Holland's research was the importance of creating a physical entity, an embodiment, in this case a robot - that could fulfill some of the critierias deemed necessary for a consciousness to evolve. It is, of course, a very tricky thing to build a robot that one can claim has a consciousness, mainly because it will in all likelihood be very different to a human kind of consciousness. This is basically because it is believed that consciousness is a sort of amalgamation of different parts, such as type of embodiment, environment and a whole host of other factors. The question is: 'How would you know whether a machine (or any other thing/being for that matter) is conscious, when we can't even agree on what consciousness is?

Neurocomputing

I suppose it is only natural to go from wanting to build a embodied biologically-inspired robot to try and build an artificial brain that works just like the wet squishy one we have between our ears (well some of us anyway). In order to expand my superficial knowledge of machine learning techniques I attended the Neuromorphic Engineering workshop in Telluride, Colorado. The term neuromorphic engineering implies a deep link between our current understanding of how the biological brain is wired up, so to speak, and an electrical engineering approach that mimics the firing patterns of neural networks using current neuroscientific theory and research. It is a very interesting tool for furthering our understanding of the results that brain researchers are uncovering. There is a curious aspect to science: in order to formulate a valid research question it is necessary to be very, very specific. Only when the researcher has a well-formulated question is there a chance of discovering an answer that can achieve the status of fact. However, formulating such a question from a neuroscientific perspective can be very difficult, especially if the researcher is on unchartered territory (and there is a lot of that in the brain). It becomes nearly impossible to look at the really meaty questions, because everything has to be dissected into almost unrecognisable bits. During the 3 weeks that I spend with the Neuromorphs I thought it was quite disheartning to meet all these bright minds who were being so narrowmindedly focused, all the while the big picture was staring straight at them. Although I tried to speak to some of them about this dilemma they could not see any other ways of doing their science.

Subjective feelings

After a few years of messing with trying to build a Machine Consciousness, I have to admit that it was all becoming rather depressing. It seemed to me that this wonderful enigma, Consciousness, did not seem particularly well-suited for the scientific method (and neither was I). While I was becoming increasingly well versed in this area from a scientific study of consciousness perspective the more I began to feel that the direction the research was going in was not the same direction that I wanted to take. While I believe that the scientific study of consciousness is a valiant effort to try and understand the biological experience of being, at the same time I feel that this kind of reductionist approach diminishes the very same experience. This tendency to atomise things into their parts can be outright dangerous because of the effect is has on our perception of each other, animals and the Earth in general; it seems to foster a dehumanising view of the world for the sake of pragmatism. Neuro-computational modelling, like the sort done at the Neuromorphic Engineering workshops, has many useful and exciting applications in the area of Artificial Intelligence. It's not to say that scientific researchers per se should stay away from Consciousness, but I believe that if one really wants to understand more about what, when and where, Consciousness is, then it's necessary to go a bit deeper within, because after all, this experience of being feels deep.

Buddhism

One of my greatest experiences of insight must be the realisation that, at least here in the westernised part of the world, we are not taught how to use our brains. Sure, we can add and subtract, write some words and do a little be of thinking, but not very much. Because most of the time we do very little actual thinking and simply have a tendency to repeat whatever we are shown or told. We learn from the get go that you have an entity and that this entity has a voice, we never really learn to go further than that and I believe there is great potential beyond that. It takes a lot of practice and everyday is a challenge, but I find a lot of inspiration in Buddhist practices and meditation in general.