by Dr. Joseph McPhee (Department of Natural Sciences - Biology)

Joe McPhee

Dr. Joe McPhee

Are you conscious? How do you know? What is it that makes you feel that you exist? It turns out that these questions are unbelievably hard to answer. To a scientist, you are a set of arranged atoms, interacting with one another and constantly changing to adapt to your environment; but a piece of matter that has the ability to contemplate itself is, on the other hand, something so bizarre as to be incomprehensible.

A conscious person is aware of their surroundings and can create an internal image of the world around them. We can localize that in a portion of the brain, the parietal cortex, which gives us a sense of self, called somesthesis. You can also create a totally fictitious internal world in your frontal cortex, created by your own imagination, that can completely ignore the limitations of the physical world and enter a “flight of fancy”. We dream, we think, we problem-solve. All of these are critical aspects of consciousness, but all of this requires a store of knowledge generated by your senses. Without input, there is nothing for the brain to work with.

Let’s do a little experiment. Imagine a baby born into this world who has never had any sensory input – no vision, taste, smell, hearing, or touch. This individual would also not have any internal sensation, no body sense, hunger, thirst, visceral pain – nothing. Would they be conscious? When you come into being in the womb the part of your brain which is responsible for most of your conscious sensation, the cerebral cortex, is like a blank piece of paper, ready to be written on by all of the sensations it will experience in the world. By the time we’re born, we have already been recording these sensations for more than 3 months – sounds, movement, touch. Each input is wired, using what is called a neural network. Each set of memories links to other sets of memories to create a sense of being. But without any input, what would the cortex work with to create consciousness? There would be no internal images, no series of thoughts, no consciousness.

So the underlying structure of consciousness is based on our sensory memory of the world around us. We can carry out an internal dialogue, called thinking, where we can manipulate all of these inputs to problem-solve, relive early memories, enjoy that flight of fancy etc. And this is probably about 90% of what we call consciousness. While this is going on inside our brains, however, there is another part, the alter ego part, that monitors and approves or disapproves of these thought processes, “the watcher watching”. Artificial Intelligence now has the ability to perform all these input manipulations, but it lacks that internal awareness that oversees this process. What we have over the computer then is some type of internal process that exists outside the realm of sensation or routine, thought processes that allow us to feel that we exist outside the physical world. And we do this in a structure that’s just made up of atoms that are most likely NOT conscious of their existence.

At what point does consciousness come into existence? It is not a uniquely human experience. Dogs and cats are conscious. Birds are conscious. It would appear that even honeybees are conscious. How far down the tree of life does consciousness extend? No one knows. To understand whether a thing is conscious, you need to interrogate it. A lot of ingenious people have succeeded in doing this for the animals listed above. But what about a plant, or a fish, or an ameba? Is all life conscious and does it automatically arise from life itself? After all, a baby is conscious from before birth, even with its limited supply of sensory information and neural networks.

What is even more amazing then is that this sense of self can be switched on and off like a lightbulb. If you have ever been given anesthesia, you know that you become completely unconscious. This is not a dreaming state, such as occurs when you are asleep, but a total lack of awareness so that when you awaken, you have no recollection of any of the events that have occurred, or how long you have been unconscious. Anesthesia disconnects the higher order nerve centers of the brain from the rest of your body, so we know where consciousness resides, the cerebrum. The problem is, we still don’t know what it is.

Most physical laws are deterministic. That is, if you have the right starting conditions, you can pretty much predict the future. Artificial Intelligence works on deterministic principles. A certain input will generate a predicted output. There has been an attempt to make artificial intelligence behave more like human intelligence by using fuzzy logic and neural networks to derive answers to questions that don’t have one right answer. Neural networks are an attempt to mimic human thought processes. They learn by trial and error to find the pathway that gives the best result, and so are teachable. But even so, the logic gates and algorithms are still pre-written and follow a fairly predictable path. There was a very early form of what pretended to be AI called ELISA, which contained about 85 lines of code. It mimicked a psychotherapist and answered your most searching and deep questions by a fixed set of answers – “ I see, tell me more.”, “How do you feel about that?”, “What do you mean by ______?”, where the code entered one of the words you used to make it seem as if it was actually paying attention. It convinced a lot of people, but it, of course, wasn’t conscious. Which brings us to the phenomenon known as the Turing Test. Briefly, it states that if, in communication with a device, you can’t tell whether you are talking to a real person or a computer, then the computer is “thinking”. Actually, this is a pretty low bar. AI has already achieved this. There are several programs now that can completely fool people into thinking that you are talking to a real person, but is this a form of consciousness? If not, what is the difference? The current response to that question is self-awareness. When machines become self-aware, they will no longer be slaves to their deterministic programming and then, watch out. Is this possible? It should be. The problem is we don’t know why organisms are self-aware, or how they achieve it. But we are also made out of inanimate material and are conscious, so why not our computers?

To be conscious goes beyond the Newtonian world, it goes beyond the Relativistic world as well. The only realm that seems to make room for it is Quantum Mechanics, the physics of really small things. Can consciousness be a phenomenon of the Quantum world? Quantum Mechanics can only have a significant effect at the subatomic level. Does our brain operate subatomically? It certainly does. The reactions that lead to thought involve electron states. Electrons are so tiny as to be practically massless. Not only that, but everything points to electrons mostly existing as not distinct entities, but probabilities. The “orbits” of electrons are defined as probability clouds. Only when you go to identify the real location of an electron, does it become a physically measurable structure. When we compose a thought, billions of electrons become excited and start to move. There have been several attempts to measure this activity in test animals, such as mice, using fluorescence, which reacts to excited electrons and it definitely shows this excited state. Unfortunately, there is currently no easy method for doing this in humans though. Elon Musk has a plan to wire our brains up directly to computers. When that happens, perhaps we can directly connect out thoughts to specific electronic processes and thereby gain some insight into human thought.

A brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning, physicist – Sir Roger Penrose – has collaborated with an anesthesiologist – Stuart Hameroff – to produce a quantum theory of consciousness called “orchestrated objective reduction”. In every neuron (nerve cell) there are neuronal fibers that act as conduits for electrical signals. They are made of a protein called tubulin. Penrose and Hameroff state that these tubulin fibers have within them quantum domains, which could exhibit the bizarre properties of electrons in a quantum state and explain the phenomenon of consciousness. This has yet to be proven, but it certainly is the strongest argument to date as to how inanimate matter can suddenly become self-aware.

Which gets back to AI. Computer networks are constantly becoming more “human” in their processing. The components of the computers themselves are rapidly approaching the quantum level. It is now predicted that AI thought processes will exceed those of their creators by 2030, something the industry calls “the singularity”. Will that level of thought trigger consciousness? Will a computer suddenly wake up to its existence once it reaches some critical quantum state? Stay tuned.