27 January 2007

Consciousness Caused My Collapse

In my previous post I ripped a Horatian quote totally out of context merely to introduce some ideas on trans-humanism. Now in this post, as promised, we're going to pimp our Descartes. The nature of consciousness is something that will steer, or limit, our post-human possibilities. We'd better explore it vigorously. So fasten your seat belts, make a save game, and back up your mind's state matrix onto that two exabyte flash drive you bought at Target last week. Here we go.

Descartes' fame, in addition to the famous "cogito ergo sum" quip, is his much discussed idea now called substance dualism. To him Mind -- our conscious thoughts, intentions, awareness is not something of this material world. It is of different substance than Body. For Descartes, when he says "mind" it's clear that he really means "soul" (thus you see the stakes on the table in this debate).

This theory has taken a huge beating in the intervening centuries. The most topical criticisms come from neurobiological research. In case you haven't already, check out the Transient Gadfly's recent post "Ghost in the Machine, Schmost in the Machine" in his blog. Recently Chalmers (the aussie philosopher, not the superintendent) introduced a novel example of "real" substance dualism inspired by the movie The Matrix. Today we have something better; we have Second Life. From the perspective of this virtual world Mind really is something not of the world (the second life world) since all intentionality in SL actually springs from people at computers in the real world. In SL, substance dualism is reality.

So now consider a Second Life avie named "Rene Descartes". Let's imagine that he has to puzzle out his theory of mind because he doesn't know that he's really at a computer running a simulation. This could be because: (a) he's the first truly emergent artificial consciousness, a sapient program that was created in SL, (b) he was a grotesque freak at birth, a bare human brain (his parents, neurobiologists, raised him in a vat and linked him into SL to give him a sensorium), or (c) he's just a guy who has absolutely NO LIFE and has been playing online games so long that his conscious mind is no longer aware of the real world -- just lets his limbic system run his body. Take your pick.

Rene studies the world and notes that the basic unit of matter is called the prim. Prims come in a handful of varieties which differ only geometrically (cubes, cylinders, spheres, for example). These prims can be stretched, holed, twisted, and textured to account for the abundance of form he sees in the world. All things, from castles to clothing accessories, are built from prims. All things, that is, except for people (well, and particles -- but they are not salient to this). Avatars are not built-up from prims, but instead are single irreducible objects described by the coordinates of a wire frame mesh (and some textures). In a way, avatars (people) are a special, different kind of primitive -- one that demonstrates intention. The behaviors of avatars do not result from the perceived mechanics of the universe. Prims, by contrast, are entirely deterministic based on their properties. For Rene things are much simpler than for his real world namesake, for he has readily at hand a fundamental, non-divisible element of the universe, the avatar, whose behavior is non-deterministic (and at least in his case definitely inspired by intention). Rene ponders this for a bit and concludes that his avatar, being a simple object with no internal structure, cannot possibly be the seat of his complex Mind, with all its intention and qualia. Thus the avatar must really just be an "interface" for his Mind, which is something not of the world.

Perhaps there are other SL philosophers who disagree. They note that avatars are described by a set of numbers just as prims are. For prims the set of numbers gives their geometric dimensions, specifies twists, cuts, etc. For avatars a *much* larger set of numbers describes the wireframe of body shape, eyes, hair-style, and so on. The other philosophers note the difference in numeric complexity and respond that Mind results from it. They say that data structures of sufficient size can become conscious. Put another way -- Mind emerges from sufficiently large data sets. But Rene scoffs at this. If that were true, he says, then sufficiently large linked builds (lots of prims put together to make a large or detailed object) should have the required data size for thought. Does this mean Aimee Weber's solar system build is conscious?

However you analyze it, the presence of bodies which have no internal structure and whose behavior flows directly from intention is a big "tell" for the universe. But suppose now that you are a designer at Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life. You've been given a mandate to obfuscate the substance-dual reality of SL. In fact, you have unlimited budget and access to all the server computation you desire.

You'd probably start by adding micro-detail to the universe. Avatars would no longer be special objects, but would be constructed from prims just like everything else. You'd even add internal mechanical details -- muscle, tendon, and bone prims. Perhaps even a brain composed of neuron prims. The person sitting at the keyboard in the real world would be sending signals to the prim-brain which would then make the prim-muscles move. The problem you'd run into is that Rene and his ilk have something I'll call the "edit sense". In SL you can easily apprehend the structure of any object, and zoom in to any level of detail with the camera. This edit sense obviates the need for electron microscopes, imaging, supercolliders that are the tools of our science for exploring inner structure. So no matter how micro you design, Rene's going to be able to dive down very quickly and find your interface -- the level of matter where the user's intentions map to physical (in SL) objects. He will discover objects at some level which do not behave deterministically, and conclude that these are special objects which serve to connect the world of Mind with the universe.

So you realize that you can't defeat Rene's attempts to reverse engineer reality with mere detail. At some scale you have to allow the interface, and objects whose behavior does not flow from the mechanics of the universe. At this point you decide to get really clever. Since you can't eliminate the indeterminacy that results from the interface, instead you decide to make indeterminacy a fundamental property of the universe! You craft the physics of SL so that *all* objects, at a suitably small level, behave indeterministically. To keep this universe from just falling apart you weave in rules that will make the observed macroscopic determinism flow from the statistical behavior of the large number of constituent parts. In this universe Rene will never be able to find the interface where intention flows into the universe because it is concealed in the greater indeterminism of all things. In other words, to obfuscate the nature of reality from Rene, you'd create quantum mechanics.

How interesting that the world we actually live in, with Schrodinger's Cat and the Uncertainty Principle, is just the sort of one you'd build if you wanted to make things tough for philosophers. Now I'm not going to go so far as to suggest that we all are actually brains-in-a-vat in some other universe and that this-is-all-a-sim. That would be outrageously speculative (even for me!). I'm not even going to say that this gives credence to the Consciousness Causes Collapse interpretation of quantum mechanics favored by the "What the bleep..." crowd.

No, I just think it's interesting, and worthy of further exploration. Meanwhile I'll email the folks at Linden Lab and ask them to put quantum physics into the next version of Second Life...


Transient Gadfly said...

It seems to me that it very much does matter how little Rene emerged from the muck into SL consciousness. In the case of (b) and (c), we'd probably agree that he exists in a state of mind/body dualism. In the case of (a), though, it's not at all clear to me that an emergent consciousness in SL would see SL as, say, we do. However, my brain has been fried by reading this post, so I'm going to have to think about it some more.

Periapse said...

I see what you mean. Perhaps I should refine (a). Let's say that the emergent AI consciousness is actually running on a bunch of boxen unconnected with second life servers -- some supercomputing network in a basement lab. The AI is not given any interface to the world -- no cameras, keyboard readers, or display monitors. Instead it is given complete control over a Second Life avatar, the same control a human at at computer would have. It would talk to other avatars (real people) and not have any indication that it is in any way different from them. I believe this also is an "m/b dual" reality since the AI's intentions flow into SL through the same path as human intentions.

I'm being purely theoretical here. Of course the poor AI would probably realize something was up when it noticed behavioral differences between it and other avatars. For example, other avatars disappear from the world for many hours or days. Even more shocking to the AI would be the comatose state other avatars occasionally go into called "afk". Some avatars actually are prescient about when an attack of afk will hit them and they announce it before hand to those around them.