Jeff Hawkins on human consciousness and how to replicate it

I just lately attended a panel dialogue titled Being Human within the Age of Clever Machines. At one level through the night, a philosophy professor from Yale stated that if a machine ever grew to become acutely aware, then we’d most likely be morally obligated to not flip it off. The implication was that if one thing is acutely aware, even a machine, then it has ethical rights, so turning it off is equal to homicide. Wow! Think about being despatched to jail for unplugging a pc. Ought to we be involved about this?

Most neuroscientists don’t speak a lot about consciousness. They assume that the mind could be understood like each different bodily system, and consciousness, no matter it is, can be defined in the identical manner. Since there isn’t even an settlement on what the phrase consciousness means, it is greatest to not fear about it. Philosophers, on the opposite hand, love to speak (and write books) about consciousness. Some imagine that consciousness is past bodily description. That’s, even for those who had a full understanding of how the mind works, it wouldn’t clarify consciousness. Thinker David Chalmers famously claimed that consciousness is “the arduous drawback,” whereas understanding how the mind works is “the straightforward drawback.” This phrase caught on, and now many individuals simply assume that consciousness is an inherently unsolvable drawback.

Personally, I see no purpose to imagine that consciousness is past rationalization. I don’t need to get into debates with philosophers, nor do I would like to strive to outline consciousness. Nevertheless, the Thousand Brains Idea suggests bodily explanations for a number of facets of consciousness. For instance, the best way the mind learns fashions of the world is intimately tied to our sense of self and how we type beliefs.

Think about if I may reset your mind to the precise state it was in if you wakened this morning. Earlier than I reset you, you’d rise up and go about your day, doing the stuff you usually do. Maybe on today you washed your automotive. At dinnertime, I’d reset your mind to the time you bought up, undoing any modifications—together with any modifications to the synapses—that occurred through the day. Subsequently, all recollections of what you probably did can be erased. After I reset your mind, you’d imagine that you simply simply wakened. If I then instructed you that you simply had washed your automotive at the moment, you’d at first protest, claiming it wasn’t true.

Upon displaying you a video of you washing your automotive, you may admit that it certainly seems to be such as you had, however you might not have been acutely aware on the time. You may additionally declare that you simply shouldn’t be held chargeable for something you probably did through the day as a result of you weren’t acutely aware if you did it. In fact, you have been acutely aware if you washed your automotive. It’s only after deleting your recollections of the day that you’d imagine and declare you weren’t. This thought experiment exhibits that our sense of consciousness, what many individuals would name being acutely aware, requires that we type moment-to-moment recollections of our actions.

Consciousness additionally requires that we type moment-to-moment recollections of our ideas. Pondering is only a sequential activation of neurons within the mind. We are able to keep in mind a sequence of ideas simply as we are able to keep in mind the sequence of notes in a melody. If we didn’t keep in mind our ideas, we’d be unaware of why we have been doing something. For instance, we have now all skilled going to a room in our home to do one thing however, upon coming into the room, forgetting what we went there for. When this occurs, we regularly ask ourselves, “the place was I simply earlier than I received right here and what was I pondering?” We strive to recall the reminiscence of our latest ideas so we all know why we at the moment are standing within the kitchen. When our brains are working correctly, the neurons type a steady reminiscence of each our ideas and actions. Subsequently, after we get to the kitchen, we are able to recall the ideas we had earlier. We retrieve the just lately saved reminiscence of fascinated by consuming the final piece of cake within the fridge and we all know why we went to the kitchen.

The energetic neurons within the mind at some moments symbolize our current expertise, and at different moments symbolize a earlier expertise or a earlier thought. It’s this accessibility of the previous—the power to leap again in time and slide ahead once more to the current—that offers us our sense of presence and consciousness. If we couldn’t replay our latest ideas and experiences, then we’d be unaware that we’re alive.

Our moment-to-moment recollections will not be everlasting. We usually overlook them inside hours or days. I keep in mind what I had for breakfast at the moment, however I’ll lose this reminiscence in a day or two. It’s common that our skill to type short-term recollections declines with age. That’s the reason we have now extra and extra of the “why did I come right here?” experiences as we become old.

These thought experiments show that our consciousness, our sense of presence—which is the central a part of consciousness—depends on constantly forming recollections of our latest ideas and experiences and enjoying them again as we go about our day.

Now let’s say we create an clever machine. The machine learns a mannequin of the world utilizing the identical rules as a mind. The interior states of the machine’s mannequin of the world are equal to the states of neurons within the mind. If our machine remembers these states as they happen and can replay these recollections, then would it bear in mind and acutely aware of its existence, in the identical manner that you simply and I are? I imagine so.

In the event you imagine that consciousness can’t be defined by scientific investigation and the recognized legal guidelines of physics, then you definitely may argue that I’ve proven that storing and recalling the states of a mind is critical, however I’ve not confirmed that it is adequate. In the event you take this view, then the burden is on you to present why it is just not adequate. For me, the sense of consciousness—the sense of presence, the sensation that I’m an performing agent on the planet—is the core of what it means to be acutely aware. It’s simply defined by the exercise of neurons, and I see no thriller in it.


Excerpted from A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins. Copyright © 2021. Obtainable from Fundamental Books, an imprint of Hachette E-book Group.

Jeff Hawkins is the cofounder of Numenta, a neuroscience analysis firm; founding father of the Redwood Neuroscience Institute; and one of many founders of the sphere of handheld computing. He’s a member of the Nationwide Academy of Engineering and writer of On Intelligence.