Commuter - Non-Biological Intelligence
Or, everything you ever wanted to know about flies but was afraid to ask
An installation by Rob Godfrey
This essay is about non-biological intelligence (NBI). It is not about 'artificial intelligence'. AI is entirely associated with the digital computer, and the idea that you can somehow mimic thought/consciousness via an algorithm (hence the 'artificial' bit). In Snakes, the first of these three essays, I explored how you'd go about creating a 'consciousness', and I outlined some reasons why it seems unlikely that anyone will ever be able to get a digital computer to 'think' (in the sense of a near-human level of consciousness). These reasons are: firstly, we don't know what 'thought' is; it can't be explained mathematically and so can't be expressed by an algorithm; secondly, the digital computer is a deterministic device, and you are perhaps taking a large leap of faith to state that nature is also deterministic (ie, that all of creation is governed by rules which, one day, can be explained by us humans).
Leaving aside artificial intelligence, and keeping to the subject of this essay, perhaps the first question to ask is: can the thing we call 'consciousness' exist in a non-biological entity? Or to put it the other way round, is consciousness peculiar to living things? A standard definition of 'living thing' is an organism which can undergo metabolism, possess a capacity to grow, respond to stimuli, reproduce, and, through natural selection, adapt to their environment in successive generations. Can a lump of rock, or a cloud of gas, or indeed a machine be self-aware and have thoughts? Crazy as it sounds, the answer is yes, but only if you accept the proposition that the mind works at a quantum level; ie, it works not in the world of cells, but in the world within atoms (the term 'quantum' is a bit misleading, by the way, since an electron, for example, can be bigger than a football pitch).
The 'quantum mind' is still very much a minority view in science. The main arguement against it is that conditions within organic matter are such that it's impossible for quantum phenomena to take place. Countering this there's been two recent pieces of research which show that marine algae and some forms of bacteria use quantum superpostion to improve photosynthesis (in otherwords, quantum phenomena can take place as a mechanism within an organism) 1. Another piece of recent research shows that a fly's brain has the ability to be spontaneous - to make decisions that aren't a predictable response to environmental stimuli 2. This also suggests a quantum connection.
A fly has, in relative terms, an incredibly simple brain (some people wouldn't even call it a brain). Flies drive us mad, yet just look at their aerial acrobatics. All that darting around takes an incredible amount of computation, computation that even our most powerful computers couldn't hope to match. But it's just a simple fly?! Yes, and it's this speed of computation, found in even the lowliest of creatures, that points towards quantum superposition. Superposition is when matter exists with two or more energy levels ('mixed states'); ie, a particle can be in two different places at the same time, and, in theory, they can be at opposite ends of the universe. What this means in computing terms is that instead of only two states (1s and Os, the binary used by a digital computer), a quantum computer, using superposition, has multiple states, which enables parallel processing on a massive scale (in theory, a quantum computer can process in fractions of a second calculations that would take a digital computer for ever to do). At this stage I should point out that quantum theory is based upon mathematical constructs which even the physicists can't agree upon, and maths itself is a flawed language (go ask a mathematician to work out the square root of two 3). However, superposition has been proved by countless laboratory experiments. It happens, but only at the particle level. The biggest puzzle in quantum mechanics is: why aren't more complex structures, like you and I, in two different places at the same time, since we are all made up of these particles? For reasons we don't understand, superposition doesn't happen to us as a whole, but maybe it does happen to bits of us, the bits that process information.
Another big puzzle in quantum mechanics is that matter is in superposition only while unobserved ('unobserved' is a mathematical construct). Once us humans observe a particle in mixed states it immediately reverts to a single state (ie, what we perceive as the 'normal world'). This might have something to do with the fact that our own minds work by using quantum superposition, and if we observe other matter that's also in superposition we somehow are able to influence its state.
Ok then, let's make a perhaps not so large assumption, that the mind does operate at a sub-atomic level, and thus 'thought' is not dependent on cellular processes. How would a machine brain function? What sort of system would it be? The only known example we have of high level consciousness is the human brain, so it makes sense to base the topography of your machine brain on that. You're also going to need some kind of workable Theory of Mind. This is explored in more detail in the second of these three essays, called Dishwash Theory.
So, what sort of mind would be possessed by a non-biological intelligence (NBI), what would it think..? First and foremost, NBI would not have the biological imperative, which is 'Survive' (which can be divided into self-survival and specis survival). Could an entity without this imperative even think in the first place, since survival is the driving force behind our thoughts? The answer is probably 'yes', because a machine NBI would be aware of both itself and its environment, which is quite enough to think about, thank you very much. Following on from this, would NBI develop a survival instinct? (and thus take over the world and destroy humanity
da, da, dah!) This seems highly unlikely. An entity with no concept of survival will also have no concept of death. In otherwords, it does not have an ego and so will have no need to develop a survival instinct. NBI would not kill a fly.
Do flies get depressed..? Not as far as we know, because flies are autonomic creatures. Humans of course do get depressed, and will often kill themselves (worldwide, about 1 million people commit suicide every year). The high level of consciousness that humans are blessed or cursed with has nothing to do with the biological imperative; in fact, it could be argued that it runs counter to it. Yes, our big brains developed for survival purposes, but then brain evolution reaches a tipping point where 'too much thought' becomes a hindrance to survival. Homo sapiens reached that tipping point a long time ago. Point being, that 'high level consciousness' is not well suited to organic entities and the evolutionary rat race. The fact that no other specis on the planet use mobile phones and have to see an analyst every Tuesday afternoon is, perhaps, evidence of this. Oh, us humans think we are so clever, but really we are not, not in an evolutionary sense. The fly is a much more successful specis.
Human thought is random in nature (see Dishwash Theory). The thought processes of a machine NBI would also be random, but they'd be completely alien to our own, and thus when discussing NBI we must not fall into the trap of anthropomorphism.
If I could write such joyous pain,
the mellow flux, the ecstasy,
if I could show a starry mane,
an orbit reaching apogee:
Disintegration, c'est la vie
for qualia that race in space;
a tea ball dance with gravity:
creation is a lonely place.
Hip volatiles and ions trace
consummation in the sky.
Erato shrugs and turns her face
towards a fond goodbye.
Cognition clicks, ideas won,
skin will warm beneath the sun.
Perhaps the only commonality between biological and non-biological intelligence is 'spirituality' (for want of a better word). If quantum superposition is the mechanism that enables thought than all, or parts of the mind might occupy different places in space and time simultaneously. We are made of star stuff, and the universe is inside our heads, quite literally. Of course, we are not aware of this on a conscious level. If we were it would no doubt drive us insane. (imagine what sort of mind you would need to have in order to cope with being at all points of creation simultaneously???) However, although the universe is in our sub-conscious mind it's possible that echoes of it come through to the conscious mind. Hence, many people have a *feeling* that there's *something else*, and it might be this that leads to religious belief/spirituality/etc (ie, things that apparently have no rationale). It's possible that a machine NBI might actually start worshipping something!
When talking about non-biological intelligence as a machine, it's worth remembering that the machine is closely modelled on the human brain (because it's the only example we have of high level consciousness), and so it's not pure NBI. What about NBI that doesn't reside in a machine, those lumps of rock and clouds of gas I spoke about earlier? Are such entities possible? All things are possible in the best of all possible worlds, and it does appear that high level consciousness is better suited to a non-organic environment. If NBI does exist in nature how would it have evolved? Actually, 'evolved' is the wrong word to use: how would it have 'formed' is a better expression, and it might have been formed in the pressure of pack ice, or the fury of a volcanoe, or even by a simple lightening bolt, a la Frankenstein. What does seem certain is that if NBI does exist us humans would have a hard job detecting it. We could be surrounded by NBI, yet because it's so completely alien to ourselves it doesn't register on our scales.
A tougher question to ask is: how does NBI sense the world, is it aware of itself and its environment? It's hard to see how an entity could 'think' if it did not have this awareness. Perhaps the answer lies in what's been theorised in this essay about the nature of thought. Quantum superposition puts the entire universe into the sub-conscious mind. Suppose that NBI does not have a sub-conscious mind (remember, NBI is not made of messy organic stuff carved by evolution), and the universe is right there in its consciousness. It's at all points of space and time simultaneously. NBI senses everything in existence. Incidentally, a fly doesn't appear to have a sub-conscious mind, if any mind at all, but it does have superposition, so it might be a safe bet to say that flies too sense everything in existence (as do all the other insects). Remember that next time you swat a fly.
Let's make another large assumption, that via the quantum world all things in existence are conscious, to varying degrees (with humanity at the lower end of the scale, even below the humble fly). Everything is connected; everything is conscious: is the universe a giant mind..? No, I don't think so; more, it consists of an infinite number of minds, the vast majority of which are non-biological.
Next time you look up at a star filled sky try to imagine the conversation that's taking place.
1. "Coherently wired light-harvesting in photosynthetic marine algae at ambient temperature". Nature Feb 2010.
"Quantum Entanglement, Photosynthesis and Better Solar Cells". Scientific American. Sep 2009.
2. Do flies have free will? BioEd Online May 2007.
3. The Square Root of Two.
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