Thursday, 29 March 2012

Frontiers of knowledge: Consciousness

By Luke Kristopher Davis

What do we mean by consciousness?

You are most definitely awake whilst reading this article and you are 'aware' of your surroundings and of your self. This awareness plus the ability to focus on particular aspects of your present experience and analyse or think about them generally make up the phenomenon of consciousness. We must also devise a spectrum of how conscious a person is. It was once thought that consciousness was an on or off quality... you either have it or you don't (at a particular time duration). However it seems more reasonable to devise a spectrum of consciousness so that different animals and maybe humans with different mental awareness may be classified accordingly. A dolphin experiences its surroundings very well, it is sharp to notice a group of fish or other dangers, it is also very versatile in its hunting methods with its fellow dolphins which requires quite smart communication and cognition. Dolphins however have not yet been seen to record language or manipulate tools or even take part in science, they seem to have aspects of consciousness but do not seem to have as much consciousness as us humans. They might have evolved to have this amount of consciousness.

Of course a neuro-scientist and a dolphin biologist may know more about the details and may even provide evidence to suggest that socially, dolphins are more conscious. This example elucidates the necessity to provide a spectrum of consciousness or at least a classification system which different organisms (even intra-special) may be classed.

We may ask ourselves whether a robotic system may possess consciousness of a certain degree. Well let's first rid our prejudice of what can possess consciousness. Many philosophers, layman and even scientists believe that only biological organisms can possess consciousness. They are right to think that they are the organisms which possess it (to certain degrees) now, but many other complex adaptive systems (coined by Murray Gell-Man) may also produce the same mechanisms to allow them to experience the world in an integrated way. There are even robots with microchips which are able to slowly respond to the external world. I think that gradually we will witness the evolution of microchips and computational power so that they could analyse the environment sharply and with some use. If the brain is a system which stores and communicates information through electrical impulses and uses apparatus (body) to interact with the environment then I think it would be quite probable that machines may also do so.

How can we understand this phenomenon?

When confronted with a scientific problem, which I will show this is an actual scientific problem, there are certain goals to be achieved.

David Chalmers coined the 'easy and hard problem' of consciousness. The easy problem is that neuro-science and biology are gradually uncovering the secrets of the processes within the brain, so the problem 'how does the brain work? What is physically happening in there?' is already being solved. We will know the  mapping and physical mechanisms of the brain in at least 30 years.

The 'hard problem' Chalmers talks about is the problem of trying to understand why consciousness feels the way it does, it seems to be extremely integrated, subjective and very vivid. What Chalmers doesn't understand is that this isn't a problem at all, the question he poses about 'why consciousness feels the way it does' is scientifically nonsensical. It doesn't make sense as we cannot quantitatively measure or analyse the way things feel to us, only the individual can answer this, albeit only qualitatively.

This problem seems to arise because as humans we are finally trying to comprehend the machine that comprehends, we are trying to find out about a phenomenon which we are directly taking part in. This problem is a psychological one, we find it counter-intuitive to explain our own brains and paradoxes seem to arise when we do.

When Neils Bohr  began to understand the discrete energy levels within the hydrogen atom he did not pose the question 'what does it feel like to be or have this or that energy level' because he cannot become the hydrogen atom or energy level. Also it is not a useful question, the answer will only give us a qualitative description which will not help us improve our own cognition or mental illnesses.

Therefore, to understand consciousness i.e. the awareness, language, cognition and interaction of complex adaptive systems we must apply the scientific method and use our technology and ingenuity to formulate a verifiable  model of a conscious system. What mechanisms allow for the storage of visual information and its recitation upon the need for it in the future? These sorts of questions, specific questions, will allow us to gradually understand our brain and to understand consciousness and intelligence in general.

So to understand consciousness we should pursue with existing knowledge and experiment in the fields of neuroscience, biology, chemistry, molecular biology and physics.

What will come of our increased understanding?

As our knowledge of the brain increases we shall see its benefits firstly in the field of medicine, where conditions such as alzheimers, dementia and even autism could be understood better due to the understanding of the fundamental workings of the brain and cognition. If nano-technology becomes a reality then we can speculate and predict that nano-bots of technology could be installed in our brains to help keep the brain wired and even enhance our memory and reasoning processes.

Understanding the phenomenon of consciousness will also help us develop artificial intelligence and robotics. All we would need to do is simulate a brain or a machine similar to it and hey presto, a conscious robot.

This is a great scientific research project, it is at the frontiers of science and it is at the heart of our own existence as intelligent systems.

We are on the verge of comprehending the most sophisticated system in the known universe. It may take time, a lot of Phds and money but my god will it be worth it!

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