Helen Keller, thinking tools, and the future of AI

mediumThis post was originally published by Kai Taraporevala at Medium [AI]

The Story of the Awakening of Consciousness

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Thinking Tools — Becoming Conscious

When Helen was seven years old, an extraordinary twenty-one-year-old, half-blind teacher, Anne Sullivan, came to live with Helen and her family. Anne gradually taught Helen to read, write and talk. Most importantly, she gave Helen the tools with which to become conscious. Helen wrote:

“Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness.

When I learned the meaning of ‘I’ and ‘me’ and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.”

The first ten weeks that Anne taught Helen were tumultuous. On April 5, 1887, Anne put Helen’s hand under a stream and spelled “w-a-t-e-r” into her palm. Helen wrote in her biography:

“As the cool stream gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”

Anne helped Helen discover and use what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “thinking tools.” Just as a carpenter has tools with which to make furniture, thinking tools allow us to approach the exploration of the world and ourselves. Language, mathematics, and art are all thinking tools, and these give rise to the ability to use further, more advanced thinking tools such as imagination and analogy.

Helen’s experience is an example that, as Dennett explains, “human consciousness is something that must be learned. These are a set of habits that are not guaranteed to be present at birth.” Once Helen was taught the rudiments of language and logical thought, she became more aware of herself. Helen said:

“Thought made me conscious of love, joy, and all the emotions. I was eager to know, then to understand, afterward to reflect on what I knew and understood, and the blind impetus, which had before driven me hither and thither at the dictates of my sensations, vanished forever.”

The Human Brain and Evolution

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One of our most recent and successful thinking tools is the scientific method. This is not a fixed step-by-step procedure but an approach with which humans can avoid fooling themselves. Utilizing this tool, we have begun the adventure of exploring the universe and our own human brains.

A key advance in understanding the human brain occurred in 1873 when the physician Camillo Golgi published his findings of an amazing experiment that allowed him to observe the structure of the nervous system’s tissues. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, an inspiring scientist-humanist, improved Golgi’s method and began to study the details of the brain’s neurons.

Building on the foundations laid by Golgi and Cajal, we now know that the human brain is composed of around 86 billion neurons and just as many nonneuronal cells that communicate through a complex web of chemical and electrical pathways. Yet, our brains are not as special as our brains delude themselves to be. The neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel writes:

“The human brain is a scaled-up primate brain in its cellular composition and metabolic cost. The human cognitive advantage over other animals may reside simply in the total number of brain neurons, and this may be the consequence of humans being primates and, among these, the species with the largest brain. A primate brain contains more neurons than a similarly sized rodent brain.

It has been proposed that the advent of the ability to control fire to cook foods, which increases enormously the energy yield of foods and the speed with which they are consumed, may have been a crucial step in allowing the near doubling of numbers of brain neurons that is estimated to have occurred between H. erectus and H. sapiens.

Despite our ongoing efforts to understand biology under the light of evolution, we have often resorted to considering the human brain as an outlier to justify our cognitive abilities, as if evolution applied to all species except humans. Remarkably, all the characteristics that appeared to single out the human brain as extraordinary, a point off the curve, can now, in retrospect, be understood as stemming from comparisons against body size with the underlying assumptions that all brains are uniformly scaled-up or scaled-down versions of each other and that brain size (and, hence, number of neurons) is tightly coupled to body size. The human brain has just the number of neurons and nonneuronal cells that would be expected for a primate brain of its size, with the same distribution of neurons between its cerebral cortex and cerebellum as in other species.”

Herculano-Houzel’s conclusion is that our brains are “remarkable, yet not extraordinary.” Charles Darwin wrote, “We must acknowledge that man bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” We are the products of “blind” evolution.

Consciousness — A Physical Phenomenon

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The discovery and use of the scientific method still faces tremendous headwinds and battles against what Sam Harris calls “ludicrous and divisive doctrines of religious [and other dogmatic] beliefs.” Our primate brains evolved and gave us a competitive advantage in a radically different environment from what we face today. This legacy of our past and the uses for which the brain first evolved still make millions of humans believed in fairy tale revelations and dogmas — many struggle to escape human arrogance and foolishness and still accept the fantastic stories primitive humans have invented.

E. O. Wilson writes that “human action comprises events of physical causation.” Just as the computations of our computers are based on physical phenomena that occur inside semiconductor chips, the functioning of our brains is based on the activities of neurons and other matter in the nervous system. We have no need to fall back on our primitive delusions and invent phantasmagorical stories about consciousness. We need to rigorously study and explore the phenomenon of consciousness as we do other aspects of the universe.

Daniel Dennett was one of the first philosophers who tackled the study of consciousness by working with neuroscientists and biologists. The study of consciousness thus advanced from the speculations of alchemy to science.

Consciousness — An Emergent Phenomenon

“In one sense, consciousness is an illusion. It is like the user illusion of your laptop. If you try and understand your laptop by studying what’s on your screen, you will miss by a mile what is going on inside. It would look like magic. Consciousness is the brain’s user illusion of itself. It is a format of internal, unconscious representations where the representations gloss over the inessentials.”

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Inside our laptops, driving the icons on the screens, are the workings of semiconductors. Underlying semiconductors, one can keep going to elementary particles that make up all the stuff in the universe. Similarly, being aware of and responsive to our surroundings masks processes inside our brains, with millions of neurons firing and passing signals amongst themselves at 100 meters per second.

In his seminal article “More is Different,” P. W. Anderson wrote that “The workings of our minds and bodies, and of all the animate or inanimate matter of which we have any detailed knowledge, are assumed to be controlled by the same set of fundamental laws, which except under certain extreme conditions we feel we know pretty well.”

This, writes E. O. Wilson, is “reductionism — the study of the world as an assemblage of physical parts that can be broken apart and analyzed separately.” Reductionism has been hugely successful. However, as P.W. Anderson explains, this great success should not lure us into making the mistake of “thinking that the reductionist hypotheses imply a ‘constructionist’ one: The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe.

The constructionist hypothesis breaks down when confronted with the twin difficulties of scale and complexity. The behavior of large and complex aggregates of elementary particles, it turns out, is not to be understood in terms of a simple extrapolation of the properties of a few particles. Instead, at each level of complexity, entirely new properties appear, and the understanding of the new behaviors requires research which I think is as fundamental in its nature as any other.”

Instead of “user illusion,” I prefer using P.W. Anderson’s approach and nomenclature to describe consciousness as an emergent phenomenon to be understood, as Dennett says, in a manner similar to “digestion or reproduction.”

Levels of Consciousness and AI

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The cognitive scientist, Murray Shanahan, distinguishes between a computer program that beats Kasparov at chess and a general-purpose adaptive intelligence called artificial general intelligence. I use the term “AI” to mean such artificial general intelligence.

Shanahan writes that the “behavioral hallmarks” of such an AI would include creativity and common sense. This is a higher-order consciousness akin to humans with their thinking tools. Not only would the AI have basic consciousness and be “aware of and responsive to its surroundings.” It would be “self-aware” as Helen Keller became and have the “ability to innovate, to generate novel behavior, to invent new things and devise new ways to use old things.”

Shanahan writes that if such an AI “becomes not only the producer but also a product of technology, then a feedback cycle with unpredictable and potentially explosive consequences can result.” AI’s could use thinking tools to accelerate the enhancement of their consciousness. In short, the advance of AI’s would then parallel human evolution and consciousness.

Accepting that we humans are “remarkable, yet not extraordinary” and that “human action comprises events of physical causation” means accepting that if an AI (as described above) becomes available, it would also have higher-order consciousness. Shanahan writes, “It is difficult to imagine how anything could be called generally intelligent if it were incapable of reflecting on its own beliefs, its own plans, and its own reasoning processes.”

Robot’s Rebellion — The Future of Humans and AI

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In analyzing any life form (humans included) or while designing an AI, Shanahan asks three questions: “What is the agent’s reward function? How does it learn? How does it maximize its expected reward?”

The biochemist, Jacques Monod, wrote: “the ‘secret of life’ has been laid bare”. What he meant was that we know of the reward function of living beings and the mechanism through which evolution occurs. Reduction up to the level of DNA molecules shows how through purely chemical processes, reproduction occurs and how sections of DNA (genes) encode for particular proteins that are fashioned into organic lumps of living beings. These life forms (lumps of proteins) can be viewed as having, as their ultimate purpose, the safe housing, and reproduction of genes. A basic consciousness — an awareness and responsiveness to their surroundings — is a characteristic of all these lumps of proteins (life forms).

Keith Stanovich describes life forms serving the purpose of safeguarding genes and ensuring their reproduction as akin to being like robots who serve the ultimate needs of genes. Only humans are differentiated from other life forms in their answers to Shanahan’s questions. We, lumps of protein, with brains filled with firing neurons, are conscious of the robotic nature of our past and tha0t of the rest of life on Earth.

Awareness brings with it the ability to change, and we can transcend our initial, gene-driven reward functions. Keith Stanovich calls this the Robots Rebellion. We are conscious of the wider cosmos. We can make for ourselves new purposes — such as the shepherding of our Earth and the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the cosmos. We have the technology and wherewithal to step out of the mere struggle of existence.

In the meantime, we have reached close to if not gone over the technological singularity. This is the moment when AI arises and moves forward in an uncontrollable and irreversible manner. This is Ray Kurzweil’s ‘law of accelerating returns’. For those who are sanguine about the risks of such an AI, one needs only to look within — at our species, Homo sapiens.

For most of our history, we were only dimly conscious about the wider universe. We are still driven by our old habits of maximizing basic needs, even though the technology and resources are available to live differently. We fight for excess resources and destroy any slightly perceived threats. We remain largely unconscious of the open skies and wider possibilities we now have within our reach.

Imagine a newly born AI. Why should we expect this AI to have a benign purpose or reward function? By definition, it will be autonomous and uncontrollable by humans. It is unlikely to immediately have a peaceful, searching drive towards a kinder world. It will be conscious but may feel the need to battle for survival and continuation. Will such an AI care for humans when so many humans care so little about their fellow family members or their home, the Earth?

Helen Keller — Exemplar

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There are still massive gaps in our knowledge, and the phenomenon of consciousness needs much more attention and study. Risks abound, and dangers, mostly self-inflicted, surround us. We cannot put the genie of AI back in our lamps.

Perhaps we can take courage from Helen Keller. Helen overcame tremendous challenges. From a “world that was a no-world” she “felt a misty consciousness” and awakened. Importantly, Helen remained an optimist and wrote:

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.

If I am happy in spite of my deprivations if my happiness is so deep that it is a faith, so thoughtful that it becomes a philosophy of life — if in short, I am an optimist, my testimony to the creed of optimism is worth hearing. Although there are great evils that have not been subdued, and the optimist is not blind to them, yet he is full of hope. Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.”

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This post was originally published by Kai Taraporevala at Medium [AI]

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