Skip to content

I can has consciousness?

Conversations at work recently have turned again and again to consciousness and self-awareness (what, you thought “Android” was just a phone? ;) ). Now, I’m not going to belabor the point with discussions of artificial intelligence and yet another amateur’s resummarization of Searle’s Chinese Room[1]. Instead, I’ve been thinking about self-awareness in groups of humans.

A bullet-point braindump:

  • As background, remember that short story in Godel Escher Bach, where the ant-eater communicated with the colony of ants (not the ants themselves, but the colony), and ate certain individual ants as a way to shape the colony into something that’s more intelligently connected?
  • It’s a cliche’d remark that groups of humans begin to resemble organisms in their own right. Corporations seek after the good of the corporation rather than the good of any of its individuals. Cultures grow, intermingle, reproduce spawning new cultures. OK, so these macro-groups of humans are animals, that’s for sure. But are they self-aware Conscious? Would we recognize it if they were?
  • It’s interesting when a group of people who’ve been meeting for a while realize that they are in fact behaving as a group, and in turn have a group identity. Is this awareness of group identity the same as self-awareness in the group? (answer: I don’t think so, this is something different).
  • To extend the brain metaphor, imagine humans to be the neurons in a larger collective brain. Urgh, the speed of signal transition along axon-dendrite gap is horribly slow. What effect does this slowness have? Also, humans are damn intelligent signal processors compared to neurons. What effect would our individual intelligences have on the larger structure?
  • Would such a self-aware “organism” think thoughts that are entirely separate and entirely transcendent above the thoughts of its constituents?
  • Scale? Seems to be the general belief that intelligence is the emergent result of massive amounts of highly, highly interconnected neurons. How many people do you need in a group before it can be considered an organism? A self-aware organism? Is the interconnectedness of humans even on a large enough order of magnitude to support a functionally processing organism? What are such an organism’s inputs, outputs? Would human sub-organizations specialize into computational functional tools, similar to how neurons in the brain are specialized into groups like the PFC, the amygdala, etc?
  • I imagine an extraterrestrial coming to the earth, and conversing with society as opposed to individuals. That would be an interesting story. But not the kind of sci-fi that would entertain a puny human mind, though, that’s for sure.

Hmm, I’ll have to think more about this… so many premature thoughts… And most of them the result of only 4 hours of sleep for the last couple days. My apologies, dear anonymous reader, for the unpolished words, the undeveloped concepts, the flaws. “Time past and time future / Allow but a little consciousness.”

[1] (In any case, I love Ben Goertzel‘s take on the situation, which, to paraphrase: “When the time comes, and you’re actually arguing with the computer whether it is self-aware or not, then the point is already moot, isn’t it?”)

One Comment

  1. in my social psych class, we read an article that discussed a couple of relevant ideas. the first is that of transitive memory-that often humans don’t remember information so much as where information is stored, particularly stored in other humans. E.G. I don’t remember what the process for getting a purchase reimbursement is, but Mel over in accounting does. The other important point is that, on average, humans can maintain relationships with about 150 people (actually it might have been 300, but it think 150). If a group grows beyond that size, it is no longer possible for everyone to know each other. Interestingly, when Amish communities (which, to my knowledge, have little exposure to social psychology publications) grow beyond that size, they split. And some company was mentioned in the article, I think it was Columbia sportswear, operates as lots of micro-companies, in close proximity to each other, say with a parking lot between them, but each smaller than the 150 person limit. Conventional wisdom is that would make for a very ineffecient management model, but they find it increases productivity dramatically. You end up with a small-world graph. Lots of tightly interconnected cliques, with a few connections between cliques, but the graph width is still very low: probably 2, maybe 3.

    Posted on 29-Nov-07 at 10:08 | Permalink