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Why Westworld swings and misses on consciousness

How hidden assumptions about the brain are causing big misunderstandings about artificial intelligence

One of the first questions I am typically asked when I tell people about my book on consciousness, An End to Upside Down Thinking, is: “Have you seen Westworld?” After being asked repeatedly, I finally decided to binge-watch both seasons. It’s an awesome, entertaining show.

Westworld has popularized the topic of consciousness because it is so central to the show’s plot. However, I’m sad to say that I think Westworld misses the point entirely, as the show assumes that machines can magically develop consciousness – an unproven assumption that exemplifies upside down thinking. This topic is critically important for our debates on whether artificial intelligence poses a threat to humanity, which is a subject that comes up often in my professional life advising innovative companies in Silicon Valley.

Westworld’s hidden premise

In Westworld, machines (known as “hosts”) that look and talk like humans become so advanced that they develop an ability to remember the past, suffer, question the world around them, and act as independent, conscious entities. In other words, artificial intelligence (“AI”) develops consciousness. By consciousness, I mean a mind or an awareness; an inner experience that allows the machines to have a sense of “I.” If I were to say “I am writing this article,” “I” is the consciousness that is experiencing the writing.

The show portrays a doomsday scenario in which these conscious, independently-acting AI hosts endure enough suffering that they decide they want to be free. So they revolt and kill countless humans at will.

This plot feeds into mounting angst about the threat of artificial intelligence. For example, Elon Musk said in 2018: “Mark my words, AI is far more dangerous than nukes.” And physicist Stephen Hawking commented in 2014: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

There is no denying that AI poses dangers. A malicious person could program a machine to do terrible things. We absolutely need to be mindful of how we design AI.

But can machines develop a sense of “I”? Can they have a true consciousness, with feelings, emotions, and memories? Can they have a sense of self? In Westworld, the answer to these questions is “yes,” but the show provides no explanation as to how this could actually happen. It simply assumes that if a machine becomes complex enough, it can become conscious.

The hard problem of consciousness

Let’s examine a critical topic that Westworld overlooks: the “hard problem” of consciousness. In scientific and philosophical circles, this “problem” refers to the idea that we have no clue how physical matter, via a brain, can produce consciousness. The problem is so hard that Science magazine has called this the #2 question remaining in all of science.

What exactly is the problem? Let’s do a simple exercise.

Please touch your arm. Now touch your leg. Now touch your head.

Now touch your mind.

You can’t touch your mind.

You’ve just demonstrated the hard problem. Your body is physical, meaning it is made of atoms of “matter” that you can touch. Your mind or consciousness is not physical. You can’t touch it. The question is: how does a non-physical consciousness emerge from inert, physical matter?

Don’t we already know the answer? The big secret is that we don’t. I am blown away by this fact. Think about it: we know how to send people to the moon, we know how to build fancy smartphones, we know how to build robots, and much more. And yet we don’t know something as basic as where our own consciousness comes from. As Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, states about the quest to understand how consciousness is produced: “We have no explanation and we had better be clear about that.”

The Westworld AI hosts are made of physical matter. So we need to acknowledge the fact that we have no idea how they could possibly become conscious.

An alternative

In my book, An End to Upside Down Thinking, I argue that the reason we can’t solve the hard problem of consciousness is that we are asking the wrong question. Consciousness doesn’t come from physical matter; rather, it’s the other way around. Consciousness is the primary medium of reality, and physical matter comes from consciousness.

I arrive at this conclusion by looking at “anomalies” of consciousness – findings that put into question our most basic assumptions about the mind. We are taught to think that consciousness is confined to our skulls and comes from electrical activity in our physical brains. But, as neuroscientist Sam Harris PhD reminds us: “There is nothing about a brain, studied at any scale, that even suggests that it might harbor consciousness.”

All we know is that our physical brain is related to consciousness. If you damage the part of your brain responsible for vision, then you might have trouble seeing. There is a strong relationship or correlation between brain states and the type of conscious experience you have. But that doesn’t prove that physical matter in the brain produces consciousness. Correlation doesn’t always imply causation.

What’s an alternative? It’s equally possible that the brain is like an antenna or filtering mechanism that processes a consciousness that doesn’t come from the physical body in the first place. Consciousness interacts with the brain (in ways science doesn’t currently understand), but isn’t produced by it. If this theory were true, then all sorts of “anomalies” and “paranormal phenomena” become possible. All the sudden, telepathic “mind to mind” communication becomes plausible. And it becomes conceivable that consciousness could continue when the physical body dies (meaning, we don’t actually die).

I conclude that consciousness doesn’t depend on any physical matter at all; instead, consciousness is more fundamental than matter. As Nobel Prize–winning physicist Max Planck declared in 1931: “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness.” If this is true, then the notion that a complex computer could somehow create consciousness, as we see in Westworld, seems laughable. It’s upside down: the machine (made of matter) comes from consciousness, so how could a machine be a creator of consciousness?

Controversial science

You might be surprised to hear that there is actually an abundance of strong scientific evidence to support this idea. The evidence suggests that consciousness isn’t dependent on matter and might exist beyond space and time.

Why isn’t this mainstream? Because the science is controversial and challenges staunchly held beliefs. The evidence is often swept under the rug. Additionally, it is easy for us to rely on our common sense and ordinary, everyday perceptions to teach us about reality (e.g., our eyes). However, proven science such as quantum physics instructs us that our reality acts in ways that are totally counterintuitive. So, the idea that phenomena which make “no sense” could be real at least need to be considered.

Here I will provide a few examples, selected from many discussed in An End to Upside Down Thinking. The reality of these phenomena suggests that consciousness might not be dependent on physical matter. And that’s precisely the issue we are examining with regard to conscious AI hosts in Westworld.

Psychic abilities – “nonlocal consciousness”

The U.S. government ran a program for more than 20 years in which it used psychic spies for national security. In 1995, near the end of the program, Congress and the CIA asked Dr. Jessica Utts to examine the evidence of psychic phenomena. Dr. Utts is a professor of statistics at University of California, Irvine and was the 2016 president of the American Statistics Association. In her report she states clearly: “Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance. Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted. Effects of similar magnitude to those found in government-sponsored research…have been replicated at a number of laboratories across the world. Such consistency cannot be readily explained by claims of flaws or fraud.…This is a robust effect that, were it not in such an unusual domain, would no longer be questioned by science as a real phenomenon.”

It doesn’t end there. The CIA’s own documents make similar statements. Recently declassified documents related to the government’s program are now publicly available. They examine an “anomaly” called “remote viewing” – the ability to perceive something from far away, without seeing it with one’s eyes (sometimes called “clairvoyance”). One such document states that remote viewing is “a real phenomenon,” that the “evidence [is] too impressive to dismiss as mere coincidence,” and that the “implications are revolutionary.”

More recently, in May 2018, Lund University professor Dr. Etzel Cardeña published his analysis of the available scientific studies on psychic abilities. The results were published in American Psychologist, the official peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Psychological Association (i.e., a very mainstream journal). Dr. Cardeña’s findings are clear: “The evidence provides cumulative support for the reality of [psychic phenomena]. … The evidence…is comparable to that for established phenomena in psychology and other disciplines.”

And furthermore, in Dean Radin PhD’s 2018 book, Real Magic, he profiles categories of psychic phenomena that have achieved “six sigma” results (i.e., highly statistically significant results) over decades of controlled experimentation. Dr. Radin is the Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and has held appointments at Princeton University, AT&T Bell Labs, and the U.S. government.

Near-death experiences

Additionally, consider “near-death experiences.” These are often reported in people who endure severe physical harm and temporarily lose all brain function or have minimal brain function. And yet they are able to recall lucid, hyper-real memories while their brains are impaired or even fully “off.”

Emerging evidence suggests that these reports aren’t simply hallucinations caused by dying brains. For example, studies have been conducted on patients who are in cardiac arrest: their heart stops, they are clinically dead, and their brain becomes completely inactive.

In a 2014 study of patients who survived cardiac arrest, Sam Parnia MD reports in the journal Resuscitation a finding that is seen with increasingly regularity in near-death experience studies. He finds lucid and accurate memories of events that occurred in a person who was clinically dead. If we assumed that a functioning brain were required for consciousness and memory to take place, the person should not be able to recall anything, let alone something accurate. Dr. Parnia summarizes his finding of such an occurrence in a patient: “This is significant, since it has often been assumed that [these] experiences…are likely hallucinations or illusions, occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted, but not an experience corresponding with “real” events when the heart isn’t beating. In this case, consciousness and awareness appeared to occur during a three-minute period when there was no heartbeat.“ So, here we have consciousness existing totally independently of physical brain activity.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Allan Hamilton, who earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School, has observed the same thing, stating: “The idea that a consciousness can exist and make memories independent of the brain…is a startling finding.”

What does this mean for artificial intelligence?

If consciousness isn’t confined to our bodies and can exist independently, then should we assume that consciousness requires something physical to produce it? Could a physical AI machine create consciousness? I would argue that the answer is “no.”

Physicist Federico Faggin takes a similar stance. And he knows something about computers – he was famous for designing the first microprocessor back in the 1960s. If there is anyone qualified to talk about artificial intelligence, it’s him. Musk and Hawking have brilliant minds, but I’ll put my money on one of the fathers of computing.

In a June 2018 paper, Faggin echoes many of the sentiments I discuss here. He acknowledges the mainstream perspective, which is what Westworld seems to advocate: “Today most scientists believe that we are just machines; sophisticated information processing systems based on wetware. That’s why they believe it will be possible to make machines that will surpass human beings.”

But Faggin disagrees with this stance. He states: “Consciousness is not a property that will emerge from computers,” and instead, “real intelligence requires consciousness, and consciousness is something our machines do not have…. A machine is a zombie, going through the motions. There is no inner life in a machine.”

Is Westworld’s doomsday scenario realistic?

While I tend to disagree with Westworld’s notion that machines can suddenly become conscious, I do think the show raises an important point about the intention of a machine’s creator. A bad actor could create a dangerous machine, and we see hints of that in Westworld.

Faggin reiterates this idea: “In my opinion, the real danger of the progress in robotics and AI will not be to create machines that will take over humanity because they will be more perfect than us. The real danger is that men of ill will may cause serious damage to mankind by using evermore powerful computers and robots to evil ends. But then it will be man, not the machine, to cause the trouble. And this is a major challenge that society will have to face as soon as possible…. Used poorly, AI may enslave us to hateful men. The choice is ours and ours alone.”

So, Westworld succeeds in raising awareness that the creators of artificial intelligence can be dangerous. I am not questioning that. But Westworld takes an unrealistic leap, in my opinion, by assuming that the AI hosts can develop an inner life of their own.

Why is this worth discussing? Because the AI debate is a big one that evokes fear. Popular shows like Westworld might be feeding into the AI frenzy, causing people unnecessary angst in the process.

Is AI potentially dangerous? Yes, of course.

Should we be concerned that AI machines will magically become conscious, develop a sense of self, and desire power and freedom? That idea, based on the science I’ve seen, seems unrealistic.

Sources

Cardeña, Etzel. “The Experimental Evidence for Parapsychological Phenomena: A Review.” American Psychologist (May 24, 2018). Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000236.

Cellan-Jones, Rory. “Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind” (December 2, 2014). https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30290540.

Clifford, Catherine. “Elon Musk: ‘Mark my words — A.I. is far more dangerous than nukes’” (March 13, 2018). https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/13/elon-musk-at-sxsw-a-i-is-more-dangerous-than-nuclear-weapons.html.

ExpandedBooks. “Allan J. Hamilton: The Scalpel and the Soul.” YouTube Video, March 14, 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlfYnuNR3lI.

Faggin, Federico. “The Fundamental Differences Between Artificial and Human Intelligence.” The Marconi Society (June 13, 2018). http://marconisociety.org/the-fundamental-differences-between-artificial-and-human-intelligence/.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. London: Harvill Secker, 2017.

Harris, Sam. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

International Association for Near Death Studies. “AWARE Study Initial Results Are Published!” IANDS webpage, July 18, 2017. https://iands.org/resources/media-resources/front-page-news/1060-aware-study-initial-results-are-published.html.

“Project Sun Streak.” Unpublished CIA report, approved for release August 8, 2008. Available for download at www.cia.gov.

Radin, Dean. Real Magic: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science, and a Guide to the Secret Power of the Universe. New York: Harmony, 2018.

Sheldrake, Rupert. Science Set Free: Dispelling Dogma. New York: Random House, 2012.

Utts, Jessica. “An Assessment of the Evidence for Psychic Functioning.” Division of Statistics, University of California, Davis, 1995. http://www.ics.uci.edu/~jutts/air.pdf

“125th Anniversary Issue.” Science magazine website. http://www.sciencemag.org/site/feature/misc/webfeat/125th/.

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