I’ve started having an email conversation with a friend about consciousness, and whether we gain anything from having it. I think it might be fun to post some of it here.

This has come about from both of us having read Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight, which is available for you to legally download free here, but which I strongly recommend you actually purchase with real money.

A good, and entertaining, introduction to this can also be had at the mere cost of 20 minutes or so of your time viewing this excellent mock pharmaceutical research presentation:

The Vampire Domestication Slide Show
View it, and then come back and read…

Back already? Then here we go:

The book raises the question, which my friend has explicitly asked:

“Did you come away with any thoughts about what consciousness *is* for, anyway?”

What’s it for? I think Watts suspects it isn’t for anything, but is something like a non-adaptive mutation that got fixed in the population somehow. By non-adaptive I don’t mean maladaptive… you know?

I don’t know if I’d go that far, though. Seems like it must bestow some evolutionary advantage in order to permeate the species, as it does.

One of the things I was trying to imagine after having read the book was, what would a fully non-conscious human really be like… one who’s behavior was dictated primarily by biological efficiency. I don’t think such an animal could actually pass for conscious, or prevail in competition with conscious beings.

On a crude level, if you’re talking about superior biological efficiency, simply voiding your bladder when the impulse begins is far more efficient than holding it in to avoid social awkwardness. I rather think the Watts Reconstituted Vampires would be more likely to appear infantile in this and other respects, despite their superior hunting skills.

Slightly less crude, I’m not sure a fully biologically efficient non-conscious being could adapt to the intricities of contemporary civilization, no mater how omni-autistic they were. In Watts’ premise, these animals evolved as predators of humans, all their non-conscious pattern recognition and predictive brilliance centered around hunting human prey. I doubt such a thing could be made to function among a complex population as depicted in the novel… it has no stake nor ability to appreciate any advantages to civilization. It has no fellow feeling for others of it’s kind, as it has no self awareness. As far as it is concerned, eating and processing nutrition to fulfill biological impulses would be the utter height of purposefulness.

I doubt that any degree of omni-autisitic brilliance could overcome such a narrow scale of ambition when confronted with mass organization that has the advantage of input by reflective consciousness.

I think it seems to me that, although consciousness does seem to be something of a deluded observer of the organism, rather than the pilot, these observations do eventually inform behavior after the fact. I don’t know if this is what really goes on in there, but it seems like the observer experiences action, judges it, imagines consequences or alternatives, which it then may come to strongly desire. This strong desire has some influence on the non-conscious actor in there, maybe by seeping into the connections the actor uses to receive stimulus from the senses, so that this consciously arrived at desire may have a tendency to tilt action in some general way.

Accumulated over a lifetime, this tilt manifests as things like which foreign language you took up in High School, what movie you decide to see next week, or even simple things like successful potty training.

In some way I think the conscious observer realizes it isn’t fully in control of its meatwagon. Tool use seems to me to be the first step down a long road toward replacing these grudgingly cooperative but independent non-conscious steeds with something that pays closer attention to the conscious commands of the rider.

What do you think?

All right, for all my gripes about the Tofflers’ Revolutionary Wealth being a bit short on revolutionary notions, here’s something they tossed off on page 167 that whirled the gears in my head:

Vikram S. Kumar has been working with the Joslin Diabetes Center to design what he calls a “community-based, predictive game” for children with type I diabetes. DiaBetNet aims to develop mental models of their physiologies and motivate them to check their glucose levels more frequently. The game encourages diabetic kids, linked together wirelessly, to play on a computer to predict their own and others’ glucose levels. The idea is to “leverage untapped social dynamics” rather than relying entirely on doctor-patient instructions or parental nagging.
Revolutionary WealthAlvin and Heidi Toffler

If you’re interested in reading more, go here and here.

False-Color Composite of Lake Carnegie, Australia 1999 by Landsat 7 (NASA/USGS)
This false color picture of Lake Carnegie, Australia linked to from Pingnews.com’s Flickr photostream. The picture by NASA is in the public domain.

You know about false-color imaging? Taking a picture of something but altering the colors to illustrate some invisible aspect of the thing? You can show how hot a place is, or wet, or how many minerals of what kinds are present where.

It’s a simple and powerful trick. Map a more obvious or more appealing visual to a set of obscured data to expose the secret truth.

How many people play Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games? Shared, communal game environments proliferate. So far, elements of gameplay and player’s characteristics are tangentally, if at all, related to anything about their meatspace existence other than their discretionary cash.

But look what DiaBetNet is attempting, and imagine games where aspects of the players’ actual lives, habits and activities, were tied in some measurable way to gameplay. There is alot of talk about a coming wave of home use medical diagnostic devices. How about games where your real world cholesterol level, heart rate, athletic ability, habitual diet, vitamin intake and drug use were directly related to in-game prowess or to active game-play through the uploaded diagnostic information?

A small step, the Wii Fit.

But I’m thinking of something more comprehensive… something that could aggregate and compare vital statistics and diagnostic results with a massive online population to spot trends and danger signs. Where catching early signs of cancer or the onset of alzheimers in other players leads to rewards and where the whole connected system learns from it’s player-base as they use it to become more accurate, to incentivize improvements in healthy lifestyles, and to tell you when something is starting to go wrong, and point you to necessary resources.

But it can’t be some square Surgeon General approved slab of government health propaganda.

The diagnostic activity has to be converted by “false-color” conversion to game play metaphors, that maybe have nothing to do with health in any obvious way. Maybe the players won’t even fully know it. Optimize your diet to your body-type and age in the real world, and hidden levels of the game become available. Stop smoking, notice your experience points earned in raids are increased by some percentage. Do you have an in-game home territory? A castle maybe? The higher your risk of heart disease, the more rats in your castle.

The more of your (certified by some method like diagnostic devices or doctor transmitted information) medical history you make available to the game, the richer your experience. The game subtly and constantly evolves environmental challenges aimed at nudging players closer to their unique optimal health.

The game of life?

In Verner Vinge’s space opera A Deepness in the Sky, he proposes that one of this future’s most valuable professions is that of Programmer-Archaeologist. Essentially, the layers of accreted software in all large systems are so deep, inter-penetrating, idiosyncratic and inter-dependent that it has become impossible to just re-write them for simplicity’s sake – they genuinely can’t be replaced without wrecking the foundations of civilization. The Programmer-Archaeologist churns through this maddening nest of ancient languages and hidden/forgotten tools to repair existing programs or to find odd things that can be turned to unanticipated uses.

“The word for all this is ‘mature programming environment.’ Basically, when hardware performance has been pushed to its final limit, and programmers have had several centuries to code, you reach a point where there is far more significant code than can be rationalized. The best you can do is understand the overall layering, and know how to search for the oddball tool that may come in handy -“
A Deepness in the SkyVerner Vinge

Surfing the Web
This picture of a flexable keyboard tunnel linked to from Lord Cuauhtli Rangel’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

This is not all that different from what I actually do in my current job.

I work at a moderately large corporation analyzing and fixing bugs in our production systems. When a system gets too buggy, because:

  • Over time, the other systems it interfaces with have changed and so now it can’t communicate with them as smoothly
  • Elements of the server or network environment in which the programs run have changed, negatively affecting the program’s performance
  • Users have developed odd work-arounds to make the program partially serve some unanticipated need, and now those have taken on real business importance

There is often a desire to rewrite the program to accommodate the new situation. Many times, rewriting the system isn’t really practical, at least short term, because of the number of unknowns that much change would introduce in to the weirdly balanced ecosystem of software.

I spend a significant amount of time digging through old, partially documented or undocumented code, trying to establish relationships between systems and reconstruct reasons for the way things were done, so the fuller implications of changes to be made can be understood.

We’re less than a hundred years into the history of software accretion for our civilization, and already the notion of a Programmer-Archaeologist is not so absurd.

To my knowledge there aren’t any significant tools or proven working methods for this new trade, but looking forward, I’ll bet this is fertile ground for innovation.

This one is really neat:

This piece of robotic awesomeness come courtesy of Cornell University.

The starfish like robot starts out with no internal model of itself. It goes through a series of self-directed motions which it uses to figure out what kinds of pieces it has, where its joints are, how many limbs it has, how it can possibly move, etc. Then it uses the knowledge it has gained to figure out a way to walk, and it walks. When the engineers later remove a piece, it senses the lost portions, re-configures its self image, and tries to devise an alternate method of walking.

I came across a great article today on Ars Technica about a do-it-yourself personal fabrication machine.

What’s a fabrication machine? It’s this:

Basically, Evan Malone, a mechanical engineering grad student at Cornell University, has designed a rapid prototyping 3D printer that you can build for yourself for under $3,000.00.

The article linked above points out that this is an equivalent cost range to early personal computing. I don’t know how much this will bear out as an analogy, but if the flexibility, robustness and sophistication of this machine compounds anywhere near as quickly as those early computers did, this could well be one of the first signs of a true revolution in the way things are done!

Here’s an experiment – I started writing this because I needed another outlet to toy with interesting ideas – the way I usually do this is in elaborate conversations with friends. My friend Eric and I have talked for a while about recording some of these conversations and seeing what we could do with them. Soooo – here’s the first installment of A Transparent Life on Youtube:

It’s at least 1980’s Local PBS Affiliate Public Interest Interview Show quality, don’t you think? 😛

I’ll be posting more 10 minute segments of this as time goes on… hopefully you’ll be entertained.

With all the spectacle of wealth excreting semi-conscious software based juristic entities (still working on that name) that has gone on this week here, now seems like a good time to consult our old friend Benjamin Franklin for a word of caution:

“Whenever we attempt to mend the scheme of providence, we had need be very circumspect lest we do more harm than good.”

– Benjamin Franklin, found in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Benjamin Franklin
This picture of a painting of Benjamin Franklin linked to from A. Meyers’ Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

Here’s a nightmare scenario, as conceived by Charles Stross in his novel Accelerando. What if these weird, self-sufficient economic entities become self organizing and conscious, and able to guide their own further elaboration? The creatures I’ve been describing are like caveman versions of the entities which come to be known in his book as the Vile Offspring. In the book, the Vile Offspring are post-human intelligent entities evolved from a variety of Artificial and Human Intelligence combinations that participate in a highly accelerated economy that unaugmented humans can’t comprehend, and even augmented humans can’t fully join. This blaze of resource allocation reorganizes all the matter in our solar system on a molecular level into a substance called computronium, in which these post-human entities can live and conduct their incomprehensible business.

Too bad for the rest of us.

It’s the economic version of the runaway fission reaction that physicists feared might ignite the atmosphere as they were contemplating detonating the first atomic bomb.

I don’t know if that outcome is very likely, though I do think it will be possible to build a self-sustaining software based wealth generator that might well have some attenuated legal personhood. You won’t be able to steal from it or abuse it without being subject to prosecution. It will probably be on the level of an idiot-savant, good at its specialty, otherwise dependent on human custodians (legal guardians, i.e. a board of directors) to look after its other needs.

Though I’m using Ben Franklin above as a source of caution, I actually think he would have enjoyed thinking out the shape of these imaginary creatures. If he can be quoted saying cautionary things, it’s generally right before or right after his indulging in an elaborate bit of futurist tale spinning.

Finally, since it’s Friday, I’ll leave you with another quote from The First American:

Beer is proof that God loves us and want us to be happy.
-Benjamin Franklin

Beer is proof that God loves us and want us to be happy. -Benjamin Franklin
This picture of a pint of beer linked to from Stig Andersen’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

But we don’t need to go as far as all that yet!

Stopping short of imagining these Juristic Entities taking on autonomous lives, there are interesting things to think about how they could be better used in the lives of more people today. Right now, the very wealthy already take advantage of versions of these kinds of constructions. Trusts, Investment portfolios, Corporations and LLCs are today designed to arrange the wealth of individuals in self-sustaining, self-growing systems. Right now, these systems require a good deal of expert human intervention. Boards of Directors, Trustees, Lawyers, Fund Managers, etc. All of these individuals divert wealth from the entity, but also, their necessary participation generally puts these kinds of entities out of the scope of imagination for the less-than-wealthy.

But it doesn’t have to be so. I think that today, much of the expertise exercised by these various managers can be reasonably modeled in software. I think even today you could set up a legal entity, run largely by software, to manage a body of capital on behalf of an individual that could grow that capital into real wealth without losing so much to management or setting a high initial bar to entry. You could sell it in a box, so that anyone with a computer and an internet connection could nurture their personal financial being this way.

This more egalitarian concept of software based self-sustaining wealth-creating juristic persons (note to self – think of a better name!) is somewhat Fullerine.

This picture of a Tensegrity Sphere linked to from Michael Hohl’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

Buckminster Fuller developed an organizing principle around most of his architectural theory, that involved applying the discipline of mass-production to make inexpensive dwellings that were both better suited to their purpose as machines that facilitate your daily life, and more easily deployed than traditional houses. He favored air-shipment of complete, pre-built structures from their factory to the actual land they would stand on. Something that would be livable the very day it was delivered. As air-transportation put a premium on weight, he turned to modern steel and alloys and lightweight tension based construction as opposed to wood and concrete and the traditional compression based construction style of things stacked on top of other things. He came to view traditional house-building, the kind that still predominates, as a horribly outdated and inefficient process;

The small house, Fuller claimed, Had received none of the benefits of economic pressure that had influenced the design of the airplane and the radio. The housing industry was an absurd throwback to the pre-industrial world.

Michael John Gorman – Buckminster Fuller: Designing for Mobility

What I’m suggesting is that wealth generating economic entities, our present day small businesses, corporations, trust and investment funds, loan agencies and other combinations of legal and functional design that essentially eat raw materials and/or information and excrete wealth, might evolve given similar design pressures.

Fuller had an advertising writer (the guy who coined the word “radio”) work with him to express his central principals in a single word, and the word they invented was “Dymaxion (TM)”, a contraction formed from the words “Dynamic”, “Maximum” and “Tension”. As I understand it, the principals it tries to describe are those of flexible sufficiency – breaking with tradition to look anew at the purpose to be achieved, and then designing to that purpose with an eye to maximising flexibility and economy. A kind of “do more with less” attitude. A re-arranging of materials to tease greater utility out of less substance.

In my mind, Dynamic Maximum Tension when applied to Wealth Creation points in the direction of designing “corporations” to require the fewest humans possible to produce a sufficient surplus wealth to provide for the needs and comforts of its employees/caretakers, as well as contribute a degree of excess wealth to the larger economic system. It would be to build little “Wealth Creation Machines”, whose moving parts are software and legal frameworks around some service or resource for the benefit of both specific individuals and the larger economy. Every individual person should be able to have a personal Juristic Assistant keeping an eye on their personal wealth, making sure it keeps on growing.