from the world's big
The future of the mind: Exploring machine consciousness
What if consciousness is just a blip in the universe, a momentary flowering of experience that is unique to life in early technological civilizations—but eventually vanishes?
Chapter 1: The hard problem of consciousness
SUSAN SCHNEIDER: Consciousness is the felt quality of experience. So when you see the rich hues of a sunset, or you smell the aroma of your morning coffee, you're having conscious experience. Whenever you're awake and even when you're dreaming, you are conscious. So consciousness is the most immediate aspect of your mental life. It's what makes life wonderful at times, and it's also what makes life so difficult and painful at other times.
No one fully understands why we're conscious. In neuroscience, there's a lot of disagreement about the actual neural basis of consciousness in the brain. In philosophy, there is something called the hard problem of consciousness, which is due to the philosopher David Chalmers. The hard problem of consciousness asks, why must we be conscious? Given that the brain is an information processing engine, why does it need to feel like anything to be us from the inside?
Chapter 2: Are we ready for machines that feel?
SUSAN SCHNEIDER: The hard problem of consciousness is actually something that isn't quite directly the issue we want to get at when we're asking whether machines are conscious. The problem of AI consciousness simply asks, could the AIs that we humans develop one day or even AIs that we can imagine in our mind's eye through thought experiments, could they be conscious beings? Could it feel like something to be them?
The problem of AI consciousness is different from the hard problem of consciousness. In the case of the hard problem, it's a given that we're conscious beings. We're assuming that we're conscious, and we're asking, why must it be the case? The problem of AI consciousness, in contrast, asks whether machines could be conscious at all.
So why should we care about whether artificial intelligence is conscious? Well, given the rapid-fire developments in artificial intelligence, it wouldn't be surprising if within the next 30 to 80 years, we start developing very sophisticated general intelligences. They may not be precisely like humans. They may not be as smart as us. But they may be sentient beings. If they're conscious beings, we need ways of determining whether that's the case. It would be awful if, for example, we sent them to fight our wars, forced them to clean our houses, made them essentially a slave class. We don't want to make that mistake. We want to be sensitive to those issues. So we have to develop ways to determine whether artificial intelligence is conscious or not.
It's also extremely important because as we try to develop general intelligences, we want to understand the overall impact that consciousness has on an intelligent system. Would the spark of consciousness, for instance, make a machine safer and more empathetic? Or would it be adding something like volatility? Would we be, in effect, creating emotional teenagers that can't handle the tasks that we give them? So in order for us to understand whether machines are conscious, we have to be ready to hit the ground running and actually devise tests for conscious machines.
Chapter 3: Playing God: Are all machines created equal?
SUSAN SCHNEIDER: In my book, I talk about the possibility of consciousness engineering. So suppose we figure out ways to devise consciousness in machines. It may be the case that we want to deliberately make sure that certain machines are not conscious. So for example, consider a machine that we would send to dismantle a nuclear reactor. So we'd essentially quite possibly be sending it to its death. Or a machine that we'd send to a war zone. Would we really want to send conscious machines in those circumstances? Would it be ethical?
You might say, well, maybe we can tweak their minds so they enjoy what they're doing or they don't mind sacrifice. But that gets into some really deep-seated engineering issues that are actually ethical in nature that go back to Brave New World, for example, situations where humans were genetically engineered and took a drug called soma, so that they would want to live the lives that they were given. So we have to really think about the right approach. So it may be the case that we deliberately devise machines for certain tasks that are not conscious.
On the other hand, should we actually be capable of making some machines conscious, it may be that humans want conscious AI companions. So, for example, suppose that humans want elder care androids, as is actually under development in Japan today. And as you're looking at the android shop, you're thinking of the kind of android you want to take care of your elderly grandmother, you decide you want a sentient being who would love your grandmother. You feel like that is what best does her justice. And in other cases, maybe humans actually want relationships with AIs. So there could be a demand for conscious AI companions.
Chapter 4: Superintelligence over sentience
SUSAN SCHNEIDER: In Artificial You, I actually offer a 'wait and see' approach to machine consciousness. I urge that we just don't know enough right now about the substrates that could be used to build microchips. We don't even know what the microchips would be that are utilized in 30 to 50 years or even 10 years. So we don't know enough about the substrate. We don't know enough about the architecture of these artificial general intelligences that could be built. We have to investigate all these avenues before we conclude that consciousness is an inevitable byproduct of any sophisticated artificial intelligences that we design.
Further, one concern I have is that consciousness could be outmoded by a sophisticated AI. So consider a super intelligent AI, an AI which, by definition, could outthink humans in every respect: social intelligence, scientific reasoning, and more. A super intelligence would have vast resources at its disposal. It could be a computronium built up from the resources of an entire planet with a database that extends beyond even the reaches of the human World Wide Web. It could be more extensive than the web, even.
So what would be novel to a superintelligence that would require slow conscious processing? The thing about conscious processing in humans is that it's particularly useful when it comes to slow deliberative thinking. So consciousness in humans is associated with slow mental processing, associated with working memory and attention. So there are important limitations on the number of variables, which we can even hold in our minds at a given time. I mean, we're very bad at working memory. We could barely remember a phone number for five minutes before we write it down. That's how bad our working memory systems are.
So if we are using consciousness for these slow, deliberative elements of our mental processing, and a superintelligence, in contrast, is an expert system which has a vast intellectual domain that encompasses the entire World Wide Web and is lightning fast in its processing, why would it need slow, deliberative focus? In short, a superintelligent system might outmode consciousness because it's slow and inefficient. So the most intelligent systems may not be conscious.
Chapter 5: Enter: Post-biological existence
SUSAN SCHNEIDER: Given that a superintelligence may outmode consciousness, we have to think about the role that consciousness plays in the evolution of intelligent life. Right now, NASA and many astrobiologists project that there could be life throughout the universe, and they've identified exoplanets, planets that are hospitable, in principle, to intelligent life. That is extremely exciting. But the origin of life right now is a matter of intense debate in astrophysics. And it may be that all of these habitable planets that we've identified are actually uninhabited.
But on the assumption that there's lots of intelligent life out there, you have to consider that, should these life forms survive their technological maturity, they may actually be turning on their own artificial intelligence devices themselves. And they eventually may upgrade their own brains so that they are cyborgs. They are post-biological beings. Eventually, they may have even their own singularities.
If that's the case, intelligence may go from being biological to post-biological. And as I stress in my project with NASA, these highly sophisticated biological beings may themselves outmode consciousness. Consciousness may be a blip, a momentary flowering of experience in the universe at a point in the history of life where there is an early technological civilization. But then as the civilizations have their own singularity, sadly, consciousness may leave those biological systems.
Chapter 6: The challenge: Maximizing conscious experience
SUSAN SCHNEIDER: That may sound grim, but I bring it up really as a challenge for humans. I believe that understanding how consciousness and intelligence interrelate could lead us to better make decisions about how we enhance our own brain. So on my own view, we should enhance our brains in a way that maximizes sentience, that allows conscious experience to flourish. And we certainly don't want to become expert systems that have no felt quality to experience. So the challenge for a technological civilization is actually to think not just technologically but philosophically, to think about how these enhancements impact our conscious experience.
- The hard problem of consciousness, as coined by the philosopher David Chalmers, asks: Why must we be conscious? Given that the brain is an information processing engine, why does it need to feel like anything to be us?
- The problem of AI consciousness is equally complicated. We know humans are conscious, but when it comes to AI, the question is: Could the AIs that we humans develop be conscious beings? Could it feel like something to be them? And how could we possibly know for sure, short of them telling us?
- How might superintelligence render consciousness extinct? Over 6 chapters in this video, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider explores the philosophical problems that underlie the development of AI and the nature of conscious minds.
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Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Hollywood has created an idea of aliens that doesn't match the science.
- Ask someone what they think aliens look like and you'll probably get a description heavily informed by films and pop culture. The existence of life beyond our planet has yet to be confirmed, but there are clues as to the biology of extraterrestrials in science.
- "Don't give them claws," says biologist E.O. Wilson. "Claws are for carnivores and you've got to be an omnivore to be an E.T. There just isn't enough energy available in the next trophic level down to maintain big populations and stable populations that can evolve civilization."
- In this compilation, Wilson, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, and evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos explain why aliens don't look like us and why Hollywood depictions are mostly inaccurate.
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- The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
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