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Marvin Minsky's Society of Minds

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Francis Crick and consciousness
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I used to have lots of talks with Francis Crick about consciousness. And honestly, I didn't like his ideas of consciousness very much. I thought he had a kind of trivial idea of consciousness. So I think the kind of consciousness that Francis Crick was talking about is that we have a function in our brain that is a storyteller, and it was probably evolved to tell stories about what other people were doing, because we're social creatures. And so it imagines things like motives and causes and effects and so it imposes that order in order to predict other people. And so we have that mechanism and we apply that mechanism to ourselves. So we notice ourselves reaching for food, and so we say to ourselves, oh, we must be hungry. But we're observing ourselves just like we observe other people and we're telling a story about ourselves just like we're telling a story about other people. And I think that storytelling function is what Francis was talking about when he was talking about consciousness. And I actually don't think that's such an interesting part of our... I mean, it's one of the parts of our brain, but I don't think it's the most interesting or the most important part of our brain. It's just the part that leaves behind a story. I don't think it's the part that does most of the thinking, I don't think it's the part that has most of the value, most of the creativity and so on. And so I think by focusing on that function, I think Francis was kind of focusing on the wrong thing.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Francis Crick

Duration: 1 minute, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017