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The idea of consciousness is at odds with evolution


Deconstructing consciousness into mechanistic processes
Marvin Minsky Scientist
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So we have many prominent scientists who say, we understand lots about biology and lots about the brain, but there’s one mystery that perhaps we’ll never solve because it seems so important. What is this wonderful thing called consciousness? And… wouldn’t it be astonishing if there were such a thing? Well, I don’t think there is any such thing.  And, so here’s an example of why I think that’s the wrong question to ask. So in this book... in the middle of the book I tell a little story and then the story keeps coming back because it has so many questions. It raises so many questions you want to answer.

So, I imagine this young lady named Joan. And she is…Joan is starting to cross the street on the way to deliver her final report. While thinking about what to say at the meeting, she hears a sound and turns her head. And she sees a quickly oncoming car. She doesn’t know whether to try to cross or go back, but she’s worried about arriving late, so she runs across the street quickly. Later, she remembers that she had hurt her knee the previous day and realizes, that if my knee had failed, I could have been killed. Wasn’t that a terrible thing to… a risk to take? If I had been killed, what would my friends have thought of me? So, she’s imagining being ashamed of having been killed for no particularly good reason. So you might ask, what’s all this about? And most people would say, Joan was conscious of making this decision and of many of these aspects, but let’s look at what Joan actually did. First, she quickly reacted to the sound. Well, that doesn’t need consciousness. You can easily make a machine react to a sound. She recognized it as being a sound. Well what does that mean? She classified it as the sound of a car. Attention: she noticed some things rather than others. Indecision: she wondered whether to cross or retreat. Imagining: she imagined two possible futures. Decision: she chose one of several alternative actions. Planning: she constructed a multi-step action plan. Reconsidering: later, she reconsidered it.

Well, I just mentioned about 10 things, but I have 20 more. Learning: she described the situation and stored those descriptions away. She retrieved descriptions of prior events.  She described her body’s condition. She constructed some verbal representations. She arranged these into story-like structures. She changed her goals… priorities. Apprehension: she was uneasy about arriving late. She thought about what she’d recently done. She reflected on what she had thought about. She imagined other persons’ thoughts. She evaluated the… the right and wrongness of her decision. She characterized her mental condition. She made models of her own thinking and she regarded herself as an entity. Well, all these 20 or 30 things are different kinds of processes and we all use the same word, consciousness. And then, we ask, what is this mysterious thing called consciousness? And it seems to me that a large fraction of our philosophers and psychologists have gotten stuck by thinking that there’s a single explanation or a single entity or a single process that does all those things. And that’s crazy. So, in the Society of Mind theory that I… Papert and I developed about 30 years ago, the idea was that... well, maybe in the brain there are 100 or 200 or heaven knows how many different processes that do different things. And they’re all involved with different levels of analysis and different kinds of patterns and different kinds of representations and so forth.

Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) was one of the pioneers of the field of Artificial Intelligence, founding the MIT AI lab in 1970. He also made many contributions to the fields of mathematics, cognitive psychology, robotics, optics and computational linguistics. Since the 1950s, he had been attempting to define and explain human cognition, the ideas of which can be found in his two books, The Emotion Machine and The Society of Mind. His many inventions include the first confocal scanning microscope, the first neural network simulator (SNARC) and the first LOGO 'turtle'.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: The Emotion Machine, Society of Mind, Seymour Papert

Duration: 4 minutes, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: 29-31 Jan 2011

Date story went live: 13 May 2011