Monthly Archives: March 2014

Human consciousness: very useful, but could be improved

Consciousness allows us to know what we are thinking, and to think about it. We have already seen that this possibility is important, and we believe that we are very good in this activity. In fact, we are greatly better than animals, the best ones having only very limited capacities in this domain. However, this does not entail that we are so good: we could be like one-eyed among blinds.

What kind of information an intelligent being can have on the events that occur in his brain? First, it can have an information on the succession of steps that effectively occurred: I wanted to take my car, then I thought that there was a risk of ice, so I decided to take the train. We had access to the three steps that lead to the final decision. On the other hand, static information can also be useful: what parts of my brain were active during each of these steps? For this kind of information, we know absolutely nothing, if we are not using functional magnetic resonance imaging. We have no information on what happens in our brain, we do not even know that thinking is performed in the brain: Aristotle believed that the brain was a cooling mechanism for the blood!

Therefore, we will only examine the dynamic aspect of consciousness, which gives a partial trace of the steps that we have taken while we were thinking. A first limitation comes from the fact that this trace cannot be complete. If we are conscious of some events, there are also many events that we do not know. For instance, in the preceding example, we have thought of the ice, but why we have considered it, and not the possibility of traffic jams. In the same way, a chess player knows which moves he has considered while trying to choose his next move, but he knows almost nothing on the reason why he has considered only some of the legal moves, and not other ones. Many experiments have also shown that we have often a wrong idea of the reasons of a decision, like these people who could not believe that their decision partially depended on the position of the chosen cloth among other clothes. More seriously, when our subconscious has taken a decision, we do not always know it. Therefore, when we try to perform actions, which are against this decision, it usually succeeds to torpedo them. This explains why people, who are sensible, may have sometimes an inconsistent behavior.

Our brain is built in such a way that it can observe some of the events that happen in it, but not all of them: this is the reason of this limitation. The consciousness will never show the reason of some of our choices, because no mechanism can observe them. Only statistical methods suggest that an apparently secondary factor is actually essential. As our brain is essentially a parallel machine, it would have to observe many actions simultaneously; this would be very difficult to implement.

When we are trying to observe ourselves thinking, we disrupt how the functioning of our brain. This is a second limitation: we will never know what happens when we do not observe ourselves.

We cannot freeze a part of our brain, for quietly observing it, and then restart as if we had never stopped: this is a third limitation. This could be useful for analyzing the consequences of our recent actions, possibly to take the decision to change our plans, and finally to memorize the last steps. It is very difficult to create the trace of our actions: at the end of a thought process, we cannot remember all the steps that happened. It is possible to record a subject, trained to think aloud, while he is solving a problem. However, this constraint modifies his behavior; moreover, only what can be verbalized is produced. A trace will always be very incomplete because we cannot store the sequence of events, although our consciousness had known them.

To resume, consciousness shows only a part of our thoughts, and we cannot store more than a part of what was shown.

We will see that artificial beings are not restricted by these three limitations; moreover, they can statically examine their present state: with Artificial Cognition, one may have a super-consciousness. The difficulty is not to implement it, this has been made with CAIA, but to use its results efficiently. Indeed, a useful starting method in AI is to begin with an observation of our behavior, to implement a method similar to the one we are using, and to improve it when it shows imperfections. Unfortunately, this is impossible for finding how to use super-consciousness: we cannot model our behavior using a mechanism which is not available.

We are all convinced of the importance of consciousness: it is a tremendous difference between humans and animals. Therefore, the discovery of an efficient use of the super-consciousness will lead to a huge progress in the artificial beings’ performances, giving them capacities that we will never have.