Hacking Consciousness – can we build conscious machines?


In a clear night, switch off your TV set, walk outside, direct your eyes to the stars and start to speculate about the boundaries of our universe. At this very moment something magical is happening. You have just built a bridge between the two most puzzling miracles in our time. The question about our cosmos is one of them, what your consciousness is, resembles the other one.

Cosmologists hang out in realms of mathematical models which can easily get out of reach for most of us and the matter of interest is pretty remote. Consciousness is in some aspects the complete opposite. It’s inside our heads and the tools to work with it are at our hands, making it a fascinating puzzle accessible for everyone.

History holds a vast heritage of recipes to find ways to our inner self, starting with meditation and introspection, proceeding to self-hypnosis, auto-suggestion and structuring of thinking (e.g. neuro-lingustic programming) and ending in the grey waters of drug abuse and potentially self damaging practices. The least to quote are hippie experiments with LSD, the famous God helmet experiments of Michael Persinger and the Lucid dreaming movement.

Many philosophers focus on consciousness with some actual work stating either that the problem is already solved (Dan Dennet), or that there is a significant risk that we will never be able to understand consciousness (David Chalmers). The dualistic view puts an internal observer agent outside the boundaries of the material world. It seems a tempting way to match our own tantalizing experience of the observing self. However, this state of affairs is not satisfactory. We should not accept that the most interesting topics in our time are either buried in math or in principle out of reach for us. Therefore we look for hands-on approaches and ideas.

The art of hacking consciousness

When it comes to hand-on exploration of consciousness, hacking is a great source of inspiration. Hacking includes such activities as dissection of a system, reassembling parts in different ways and use the system in different ways. One famous hacker of consciousness was neurologist Oliver Sacks, who recently passed away. He examined patients who suffered from damages in parts of the brain to find out which functions are missing due to the damages. This conforms to an important virtue of hacking, removing parts of a system and look what is still working or not working. Neuroscientist Christoph Koch does an amazing job in analyzing the relation between brain activity and consciousness. Guys at UC Berkely can even reconstruct images that a person sees from a brain scan. Now, this is cool progress.

However, from our point of view, ongoing hacking consciousness projects still lack the most interesting approach, to construct a conscious cybernetic machine. We are convinced that it is important to have such a tool in place in order to understand our own consciousness, but also to understand what kinds of consciousness man-made cybernetics can gain. While the first goal is intuitively for the benefit of us humans, the later is more a fear-monger topic. But we are convinced if we don’t understand how our increasingly complex AI systems can actually gain machine consciousness, we could easily get hit on the wrong leg and such AI systems may take over before we realize what is going on. There are good supporting arguments in this interesting TEDxRainer talk of Christoph Koch.

Can we build conscious machines?

Building an executable model of consciousness could be guided by the following already existing sources of knowledge,

(1) the collection of state-of-the art information from work like Oliver Sack’s and Christoph Koch’s,

(2) the collection of observations from guided introspection and finally

(3) the collection of work about cognitive architectures about what is required for an action-oriented self-controlled cybernetic system.

There is already very interesting work going on, but one level deeper. I.e. the project blue brain has the goal to simulate a complete brain. However, until those guys reach the level of consciousness, precious time will be lost.

So we call for more action on this topic. If you are interested in the topic, work on the topic or have the means for funding such work, let us know!

Btw, there is a cool event going on in Vienna, this December (Five Worlds Collide). Maybe we have a chance to meet there. For those new to the topic: movie theaters currently show a funny film called “Inside Out”. This show is a brilliant starting point. For grown-ups “Being John Malkovich” is also an option 🙂

Header image credits to Shutterstock

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About Dietmar Millinger

Dietmar has an IT background. The main interest focuses on consciousness in various forms, since this seems to be the biggest puzzle in our time. Private interests are scuba diving, running and the search for luck.