Re: consciousness based on information or computation?

From: Wei Dai <>
Date: Sun, 24 Jan 1999 17:48:13 -0800

On Sat, Jan 23, 1999 at 03:19:59PM -0500, Jacques M Mallah wrote:
> It's an interesting idea, very similar to one I had and rejected a
> while ago. But I see several problems with it.

Perhaps you were too hasty to reject the idea. I think all of the problems
can be solved.

> First of all, I don't think a string can give rise to
> consciousness. It doesn't seem to have the right sort of structure. To
> some degree it's a matter of personal intuition, and some people have the
> same kind of problem with computationalism as dealing only with math and
> not being able to give rise to consciousness. While I can convince myself
> that a computation, with its decision making and counterfactuals, can do
> the trick, I find it harder to believe that a mere string can.

It's a central insight of computer science that any discrete structure can
be encoded as a binary string. You haven't told me what your definition of
"a computation" is yet, but if it is a discrete structure than it too can
be encoded as a binary string. Therefore the real question is not whether
a string can give rise to consciousness, but rather whether "a
computation" (whatever that means in this context) can give rise to
consciousness and whether a brain/AI state can give rise to consciousness.
As far as I can see there is no reason why a brain/AI state cannot give
rise to consciousness.

> Second, I am not at all convinced that P1 would have the structure
> that you mentioned. The second part - finding the brain state - would
> require a huge amount of code. It might be more efficient to create a
> bunch of neural nets, let them interact and breed for a while, and print
> out their state once they show some sign of having evolved an
> intelligence, for example.

I don't think that would work. The subroutine for recognizing intelligence
must itself be intelligent, otherwise you will only get a bunch of
neural nets that evolved/learned to fool the detection subroutine (for
example by spitting out nonsense sentences that are grammatically correct
or otherwise satisfies whatever criteria the detection subroutine is

On the other hand the state extraction subroutine I mentioned is probably
shorter than you think. The first part of this subroutine would
contain the space-time coordinates of the computer running the AI, the
second part would use some simple pattern recognition to group the
subatomic particles in that space-time region into atoms, molecules, and
memory elements, then the third part would "read" the memory elements and
output the AI's state.

> I don't think that having larger memory elements would really make
> the algorithm much shorter. More important would be to have a regular
> arrangement of memory elements - with the disturbing implication that an
> artificial digital intelligence would have much more measure than a
> messy human brain. Perhaps our own experience then argues against the
> proposal.

What makes you think messiness would make such a big difference? The state
extraction subroutine for a human brain should be very similar to the one
for the AI. After grouping the subatomic particles into neurons, it would
just output the neural-net structure and its current firing pattern.

> Third, in order for such a distribution of strings to arise, it
> must be the case that all of those programs are really in operation. You
> call it the 'a priori distribution', but in fact it is a nontrivial
> distribution, and nature surely does not know all of that information - it
> must be calculated. The true default distribution would be to just let
> each bit have an equal chance of being 0 or 1. That being the case,
> strings that arise during such calculations ought to also be able to give
> rise to consciousness.

One justification for ignoring the intermediate strings that arise during
computation is that their distribution, unlike the distribution of the
final outputs, is highly dependent on the model of computation. Another
justification is to think of all of the computations as occuring in a
universe that doesn't end. Then all of the intermediate strings last for a
finite amount of time, whereas the final outputs last for eternity.
Therefore the intermediate strings contribute zero measure.
Received on Sun Jan 24 1999 - 17:50:43 PST

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