Thursday, June 25, 2009

Of Anti-minds and the Swarm

Does it take a mind to detect a mind? If there could be a principled answer to this question the implications would be huge for the philosophy and science of mind.

Consider that so much of science depends on the unintelligent detection of unintelligents. Hydrogen samples are not particularly intelligent. Further, mechanisms capable of detecting the presence of hydrogen need not themselves be intelligent.

Maybe part of being a natural kind is that the unintelligent detection of instances of that kind is possible. Jerry Fodor has suggested that non-natural kinds like crumpled shirts or doorknobs can only be detected by minds. You have to be the sort of thing that knows a bunch of stuff in order to "light up" in the presence of a door knob.

In the Sterling short story "Swarm" (excerpts here), the Nest is this asteroid that is mostly just a big super-organism that wanders the universe and whenever it is "invaded" it assimilates the invaders. Most of the various diverse species in the asteroid were once representatives of vast space-faring technological cultures that, when they encountered the Nest, got taken over and reduced to unintelligent animals and integrated into the Nest ecology inside of the asteroid. Swarm is an intelligent organism activated under certain instances for the protection of the Nest. Swarm explains how ultimately useless intelligence and consciousness is and suggests that the Nest is entirely unintelligent, and that the Nest grows a new Swarm whenever an intelligent invader needs to be dealt with. Once the intelligent invader is dealt with (rendered into a dumb slave animal) then Swarm self-destructs being no longer needed.

It occured to me that Swarm was to minds what antibodies are to germs, so I coined "anti-mind". It also occurred to me that if Swarm was right that prior to the activation of Swarm, the Nest group organism was truly non-cognitive, then whatever mechanism that activates the growth of a new Swarm must itself be an unintelligent mechanism. So, the idea of an anti-mind is the idea of a thing that is not a mind but is capable of detecting minds. But this leads to what strikes me as some pretty interesting philosophical questions: Is there any way a dumb mechanism can detect the presence of intelligence? Can an unconscious mechanism detect the presence of consciousness?

If Dennett is right, intentional systems are detectable only from the intentional stance, which I take to entail that only minds can detect minds. If a lot of qualia-freaks are right, the only way to detect the presence of qualia is to have some yourself, and thus only consciousness can detect consciousness.

If these remarks are correct, the implications for science fiction are obvious: the "anti-mind" in the Sterling story is impossible. But enough about fiction: what about science? If the impossibility of unintelligent detection entails that the kinds that are intelligently detected are non-natural, then is a full-blown science of such kinds thereby doomed?

Excerpts from Sterling's Swarm


Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

Excerpts from Bruce Sterling's Swarm

"You are a young race and lay great stock by your own cleverness, " Swarm said. "As usual, you fail to see that intelligence is not a survival trait."

Afriel wiped sweat from his face. "We've done well," he said. "We came to you, and peacefully. You didn't come to us."

"I refer to exactly that," Swarm said urbanely. "This urge to expand, to explore, to develop, is just what will make you extinct. You naively suppose that you can continue to feed your curiosity indefinitely. It is an old story, pursued by countless races before you. Within a thousand years perhaps a little longer your species will vanish."

"Intelligence is very much a two-edged sword, Captain-Doctor. It is useful only up to a point. It interferes with the business of living. Life, and intelligence, do not mix very well. They are not at all closely related, as you childishly assume."

"But you, then you are a rational being”"

"I am a tool, as I said." "When you began your pheromonal experiments, the chemical imbalance became apparent to the Queen. It triggered certain genetic patterns within her body, and I was reborn. Chemical sabotage is a problem that can best be dealt with by intelligence. I am a brain replete, you see, specially designed to be far more intelligent than any young race. Within three days I was fully self-conscious. Within five days I had deciphered these markings on my body. They are the genetically encoded history of my race within five days and two hours I recognized the problem at hand and knew what to do. I am now doing it. I am six days old."

"Technology, though I am capable of it, is painful to me. I am a genetic artifact; there are fail-safes within me that prevent me from taking over the Nest for my own uses. That would mean falling into the same trap of progress as other intelligent races."

Mr. Freeze, the Iced-Time Demon

Fear of a Blue Planet

Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik

1. Meet Mr. Freeze

Mr. Freeze is an iced-time demon. Mr. Freeze exists outside of my subjective time. He has the power to change the amount of objective time it takes for subjective time to pass. Among other things, Mr. Freeze can freeze my subjective time without my noticing. Mr. Freeze might freeze subjective time by not just freezing me, but also anything in my perceptual environment (clocks, etc.). Thawed time occurs when subjective time is in perfect step with objective time. Iced time comes in two flavors. The first occurs when subjective time is frozen relative to objective time. The second occurs when objective time is frozen relative to subjective time.

2. Iced Time: Flavor the First

Between any two subjective instants (subjective temporal units of zero duration) Sn and Sn+m, Mr. Freeze can insert a non-zero amount of objective time without my noticing. And he can insert two non-zero duration units of objective time without my noticing. And he can insert three. Leaping inductively, it follows that Mr. Freeze can insert an infinite amount of objective time between any two subjective units without my noticing. Suppose that it is now subjectively noon. How much objective time will pass before subjective noon+m? An infinite amount. Will I notice that noon+m objectively effectively never arrives? No, I will not. How much objective time needs to pass for me to have a subjective experience as of time passing? None at all. Effectively, no objective time needs to pass at all for me to have a subjective experience as of the passage of time.

3. Iced Time: Flavor the Second

Just as Mr. Freeze can insert units of objective time between my subjective units, he can remove them. Between any two subjective instants (subjective temporal units of zero duration) Sn and Sn+m, Mr. Freeze can remove a non-zero amount of objective time without my noticing. And he can remove two non-zero duration units of objective time without my noticing. And he can remove three…[insert inductive leap here]. Mr. Freeze can remove an infinite amount of objective time between any two subjective units without my noticing. Now it’s objective time that has been frozen and my own life can pass, in its entirety, in (objectively) no time at all.

4. Objective Time: Who Needs It?

If certain assumptions of multiple realizability and the computational theory of mind are true, then my entire mental life can be structurally isomorphic to a computer program which, when run, will have phenomenal consciousness just as I do. And if the stuff about Mr. Freeze and iced time in 1, 2, and 3 are true, then whatever structures are realized by objective temporal relations can be realized by non-temporal relations. Thus, the program doesn’t even need to be run. Just sitting, inert, written on a (very large) disc, the static un-run program suffices for the instantiation of the entirety of my time consciousness.

Finite Will and Infinite Will

Gualtiero Piccinini @ Brains calls attention to this NYT article on finite will: "Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind". Excerpt:

No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain. Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning behavior, or in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with cognitive control, use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Or maybe one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been used up repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity.

Here's a little bit of fiction I wrote a few years ago about infinite will: "Desire Magnitudes". Excerpt:

I tear open my package, and, as is typical for ET merchandise, the accompanying literature is indecipherable trash. Fuck it. I pop a pill and wash it down with some hot sludge. I'm not real sure what to expect, but I'm figuring on an ingestible analogue to my previous surgery. I'm figuring nanobots are going to modify my frontal lobes allowing for the simulation of an indefinite number of ersatz consciousnesses to deal with an indefinite number of annoying distractions. Wrong answer, dude. That is not what this pill does to me at all. Just a few seconds after swallowing, the pill establishes various interfaces with my brain, and I know my way around my cerebrum well enough to know what's what. The first interface established between the nanoprocessors and my brain is through the visual areas of occipital cortex. A translucent blue rectangle pops into my field of view. White alphanumerics scroll from top to bottom. It's extraterrestrial at first, but as the pill coordinates the visual processing with the semantic association networks in my left temporal cortex, the text writhes into recognizable English:


Plasticity and the Perception of Higher Dimensions

Sacks and Siegel in Nature report on the recovery of steroscopic vision in a patient suffering from stereo blindness for 50 years. If cortex is indeed that plastic, I can't help but ask, "why stop with only 3-dimensions?" Besides being cool, there might even be practical applications in training individuals to be able to see objects in spaces of four dimensions and higher. Data about a complex dynamical system might be handled more easily if its multidimensional state-space can be directly grasped by the human visual system. Things might "pop-out" of a data set that might otherwise be difficult to detect.

Questions arise as to how to train someone to pull this off. What does it even mean for vision to take place in higher dimensions? It might be useful to think about the geometry of photography for a bit here. The photography of a three-dimensional object involves a projection onto a two-dimensional surface. Stereoscopy is accomplished by integrating projections from a single 3-D object onto two different 2-D surfaces. By analogy, photography in the fourth dimension would involve the projection of a hypersolid onto points in a 3-D volume. 4-D steroscopy ("Hyperscopy"?) would then involve, I guess, the integration of projections of a single 4-D object onto points in different 3-D volumes.

One might question whether a person, being only 3-D, could possibly accompish hyperscopy, given that our irritable surfaces--our retina, etc.--are essentially only 2-D. The key to realize is that the dimensionality of our sensor arrays is potentially surmountable. The points in, e.g. our retina, can be mapped onto points in a volume--this is precisely what enables plain-old steroscopy in the first place. And our brains are capable of representing higher-dimensional state-spaces: gustory state-space is at least four-dimensional and olfactory state-space is six-.

Here then, in theory, is how to train someone to be hyperscopic. First, off, the 4-D objects are going to have to be computer generated. Second, computer simulated 3-D retina--3-D arrays of voxels--will be projected onto by the 4-D objects. Third, information from each of these voxels will be projected--via video goggles--to a dedicated portion of the person's visual field. That is, the visual field will be partitioned into the same number of subregions as there are voxels in the 3-D computer-simulated retina. Fourth, equip the person with some means of rotating the 4-D objects (since having control over inputs seems to be important in perceptual plasticity). Fifth, train the person to perform 4-D object recognition tasks. Objects in the training set should include objects that can only be distinguished by their 4-D charactersitics.

If such a training regime could be successful executed, would it be 4-D vision? Would the hyperscopist have 4-D qualia?

Alternate Minds Project Overview

The aim of the Alternate Minds Project is to explore science fictional permutations of the concept of mind (and related concepts such as intelligence, perception, selfhood). By entertaining speculative scenarios wherein the target concepts are bent almost beyond recognition, we gain insights into the nature of mind and catch glimpses of new possibilities. Initial investigations will be clustered around seven key themes.

1. Virtual Minds are typically thought of as embedded in simulated environments and the minds themselves may be artificial. One intriguing question is whether there can be naturally occurring instances of virtual minds, or whether there must always be an artificial component that defines their virtuality.

2. Infinite Minds are minds infinite in one or more capacities, such as infinite intelligence, infinite perceptual acuity, or infinite will power. Of our various mental capacities that come in degrees, for which, if any, does it make sense to imagine versions that are infinite? Can we coherently conceive of, for example, a being with infinite will-power?

3. Group Minds are minds with proper parts that are themselves minds. Are any of our minds already proper parts of group minds? If there were group minds in our midst, how would we know?

4. Time-traveling Minds either literally move through time in non-standard ways or employ high degrees of computational power to simulate target events. What cognitive/computational advantages are there to intelligent systems that harness literal time-travel? From a computational point of view, what are the relative resource costs of literal versus simulated time-travel?

5. Hyper-spatial Minds: One of the most fun things to think about in contemplating minds inhabiting spaces of dimension n>3 are questions concerning the perceptual phenomenology of seeing (feeling, etc.) hyperspatial objects. What is it like to have four- (or five- or six-) dimensional eyes? In addition to these questions concerning hyperspatial sensory input, are interesting questions of output. What is it like to move a body though a hyperspatial manifold? Last, but not least, are questions concerning the computational processes mediating between inputs and outputs. What advantages and obstacles are presented to circuit-engineering a cognitive architecture where there are extra dimensions in which to wire things up.

6. Quantum Minds: The dominant approaches in contemporary cognitive science deal with minds within a classical physical framework. But what would consciousness and cognition be like if non-classical quantum principles played major roles in implementation. What would it be like to be an AI implemented on a quantum computer? What would it be like to be small enough or perceptually sensitive enough to directly perceive events occurring on quantum scales?

7. Anti-Minds are non-sapient, non-sentient systems with the capability to detect and destroy minds. They are either the ultimate evil or the ultimate protection against the dangerous effects of technologically advanced civilizations. One of the core questions raised in contemplating anti-minds is whether there can exist non-intelligent mechanisms for the detection of intelligence. Such mechanisms could be crucial in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.


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