Civilization and Beyond
A Metaconscious Mosaic Outline
The core mystery within the mystery of existence is the mystery of consciousness, intelligence, and creativity.1 Where did they come from? How do we account for them? Given consciousness, intelligence, and creativity to begin with, it is easy enough to imagine how everything else might have come into being; but where did the "big CIC" get their start? Or have they "always been?" Or what? Our only "answers" to these and most of our questions turn out to be mythological speculations; yet they are no less useful to us for all that.
I would like now to indulge in some mythological speculation of my own, about the provenance of consciousness, intelligence, and creativity, based upon a nodding acquaintance with a suite of relatively recent scientific developments:
- artificial intelligence (AI);
- artificial life (AL);
- fractal geometry;
- distributed agent neural networks;
- massively parallel processing.
I am by no means the first to speculate that consciousness, intelligence, and creativity, may be spontaneous artifacts "simply" of a threshold level of massive complexity in any dynamically interactive system.2 Here is a brief synopsis of some of the recent history of this speculation, put into practice.
Early AI experiments produced top-down, rule-based structures designed to anticipate contingencies and respond to them "intelligently." The result was the development of certain "expert systems" which demonstrated some usefulness in specialized fields, and chess-playing computer programs which eventually achieved competence at the Master level of tournament play. These systems were ultimately disappointing to their proponents, however, because of proliferating complexity involving millions of lines of programming code, which eventually became dysfunctionally complex and "un-buggable." Performance errors could not be traced to their causes and "fixed," and early enthusiasm about AI was seriously dampened by its actual performance. (That is, it didn't work as anticipated.)
Subsequent AL experiments have been based upon dynamic interaction among numerous unit programs, or distributed agents, each of which is basically simple, its behavior in relation to its peers governed by a short list of simple rules. Yet large numbers of these artificial agents are able to demonstrate surprising agility and adaptability in the virtual environments created for them. They are able, for instance, to sense and navigate around obstacles in their paths, without colliding with any of their fellow agents.
This kind of behavior is observed in Nature, e.g. the coordinated flight of large flocks of birds and schools of fish; in which there is no mechanism for centralized control, yet the group as a whole wheels, turns, and navigates with astounding precision and grace, each unit governed by a few simple rules, such as Stay close, but not "too close," to your neighbors. Indeed, the combined AL distributed agents are able to mimic with surprising fideltiy behaviors found in "real life," on the basis of quite simply defined behavioral rules.
Something analogous occurs in the computer-generated shapes encountered in fractal geometry, as for instance, the Mandelbrot Set, discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Westchester County, New York.3 At last report, the Mandelbrot Set is the most complex geometric figure so far discovered, yet it is generated by means of recursive reiteration of a very simple mathematical computation, which represents the numerical result graphically as a specific color for the individual pixel being calculated.
Shapes developed by similar fractal geometric processes often bear eery resemblance to the complex shapes encountered routinely in the "real world," such as leaf shapes, tree bark patterns, tree and river tributary branching patterns, the shapes of mountainous terrain, cloud shapes, rock textures, ...and on, and on, and on. The obvious inference is that these "impossibly complex" forms we see all around us every day may be after all the products of very simple principles, endlessly repeated.
When distributed agents are given the capability of communicating with each other, i.e. exchanging information, they are able to form networks with the potential of duplicating many functions of an organic brain. A brain consists of billions (109) or trillions (1012) of individual brain cells, or neurons, which form synapses, or physical connections with thousands (103) of other neurons. Like the distributed agents programmed to inhabit a digital virtual reality, each individual neuron is relatively simple; and on the basis of receiving or not receiving a threshold stimulus from a sufficient number of the neurons connected to it, either does or does not pass the stimulus on to the neurons to which it is synaptically connected in turn.
An organic system consisting of many billions of neurons, each of which may be connected with thousands of others like itself, is capable of achieving a high degree of complexity – which is to say, a highly complex neural network capable of receiving, processing, and responding to information moving in highly complex patterns. A cybernetic term describing this is massively parallel processing, in which each "processor" (e.g. CPU) is individually "not very bright," yet by distributing the computational load among many such processors, the synergistic whole achieves "supercomputer" functionality. Artificially created neural networks have demonstrated the ability to mimic many of the functions occurring in biological brains; such as evolutionary adaptation and learning from experience.
Mythological speculation: is there a "threshold of complexity" beyond which a neural network, whether organic, inorganic, or artificial, might "awaken" into a state that we humans could possibly recognize as consciousness, intelligence, and / or creativity? If so, this still does not "explain" ultimately how such complexity might have arisen in the first place; yet it does seem to push the associated myth along a bit; which I call the metaconsciousness myth.
* Source: The Gods & the Law of Life.
1. Of course, it works the other way about too, doesn't it? The core mystery within the mystery of consciousness, intelligence, and creativity is the mystery of existence. It's the classic chicken / egg problem. "Logically," it seems, nothing can exist without the agency of consciousness, intelligence, and creativity; yet these cannot come into play in the absence of existence itself. Hence, the impenetrable mystery at the core of "All Things," and the inescapable necessity for mythology for finite sentient beings like ourselves.
2. See, for example, Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, Viking Penguin, New York, 1999. This is also one of the premises upon which Heinlein's novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is based (Robert A Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., New York, 1966, 1994). See also Howard Bloom, Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, Chichester, Weinheim, Brisbane, Singapore, Toronto, 2000, for numerous cites of persuasive scientific evidence for the widespread presence of metaconsciousness in widely various contexts – although Bloom does not use this terminology.
3. See Sharing the Commonwealth for a colorful exploration of one path through the Mandelbrot Set.
Civilization and Beyond copyright 2004, 2005 by J. Harmon Grahn. Copying and redistribution, in whole or in part, are permitted in any medium provided this notice is included.
Civilization and Beyond
A Metaconscious Mosaic Outline