Book Review: Calculating God

Calculating God

By Robert J. Sawyer
Tor Science Fiction. 2001
English. 352 pages.
ISBN: 0812580354

First of all, let me explain why I am posting a science fiction novel review to For those of you who are familiar with this website, you know CR is a strictly academic and scientific site, so there is usually no room (actually, no time) for other aspects related to consciousness and Machine Consciousness, like Sci-Fi or aesthetics. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the only examples we currently know of fully developed Machine Consciousness implementations are those created by science fiction writers. Actually, we should admit that they constitute a great source of inspiration for some scientific research projects. At least, that is my case. Of course, the flow of inspiration is bidirectional, and I think also science fiction writers are also inspired by current advances in AI.

Many Sci-Fi works are important from the point of view of Machine Consciousness, consider for instance the robotics laws proposed by Asimov. Calculating God is relevant to this field because the origin of intelligence and consciousness is analyzed and discussed from opposing points of view:  Creationism and Darwinism. The key point of the book’s debate is the fact that these two views are not as different as they might appear. God could be not only the creator of this universe as the designer of the fundamental physical constants which appeared with the Big Bang, but also interact with it directly in order to drive evolution in his desired direction. This is the believe of Hollus, an alien from Beta Hydri III who has come to Earth in a scientific mission to discover why several mass extinctions have occurred simultaneously in three different worlds. Hollus will work together with Tom Jericho, a human paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in order to find an answer.

The book is centered on the continuous discussion between Hollus and Tom about creationism, Darwinism, evolution, and God. Furthermore, the protagonists end up considering the possibility of uploading minds to computers, and how that capability could have affected already other civilizations. A good point about the book is that all these scientific and philosophical topics are described without unnecessary technical terns or unreadable musing. On the contrary, the book is quite readable for anyone and easy to understand independently of your academic background.

The arguments covered in the book are well related to the field of Machine Consciousness, as the possibility of transferring consciousness from a human to a machine is one of the open questions. I consider this book a quite enjoyable way to get an introduction to the implications of the creation of conscious machines. We (scientists) are very prone to forget about implications while working on a project, but that’s something to be carefully taken into account.



Book Review: Brainmakers

BRAINMAKERS: How scientists are moving beyond computers to create a rival to the human brain.

By David H. Freeman.
Touchstone. 1995.
224 pages. English.
ISBN: 067151055X

This is a somewhat old book that I found some time ago in a small book store (in fact, what I found was the Spanish translation “Los Hacedores de Cerebros“, which is the one that I have actually read). Although almost 15 years have passed since this book was edited, I found it really interesting for those who want to start with an easy introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Machine Consciousness.

Even though the book is not specifically dedicated to the field of Machine Consciousness, the last chapter is devoted to this issue, and strong AI arguments are discussed. Hence, I think this book is a very neat entry point for someone who wants to get introduced both to AI and finally Machine Consciousness. The good think is that this is not just a descriptive book; instead it covers the bio-inspired approaches to AI through historical review, which I think is nice because it provides the reader with the required background to really understand the big problems behind current scientific advances in the field.

The book should not be taken as a comprehensive review of AI approaches and advances. In fact, it is quite focused in bio-inspired approaches, being Artificial Neural Networks, Semi-artificial Neural Networks, and Evolutionary Computation the main focus of the book. Other paradigms, like Cellular Automata and Swarm Computing are also briefly discussed, but many other AI approaches are simply ignored.

In sum, this is not the latest review of AI bio-inspired techniques, nor a comprehensive historical review of the AI field, but it worth reading if you are interested in some of the remarkable particular advances of the last decades that have lead us to the current state of the art. Nevertheless, it should be combined with other sources in order not to have a biased perception of the evolution of strong AI.



The possibility of Creating Conscious Machines

In 30 years we will have an alternative to death: being a ghost in a machine.

In a recent article by Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi [1], the authors argue that in 30 years we will be able to upload our mind to a computer. Actually, we can start building our “mindfiles” already using services like Lifenaut.

Despite of the optimism of this claim, Koch and Tononi recall us that we don’t know yet what consciousness is. They believe that consciousness will be artificially created eventually; however, it might not be the same sort of consciousness as we think.

The first assumption used as the base of the argumentation is that consciousness is produced in the brain by the natural world, and therefore it is controlled by the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. The activity in the corticothalamic system seems to be a key factor in the production of consciousness. Nevertheless, other functions and brain areas (even those that are characteristic of human beings) are not necessary for the presence of consciousness. Even interaction with the environment could not be necessary for the existence of consciousness (provided that such interaction has existed before). In other words, we can have an entirely inner conscious experience.

Conscious machines of the future wouldn’t need to have emotions, or even attention, working and episodic memory, self-reflection, or language in order to have subjective experience (authors refer to the phenomenal dimension of consciousness. I also see some resemblance to what Antonio Damasio calls Core Consciousness). For Koch and Tononi, the key of inner experience is in the amount of integrated information that a machine (or a biological organism) can generate.

While human brain constitutes a single integrated system with a large number of states, current machines don’t fulfill these two properties. According to Koch and Tononi, the level of consciousness of an entity is dependent on how much integrated information it can generate. A specific measure of the amount of integrated information generated by a system can be calculated applying the IIT (integrated information theory of consciousness), and the associated Φ measure.

The authors propose to use IIT for a machine consciousness test. One test would be to ask the machine to describe a scene in a discriminating way, extracting scene key features (a better Turing Test). If the machine does as well as humans at describing the image it should be considered conscious.

[1] Can Machines Be Conscious? Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi. IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report: The Singularity. June 2008.


The Puzzle of the Brain: Conciousness

The Puzzle of the Brain: Conciousness

This book is currently underway, but some chapters are already available online: SetShift.
SetShift is a research group of the University of Granada, Spain. The book is written in Spanish and covers many aspects of consiousness in 20 chapters.

Continue reading “The Puzzle of the Brain: Conciousness”

AI Bots in Video Games and Virtual Worlds

AI Bots in Video Games and Virtual Worlds

Usually when we talk about situated agents as the target of the research in Artificial Intelligence or Machine Consciousness, we think about physical agents, like typical autonomous robots. One of the reasons why we tend to use physical robots as part of our experimental setup is because we believe embodiment plays a key role both in intelligence and consciousness.

Because of the limitations in cost and time, during development phases we are used to using simulation tools in order to quickly test our hypotheses. However, the final target is always the physical robot and its application into the real world. At least that is the obvious conclusion in the field of robotics.

But, what about final AI applications that only live within virtual worlds? Do they deserve less attention from AI research fields? In recent years we are seeing a growing interest in applications which reside entirely within virtual worlds and video games. Some relevant examples are Second Life and World of Warcraft. I personally believe the success of these products is rooted in the fact that they provide new ways of interaction between humans (players, colleagues, partners, etc.). We currently lack the same level and richness of interaction when it comes to AI bots (we use the term AI bot to refer to autonomous virtual agents that are controlled by an AI program).

From my point of view, there is no doubt that AI bots are a new example of situated agents. Whether they can be considered embodied or not is another question. Anyhow, we could say that they are embodied in terms of the simulated physical laws enforced by the engine which generates the corresponding virtual world or video game.

Artificial Consciousness

Artificial Consciousness

ed. Antonio Chella & Riccardo Manzotti
280 pages
January 2007
ISBN: 9781845400705

The book is interdisciplinary and focuses on the topic of artificial consciousness: from neuroscience to artificial intelligence, from bioengineering to robotics.

It provides an overview on the current state of the art of research in the field of artificial consciousness and includes extended and revised versions of the papers presented at the International Workshop on ‘Artificial Consciousness’, held in November 2005 at Agrigento (Italy).

Vincenzo Tagliasco, John G. Taylor, Tom Ziemke, Igor Aleksander, Helen Morton, Andrea Lavazza, Salvatore Gaglio, Maurizio Cardaci, Antonella D’Amico, Barbara Caci,  Antonio Chella,  Ricardo Sanz, Owen Holland, Riccardo Manzotti, Domenico Parisi, Alberto Faro, Daniela Giordano,  Piero Morasso, Peter Farleigh.