Monday, June 17, 2013

Consciousness and Cyberpunk

The evolving interactions between man and technology in cyberpunk does a lot to point out the nature of consciousness. Can artificial intelligence ever be conscious as humans are, experiencing a rich inner world filled with anything like a punk attitude? By making cyberspace part of your existence, do you lose a sense of reality and individuality? Cyberpunk is not just a means to put these questions into a dynamic and diverse thought experiment. These are questions about what it means to be an individual, questions about how to determine who you are and what your goals are. Even the philosophical themes of Neuromancer or Snow Crash have a punk edge to them.

With Neuromancer, a complex artificial intelligence known as Wintermute becomes sentient, who apparently has goals and objectives of its own separate from any creator or programmer. But could it ever experience the depth of conflict and existential crisis of losing control of life that Case experienced? No direct answer can be given. But if Wintermute is conscious, then it is self-made at such a level that it must ultimately make its own decisions of what to accept as true and which goals to pursue. If it is not conscious, then Wintermute’s goals are just an illusion, where everything it does is automatic and absent self-awareness. However, if massively complex systems like Wintermute are not conscious, then human goals and decisions are also just illusions. A punk stance on life would be impossible – maybe that’s why Case lives so miserably?

A machine being conscious is no issue, at least by taking into account modern philosophy of mind and cognitive science. Daniel Dennett speaks derisively of what he calls the Cartesian Theater, where decisions are made through an ultimate arbiter – a decider - gazing upon experiences and the world “outside”. If such a decider were crucial to consciousness, then that would mean a machine like Wintermute could never be conscious; it was never made with a soul, or a single one consciousness “spot” in its circuitry. To get around this conflict for human consciousness, you can say that there is some immaterial, mystical, ineffable mind unique to humans. Either that, or you can deny the mind entirely, saying physical mechanisms means consciousness is at best superfluous or metaphorical (epiphenomenal, to use philosophy jargon). Hardly a victory for punk attitudes with either conclusion.

But Dennett’s response to these issues is what he calls the Multiple Drafts model of consciousness. Under this model, consciousness is made up of many parts operating simultaneously, each able to make decisions. In sum, all the parts make up an individual, but also creates a high degree of chaotic yet efficient processes. With the potential for many parts establishing consciousness, Wintermute’s lack of circuitry built for consciousness does not mean it could never be conscious. If anything, cyberpunk makes such a theory intuitively plausible, thanks to its technological exploration.

1 comment:

  1. I love reading your posts. They're always so informative, and they definitely make me think. Thanks!!!