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My lab:

Yesterday was my last day of lectures in Leipzig (this week was on the genetics of cancer, sex determination and learning/memory in mice) and now I’m in Montréal attending lectures myself. I’m now at the Turing Centenary Institute on the Evolution and Function of Consciousness, slated to speak about our work on Thursday (see our program). The list of speakers is packed with luminaries like Daniel Dennett, Antonio Damasio, John Searle, Simon-Baron Cohen, Wolf Singer, Alfred Mele or Patrick Haggard, and the best thing is: you don’t have to be in Montreal with us to learn about the things we learn about – they will tape each lecture and put it online the next day (watch this space for the link).

What will this summer school be about? Here are some excerpts from their press release with some interjected statements of mine:
Alan Turing, born 100 years ago, invented the computer and computation and helped saved Europe by decoding Nazi message during World War I. He also proposed a simple way to test scientific explanations of how the mind works: the Turing test. If we can design a robot which is able to do anything and everything that a real human being can do – and can do it so well that people cannot even tell it apart from a real person, then we have explained how the mind works, and the robot has a mind. The challenge of passing the Turing test has created a new family of sciences called the cognitive sciences.

Hmm, I’m sure the discussion there will be interesting, as there are already a few things I wouldn’t necessarily agree with in this first paragraph. Only because a robot passes the Turing-Test, doesn’t mean it has a mind. Obviously, the definition of what constitutes a mind will be central for this discussion (and maybe a screening of “Blade Runner”, but alas, they will show other films):
But what does it mean to have a mind? Turing’s robot can do anything and everything we can do, but does that mean it has a mind? Could it not be a “Zombie,” that acts exactly the same way as we do, but it has no mind? What does it mean to have no mind? A rock has no mind. A waterfall has no mind. A toaster has no mind. And surely computers have no minds. What do all these mindless things lack?
They lack consciousness. What is consciousness? It is the ability to feel – to feel anything at all, whether it is a pinch, or a puff of air, or the sound of distant train, or the sight of a rainbow. If the robot that passed Turing’s test could not feel, it would not have a mind, even if it could do anything we can do, indistinguishably from us.

Again, I’m not sure we can say with such certainty that consciousness is the only solution to the problem of behaving in a way that is indistinguishable from the way we behave. To me, there needs to be more than just a negative result of an experiment. There needs to be something that is as convincing as the brain we share with other human beings: it’s not just that we attribute consciousness to other people because we all behave the same. In fact, as individuals, we differ quite substantially from each other and still we attribute each other, by and large, conscious experiences. Part of this conviction is of course that all humans are alike: we have a brain that, in healthy humans at least, functions similarly. Thus, I think before I would go so far as to attribute consciousness to a robot, I’d want to see credible evidence not only that it behaves in a way that suggests consciousness, but in addition that it functions in a way that suggests conscious processes.
Of course, I’m well aware that as long as we don’t know how brains become conscious, this seems like an insurmountable obstacle.
This is the difference between doing and feeling. It is also called the mind/body problem. But what about the brain? Surely if we want to explain how the mind works the thing to study is not robots but the brain. Well, yes, but alas the brain does not reveal the secrets of its functioning as easily as a heart of kidney does. The brain can do what we can do, and measuring brain activity only tells us where and when things happen in the brain: not how and why the brain can do what it can do. And doing is Turing’s territory.

I’d also object to the notion that measuring brain activity cannot tell us how brains work. That may be correct if no other manipulations are performed, but even in these cases I wouldn’t exclude a mechanistic understanding from watching. However, observing brains in action in different, experimentally manipulated states does tell us quite a lot about the mechanistic processes taking place there.
What about feeling? The brain basis of consciousness is under intensive study by neuroscientists: How and why does the brain feel? This is the theme of the UQàM Summer Institute on the Evolution and Function of Consciousness: What function does feeling perform in the brain? What can be done with feeling that cannot be done with just doing? Feeling is a biological trait. What was the evolutionary advantage of feeling to our ancestors, what made those who felt survive and reproduce better, with the result that the ability to feel became encoded in our genetic material? Do lower animals feel – invertebrates, like snails or octopus, or even plants?

This is indeed a fascinating question: is consciousness really necessary for our survival and evolution, or was it an accidental by-product? I certainly don’t have an answer, but since consciousness is a brain function and neuronal activity is extremely expensive, my hunch is that consciousness is an adaptive function which was selected for.
And what about robots? What can they not do – what will they never be able to do – if they cannot feel? More challenging still: if a robot that can pass the Turing test does feel, what is the causal role of the feeling, in its internal functioning? All of us have the intuitive feeling that feeling has a causal role: I do what I do because I choose to do it. It feels as if my will is a kind of force. But is it? Whether we study the brain or we study robots, it always turns out that what either of them can do is fully explained by their internal functioning: There is no room for further causes. It is this role of consciousness as a causal force for which leading specialists from all over the world, and from all fields – brain science, computer science, robotics, evolutionary biology, psychology, and philosophy – are coming to Montreal for 12 days (June 29 – July 12) in a unique interaction one hundred years after the birth of the founder of both computer and the cognitive sciences.

I’m really very much looking forward to the next few days! Here’s a list with slated speakers and topics:
Mark Mitton: Mind & Magic
Turing Film 1: Code-Breaker
Turing Film 2: Le Modèle Turing (en français)
Turing Film 3: The Strange Life and Death of Dr. Turing
Turing Film 4: Alan Turing: Code-Breaker and AI Pioneer (Jack Copeland)
Daniel Dennett (Tufts) A Confusion About Access and Consciousness
Antonio Damasio (USC) Feelings and Sentience
Joseph Ledoux (NYU) Emotions and Consciousness
Jorge Armony (McGill) Neural Bases of Emotion
Fernando Cervero (McGill) Cellular and Molecular Mechanisms of Pain
Phillip Jackson (Laval) The Brain Response to the pain of Others
Catherine Tallon-Baudry (CNRS) Is Consciousness Executive Function?
Stevan Harnad (UQaM) Causal Role of Consciousness
Inman Harvey (Sussex, UK) Feelings: Why Would An Evolved Robot Care?
Ioannis Rekleitis (McGill) Basic Questions in Robotics
Dario Floreano (Lausanne, Switz.) Evolution Behavior in Robots
James Clark (McGill) Attention: Doing and Feeling
Michael Graziano (Princeton) Consciousness and the Attention Schema
John Campbell (Berkeley) Visual Experience
Patrick Haggard (UCL, UK) Volition: What is it For?
David Freedman (Cornell) Visual Categorization and Decision-Making
Shimon Edelman (Cornell) Being in Time
Wayne Sossin (McGill) Aplysia: Cellular Mechanisms of Sensation and Learning
Bernard Baars (NSI) Psycho-Biological Risks/Benefits of Consciousness
Ezequiel Morsella (SFSU) Primary Function of Consciousness in the Brain
Roy Baumeister (FSU) Why, What and How of Consciousness
Bjorn Merker (Sweden) Brain's Need for Sensory Consciousness
Paul Cisek (U Montreal) TDistributed Neural Mechanisms for Decision-Making
Michael Shadlen (HHMI) Consciousness as a Decision to Engage
Wolf Singer (MPI, Germany) Consciousness: Unity in Time Rather Than Space?
Erik Cook (McGill) Neural Fluctuations and Visual Perception
Björn Brembs (FU Berlin, Germany) Evolutionary precursors of "Free Will" in flies
Julio Martinez (McGill) Attention Memory Primates
Christopher Pack (McGill)  Vision During Unconsciousness
Barbara Finlay (Cornell) Brain Evolution and Cognitive Capacities 
Gary Comstock (NCSU) Feeling Matters 
David Rosenthal (CUNY Grad)  Does Consciousness Have any Utility?
Mark Balaguer (Cal State) Indeterministic Libertarian Free Will
Adrian Ward (Harvard) Mind Blanking
Simon Baron-Cohen (Cambridge UK) Evolution of Empathy
Alfred Mele (FSU) Conscious Decisions and Action
Hakwan Lau (Columbia) Functions of awareness
Luiz Pessoa (U Maryland) Cognitive-Emotional Interactions
Marthe Kiley-Worthington (EEREC, France) Elephant and Equine Consciousness
Axel Cleermans (ULB, Belgium) Consciousness and Learning
Stefano Mancuso (LINV, Italy) Evolution of Plant Intelligence
Gualtiero Piccinini (UMO, St Louis) Is Consciousness a Spandrel?
Malcolm MacIver (Lethbridge) Emergence of Multiple Futures
Jennifer Mather (Lethbridge) Evolution of Cephalopod Consciousness
Eva Jablonka (TAU, Israel) Evolutionary Origins of Experiencing
Alain Ptito (McGill) Blindsight after Hemispherectomy
Amir Shmuel (McGill) Measuring brain activity and connectivity
Gilles Plourde (McGill) General Anesthetics for the Study Consciousness
Amir Raz (McGill) Hypnosis to Study Metacognition, Causality and Volition
John Searle (Berkeley) Consciousness and Causality
Functional connectivity using neuroimaging (organizer: Sarah Lippe, U. Montreal)
Transcranial stimulation (organizer: Hugo Theoret, U. Montreal)
Magnetoencephalography  (2) (organizers: Sylvain Baillet, U McGill & Pierre Jolicoeur, U Montreal)
Informational correlates of consciousness using Bubbles (organizer: Frederic Gosselin, U Montreal)

Posted on Saturday 30 June 2012 - 12:54:00 comment: 0

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