Who will understand consciousness?

on erock's blog

Software engineers will be first to grok consciousness

A thirst for knowledge in the drought of consciousness. We don't study consciousness because it satisfies our curiosity, we study consciousness because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. Understanding the mechanical structures in the brain might sustain our curiosity, but consciousness is what we stay alive for.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms...

-- Henry David Thoreau

My formal background is in neuroscience. "What is consciousness?" The looming question that was on everyone's mind in my undergraduate studies. That question wasn't ever broached in class. It was the topic that shall-not-be-uttered.

We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself

-- Carl Sagan

All of papers we read or studies we learned, focused on small aspects of how the brain mechanically worked. Action potentials, neurotransmitters, synaptic clefts, phospholipid bilayers etc. We learned about studies conducted on octopus, cats, and dolphins. We learned about what happened when someone was in an accident and major parts of their brains were damaged. We learned about the areas of the brain that dealt with reward, learning, anxiety, speech recognition and production.

In all of my studies, consciousness was rarely part of the discussion. I remember when one of my professors was asked about consciousness:

The only people who study consciousness are tenured professors near the terminal stages of their career because you can't make a career out of studying it.

It seems that studying consciousness through the substrate of chaotic biological systems has provided no marrow to sustain us.

Unsatisfied and starved for answers, I turned to philosophy. At least in this field there was an attempt to understand the mind and with it, what it means to be conscious. Unfortunately, most of the insight was unsatisfying until I watched a video by John Searle. I've watched this video dozens of times, squeezing from it all the nectar it could provide.

Unfortunately, humans introspecting their own minds can only quench our thirst for so long. Inescapably biased, we need to understand consciousness from a separate entity.

So the search for consciousness won't be hidden inside synaptic clefts or within our own minds, rather by creating something else that is conscious.

The marrow of consciousness will reside inside a computer. Neuroscientists and philosophers won't be the first people to understand consciousness, it will be computer scientists. It will be the same type of people that created the transformer. LLMs, more than anything else recently, have some answer to what is means to be conscious. Further, many people do not like the answer; that's the conceit of humanity. There is no hard problem of consciousness, we are machines that can be trained and aligned with our surroundings.

To be clear, a system that can predict the next token is not consciousness, but the real relevation is in how well it works.

We are constructing the well that will quench our thirst for knowledge. Soon we will drink from it. Soon we will not be alone in the Cosmos. Because of our passion for life, we are evolving into extinction.

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