Friday, December 9, 2016


So now there's Westworld, the latest in a long line of books, movies and TV shows tracking the plight of various robots who feel disrespected, maligned, alienated and ignored, or whose more aggressive brethren seek revenge, justice, equal rights or domination over the species that created them. And if there are a few among us to whom all of this seems absurd, there is always an 'expert' on hand to assure us in dulcet tones that, although it may now seem farfetched  to have robots with this level of sophistication and versimilitude, it is only a matter of time, perhaps twenty years or possibly thirty, when such humanoids will be commonplace.

Good God!  Do you really think the inner life of a robot has, or could have, anything in common with the life of a human being?  Do you really think that a robot has any inner life at all?  If I make a recording of myself saying, "Hello.  My name is Matt,"  and place the recording device inside a box; do you think when I play that recording that there is an entity within that box who thinks that his name is Matt?  What if I paint a face on the outside of the box?  What if I add some mechanicals so the mouth smiles and the eyes widen when the recording is played?  What if I add some light pattern recognition device so that the recording goes off automatically when anyone enters the room?  Is the box's name Matt yet?  How much more equipment do I have to add before the box's name really is Matt?  Is there any entity, any unitary being or consciousness within that box, no matter how much equipment I add, that could sanely be referred to as Matt, or Gloria or Alphonse, and by sanely I mean referring to that name as if it meant a conscious being that experiences things and that has any feelings or preferences or any self awareness or any awareness of any kind?

A computer named Alpha Go beat the world champion Go player, Lee Seedol.  The wiring of that computer was contained inside a housing on which were printed the name Alpha Go.  Do you really think any wire, any stream of electrons, any pattern recognition device within that computer considered itself as part of Alpha Go?  Do you think any part of that computer realized that it was part of something that we called a computer?   Do you think it realized that it was playing Go?  Do you think that it realized that it beat Lee Seedol?  Do you think that it knew who Lee Seedol was?  Do you think it knew what the game of Go was?  Do you think it knew anything at all?

Computers are intelligently programmed by intelligent programmers to recognize patterns of electrons.  Pattern recognition by a computer is not remotely related to the way that we recognize things, patterns or otherwise.  We think to ourselves that a pattern seems familiar.  We think of where we noticed a similar pattern before.  If we make the connection between one pattern and another we say to ourselves, "Aha, I've got it," or, if we don't say those words we experience that feeling of completion or accomplishment regarding that problem.  Computers do no such thing.  They don't think that anything seems familiar, because they don't think.  They don't experience satisfaction at making a match of patterns because they don't experience.  The only accomplishment that is felt is by the humans that are rooting for the computer.  The computer is not rooting for itself.  The computer has no self.

I have to apologize for making the same point over and over, but people give all indications of not getting it, and this belies a very deep and troubling misunderstanding of what we living beings actually are.  Yes, we have wiring, and, yes, our wiring is programmed for pattern recognition.  We have wiring but we are not our wiring.  We are what experiences our wiring and experiences the world around us.  We are the ground of our experience, which we call consciousness.  And consciousness is the milieu of desires.  Nothing matters to matter.  Matter doesn't care if it is held together in complicated molecules or dispersed into atoms or subatomic particles.  It doesn't care if it is a gas, a liquid or a solid.  It doesn't care if it is in a hot environment or a cold environment, an environment where there are many, many other similar particles or an environment where it is completely isolated.  It doesn't care about anything at all.

Machines, including computers, are made of material.  They perform certain functions because they have been designed that way.  They don't know they are performing those functions.  They don't know anything at all.  They follow instructions, not eagerly and not reluctantly, but blindly, automatically and unconsciously.  Steve Pinker may be very proud of himself because he debunked the 'ghost in the machine.'  As long as he is on a roll, he can now tackle the two other ghosts that are not in the machine, but hover just outside the  machine: namely the ghost, or the non-physical consciousness of the human being that invented the machine and the ghost, or the non-physical consciousness of the user who experiences the benefit of the machine.

If we are upset at the death of a living being, including ourselves, that is because this way that we have been experiencing the world, or our friend has been experiencing this world, this particular set of intentions and way of organizing experience, has come to an end.  We also may be upset at the loss of a machine, if that machine has given us ease or pleasure.  We may be sad when our car is totalled, or when our old computer is beyond repair.  The car and the computer and Alphonse the robot,  could care less.  They won't miss the experience of being that car or that computer or being Alphonse, because they never experienced anything in the first place.  There is no part of Alphonse that experienced being Alphonse.

Now there are some people who believe that conscious computers are right around the corner; that consciousness is just another attribute like power steering or  internet access.  That when we get our programming complicated enough, that consciousness will just grow out of those sufficiently complex electrical and computational conditions.  In fact, it is utterly amazing how many people in our modern neo-Darwinian materialist world hold to this belief.  Why? How?  Is there one shred of evidence to lead you to this bizarre conclusion?  Where did you get this idea that consciousness is an outgrowth of complicated electronics?

Some materialists are upset with this type of argument.  They say that I am impatient with science.  When the helical structure of the DNA  molecule was discovered in 1953, we still had no idea of the genetic code until some years later and then, once we knew the code, that was followed by the discovery of transcription and translation and the details of the manufacture of proteins.  In the same way, now that various neurons are being identified as connected to certain types of experience (memory, hearing, sight, heat, hunger, pleasure sensations, etc.), the code by which those neuron stimulations are translated into experience and the means by which that translation takes place will unravel itself with further research.

The problem with that analogy is this:  When the double helix was discovered, we had no idea of the structure of the cell outside of the nucleus.  We knew that the nucleus occupied only one portion of the cell, but what went on in the rest of the cell was a mystery.  As the cytoplasm and the outer cell was explored, the connection to the activities within the nucleus became clear.  Nucleotides, amino acids and proteins are all measurable, observable objects.  Consciousness is not.  There are no structures external to the neuron where a physical translation could take place.  Everything that is observable within the brain has been observed.  We may not understand it, but we have observed it.  The neuron is not the central part of a larger, as yet unexplored, structure where electric patterns are translated.  And even if some code were figured out, some algorhythm for determining which combination of neurons or activity within the neuron or even observable activity without the neuron, led to specific experiences; the means by which those algorhythmically selected particles were then translated into experience would still elude us.  This is, once again, because consciousness, our actual experience, is neither measurable nor observable; and if we limit ourselves to the scientific method, to the measurement and observation of empirical phenomena, then the best that we can hope for is to be led to the doorstep of consciousness, but never let into the house where consciousness lives; which, by the way, is the house where you live.

In the future you may develop a great affection for your robot, but, sadly, your robot will have no such affection nor disaffection for you.

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