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The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine – Scott Aaronson

Interview on whether machines can be conscious with Scott Aaronson, theoretical computer scientist and David J. Bruton Jr. Centennial Professor of Computer Science at the University of Texas at Austin. His primary areas of research are quantum computing and computational complexity theory.
Scott blogged about this and other segments of our interview – his blog is very popular and has way more comments than this one does – check it out.

Check out interview segment “The Winding Road to Quantum Supremacy” with Scott Aaronson – covering progress in quantum computation, whether there are things that quantum computers could do that classical computers can’t etc..

Transcript

Adam Ford: In ‘Could a Quantum Computer have Subjective Experience?‘ you speculate where the process has to fully participate in the arrow of time to be conscious and this points to decoherence. If pressed, how might you try to formalize this?

Scott Aaronson: So yeah so I did write this kind of crazy essay five or six years ago that was called “The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine“, where I tried to explore a position that seemed to me to be mysteriously under-explored! And all of the debates about ‘could a machine be conscious?’ and we want to be thoroughgoing materialists right? There’s no magical ghost that defies the laws of physics; the brains or physical systems that obey the laws physics
just like any others.
But there is at least one very interesting difference between a brain and any digital computer that’s ever been built – and that is that the state of a brain is not obviously copyable; that is not obviously knowable to an outside person well enough to predict what a person will do in the future, without having to scan the person’s brain so invasively that you would kill them okay. And so there is a sort of privacy or opacity if you like to a brain that there is not to a piece of code running on a digital computer.
And so there are all sorts of classic philosophical conundrums that play on that difference. For example suppose that a human-level AI does eventually become possible and we have simulated people who were running a inside of our computers – well if I were to murder such a person in the sense of deleting their file is that okay as long as I kept the backup somewhere? As long as I can just restore them from backup? Or what if I’m running two exact copies of the program on two computers next to each other – is that instantiating two consciousnesses? Or is it really just one consciousness? Because there’s nothing to distinguish the one from the other?
So could I blackmail an AI to do what I wanted by saying even if I don’t have access to you as an AI, I’m gonna say if you don’t give me a million dollars then I’m just going to – since I have your code – I’m gonna create a million copies of your of the code and torture them? And – if you think about it – you are almost certain to be one of those copies because there’s far more of them than there are of you, and they’re all identical!
So yeah so there’s all these puzzles that philosophers have wondered about for generations about: the nature of identity, how does identity persist across time, can it be duplicated across space, and somehow in a world with copy-able AIs they would all become much more real!
And so one one point of view that you could take is that: well if I can predict exactly what someone is going to do right – and I don’t mean you know just saying as a philosophical matter that I could predict your actions if I were a Laplace demon and I knew the complete state of the universe right, because I don’t in fact know the complete state of the universe okay – but imagine that I could do that as an actual practical matter – I could build an actual machine that would perfectly predict down to the last detail every thing you would do before you had done it.
Okay well then in what sense do I still have to respect your personhood? I mean I could just say I have unmasked you as a machine; I mean my simulation has every bit as much right to personhood as you do at this point right – or maybe they’re just two different instantiations of the same thing.
So another possibility, you could say, is that maybe what we like to think of is consciousness only resides in those physical systems that for whatever reason are uncopyable – that if you try to make a perfect copy then you know you would ultimately run into what we call the no-cloning theorem in quantum mechanics that says that: you cannot copy the exact physical state of a an unknown system for quantum mechanical reasons. And so this would suggest of you where kind of personal identity is very much bound up with the flow of time; with things that happen that are evanescent; that can never happen again exactly the same way because the world will never reach exactly the same configuration.
A related puzzle concerns well: what if I took your conscious or took an AI and I ran it on a reversible computer? Now some people believe that any appropriate simulation brings about consciousness – which is a position that you can take. But now what if I ran the simulation backwards – as I can always do on a reversible computer? What if I ran the simulation, I computed it and then I uncomputed it? Now have I caused nothing to have happened? Or did I cause one forward consciousness, and then one backward consciousness – whatever that means? Did it have a different character from the forward consciousness?
But we know a whole class of phenomena that in practice can only ever happen in one direction in time – and these are thermodynamic phenomena right; these are phenomena that create waste heat; create entropy; that may take these little small microscopic unknowable degrees of freedom and then amplify them to macroscopic scale. And in principle there was macroscopic records could could get could become microscopic again. Like if I make a measurement of a quantum state at least according to the let’s say many-worlds quantum mechanics in principle that measurement could always be undone. And yet in practice we never see those things happen – for the same for basically the same reasons why we never see an egg spontaneously unscramble itself, or why we why we never see a shattered glass leap up to the table and reassemble itself right, namely these would represent vastly improbable decreases of entropy okay. And so the speculation was that maybe this sort of irreversibility in this increase of entropy that we see in all the ordinary physical processes and in particular in our own brains, maybe that’s important to consciousness?
Right uh or what we like to think of as free will – I mean we certainly don’t have an example to say that it isn’t – but you know the truth of the matter is I don’t know I mean I set out all the thoughts that I had about it in this essay five years ago and then having written it I decided that I had enough of metaphysics, it made my head hurt too much, and I was going to go back to the better defined questions in math and science.

Adam Ford: In ‘Is Information Physical?’ you note that if a system crosses a Swartzschild Bound it collapses into a black-hole – do you think this could be used to put an upper-bound on the amount of consciousness in any given physical system?

Scott Aaronson: Well so I can decompose your question a little bit. So there is what quantum gravity considerations let you do, it is believed today, is put a universal bound on how much computation can be going on in a physical system of a given size, and also how many bits can be stored there. And I the bounds are precise enough that I can just tell you what they are. So it appears that a physical system you know, that’s let’s say surrounded by a sphere of a given surface area, can store at most about 10 to the 69 bits, or rather 10 to the 69 qubits per square meter of surface area of the enclosing boundary. And it has a similar limit on how many computational steps it can do over it’s it’s whole history.
So now I think your question kind of reduces to the question: Can we upper-bound how much consciousness there is in a physical system – whatever that means – in terms of how much computation is going on in it; or in terms of how many bits are there? And that’s a little hard for me to think about because I don’t know what we mean by amount of consciousness right? Like am I ten times more conscious than a frog? Am I a hundred times more conscious? I don’t know – I mean some of the time I feel less conscious than a frog right.
But I am sympathetic to the idea that: there is some minimum of computational interestingness in any system that we would like to talk about as being conscious. So there is this ancient speculation of panpsychism, that would say that every electron, every atom is conscious – and do me that’s fine – you can speculate that if you want. We know nothing to rule it out; there were no physical laws attached to consciousness that would tell us that it’s impossible. The question is just what does it buy you to suppose that? What does it explain? And in the case of the electron I’m not sure that it explains anything!
Now you could say does it even explain anything to suppose that we’re conscious? But and maybe at least not for anyone beyond ourselves. You could say there’s this ancient conundrum that we each know that we’re conscious presumably by our own subjective experience and as far as we know everyone else might be an automaton – which if you really think about that consistently it could lead you to become a solipsist. So Allen Turing in his famous 1950 paper that proposed the Turing test had this wonderful remark about it – which was something like – ‘A’ is liable to think that ‘A’ thinks while ‘B’ does not, while ‘B’ is liable to think ‘B’ thinks but ‘A’ does not. But in practice it is customary to adopt the polite convention that everyone thinks. So it was a very British way of putting it to me right. We adopt the polite convention that solipsism is false; that people who can, or any entities let’s say, that can exhibit complex behaviors or goal-directed intelligent behaviors that are like ours are probably conscious like we are. And that’s a criterion that would apply to other people it would not apply to electrons (I don’t think), and it’s plausible that there is some bare minimum of computation in any entity to which that criterion would apply.

Adam Ford: Sabine Hossenfelder – I forget her name now – {Sabine Hossenfelder yes} – she had a scathing review of panpsychism recently, did you read that?

Scott Aaronson: If it was very recent then I probably didn’t read it – I mean I did read an excerpt where she was saying that like Panpsychism – is what she’s saying that it’s experimentally ruled out? If she was saying that I don’t agree with that – know I don’t even see how you would experimentally rule out such a thing; I mean you’re free to postulate as much consciousness as you want on the head of a pin – I would just say well it’s not if it doesn’t have
an empirical consequence; if it’s not affecting the world; if it’s not affecting the behavior of that head of a pin, in a way that you can detect – then Occam’s razor just itches to slice it out from our description of the world – always that’s the way that I would put it personally.\
So I put a detailed critique of integrated information theory (IIT), which is Giulio Tononi’s proposed theory of consciousness on my blog, and my critique was basically: so Tononi know comes up with a specific numerical measure that he calls ‘Phi’ and he claims that a system should be regarded as conscious if and only if the Phi is large. Now the actual definition of Phi has changed over time – it’s changed from one paper to another, and it’s not always clear how to apply it and there are many technical objections that could be raised against this criterion. But you know what I respect about IIT is that at least it sticks its neck out right. It proposes this very clear criterion, you know are we always much clearer than competing accounts do right – to tell you this is which physical systems you should regard as conscious and which not.
Now the danger of sticking your neck out is that it can get cut off right – and indeed I think that IIT is not only falsifiable but falsified, because as soon as this criterion is written down (what the point I was making is that) it is easy to construct physical systems that have enormous values of Phi – much much larger then a human has – that I don’t think anyone would really want to regard as intelligent let alone conscious or even very interesting.
And so my examples show that basically Phi is large if and only if your system has a lot of interconnection – if it’s very hard to decompose into two components that interact with each other only weakly – and so you have a high degree of information integration. And so my the point of my counter examples was to try to say well this cannot possibly be the sole relevant criterion, because a standard error correcting code as is used for example on every compact disc also has an enormous amount of information integration – but should we therefore say that you know ‘every error correcting code that gets implemented in some piece of electronics is conscious?’, and even more than that like a giant grid of logic gates just sitting there doing nothing would have a very large value of Phi – and we can multiply examples like that.
And so Tononi then posted a big response to my critique and his response was basically: well you’re just relying on intuition; you’re just saying oh well yeah these systems are not a conscious because my intuition says that they aren’t – but .. that’s parochial right – why should you expect a theory of consciousness to accord with your intuition and he just then just went ahead and said yes the error correcting code is consciouss, yes the giant grid of XOR gates is conscious – and if they have a thousand times larger value of Phi than a brain, then there are a thousand times more conscious than a human is. So you know the way I described it was he didn’t just bite the bullet he just devoured like a bullet sandwich with mustard. Which was not what I was expecting but now the critique that I’m saying that ‘any scientific theory has to accord with intuition’ – I think that is completely mistaken; I think that’s really a mischaracterization of what I think right.
I mean I’ll be the very first to tell you that science has overturned common sense intuition over and over and over right. I mean like for example temperature feels like an intrinsic quality of a of a material; it doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with motion with the atoms jiggling around at a certain speed – okay but we now know that it does. But when scientists first arrived at that modern conception of temperature in the eighteen hundreds, what was essential was that at least you know that new criterion agreed with the old criterion that fire is hotter than ice right – so at least in the cases where we knew what we meant by hot or cold – the new definition agreed with the old definition. And then the new definition went further to tell us many counterintuitive things that we didn’t know before right – but at least that it reproduced the way in which we were using words previously okay.
Even when Copernicus and Galileo where he discovered that the earth is orbiting the Sun right, the new theory was able to account for our observation that we were not flying off the earth – it said that’s exactly what you would expect to have happened even in the in ?Anakin? because of these new principles of inertia and so on okay.
But if a theory of consciousness says that this giant blank wall or this grid is highly highly conscious just sitting there doing nothing – whereas even a simulated person or an AI that passes the Turing test would not be conscious if it’s organized in such a way that it happens to have a low value of Phi – I say okay the burden is on you to prove to me that this Phi notion that you have defined has anything whatsoever to do with what I was calling consciousness you haven’t even shown me any cases where they agree with each other where I should therefore extrapolate to the hard cases; the ones where I lack an intuition – like at what point is an embryo conscious? or when is an AI conscious? I mean it’s like the theory seems to have gotten wrong the only things that it could have possibly gotten right, and so then at that point I think there is nothing to compel a skeptic to say that this particular quantity Phi has anything to do with consciousness.

Uncovering the Mysteries of Affective Neuroscience – the Importance of Valence Research with Mike Johnson

Valence in overview

Adam: What is emotional valence (as opposed to valence in chemistry)?

Mike: Put simply, emotional valence is how pleasant or unpleasant something is. A somewhat weird fact about our universe is that some conscious experiences do seem to feel better than others.

 

Adam: What makes things feel the way they do? What makes some things feel better than others?

Mike: This sounds like it should be a simple question, but neuroscience just don’t know. It knows a lot of random facts about what kinds of experiences, and what kinds of brain activation patterns, feel good, and which feel bad, but it doesn’t have anything close to a general theory here.

..the way affective neuroscience talks about this puzzle sometimes sort of covers this mystery up, without solving it.

And the way affective neuroscience talks about this puzzle sometimes sort of covers this mystery up, without solving it. For instance, we know that certain regions of the brain, like the nucleus accumbens and ventral pallidum, seem to be important for pleasure, so we call them “pleasure centers”. But we don’t know what makes something a pleasure center. We don’t even know how common painkillers like acetaminophen (paracetamol) work! Which is kind of surprising.

In contrast, the hypothesis about valence I put forth in Principia Qualia would explain pleasure centers and acetaminophen and many other things in a unified, simple way.

 

Adam: How does the hypothesis about valence work?

Mike: My core hypothesis is that symmetry in the mathematical representation of an experience corresponds to how pleasant or unpleasant that experience is. I see this as an identity relationship which is ‘True with a capital T’, not merely a correlation.  (Credit also goes to Andres Gomez Emilsson & Randal Koene for helping explore this idea.)

What makes this hypothesis interesting is that
(1) On a theoretical level, it could unify all existing valence research, from Berridge’s work on hedonic hotspots, to Friston & Seth’s work on predictive coding, to Schmidhuber’s idea of a compression drive;

(2) It could finally explain how the brain’s so-called “pleasure centers” work– they function to tune the brain toward more symmetrical states!

(3) It implies lots and lots of weird, bold, *testable* hypotheses. For instance, we know that painkillers like acetaminophen, and anti-depressants like SSRIs, actually blunt both negative *and* positive affect, but we’ve never figured out how. Perhaps they do so by introducing a certain type of stochastic noise into acute & long-term activity patterns, respectively, which disrupts both symmetry (pleasure) and anti-symmetry (pain).

 

Adam: What kinds of tests would validate or dis-confirm your hypothesis? How could it be falsified and/or justified by weight of induction?

Mike: So this depends on the details of how activity in the brain generates the mind. But I offer some falsifiable predictions in PQ (Principia Qualia):

  • If we control for degree of consciousness, more pleasant brain states should be more compressible;
  • Direct, low-power stimulation (TMS) in harmonious patterns (e.g. 2hz+4hz+6hz+8hz…160hz) should feel remarkably more pleasant than stimulation with similar-yet-dissonant patterns (2.01hz+3.99hz+6.15hz…).

Those are some ‘obvious’ ways to test this. But my hypothesis also implies odd things such as that chronic tinnitus (ringing in the ears) should product affective blunting (lessened ability to feel strong valence).

Note: see https://qualiacomputing.com/2017/06/18/quantifying-bliss-talk-summary/ and http://opentheory.net/2018/08/a-future-for-neuroscience/ for a more up-to-date take on this.

 

Adam: Why is valence research important?

Mike Johnson: Put simply, valence research is important because valence is important. David Chalmers famously coined “The Hard Problem of Consciousness”, or why we’re conscious at all, and “The Easy Problem of Consciousness”, or how the brain processes information. I think valence research should be called “The Important Problem of Consciousness”. When you’re in a conscious moment, the most important thing to you is how pleasant or unpleasant it feels.

That’s the philosophical angle. We can also take the moral perspective, and add up all the human and non-human animal suffering in the world. If we knew what suffering was, we could presumably use this knowledge to more effectively reduce it and make the world a kinder place.

We can also take the economic perspective, and add up all the person-years, capacity to contribute, and quality of life lost to Depression and chronic pain. A good theory of valence should allow us to create much better treatments for these things. And probably make some money while doing it.

Finally, a question I’ve been wondering for a while now is whether having a good theory of qualia could help with AI safety and existential risk. I think it probably can, by helping us see and avoid certain failure-modes.

 

Adam: How can understanding valence could help make future AIs safer? (How to help define how the AI should approach making us happy?, and in terms of a reinforcement mechanism for AI?)

Mike: Last year, I noted a few ways a better understanding of valence could help make future AIs safer on my blog. I’d point out a few notions in particular though:

  • If we understand how to measure valence, we could use this as part of a “sanity check” for AI behavior. If some proposed action would cause lots of suffering, maybe the AI shouldn’t do it.
  • Understanding consciousness & valence seem important for treating an AI humanely. We don’t want to inadvertently torture AIs- but how would we know?
  • Understanding consciousness & valence seems critically important for “raising the sanity waterline” on metaphysics. Right now, you can ask 10 AGI researchers about what consciousness is, or what has consciousness, or what level of abstraction to define value, and you’ll get at least 10 different answers. This is absolutely a recipe for trouble. But I think this is an avoidable mess if we get serious about understanding this stuff.

 

Adam: Why the information theoretical approach?

Mike: The way I would put it, there are two kinds of knowledge about valence: (1) how pain & pleasure work in the human brain, and (2) universal principles which apply to all conscious systems, whether they’re humans, dogs, dinosaurs, aliens, or conscious AIs.

It’s counter-intuitive, but I think these more general principles might be a lot easier to figure out than the human-specific stuff. Brains are complicated, but it could be that the laws of the universe, or regularities, which govern consciousness are pretty simple. That’s certainly been the case when we look at physics. For instance, my iPhone’s processor is super-complicated, but it runs on electricity, which itself actually obeys very simple & elegant laws.

Elsewhere I’ve argued that:

>Anything piped through the complexity of the brain will look complex, regardless of how simple or complex it starts out as. Similarly, anything will look irreducibly complex if we’re looking at it from the wrong level of abstraction.

 

Adam: What do you think of Thomas A. Bass’s view of ITheory – he thinks that (at least in many cases) it has not been easy to turn data into knowledge. That there is a pathological attraction to information which is making us ‘sick’ – he calls it Information Pathology. If his view offers any useful insights to you concerning avoiding ‘Information Pathology’ – what would they be?

Mike: Right, I would agree with Bass that we’re swimming in neuroscience data, but it’s not magically turning into knowledge. There was a recent paper called “Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor?” which asked if the standard suite of neuroscience methods could successfully reverse-engineer the 6502 microprocessor used in the Atari 2600 and NES. This should be easier than reverse-engineering a brain, since it’s a lot smaller and simpler, and since they were analyzing it in software they had all the data they could ever ask for, but it turned out that the methods they were using couldn’t cut it. Which really begs the question of whether these methods can make progress on reverse-engineering actual brains. As the paper puts it, neuroscience thinks it’s data-limited, but it’s actually theory-limited.

The first takeaway from this is that even in the age of “big data” we still need theories, not just data. We still need people trying to guess Nature’s structure and figuring out what data to even gather. Relatedly, I would say that in our age of “Big Science” relatively few people are willing or able to be sufficiently bold to tackle these big questions. Academic promotions & grants don’t particularly reward risk-taking.

 

Adam: Information Theory frameworks – what is your “Eight Problems” framework and how does it contrast with Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT)? How might IIT help address valence in a principled manner? What is lacking IIT – and how does your ‘Eight Problems’ framework address this?

Mike: IIT is great, but it’s incomplete. I think of it as *half* a theory of consciousness. My “Eight Problems for a new science of consciousness” framework describes what a “full stack” approach would look like, what IIT will have to do in order to become a full theory.

The biggest two problems IIT faces is that (1) it’s not compatible with physics, so we can’t actually apply it to any real physical systems, and (2) it says almost nothing about what its output means. Both of these are big problems! But IIT is also the best and only game in town in terms of quantitative theories of consciousness.

Principia Qualia aims to help fix IIT, and also to build a bridge between IIT and valence research. If IIT is right, and we can quantify conscious experiences, then how pleasant or unpleasant this experience is should be encoded into its corresponding mathematical object.

 

Adam: What are the three principles for a mathematical derivation of valence?

Mike: First, a few words about the larger context. Probably the most important question in consciousness research is whether consciousness is real, like an electromagnetic field is real, or an inherently complex, irreducible linguistic artifact, like “justice” or “life”. If consciousness is real, then there’s interesting stuff to discover about it, like there was interesting stuff to discover about quantum mechanics and gravity. But if consciousness isn’t real, then any attempt to ‘discover’ knowledge about it will fail, just like attempts to draw a crisp definition for ‘life’ (elan vital) failed.

If consciousness is real, then there’s a hidden cache of predictive knowledge waiting to be discovered. If consciousness isn’t real, then the harder we try to find patterns, the more elusive they’ll be- basically, we’ll just be talking in circles. David Chalmers refers to a similar distinction with his “Type-A vs Type-B Materialism”.

I’m a strong believer in consciousness realism, as are my research collaborators. The cool thing here is, if we assume that consciousness is real, a lot of things follow from this– like my “Eight Problems” framework. Throw in a couple more fairly modest assumptions, and we can start building a real science of qualia.

Anyway, the formal principles are the following:

  1. Consciousness can be quantified. (More formally, that for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to it.)
  2. There is some order, some rhyme & reason & elegance, to consciousness. (More formally, the state space of consciousness has a rich set of mathematical structures.)
  3. Valence is real. (More formally, valence is an ordered property of conscious systems.)

 

Basically, they combine to say: this thing we call ‘valence’ could have a relatively simple mathematical representation. Figuring out valence might not take an AGI several million years. Instead, it could be almost embarrassingly easy.

 

Adam: Does Qualia Structuralism, Valence Structuralism and Valence Realism relate to the philosophy of physics principles of realism and structuralism? If so, is there an equivalent ontic Qualia Structuralism and Valence Structuralism?….

Mike: “Structuralism” is many things to many contexts. I use it in a specifically mathematical way, to denote that the state space of qualia quite likely embodies many mathematical structures, or properties (such as being a metric space).

Re: your question about ontics, I tend to take the empirical route and evaluate claims based on their predictions whenever possible. I don’t think predictions change if we assume realism vs structuralism in physics, so maybe it doesn’t matter. But I can get back to you on this. 🙂

 

Adam: What about the Qualia Research Institute I’ve also recently heard about :D! It seems both you (Mike) and Andrés Gómez Emilson are doing some interesting work there

Mike: We know very little about consciousness. This is a problem, for various and increasing reasons– it’s upstream of a lot of futurist-related topics.

But nobody seems to know quite where to start unraveling this mystery. The way we talk about consciousness is stuck in “alchemy mode”– we catch glimpses of interesting patterns, but it’s unclear how to systematize this into a unified framework. How to turn ‘consciousness alchemy’ into ‘consciousness chemistry’, so to speak.

Qualia Research Institute is a research collective which is working on building a new “science of qualia”. Basically, we think our “full-stack” approach cuts through all the confusion around this topic and can generate hypotheses which are novel, falsifiable, and useful.

Right now, we’re small (myself, Andres, and a few others behind the scenes) but I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, and we’ve got more exciting things in the pipeline. 🙂

Also see the 2nd part, and the 3rd part of this interview series. Also this interview with Christof Koch will likely be of interest.

 

Mike Johnson is a philosopher living in the Bay Area, writing about mind, complexity theory, and formalization. He is Co-founder of the Qualia Research Institute. Much of Mike’s research and writings can be found at the Open Theory website.
‘Principia Qualia’ is Mike’s magnum opus – a blueprint for building a new Science of Qualia. Click here for the full version, or here for an executive summary.
If you like Mike’s work, consider helping fund it at Patreon.

On Consciousness, Qualia, Valence & Intelligence with Mike Johnson

Andrés L. Gómez Emilsson

Andrés Gómez Emilsson joined in to add very insightful questions for a 3 part interview series with Mike Johnson, covering the relationship of metaphysics to qualia/consciousness/hedonic valence, and defining their terms, whether panpsychism matters, increasing sensitivity to bliss, valence variance, Effective Altruism, cause prioritization, and the importance of consciousness/valence research .
Andrés Gómez Emilsson interviews Mike Johnson

Carving Reality at the Joints

Andrés L. Gómez Emilsson: Do metaphysics matter for understanding qualia, consciousness, valence and intelligence? Mike Johnson: If we define metaphysics as the study of what exists, it absolutely does matter for understanding qualia, consciousness, and valence. I think metaphysics matters for intelligence, too, but in a different way. The big question is whether terms like qualia, consciousness, and valence “carve reality at the joints” or whether they’re emergent linguistic constructs that don’t reflect the structure of the universe. And if these things are ‘real’ in some sense, the follow-up question is: how can we formalize these concepts? Intelligence seems different: it seems like a ‘fuzzy’ concept, without a good “crisp”, or frame-invariant, definition. Andrés: What about sources of sentient valence outside of human brains? What is the “minimum viable valence organism”? What would you expect it to look like?

Mike Johnson

Mike: If some form of panpsychism is true- and it’s hard to construct a coherent theory of consciousness without allowing panpsychism- then I suspect two interesting things are true.
  1. A lot of things are probably at least a little bit conscious. The “minimum viable valence experiencer” could be pretty minimal. Both Brian Tomasik and Stuart Hameroff suggest that there could be morally-relevant experience happening at the level of fundamental physics. This seems highly counter-intuitive but also logically plausible to me.
  2. Biological organisms probably don’t constitute the lion’s share of moral experience. If there’s any morally-relevant experience that happens on small levels (e.g., quantum fuzz) or large levels (e.g., black holes, or eternal inflation), it probably outweighs what happens on Earth by many, many, many orders of magnitude. Whether it’ll outweigh the future impact of humanity on our light-cone is an open question.

The big question is whether terms like qualia, consciousness, and valence “carve reality at the joints” or whether they’re emergent linguistic constructs that don’t reflect the structure of the universe. And if these things are ‘real’ in some sense, the follow-up question is: how can we formalize these concepts?

In contrast with Brian Tomasik on this issue, I suspect (and hope) that the lion’s share of the qualia of the universe is strongly net positive. Appendix F of Principia Qualia talks a little more about this. Andrés: What would be the implications of finding a sure-fire way to induce great valence for brief moments? Could this be used to achieve “strategic alignment” across different branches of utilitarianism? Mike: A device that could temporarily cause extreme positive or negative valence on demand would immediately change the world. First, it would validate valence realism in a very visceral way. I’d say it would be the strongest philosophical argument ever made. Second, it would obviously have huge economic & ethical uses. Third, I agree that being able to induce strong positive & negative valence on demand could help align different schools of utilitarianism. Nothing would focus philosophical arguments about the discount rate between pleasure & suffering more than a (consensual!) quick blast of pure suffering followed by a quick blast of pure pleasure. Similarly, a lot of people live their lives in a rather numb state. Giving them a visceral sense that ‘life can be more than this’ could give them ‘skin in the game’. Fourth, it could mess a lot of things up. Obviously, being able to cause extreme suffering could be abused, but being able to cause extreme pleasure on-demand could lead to bad outcomes too. You (Andres) have written about wireheading before, and I agree with the game-theoretic concerns involved. I would also say that being able to cause extreme pleasure in others could be used in adversarial ways. More generally, human culture is valuable and fragile; things that could substantially disrupt it should be approached carefully. A friend of mine was describing how in the 70s, the emerging field of genetic engineering held the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA to discuss how the field should self-regulate. The next year, these guidelines were adopted by the NIH wholesale as the basis for binding regulation, and other fields (such as AI safety!) have attempted to follow the same model. So the culture around technologies may reflect a strong “founder effect”, and we should be on the lookout for a good, forward-looking set of principles for how valence technology should work. One principle that seems to make sense is to not publicly post ‘actionable’ equations, pseudocode, or code for how one could generate suffering with current computing resources (if this is indeed possible). Another principle is to focus resources on positive, eusocial applications only, insofar as that’s possible– I’m especially concerned about addiction, and bad actors ‘weaponizing’ this sort of research. Another would be to be on guard against entryism, or people who want to co-opt valence research for political ends. All of this is pretty straightforward, but it would be good to work it out a bit more formally, look at the successes and failures of other research communities, and so on.

A question I find very interesting is whether valence research is socially disruptive or socially stabilizing by default. I think we should try very hard to make it a socially stabilizing force.

A question I find very interesting is whether valence research is socially disruptive or socially stabilizing by default. I think we should try very hard to make it a socially stabilizing force. One way to think about this is in terms of existential risk. It’s a little weird to say, but I think the fact that so many people are jaded, or feel hopeless, is a big existential risk, because they feel like they have very little to lose. So they don’t really care what happens to the world, because they don’t have good qualia to look forward to, no real ‘skin in the game’. If valence tech could give people a visceral, ‘felt sense’ of wonder and possibility, I think the world could become a much safer place, because more people would viscerally care about AI safety, avoiding nuclear war, and so on. Finally, one thing that I think doesn’t make much sense is handing off the ethical issues to professional bioethicists and expecting them to be able to help much. Speaking as a philosopher, I don’t think bioethics itself has healthy community & dresearch norms (maybe bioethics needs some bioethicsethicists…). And in general, I think especially when issues are particularly complex or technical, I think the best type of research norms comes from within a community. Andrés: What is the role of valence variance in intelligence? Can a sentient being use its consciousness in any computationally fruitful way without any valence variance? Can a “perfectly flat world(-simulation)” be used for anything computational?   Mike: I think we see this today, with some people suffering from affective blunting (muted emotions) but seemingly living functional lives. More generally, what a sentient agent functionally accomplishes, and how it feels as it works toward that goal, seem to be correlated but not identical. I.e., one can vary without the other. But I don’t think that valence is completely orthogonal to behavior, either. My one-sentence explanation here is that evolution seems to have latched onto the

Why we seek out pleasure: the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation

property which corresponds to valence- which I argue is symmetry– in deep ways, and has built our brain-minds around principles of homeostatic symmetry. This naturally leads to a high variability in our valence, as our homeostatic state is perturbed and restored. Logically, we could build minds around different principles- but it might be a lot less computationally efficient to do so. We’ll see. 🙂 One angle of research here could be looking at people who suffer from affective blunting, and trying to figure out if it holds them back: what it makes them bad at doing. It’s possible that this could lead to understanding human-style intelligence better. Going a little further, we can speculate that given a certain goal or computation, there could be “valence-positive” processes that could accomplish it, and “valence-negative” processes. This implies that there’s a nascent field of “ethical computation” that would evaluate the valence of different algorithms running on different physical substrates, and choose the one that best satisfices between efficiency and valence. (This is of course a huge simplification which glosses over tons of issues…)
Andrés: What should we prioritize: super-intelligence, super-longevity or super-happiness? Does the order matter? Why? Mike: I think it matters quite a bit! For instance, I think the world looks a lot different if we figure out consciousness *before* AGI, versus if we ignore it until AGI is built. The latter seems to involve various risks that the former doesn’t. A risk that I think we both agree is serious and real is this notion of “what if accelerating technology leads to Malthusian conditions where agents don’t- and literally can’t, from a competitive standpoint- care about qualia & valence?” Robin Hanson has a great post called “This is the Dream Time” (of relaxed selection). But his book “Age of Em” posits a world where selection pressures go back up very dramatically. I think if we enter such an era without a good theory of qualia, we could trade away a lot of what makes life worth living.  
Andrés: What are some conceptual or factual errors that you see happening in the transhumanist/rationalist/EA community related to modeling qualia, valence and intelligence? Mike: First, I think it’s only fair to mention what these communities do right. I’m much more likely to have a great conversation about these topics with EAs, transhumanists, and rationalists than a random person off the street, or even a random grad student. People from this community are always smart, usually curious, often willing to explore fresh ideas and stretch their brain a bit, and sometimes able to update based on purely abstract arguments. And there’s this collective sense that ideas are important and have real implications for the future. So there’s a lot of great things happening in these communities and they’re really a priceless resource for sounding out theories, debating issues, and so on. But I would highlight some ways in which I think these communities go astray.

Computationalism, functionalism, fun theory, ‘hedonic brain regions’, ‘pleasure neurochemicals’, the reinforcement learning theory of valence, and so on all give the illusion of explanatory depth but don’t actually explain things in a way which allows us to do anything useful.

First, people don’t realize how bad most existing models of qualia & valence are. Michael Graziano argues that most theories of consciousness are worse than wrong- that they play to our intuitions but don’t actually explain anything. Computationalism, functionalism, fun theory, ‘hedonic brain regions’, ‘pleasure neurochemicals’, the reinforcement learning theory of valence, and so on all give the illusion of explanatory depth but don’t actually explain things in a way which allows us to do anything useful. Second, people don’t realize how important a good understanding of qualia & valence are. They’re upstream of basically everything interesting and desirable. Here’s what I think has happened, at least in the rationalist community: historically, consciousness research has been a black hole. Smart people go in, but nothing comes out. So communities (such as physicists and LessWrong) naturally have an interest in putting up a fence around the topic with a sign that says

historically, consciousness research has been a black hole. Smart people go in, but nothing comes out. So communities .. naturally have an interest in putting up a fence around the topic with a sign that says ‘Don’t go here!’

‘Don’t go here!’ – But over time, people forgot why the mystery was blocked off, and started to think that the mystery doesn’t exist. This leads to people actively avoiding thinking about these topics without being able to articulate why. Andrés: Is there value in studying extreme cases of valence? E.g. Buddhist monks who claim to achieve extreme sustainable bliss, or people on MDMA? Mike: ‘What science can analyze, science can duplicate.’ And studying outliers such as your examples is a time-honored way of gathering data with high signal-to-noise. So yes, definitely. 🙂
Also see the 1st part, and the 2nd part of this interview series. Also this interview with Christof Koch will likely be of interest.
 
Mike Johnson is a philosopher living in the Bay Area, writing about mind, complexity theory, and formalization. He is Co-founder of the Qualia Research Institute. Much of Mike’s research and writings can be found at the Open Theory website. ‘Principia Qualia’ is Mike’s magnum opus – a blueprint for building a new Science of Qualia. Click here for the full version, or here for an executive summary. If you like Mike’s work, consider helping fund it at Patreon.

Ethics, Qualia Research & AI Safety with Mike Johnson

What’s the relationship between valence research and AI ethics?

Hedonic valence is a measure of the quality of our felt sense of experience, the intrinsic goodness (positive valence) or averseness (negative valence) of an event, object, or situation.  It is an important aspect of conscious experience; always present in our waking lives. If we seek to understand ourselves, it makes sense to seek to understand how valence works – how to measure it and test for it.

Also, might there be a relationship to the AI safety/friendliness problem?
In this interview, we cover a lot of things, not least .. THE SINGULARITY (of course) & the importance of Valence Research to AI Friendliness Research (as detailed here). Will thinking machines require experience with valence to understand it’s importance?

Here we cover some general questions about Mike Johnson’s views on recent advances in science and technology & what he sees as being the most impactful, what world views are ready to be retired, his views on XRisk and on AI Safety – especially related to value theory.

This one part of an interview series with Mike Johnson (another section on Consciousness, Qualia, Valence & Intelligence). 

 

Adam Ford: Welcome Mike Johnson, many thanks for doing this interview. Can we start with your background?

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson: My formal background is in epistemology and philosophy of science: what do we know & how do we know it, what separates good theories from bad ones, and so on. Prior to researching qualia, I did work in information security, algorithmic trading, and human augmentation research.

 

Adam: What is the most exciting / interesting recent (scientific/engineering) news? Why is it important to you?

Mike: CRISPR is definitely up there! In a few short years precision genetic engineering has gone from a pipe dream to reality. The problem is that we’re like the proverbial dog that caught up to the car it was chasing: what do we do now? Increasingly, we can change our genome, but we have no idea how we should change our genome, and the public discussion about this seems very muddled. The same could be said about breakthroughs in AI.

 

Adam: What are the most important discoveries/inventions over the last 500 years?

Mike: Tough question. Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, Newton’s theory of gravity, Faraday & Maxwell’s theory of electricity, and the many discoveries of modern physics would all make the cut. Perhaps also the germ theory of disease. In general what makes discoveries & inventions important is when they lead to a productive new way of looking at the world.

 

Adam: What philosophical/scientific ideas are ready to be retired? What theories of valence are ready to be relegated to the dustbin of history? (Why are they still in currency? Why are they in need of being thrown away or revised?)

Mike: I think that 99% of the time when someone uses the term “pleasure neurochemicals” or “hedonic brain regions” it obscures more than it explains. We know that opioids & activity in the nucleus accumbens are correlated with pleasure– but we don’t know why, we don’t know the causal mechanism. So it can be useful shorthand to call these things “pleasure neurochemicals” and whatnot, but every single time anyone does that, there should be a footnote that we fundamentally don’t know the causal story here, and this abstraction may ‘leak’ in unexpected ways.

 

Adam: What have you changed your mind about?

Mike: Whether pushing toward the Singularity is unequivocally a good idea. I read Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near back in 2005 and loved it- it made me realize that all my life I’d been a transhumanist and didn’t know it. But twelve years later, I’m a lot less optimistic about Kurzweil’s rosy vision. Value is fragile, and there are a lot more ways that things could go wrong, than ways things could go well.

 

Adam: I remember reading Eliezer’s writings on ‘The Fragility of Value’, it’s quite interesting and worth consideration – the idea that if we don’t get AI’s value system exactly right, then it would be like pulling a random mind out of mindspace – most likely inimicable to human interests. The writing did seem quite abstract, and it would be nice to see a formal model or something concrete to show this would be the case. I’d really like to know how and why value is as fragile as Eliezer seems to make out. Is there any convincing crisply defined model supporting this thesis?

Mike: Whether the ‘Complexity of Value Thesis’ is correct is super important. Essentially, the idea is that we can think of what humans find valuable as a tiny location in a very large, very high-dimensional space– let’s say 1000 dimensions for the sake of argument. Under this framework, value is very fragile; if we move a little bit in any one of these 1000 dimensions, we leave this special zone and get a future that doesn’t match our preferences, desires, and goals. In a word, we get something worthless (to us). This is perhaps most succinctly put by Eliezer in “Value is fragile”:

“If you loose the grip of human morals and metamorals – the result is not mysterious and alien and beautiful by the standards of human value. It is moral noise, a universe tiled with paperclips. To change away from human morals in the direction of improvement rather than entropy, requires a criterion of improvement; and that criterion would be physically represented in our brains, and our brains alone. … You want a wonderful and mysterious universe? That’s your value. … Valuable things appear because a goal system that values them takes action to create them. … if our values that prefer it are physically obliterated – or even disturbed in the wrong dimension. Then there is nothing left in the universe that works to make the universe valuable.”

If this frame is right, then it’s going to be really really really hard to get AGI right, because one wrong step in programming will make the AGI depart from human values, and “there will be nothing left to want to bring it back.” Eliezer, and I think most of the AI safety community assumes this.

But– and I want to shout this from the rooftops– the complexity of value thesis is just a thesis! Nobody knows if it’s true. An alternative here would be, instead of trying to look at value in terms of goals and preferences, we look at it in terms of properties of phenomenological experience. This leads to what I call the Unity of Value Thesis, where all the different manifestations of valuable things end up as special cases of a more general, unifying principle (emotional valence). What we know from neuroscience seems to support this: Berridge and Kringelbach write about how “The available evidence suggests that brain mechanisms involved in fundamental pleasures (food and sexual pleasures) overlap with those for higher-order pleasures (for example, monetary, artistic, musical, altruistic, and transcendent pleasures).” My colleague Andres Gomez Emilsson writes about this in The Tyranny of the Intentional Object. Anyway, if this is right, then the AI safety community could approach the Value Problem and Value Loading Problem much differently.

 

Adam: I’m also interested in the nature of possible attractors that agents might ‘extropically’ gravitate towards (like a thirst for useful and interesting novelty, generative and non-regressive, that might not neatly fit categorically under ‘happiness’) – I’m not wholly convinced that they exist, but if one leans away from moral relativism, it makes sense that a superintelligence may be able to discover or extrapolate facts from all physical systems in the universe, not just humans, to determine valuable futures and avoid malignant failure modes (Coherent Extrapolated Value if you will). Being strongly locked into optimizing human values may be a non-malignant failure mode.

Mike: What you write reminds me of Schmidhuber’s notion of a ‘compression drive’: we’re drawn to interesting things because getting exposed to them helps build our ‘compression library’ and lets us predict the world better. But this feels like an instrumental goal, sort of a “Basic AI Drives” sort of thing. Would definitely agree that there’s a danger of getting locked into a good-yet-not-great local optima if we hard optimize on current human values.

Probably the danger is larger than that too– as Eric Schwitzgebel notes​, ​

“Common sense is incoherent in matters of metaphysics. There’s no way to develop an ambitious, broad-ranging, self- consistent metaphysical system without doing serious violence to common sense somewhere. It’s just impossible. Since common sense is an inconsistent system, you can’t respect it all. Every metaphysician will have to violate it somewhere.”

If we lock in human values based on common sense, we’re basically committing to following an inconsistent formal system. I don’t think most people realize how badly that will fail.

 

Adam: What invention or idea will change everything?

Mike: A device that allows people to explore the space of all possible qualia in a systematic way. Right now, we do a lot of weird things to experience interesting qualia: we drink fermented liquids, smoke various plant extracts, strap ourselves into rollercoasters, and parachute out of plans, and so on, to give just a few examples. But these are very haphazard ways to experience new qualia! When we’re able to ‘domesticate’ and ‘technologize’ qualia, like we’ve done with electricity, we’ll be living in a new (and, I think, incredibly exciting) world.

 

Adam: What are you most concerned about? What ought we be worrying about?

Mike: I’m worried that society’s ability to coordinate on hard things seems to be breaking down, and about AI safety. Similarly, I’m also worried about what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls ‘Moore’s Law of Mad Science’, that steady technological progress means that ‘every eighteen months the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point’. But I think some very smart people are worrying about these things, and are trying to address them.

In contrast, almost no one is worrying that we don’t have good theories of qualia & valence. And I think we really, really ought to, because they’re upstream of a lot of important things, and right now they’re “unknown unknowns”- we don’t know what we don’t know about them.

One failure case that I worry about is that we could trade away what makes life worth living in return for some minor competitive advantage. As Bostrom notes in Superintelligence,

“When it becomes possible to build architectures that could not be implemented well on biological neural networks, new design space opens up; and the global optima in this extended space need not resemble familiar types of mentality. Human-like cognitive organizations would then lack a niche in a competitive post-transition economy or ecosystem. We could thus imagine, as an extreme case, a technologically highly advanced society, containing many complex structures, some of them far more intricate and intelligent than anything that exists on the planet today – a society which nevertheless lacks any type of being that is conscious or whose welfare has moral significance. In a sense, this would be an uninhabited society. It would be a society of economic miracles and technological awesomeness, with nobody there to benefit. A Disneyland with no children.”

Nick Bostrom

Now, if we don’t know how qualia works, I think this is the default case. Our future could easily be a technological wonderland, but with very little subjective experience. “A Disneyland with no children,” as Bostrom quips.

 

 

Adam: How would you describe your ethical views? What are your thoughts on the relative importance of happiness vs. suffering? Do things besides valence have intrinsic moral importance?

Mike: Good question. First, I’d just like to comment that Principia Qualia is a descriptive document; it doesn’t make any normative claims.

I think the core question in ethics is whether there are elegant ethical principles to be discovered, or not. Whether we can find some sort of simple description or efficient compression scheme for ethics, or if ethics is irreducibly complex & inconsistent.

The most efficient compression scheme I can find for ethics, that seems to explain very much with very little, and besides that seems intuitively plausible, is the following:

  1. Strictly speaking, conscious experience is necessary for intrinsic moral significance. I.e., I care about what happens to dogs, because I think they’re conscious; I don’t care about what happens to paperclips, because I don’t think they are.
  2. Some conscious experiences do feel better than others, and all else being equal, pleasant experiences have more value than unpleasant experiences.

Beyond this, though, I think things get very speculative. Is valence the only thing that has intrinsic moral importance? I don’t know. On one hand, this sounds like a bad moral theory, one which is low-status, has lots of failure-modes, and doesn’t match all our intuitions. On the other hand, all other systematic approaches seem even worse. And if we can explain the value of most things in terms of valence, then Occam’s Razor suggests that we should put extra effort into explaining everything in those terms, since it’d be a lot more elegant. So– I don’t know that valence is the arbiter of all value, and I think we should be actively looking for other options, but I am open to it. That said I strongly believe that we should avoid premature optimization, and we should prioritize figuring out the details of consciousness & valence (i.e. we should prioritize research over advocacy).

Re: the relative importance of happiness vs suffering, it’s hard to say much at this point, but I’d expect that if we can move valence research to a more formal basis, there will be an implicit answer to this embedded in the mathematics.

Perhaps the clearest and most important ethical view I have is that ethics must ultimately “compile” to physics. What we value and what we disvalue must ultimately cash out in terms of particle arrangements & dynamics, because these are the only things we can actually change. And so if people are doing ethics without caring about making their theories cash out in physical terms, they’re not actually doing ethics- they’re doing art, or social signaling, or something which can serve as the inspiration for a future ethics.

Perhaps the clearest and most important ethical view I have is that ethics must ultimately “compile” to physics. What we value and what we disvalue must ultimately cash out in terms of particle arrangements & dynamics, because these are the only things we can actually change.

The analogy I’d offer here is that we can think about our universe as a computer, and ethics as choosing a program to run on this computer. Unfortunately, most ethicists aren’t writing machine-code, or even thinking about things in ways that could be easily translated to machine-code. Instead, they’re writing poetry about the sorts of programs that might be nice to run. But you can’t compile poetry to machine-code! So I hope the field of ethics becomes more physics-savvy and quantitative (although I’m not optimistic this will happen quickly).

Eliezer Yudkowsky refers to something similar with his notions of “AI grade philosophy”, “compilable philosophy”, and “computable ethics”, though I don’t think he quite goes far enough (i.e., all the way to physics).

 

Adam: What excites you? What do you think we have reason to be optimistic about?

Mike: The potential of qualia research to actually make peoples’ lives better in concrete, meaningful ways. Medicine’s approach to pain management and treatment of affective disorders are stuck in the dark ages because we don’t know what pain is. We don’t know why some mental states hurt. If we can figure that out, we can almost immediately help a lot of people, and probably unlock a surprising amount of human potential as well. What does the world look like with sane, scientific, effective treatments for pain & depression & akrasia? I think it’ll look amazing.

 

Adam: If you were to take a stab at forecasting the Intelligence Explosion – in what timeframe do you think it might happen (confidence intervals allowed)?

Mike: I don’t see any intractable technical hurdles to an Intelligence Explosion: the general attitude in AI circles seems to be that progress is actually happening a lot more quickly than expected, and that getting to human-level AGI is less a matter of finding some fundamental breakthrough, and more a matter of refining and connecting all the stuff we already know how to do.

The real unknown, I think, is the socio-political side of things. AI research depends on a stable, prosperous society able to support it and willing to ‘roll the dice’ on a good outcome, and peering into the future, I’m not sure we can take this as a given. My predictions for an Intelligence Explosion:

  • Between ~2035-2045 if we just extrapolate research trends within the current system;
  • Between ~2080-2100 if major socio-political disruptions happen but we stabilize without too much collateral damage (e.g., non-nuclear war, drawn-out social conflict);
  • If it doesn’t happen by 2100, it probably implies a fundamental shift in our ability or desire to create an Intelligence Explosion, and so it might take hundreds of years (or never happen).

 

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? It would be unfortunate if a whole lot of awesome stuff were to happen with no one around to experience it.  <!–If a rainbow appears in a universe, and there is no one around to experience it, is it beautiful?–>

Also see the 2nd part, and 3nd part (conducted by Andrés Gómez Emilson) of this interview series conducted by Andrés Gómez Emilson and this interview with Christof Koch will likely be of interest.

 

Mike Johnson is a philosopher living in the Bay Area, writing about mind, complexity theory, and formalization. He is Co-founder of the Qualia Research Institute. Much of Mike’s research and writings can be found at the Open Theory website.
‘Principia Qualia’ is Mike’s magnum opus – a blueprint for building a new Science of Qualia. Click here for the full version, or here for an executive summary.
If you like Mike’s work, consider helping fund it at Patreon.

Science, Mindfulness & the Urgency of Reducing Suffering – Christof Koch

In this interview with Christof Koch, he shares some deeply felt ideas about the urgency of reducing suffering (with some caveats), his experience with mindfulness – explaining what it was like to visit the Dali Lama for a week, as well as a heart felt experience of his family dog ‘Nosey’ dying in his arms, and how that moved him to become a vegetarian. He also discusses the bias of human exceptionalism, the horrors of factory farming of non-human animals, as well as a consequentialist view on animal testing.
Christof Koch is an American neuroscientist best known for his work on the neural bases of consciousness.

Christof Koch is the President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. From 1986 until 2013, he was a professor at the California Institute of Technology. http://www.klab.caltech.edu/koch/

Towards the Abolition of Suffering Through Science

An online panel focusing on reducing suffering & paradise engineering through the lens of science.

Panelists: Andrés Gómez Emilsson, David Pearce, Brian Tomasik and Mike Johnson

Note, consider skipping to to 10:19 to bypass some audio problems in the beginning!!


Topics

Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Qualia computing (how to use consciousness for information processing, and why that has ethical implications)

  • How do we know consciousness is causally efficacious? Because we are conscious and evolution can only recruit systems/properties when they do something (and they do it better than the available alternatives).
  • What is consciousness’ purpose on animals?  (Information processing).
  • What is consciousness’ comparative advantage?  (Phenomenal binding).
  • Why does this matter for suffering reduction? Suffering has functional properties that play a role in the inclusive fitness of organisms. If we figure out exactly what role they play (by reverse-engineering the computational properties of consciousness), we can substitute them by equally (or better) functioning non-conscious or positive hedonic-tone analogues.
  • What is the focus of Qualia Computing? (it focuses on basic fundamental questions and simple experimental paradigms to get at them (e.g. computational properties of visual qualia via psychedelic psychophysics)).

Brian Tomasik:

  • Space colonization “Colonization of space seems likely to increase suffering by creating (literally) astronomically more minds than exist on Earth, so we should push for policies that would make a colonization wave more humane, such as not propagating wild-animal suffering to other planets or in virtual worlds.”
  • AGI safety “It looks likely that artificial general intelligence (AGI) will be developed in the coming decades or centuries, and its initial conditions and control structures may make an enormous impact to the dynamics, values, and character of life in the cosmos.”,
  • Animals and insects “Because most wild animals die, often painfully, shortly after birth, it’s plausible that suffering dominates happiness in nature. This is especially plausible if we extend moral considerations to smaller creatures like the ~1019 insects on Earth, whose collective neural mass outweighs that of humanity by several orders of magnitude.”

Mike Johnson:

  • If we successfully “reverse-engineer” the patterns for pain and pleasure, what does ‘responsible disclosure’ look like? Potential benefits and potential for abuse both seem significant.
  • If we agree that valence is a pattern in a dataset, what’s a good approach to defining the dataset, and what’s a good heuristic for finding the pattern?
  • What order of magnitude is the theoretical potential of mood enhancement? E.g., 2x vs 10x vs 10^10x
  • What are your expectations of the distribution of suffering in the world? What proportion happens in nature vs within the boundaries of civilization? What are counter-intuitive sources of suffering? Do we know about ~90% of suffering on the earth, or ~.001%?
  • Valence Research, The Mystery of Pain & Pleasure.
  • Why is it such an exciting time round about now to be doing valence research?  Are we at a sweet spot in history with this regard?  What is hindering valence research? (examples of muddled thinking, cultural barriers etc?)
  • How do we use the available science to improve the QALY? GiveDirectly has used change in cortisol levels to measure effectiveness, and the EU (what’s EU stand for?) evidently does something similar involving cattle. It seems like a lot of the pieces for a more biologically-grounded QALY- and maybe a SQALY (Species and Quality-Adjusted Life-Year)- are available, someone just needs to put them together. I suspect this one of the lowest-hanging highest-leverage research fruits.

David Pearce: The ultimate scope of our moral responsibilities. Assume for a moment that our main or overriding goal should be to minimise and ideally abolish involuntary suffering. I typically assume that (a) only biological minds suffer and (b) we are probably alone within our cosmological horizon. If so, then our responsibility is “only” to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering here on Earth and make sure it doesn’t spread or propagate outside our solar system. But Brian, for instance, has quite a different metaphysics of mind, most famously that digital characters in video games can suffer (now only a little – but in future perhaps a lot). The ramifications here for abolitionist bioethics are far-reaching.

 

Other:
– Valence research, Qualia computing (how to use consciousness for information processing, and why that has ethical implications),  animal suffering, insect suffering, developing an ethical Nozick’s Experience Machine, long term paradise engineering, complexity and valence
– Effective Altruism/Cause prioritization and suffering reduction – People’s practical recommendations for the best projects that suffering reducers can work on (including where to donate, what research topics to prioritize, what messages to spread). – So cause prioritization applied directly to the abolition of suffering?
– what are the best projects people can work on to reduce suffering? and what to work on first? (including where to donate, what research topics to prioritize, what messages to spread)
– If we successfully “reverse-engineer” the patterns for pain and pleasure, what does ‘responsible disclosure’ look like? Potential benefits and potential for abuse both seem significant
– If we agree that valence is a pattern in a dataset, what’s a good approach to defining the dataset, and what’s a good heuristic for finding the pattern?
– What order of magnitude is the theoretical potential of mood enhancement? E.g., 2x vs 10x vs 10^10x

Panelists

David Pearce: http://hedweb.com/
Mike Johnson: http://opentheory.net/
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: http://qualiacomputing.com/
Brain Tomasik: http://reducing-suffering.org/

 

#hedweb ‪#EffectiveAltruism ‪#HedonisticImperative ‪#AbolitionistProject

The event was hosted on the 10th of August 2015, Venue: The Internet

Towards the Abolition of Suffering Through Science was hosted by Adam Ford for Science, Technology and the Future.

Towards the Abolition of Suffering Through Science

Towards the Abolition of Suffering Through Science

One Big Misconception About Consciousness – Christof Koch

Christof Koch (Allen Institute for Brain Science) discusses Shannon information and it’s theoretical limitations in explaining consciousness –

Information Theory misses a critical aspect of consciousnessChristof Koch

Christof argues that we don’t need observers to have conscious experiences (other poeple, god, etc), the underlying assumptions behind traditional information theory assumes Shannon information – and that a big misconception about the structure of consciousness stems from this idea – assuming that Shannon information is enough to explain consciousness.  Shannon information is about “sending information from a channel to a receiver – consciousness isn’t about sending anything to anybody.”  So what other kind of information is there?

The ‘information’ in Integrated Information Theory (IIT) does not refer to Shannon information.  Etymologically, the word ‘information’ derives from ‘informare’ – “it refers to information in the original sense of the word ‘Informare’ – to give form to” – that is to give form to a high dimensional structure.

 

 

It’s worth noting that many disagree with Integrated Information Theory – including Scott Aaronson – see here, here and here.

 

See interview below:

“It’s a theory that proceeds from phenomenology to as it were mechanisms in physics”.

IIT is also described in Christof Koch’s Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist’.

Axioms and postulates of integrated information theory

5 axioms / essential properties of experience of consciousness that are foundation to IIT – the intent is to capture the essential aspects of all conscious experience. Each axiom should apply to every possible experience.

  • Intrinsic existence: Consciousness exists: each experience is actual—indeed, that my experience here and now exists (it is real) is the only fact I can be sure of immediately and absolutely. Moreover, my experience exists from its own intrinsic perspective, independent of external observers (it is intrinsically real or actual).
  • Composition: Consciousness is structured: each experience is composed of multiple phenomenological distinctions, elementary or higher-order. For example, within one experience I may distinguish a book, a blue color, a blue book, the left side, a blue book on the left, and so on.
  • Information: Consciousness is specific: each experience is the particular way it is—being composed of a specific set of specific phenomenal distinctions—thereby differing from other possible experiences (differentiation). For example, an experience may include phenomenal distinctions specifying a large number of spatial locations, several positive concepts, such as a bedroom (as opposed to no bedroom), a bed (as opposed to no bed), a book (as opposed to no book), a blue color (as opposed to no blue), higher-order “bindings” of first-order distinctions, such as a blue book (as opposed to no blue book), as well as many negative concepts, such as no bird (as opposed to a bird), no bicycle (as opposed to a bicycle), no bush (as opposed to a bush), and so on. Similarly, an experience of pure darkness and silence is the particular way it is—it has the specific quality it has (no bedroom, no bed, no book, no blue, nor any other object, color, sound, thought, and so on). And being that way, it necessarily differs from a large number of alternative experiences I could have had but I am not actually having.
  • Integration: Consciousness is unified: each experience is irreducible to non-interdependent, disjoint subsets of phenomenal distinctions. Thus, I experience a whole visual scene, not the left side of the visual field independent of the right side (and vice versa). For example, the experience of seeing the word “BECAUSE” written in the middle of a blank page is irreducible to an experience of seeing “BE” on the left plus an experience of seeing “CAUSE” on the right. Similarly, seeing a blue book is irreducible to seeing a book without the color blue, plus the color blue without the book.
  • Exclusion: Consciousness is definite, in content and spatio-temporal grain: each experience has the set of phenomenal distinctions it has, neither less (a subset) nor more (a superset), and it flows at the speed it flows, neither faster nor slower. For example, the experience I am having is of seeing a body on a bed in a bedroom, a bookcase with books, one of which is a blue book, but I am not having an experience with less content—say, one lacking the phenomenal distinction blue/not blue, or colored/not colored; or with more content—say, one endowed with the additional phenomenal distinction high/low blood pressure. Moreover, my experience flows at a particular speed—each experience encompassing say a hundred milliseconds or so—but I am not having an experience that encompasses just a few milliseconds or instead minutes or hours.

So, does IIT solve what David Chalmers calls the “Hard Problem of consciousness”?

Christof Koch  is an American neuroscientist best known for his work on the neural bases of consciousness. He is the President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. From 1986 until 2013, he was a professor at the California Institute of Technology.

This interview is a short section of a larger interview which will be released at a later date.

The future of neuroscience and understanding the complexity of the human mind – Brains and Computers

Two of the world’s leading brain researchers will come together to discuss some of the latest international efforts to understand the brain. They will discuss two massive initiatives – the US based Allen Institute for Brain Science and European Human Brain Project. By combining neuroscience with the power of computing both projects are harnessing the efforts of hundreds of neuroscientists in unprecedented collaborations aimed at unravelling the mysteries of the human brain.

This unique FREE public event, hosted by ABC Radio and TV personality Bernie Hobbs, will feature two presentations by each brain researcher followed by an interactive discussion with the audience.

This is your chance to ask the big brain questions.

[Event Registration Page] | [Meetup Event Page]

ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function

Monday, 3 April 2017 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm (AEST)

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre
2 Clarendon Street
enter via the main Exhibition Centre entrance, opposite Crown Casino
South Wharf, VIC 3006 Australia

Professor Christof Koch
President and Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Science, USA

Professor Koch leads a large scale, 10-year effort to build brain observatories to map, analyse and understand the mouse and human cerebral cortex. His work integrates theoretical, computational and experimental neuroscience. Professor Koch pioneered the scientific study of consciousness with his long-time collaborator, the late Nobel laureate Francis Crick. Learn more about the Allen Institute for Brain Science and Christof Koch.

Professor Karlheinz Meier
Co-Director and Vice Chair of the Human Brain Project
Professor of Physics, University of Heidelberg, Germany

Professor Meier is a physicist working on unravelling theoretical principles of brain information processing and transferring them to novel computer architectures. He has led major European initiatives that combine neuroscience with information science. Professor Meier is a co-founder of the European Human Brain Project where he leads the research to create brain-inspired computing paradigms. Learn more about the Human Brain Project and Karlheinz Meier.

 

 

This event is brought to you by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function.

Discovering how the brain interacts with the world.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function is supported by the Australian Research Council.

Consciousness in Biological and Artificial Brains – Prof Christof Koch

Event Description: Human and non-human animals not only act in the world but are capable of conscious experience. That is, it feels like something to have a brain and be cold, angry or see red. I will discuss the scientific progress that has been achieved over the past decades in characterizing the behavioral and the neuronal correlates of consciousness, based on clinical case studies as well as laboratory experiments. I will introduce the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) that explains in a principled manner which physical systems are capable of conscious, subjective experience. The theory explains many biological and medical facts about consciousness and its pathologies in humans, can be extrapolated to more difficult cases, such as fetuses, mice, or non-mammalian brains and has been used to assess the presence of consciousness in individual patients in the clinic. IIT also explains why consciousness evolved by natural selection. The theory predicts that deep convolutional networks and von Neumann computers would experience next to nothing, even if they perform tasks that in humans would be associated with conscious experience and even if they were to run software faithfully simulating the human brain.

[Meetup Event Page]

Supported by The Florey Institute of Neuroscience & Mental Health, the University of Melbourne and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function.

 

 

Who: Prof Christof Koch, President and Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Sciences, Seattle, USA

Venue: Melbourne Brain Centre, Ian Potter Auditorium, Ground Floor, Kenneth Myer Building (Building 144), Genetics Lane, 30 Royal Parade, University of Melbourne, Parkville

This will be of particular interest to those who know of David Pearce, Andreas Gomez, Mike Johnson and Brian Tomasik’s works – see this online panel:

Zombie Rights

andrew-dun-zombie-rightsAndrew Dun provides an interesting discussion on the rights of sentient entities. Drawing inspiration from quantum complementarity, defends a complementary notion of ontological dualism, countering zombie hypotheses. Sans zombie concerns, ethical discussions should therefore focus on assessing consciousness purely in terms of the physical-functional properties of any putatively conscious entity.

Below is the video of the presentation:

At 12:17 point, Andrew introduces the notion of Supervenience (where high level properties supervene on low-level properties) – do zombies have supervenience? Is consciousness merely a supervenient property that supervenes on characteristics of brain states? If so, we should be able to compute whether a system is conscious (if we do know its full physical characterization). The zombie hypothesis suggests that consciousness does not logically supervene on the physical.

Slides for presentation can be found on slide-share!


Andrew Dun spoke at the Singularity Summit. Talk title : “Zombie Rights”.

Andrew’s research interest relates to both the ontology and ethics of consciousness. Andrew is interested in the ethical significance of consciousness, including the way in which our understanding of consciousness impacts our treatment of other humans, non-human animals, and artifacts. Andrew defends the view that the relationship between physical and conscious properties is one of symmetrical representation, rather than supervenience. Andrew argues that on this basis we can confidently approach ethical questions about consciousness from the perspective of ‘common-sense’ materialism.

Andrew also composes and performs original music.