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← What is the secret of consciousness? | Steve Grand | TEDxOporto

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Showing Revision 16 created 03/24/2020 by Peter van de Ven.

  1. Hi.
  2. I have no idea
    what Milton just said, so -
  3. (Laughter)
  4. If it was bad,
    you will tell me, won't you?
  5. (Laughter)
  6. We human beings can be
    quite clever when we try,
  7. and over the centuries
    we've managed to solve
  8. many of the great mysteries
    of the world, of life.
  9. We know now that the sky is not really
    held up with four tent poles
  10. and that stars are not really
    tiny little things.
  11. They're just a very long way away.
  12. We even know that teenagers
    are not really possessed by demons.
  13. (Laughter)
  14. They're just clinically insane.
  15. (Laughter)
  16. But there are still some mysteries left.
  17. There's the origin of the universe.
  18. That's quite a big one.
  19. And there's a lot of mysteries
    about how a tiny little egg cell
  20. can grow and develop
  21. into something as complex and wonderful
    and tremendously attractive as you.
  22. And there's the mystery of consciousness,
    the great secret of consciousness.
  23. How come there's a me
    inside my head looking out?
  24. I'd love to talk to you
    about all three of those things,
  25. but I only have thirteen minutes,
  26. so I'm just going to solve
    the secret of consciousness.
  27. I don't want to leave you in suspense,
  28. because frankly, when you hear the answer,
  29. you're just going to be
    bitterly disappointed anyway.
  30. So I'll tell you the secret straightaway,
  31. and then I'll try to make you
    feel better about it.
  32. So, okay, here we go. Are you ready?
  33. The great secret of consciousness is ...
  34. No, actually, I'll tell you a story first.
  35. (Laughter)
  36. When my son Christopher
    was a little boy, about that big,
  37. one of his teachers asked him
  38. what he wanted to be,
    what he wanted to do when he grew up.
  39. And Christopher very confidently answered,
  40. "I want to study how one thing
    affects another."
  41. And as career plans go,
  42. I think his teacher felt
    that was a little bit vague,
  43. but I was really proud of him.
  44. For a start, you can never be unemployed
    with a skill like that, can you?
  45. (Laughter)
  46. You want to solve the problems of cancer,
  47. you want to find out why wars get started,
  48. you want to design better spacecraft,
  49. who better to ask than somebody who knows
    how one thing leads to another?
  50. But he was right.
  51. You can study how one thing
    affects another.
  52. It's called cybernetics, in fact.
  53. Because there's not that many ways
    in which one thing can affect another.
  54. And if you're quite good at patterns,
  55. you start to see that the same
    kinds of dynamics
  56. occur in many, many levels of scale.
  57. Chris was kind of simplifying -
    because it was a teacher, you know -
  58. and what he really meant
    was not how one thing affects another,
  59. but how one thing affects another
    that affects the first thing again.
  60. So something called
    circular causality or feedback,
  61. and cybernetics is the study of feedback.
  62. This is really important
  63. because basically everything
    you see around you
  64. exists because of feedback.
  65. The atoms in the seat in front of you,
  66. the mind and the body
    of the person sitting in that seat,
  67. the words I'm using, Portugal, even TED.
  68. All of these things exist
    because of feedback,
  69. because they are self-reinforcing
    or self-regulating in some way.
  70. Because if they weren't,
    they'd just disappear.
  71. So everything is feedback
    and feedback is everything.
  72. Anyway, where was I?
    Consciousness. Alright. This time.
  73. (Laughter)
  74. The great secret of consciousness is ...
  75. By the way,
  76. (Laughter)
  77. have you ever spent much time
    thinking about the fact
  78. that you are actually
    a colony of single-celled creatures?
  79. It's kind of freaky,
    but it's also quite wonderful.
  80. You are.
  81. You are a society
    of 100 trillion little creatures,
  82. and 90% of them are bacteria,
    which is kind of embarrassing,
  83. but you can't live without them,
    so collectively they're you.
  84. And even the ones that have human genes,
  85. they're really just
    little single-celled animals,
  86. and they reproduce asexually;
  87. they divide into two, then four,
    then eight and sixteen.
  88. And almost the only thing
    that's special about them
  89. is the fact that they're covered in glue,
  90. so they kind of end up
    stuck together in a lump
  91. instead of swimming off and living
    happy independent lives.
  92. So basically you are a lump
    of sticky little creatures.
  93. The reason I tell you this partly is
  94. that it kind of explains
    what I do for a living.
  95. I work in a field called artificial life,
  96. which basically means
    using technology to explore biology.
  97. And so I spend my days
    making artificial creatures.
  98. Sometimes robots.
  99. In fact I have a full-sized female,
    mini-skirted robot sitting in my bedroom,
  100. (Laughter)
  101. which causes a big shock
    to anyone who comes in
  102. to do something in my apartment.
  103. But mostly, I make virtual creatures
    that live inside a computer.
  104. The only thing worth knowing about this
    is that they are also communities.
  105. So I don't try to program computers
    to behave like animals;
  106. I try to program computers
    to behave like brain cells
  107. and kidney cells and liver cells,
  108. and then I try to find ways
    to plug them together into systems,
  109. into communities,
  110. that collectively have thoughts
    and feelings and hopes and dreams.
  111. And many, many years ago,
    about 20,000 years ago,
  112. I took some of my little creatures
    and put them into a computer game
  113. and let people play with them,
  114. and the results were wonderful.
  115. At least a million people
    started looking after my little creatures,
  116. and they did great things.
  117. They would set up adoption agencies,
  118. write lots of stories,
  119. do scientific experiments on them,
  120. study their genetics.
  121. Actually quite a lot of them went on,
  122. when they grew up,
  123. they went on to become
    scientists and stuff,
  124. because of the experiments
    they had been doing
  125. on my little artificial life forms.
  126. But the most important thing
    was that they asked a lot of questions,
  127. deep questions about what is life,
    what is the mind, what is consciousness.
  128. And I just loved that;
    it made my whole life worth living.
  129. Because these questions really matter.
  130. How do we know,
    how can we make good judgements
  131. about ethical questions
    like abortion or animal cruelty
  132. if we don't know what consciousness is?
  133. You can't be cruel to something
    unless it knows you're being cruel to it.
  134. But how do we know whether it knows?
  135. I live in America,
  136. and over there, abortion
    is a huge political subject.
  137. It sometimes seems to me
    like half the population believe this,
  138. and the other half
    of the population believe that.
  139. They can't both be right.
    They could of course both be wrong.
  140. Are they sitting down
    around a really long table,
  141. having discussions and trying to work out
    what the right answer is about abortion?
  142. Well no, of course not. It's America.
    They just shoot each other.
  143. (Laughter)
  144. So it's a mess.
  145. We don't know what we're talking about,
  146. and part of the reason is,
    I think, that we're stuck.
  147. We're stuck, we can't move
    forward with these problems,
  148. because we don't know
    what the secret of consciousness is.
  149. I guess that's me there.
    Third time lucky, I'll tell you.
  150. This time, I'll tell you,
    and you're not going to like it.
  151. Alright, so the great secret
    of consciousness is ...
  152. that there is no secret of consciousness.
  153. (Laughter)
  154. I'll tell you the bad news first,
  155. and then I'll try to convince you
    that it's actually good news.
  156. The thing is -
  157. Over the last few years,
    I've been building some new creatures,
  158. and I really think that now,
  159. I am starting to get a glimmer
    of consciousness out of these creatures.
  160. And for me that's great.
  161. I really wanted to bring them along.
  162. I'm so sorry, but they misbehaved
    and I just couldn't do it.
  163. (Laughter)
  164. So for me it's great
    because this is my life's work.
  165. I've spent 35 years doing this stuff,
  166. and it's nice to feel that I'm starting
    to get close to something.
  167. But a lot of people don't feel
    that way about these things,
  168. because these creatures are artificial.
  169. They live in a computer.
  170. So they can't have a supernatural soul,
  171. and they can't even have freaky,
    weird things like quantum mechanics
  172. to explain the consciousness
    and all the other things that we concoct
  173. to try to make ourselves feel better
    about how special we are.
  174. They're machines,
  175. and therefore, if I'm right, so are we,
  176. and nobody wants to be called a machine.
  177. You just don't want to tell people that.
    They don't want to be it.
  178. It's not exactly special,
    and machines wear out.
  179. So what do I do?
  180. What do you do if it bothers you?
  181. Well, all that stuff I was telling you
  182. about Christopher and feedback
    and collections of little cells,
  183. that's where the answer lies.
  184. I can't explain it to you now,
    but if you want to know
  185. how to deal with the fact
    that we are machines -
  186. and that's not a bad thing -
    that's where to look.
  187. But let me try and finish
    with a cosmogony,
  188. a little story of a better origins,
  189. the creation story.
  190. You know the biblical creation story.
  191. Basically, God created the universe
    perfect and fully formed,
  192. and then some people came along
    and screwed it all up,
  193. and it's all been downhill ever since.
  194. So that creation story
    is all about decline and decay.
  195. But in my field, complexity studies,
  196. complexity theory,
  197. we can offer a different kind
    of creation story.
  198. And in that story the universe
    wasn't created fully formed and perfect;
  199. it was very, very simple and very, very,
    very, very, very, very boring.
  200. But it's a creative universe,
    a self-organizing universe,
  201. a universe that discovers and invents
    things that didn't exist before -
  202. all the time.
  203. Essentially thanks
    to the power of feedback,
  204. an empty universe once discovered
    how to make matter out of empty space.
  205. And once it had figured out
    how to make matter
  206. and the matter cooled down enough,
  207. it discovered it could do
    chemistry with it.
  208. And the chemistry practiced and practiced
    and practiced for billions of years
  209. and eventually figured out
    it could make life.
  210. And then as soon as life showed up,
    it was never going to go away again,
  211. so it experimented with different ways
  212. of plugging cells together
    into communities
  213. to do different things
    that enabled it to survive,
  214. made it self-sustaining,
  215. and during that process, eventually,
  216. it needed to build models of the world
  217. so that it could make plans
    and predict things,
  218. and I think that's where
    consciousness came from.
  219. So it's just what happens
    when a certain kind of machine is working.
  220. There's nothing freaky about it.
  221. But this is a pretty cool universe
  222. because we emerged out of all this.
  223. So what I'm saying is that,
  224. yes, we are machines,
    but we're not just machines;
  225. we're amazing machines.
  226. We're the product
    of 14 billion years of experiment
  227. by an incredibly creative universe.
  228. And so hopefully that makes you
    feel a little bit better
  229. about being a machine.
  230. So my advice is to try
    and embrace you're in a machine,
  231. and it's not a bad thing to be.
  232. So thank you.
  233. (Applause)