In the second part of this blog series, we will look at three episodes where proposed technologies involve human consciousness. We will see if these technologies can become real possibilities in the near future. If you have not seen the episodes, do not worry, spoilers are kept at a minimum! You can also read part 1 here.
In White Christmas, people can create copies of their own consciousness and put them into a small device that is called “cookie.” The copied consciousness inside the cookie will be able to serve as a smart assistant that knows all preferences of the client. Additionally, this technology can be used for copying the consciousness of suspects into a cookie and simulating 1,000 years of solitary confinement in 1 minute for that given consciousness, and use it for punishment/interrogation purposes. In case of the personal assistant, the copied consciousness can be punished by the same method for any insubordination.
While theoretically possible (in a very dark and distant future!), such technology is not even on the horizon today. This is because underlying mechanisms of consciousness are still unknown. More specifically, theories of consciousness are still very speculative, and testing those theories is challenging. Our best understanding of consciousness suggests that it is correlated with sharing information across different brain regions. However, when a given brain region receives information from others, its own information content is being overwritten due to this reception.
As an example, imagine that Alice and Bob both have a 10 MB thumb drive and they both have 10 MB worth of pictures on their thumb drives. If Alice wants to have some of Bob’s pictures, she has to overwrite Bob’s pictures on her own files, which means losing some of her own.
In a similar vein, when auditory cortex receives auditory information, it must share it with visual cortex to create an integrated perceptual experience while it keeps its own information intact. How do these regions share information without overwriting each other’s information? Maybe all this information is sent to another network with denser connectivity for integration, as suggested by neuronal global workspace theory of consciousness. Or maybe just a certain amount of information sharing which does not jeopardize the total amount of information in the brain is enough, as proposed by the integrated information theory for consciousness. There are some other ideas about consciousness as a state of matter (also here), suggesting that the consciousness in the brain is just like the critical state in a complex system, a state in which information sharing is maximal. However, none of these theories have been accepted as an explanation for consciousness.
Additionally, the idea that artificial consciousness on a chip can have a faster time scale assumes that our perception is somehow dependent on the timescale of our neurons (with maximum firing rate of 100-1000 action potentials per second), and therefore if we created a conscious system on a chip with a frequency of 2 billion cycles per second (2 Ghz), maybe that conscious system could perceive 1000 years of experience in a minute. This assumption also depends on the discovery of a mechanism for consciousness. However, as we mentioned before, this still eludes us. The most successful and experimentally validated efforts in this field are limited to algorithms and measures of consciousness that can distinguish different states of consciousness (i.e. anesthesia, coma, wakefulness, etc.). Therefore, this episode seems to be far from current advancements in neuroscience.
As I have shown, we are still pretty far from understanding consciousness, let alone manipulating it! I will revisit consciousness in part three of this series. In the mean time, think about your own definition or understanding of consciousness.
Edited by Benjamin Greulich and Guillaume J. Dury