About the Author
Igor Aleksander is Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Imperial College, London. Well established as a skilled and provocative communicator, he addresses both the general reader and the consciousness studies specialist.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
There is no shortage of books on consciousness, so why write another one? Over the last five years since I finished my last book something has become blindingly clear to me. Consciousness is many things: at least, as we shall see, I have identified five that seem crucial. A scan of the many of the excellent books that claim to explain consciousness does not reveal systematic attempts at breaking consciousness down into simpler elements to make the concept more accessible. This is like trying to explain how a grandfather clock works without referring to the pendulum and weights.The question was Can a Machine Be Conscious? and there was a surprising degree of agreement that one could a notion that has driven my research since the late 1980s. But looking at the arguments put forward by myself and others made me realise that the level of technical detail we use to make our respective cases is dire. This prevents communication not only among the experts but certainly between the experts and anyone out there who would like to know more about consciousness and join in the debate.
Koch talks about the neural correlates of consciousness and coalescence, Chalmers of something called the logical non- supervenience of consciousness on the physical brain and Goodman with others argues that model-referenced control systems are the answer. I talk of five formally stated axioms. This, therefore, is why I have written this book. All this specialist mumbo jumbo does map into normal language. And once fixed in normal language it may be used to answer questions that many of us have about the nature, origin and use of consciousness.
I start with five axioms there we go, why use a word such as axiom? What is it? An axiom is a plausible idea, rather than a proven truth, on which one can build sensible explanations of things. So being conscious for me breaks down into five basic ideas that raise important questions to which I try to provide plausible answers. Here are the five axioms or steps of this book and the questions that they prompt. The book is about the answers.
The major part of being conscious is my sensation of being an entity in an out-there world. How does this happen?
Another part of being conscious is that I am an entity in time: I have a remembered past and I can take a few guesses about the future. What mechanisms have this property?
It is remarkable that we have similar brain mechanisms but they lead to different personalities and different ways of being conscious. Something called attention is at work here: what is it and how does it work?
My mind seems constantly engaged in sifting choices about what to do next. How does it do this to my best advantage?
I seem to be influenced and guided by things I call emotions. What are they?
Since the mid 1990s, I also have written about the way in which machines could be conscious. I came to the conclusion that, more than a non-human animal, a conscious machine could come close to discussing its own consciousness. This does not mean that machines will compete with us in late night conversations of whether this or that philosopher is right. It does mean, however, that, having got close to the mechanisms of consciousness through the design of machines, helps to answer the axiomatic questions I raised earlier. So the ideas in this book are driven by two strong impulses. The first is that I need to be outrageously introspective. I shall talk of those strange things that I feel personally as indicators of what needs to be explained. The second is that explanations should be cast in terms of simple principles that anyone can understand. I dont want to give the impression that I am the first to have given thought to this type of deliberation. Indeed, some of the book!
discusses the fascinating and diverse thoughts of others, but my personal experience and what mechanisms might be involved are the twin schemes through which the five steps to being conscious are taken.
The first chapter (Capturing the Butterfly of Thought), owes its title from an early task we set our models of conscious mechanisms: to imagine a butterfly. This got quite a lot of undue publicity along the lines of being a break-through in building the worlds first conscious machine. Nothing could have been further from the truth: the machine called Magnus was not conscious but was the first dedicated piece of software that enabled us to study hypotheses about the way that consciousness might emerge from brain structure.
This chapter asks what is to be gained by building machines and how does this help those who do not generally build things? First, building things requires a clear definition of what will be built. Words like thought, consciousness and mind are given an operational character. Second, it establishes that being conscious is about mechanisms that make us conscious which is a saner way to go than wondering about having consciousness which promulgates the mistaken idea that consciousness is a property like having a leg or a cold. The work and ideas of others who build things are also discussed.
--This text refers to the