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5.0 out of 5 stars An intriguing book on the tremendously elusive subject of consciousness., 20 Jun. 2008
Philip Mayo - See all my reviews
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Two of the most fundamental and ever-present characteristics of the reality that we experience as human beings are that of "consciousness" and that of "free will". Both of these concepts we find extremely difficult to define, or even to think about for very long without putting our minds into tailspin.

On consciousness we may ask such things as: What makes me, "me", and you, "you"? Is it a spiritual soul that makes me, "me"? If not, then what is it? Why am "I" not "you"? I can talk to myself - who, or what, is this "I" that is talking to "myself"? Is my dog conscious? How about my cat? My goldfish? If not, why not?

On free will, which we instinctively feel that we have - and which mankind has accepted as being the basis for both our religious and temporal accountability for the actions that we take - we find that if we logically try to pin down the concept of free will, that to maintain it we must relinquish the law of cause and effect. Do we have a choice in what we decide to do? Do we actually decide at all? If every effect must have a cause (which seems reasonable) then free will does not exist. If everything that happens, including what we do, is an inevitable (although tremendously complex) outcome of a cause and effect chain, then how could we have done otherwise? And if that is true then how can we be held morally responsible, either from a religious or temporal point of view, for that which we inescapably had to do? And if I insist that I do have free will, then, does my dog have free will? My goldfish??

In an extremely interesting book Professor Aleksander attempts to take the subject of consciousness back into the scientific world. His work involves some fundamentally new approaches:

1> He suggests that as the world of consciousness lies within ourselves that any investigation of it must be based on consideration of one's own consciousness. In his case, that means from within himself. In my case, from within myself. In your case, from within yourself. This is a fundamentally subjective approach to the investigation of consciousness which is at odds with the normal rules of objectivity demanded by scientific analysis and experimentation. But there is no other way to proceed with this subject other than from within oneself. I think his decision to adopt this subjective method works well and does not undermine his overall analysis in any way.

2> From within himself he seeks to define his own consciousness, and by extension all consciousness, in terms which he describes as axiomatic. He defines features which he suggests must be present if the subject being considered is to be attributed the characteristic of consciousness. He settles on five such features, which he calls axioms, and says that if those axioms are present in the subject being considered then that subject is conscious. He makes it clear that the present extent of this axiomatic approach to definition is not presented as being final in content, but as being a beginning of an innovative scientific method in which to deal with this super-elusive concept.

3> His view is that consciousnesses is not a "thing" such as a leg, or an arm, but an emergent property of the physical operation of the brain. For instance, when we "see" things, this involves the retina of the eye converting the photons of light which fall on it into electrical and chemical signals which are then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerves, which is followed by the reaction of the brain to these signals on a physical level, firing stupendous numbers of neurons in extraordinarily complex ways, resulting in the image that we "see" of the outside world. The key thought in this is that there is no "little man" inside our brain in some tiny cinema looking at the final image produced by the brain's activity as described above. This activity does not PRODUCE an image. The activity itself IS THE IMAGE. In the same way Professor Aleksander's theory holds that the physical activity of the brain in its workings to produce thoughts, ideas, sounds, sights and everything else, is not an activity that produces a result that is then considered by a separate conscious part of us. His view is that this neuronal activity itself IS THE CONCIOUS PART OF US.

4> Finally: is my dog conscious? Is my goldfish conscious? The professor argues that this can be so if we can show that the five axiomatic characteristics apply. More intriguingly he argues that while immense scientific obstacles stand in the way of developing a conscious machine, that they are problems of scale and not of principle. Is it theoretically possible to build a conscious machine? Yes, he says, absolutely possible theoretically. I must say that I agree with him.

This is a fascinating book which makes more progress discussing the tremendously difficult concept of consciousness than I have read elsewhere to date. And free will is in there too.

On a slightly negative note I found his writing style a little heavy, perhaps more in the style of a written lecture than I would have liked. And it is a complicated read in places. I had to skim some of the more theoretical passages as to how things might work physically at brain-neuron level, but still took away from those sections the gist of his thoughts. Other parts of the book, most of it, I found absolutely riveting. As the professor himself notes, this is clearly not the last word on the subject. But it certainly points to a new way of looking at things.

By the way, my dog is definitely conscious. I bet you believe that yours is too. What about the goldfish?
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5.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps another tiny step towards the grail of machine consciousness, 8 Nov. 2010
John Ferngrove (Hants UK) - See all my reviews
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This is a must read for anyone keeping track of the literature on consciousness. It provides the A.I engineering perspective to complement that of the key philosophers; Dennett, Consciousness Explained, and Chalmers, The Conscious Mind; the neuroscientists, Edelman and Tonini, Wider Than the Sky, and the just possibly pertinent quantum voodoo of Roger Penrose, The Emperor's New Mind. Unlike any of those other texts this, unusually for the subject matter, is a refreshingly quick and easy read.

So Igor, (I like that a book on the possibility of machine consciousness should be written by someone called Igor) takes a no-nonsense operationalist approach. He begins by identifying a set of interlocking processes that would appear to be transpiring whenever consciousness is taking place, as observed in our own surface introspection, and as intuited when we infer consciousness in others, human or animal. He quite deliberately avoids consideration of the higher thought aspect of consciousness, presumably specific to humans, and so intimately bound up with language. In this way he identifies five aspects of consciousness, which he considers to be axiomatic for the analysis of issues surronding it: i) the placing of the subject in a world, that is `out there', i.e. representation, or depiction as he prefers to call it. ii) The evaluation and interpretation of the immediate world according to accumulated knowledge, that is memory and imagination. iii) The capacity to select specific features from a mass of information, according to requirements; the phenomena of attention and concentration. iv) Deciding and ordering future actions and sequences of actions; planning, command and control. v) The evaluation of the subject's present conditions and options according to a repertoire of moods and emotions. He makes no claim that these axioms are necessary or sufficient, but that they are adequate to constructively discuss a number of broad questions pertaining to consciousness, which he then proceeds to do. His chapters cover themes such as consciousness in animals, the significance of sleep, the conundrum of free will, and the issue volition in the light of Libet's notorious `readiness potential' experiment, and so on. He devotes a whole chapter to a critique of Chalmers' neo-dualism, which is still setting the agenda for much of the debate in philosophical quarters of late. This chapter is somewhat more rigorous and demanding than the rest of the book, though still nothing like as heavy going as Chalmers' original arguments.

In some ways the highlight and truly intriguing element of the book is the `back of a fag-packet' sketch of an architecture for a set of re-entrant neural nets that implement the five axioms. Though it is at this point that one has to stand back and realise that each of the component nets provides mysteries and design challenges almost as hard as the `hard problem' of consciousness itself, let alone the issue of how we would then wire them up for interaction. But if I understand what the book is saying at all, then it is that consciousness, or at least one type of consciousness, would be there in the interaction between these components. We could never prove it, never know for sure. After all we can never indubitably know that anything is conscious other than our own selves. But if we are to take our physicalism seriously, then if consciousness is to be located anywhere, it is going to be in such systems.

In earlier days of artificial intelligence research and speculation there was a fashionable notion that consciousness was an emergent property of sufficiently complex systems. It just sort of turned up when the wiring got suitably intricate. In many cases this laughably naïve argument came from those who wanted to eliminate the possibility of the `miraculous' from the human mind, but who still had no idea where to start with the hard work of figuring out just how complex such a system had to be. Igor's book, to some extent, updates that position. His point is that consciousness is not just about brute quantity of complexity, but that it must arise from architectures that implement the interaction between a set of quite specific complex sub-components. In so doing he takes a seemingly impossible engineering problem and analyses it into a handful of extremely difficult sub-problems.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Mind as Machine, 13 Oct. 2011
George Simpson (Hampshire, England) - See all my reviews
Igor Aleksander is renowned for his important work on machine learning. In this work, he continues the theme of his 2000 "How to Build a Mind", developing a body of thought that may prove foundational for machine consciousness. He takes an unusual approach, and that makes for interesting reading.

First, he develops five "axioms", aspects of mind that seem essential based on introspection. For example "thinking ahead". Here as in other aspects of his work, he exhibits a garage inventor's lack of inhibition in turning words to new purposes, which I came to enjoy after grasping his intention. These are not mathematical axioms, but necessary characteristics of mind. His main point is an architectural one - if we can devise a machine that exhibits all five axioms (and he sketches how this could be done) - we will have created consciousness.

In another romping aspect of this work, he reviews philosophers' positions from the Greeks to the 20th century, showing how their ideas can be understood in terms of his axioms. This isn't always successful.

In particular, he tries to treat human consciousness as simply a richer version of animal consciousness, and it's not. Human consciousness is a living pattern on the interface between the physical brain and the conceptual field. But that's another book!
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