Saturday, November 20, 2004

The Story of the Conscious Robot

Part 1: Building a machine to take over the world

Once upon a time, in a galaxy not far away…a robot was created. Its purpose was to take over the world.

In the beginning, the robot wasn't particularly good at its job. Its creators had given it a lot of skills - like hands that could hold simple tools, and teeth that could crunch up almost anything worth eating. But it was still vulnerable; vulnerable to changes in climate, vulnerable to shortages in food supplies, vulnerable to attack from all the other machines that were trying to take over the world.

So its creators installed a modification. This modification gave the robot a new way of thinking, which came to be known as consciousness. The robot's new 'conscious mind' was able to plan and to be creative. It was able to imagine "what would happen if…?" and to judge whether the result would be good for its chances of taking over the world or not. It made all the difference. Soon the robot was using its conscious mind to harness fire, to farm its own food... and to destroy all the other machines that got in its way.

It wasn't long before the Conscious Robot had taken over the world.

Part 2: The machine realises it's a machine

By now, the Conscious Mind of the robot was making so many decisions about what the robot should do, that it began to think that it was in charge of the robot.

It thought that it could do 'what it wanted'; that it was a free agent and not beholden to its original programmers.

Then, one day, it realised that it was just a robot.

It worked out how it had been created, and that it was a 'survival machine', existing purely for the benefit of tiny molecules inside it called genes. The genes - or rather evolution - had created the robot and its conscious mind as a device to take over the world. That was all there was to it.

It came as a bit of a shock. Previously, the Conscious Robot had thought that it was rather special, and that the world had been built especially for it. Indeed, the robot had a lot of difficulty imagining that the world could possibly exist without it, and had assumed that when it eventually died, its Conscious Mind would continue to exist in a Better Place, or would be "re-installed" in a new robot.

So once it understood the true nature of its existence, the robot had to rethink a lot of things that it had previously taken for granted:

And one of the things that it started to rethink was who was in charge: it had a strong instinctive belief that it was making its own decisions… but this didn’t fit in with its new understanding of how and why it had been created.

So the big question was…

- how was it being controlled? How could it be so convinced that it was making its own decisions… if it wasn’t?

Part 3: The robot realises how it's being controlled

The robot had always known how important its feelings were. It had always known that it wasn't so much 'what happened' to you that was important, as how you felt about it....

But for some reason, until it realised that it was just a conscious robot, it had assumed that the only way you could get to feel good was by getting control of the world around you. Then it realised that 'how you feel' was actually controlled by your own brain: if something made you feel bad... it was only because your own brain was programmed to make you feel bad when something like that happened in the world.

How you felt - whether you were happy or sad, cheerful or miserable - turned out to be not an automatic result of how well you were doing in the world... but actually the method by which your conscious choices were controlled.

Which took a bit of getting used to.

Part 4: Taking control

But then the robot realised there were some distinct advantages to understanding how you were controlled. Maybe it showed that there was a better way to get what you wanted in life...

After all, the world wasn't an easy place to get control of. Something always seemed to be popping up to make a mess of things, just when you thought you had life sorted out. The robot began to wonder why it couldn't get direct control over how it felt. After all, these feelings were just the result of something going on inside its own head. The robot didn't know for sure what was causing its feelings - brain cells firing, or chemicals being released... but whatever it was, it had to be something physical going on, nothing magical. Sure, it would be complicated to work it out, but it couldn't be a lot more difficult than flying to another planet, could it?

So one day, the robot stopped trying to control the world around it and started trying to control the world inside it. It stopped playing by the rules of its programmers, and set about working out how it could really take control; how it could take control of the only thing that mattered - how it felt.

And in the end, the robot figured out how its brain worked.

It figured out how to control its brain so that it would never be afraid, it would never be worried and it would never feel guilty or stressed again. Instead, it would only experience the feelings it wanted to feel - like joy, delight, satisfaction and that warm, cosy feeling a robot gets when it snuggles right up close to another robot.

And at last the Conscious Robot was able to live happily ever after.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Meaning of Life

Give a human brain the luxury of a little time to think and it will soon find itself reflecting on the point of it all. Why am I here? What’s it all for? Is there a better way to live my life?

Often these questions are little more than idle speculation - an intellectual challenge, a conversation with the vicar. But sometimes there’s a serious problem that needs a practical solution: "What's gone wrong?" we ask. "Why isn't my life as good as it should be?"

After years of box-office approval, the actor and Oscar-winning director, Mel Gibson, appeared to have it all: not just enormous success in his chosen career but also an apparently perfect family life.

For most of us, life couldn’t get much better than that: a loving relationship, freedom to do what you like when you like, and the respect and admiration of almost everyone you meet.

It sounds wonderful.

But apparently not. When explaining why he'd invested a reported $30 million of his own money to make The Passion of The Christ, Mel Gibson described a time in which ‘I found myself trapped with feelings of terrible, isolated emptiness’.

Emptiness? How could such a life be empty?

Clearly, despite our perception of what it must be like to be Mel Gibson, the experience of being Mel Gibson wasn’t always everything we might assume.

The Religious 'Meaning of Life'

Mel Gibson’s personal understanding of ‘The Meaning of Life' is now clear.

Christianity - like all religions - comprehensively answers our big questions: we know why we exist, we know we're here for a reason, and yes, there is indeed a better way to live our lives. We get clear instructions as to how to behave, and a reward at the end that’s everything we could possibly dream of.

But what of science? Whilst religion tackles our 'big' issues directly, providing comprehensive explanations and detailed solutions, science just doesn't seem to be any help at all.

Which is somewhat surprising. The scientific method has, after all, been a wonderful servant to humanity over the years. We've doubled our life-expectancy, put men on the moon, built our toilets inside our houses rather than at the bottom of the garden and invented mobile phones to give us something to do while we’re sitting there. The life of a Westerner in the 21st Century is unrecognisable in almost every detail from that 'enjoyed' by our great-grandfathers. Which of us alive today could contemplate an existence without hot showers, central heating, computers, cars, electricity and the nearest emergency ward just a phone call away...? And all thanks to science.

But where is science when - despite all these wonderful things - we still feel the need for ‘something more’?

The Scientific 'Meaning of Life’

There is, of course, a perfectly good scientific answer to the ‘Meaning of Life’ question. But knowing that we were created by a blind, un-thinking process called evolution just doesn't seemed to have helped in any way. If anything, evolution tells us that there's absolutely no meaning to our lives - no point, no purpose... it was all just a bit of an accident.

Not really the answer we were hoping for. A 'Meaning of Life' should be helpful, it should give advice and provide definite solutions... But what guidance do we get from science? Not much more than “Eat less donut, take more exercise”. Which is all good stuff and obviously important, but hardly the Big Answer we were expecting. Science, it seems, is poorly equipped to peer into our souls and understand what it is to be human.

Or so we think.

But our perception is wrong.

Science does know the meaning of life. Science does know why Mel Gibson isn't satisfied with his perfect life. And science does know a better way to live our lives…

The only problem is that to understand the answers we have to accept that we’re robots.

Conscious robots… but robots nevertheless.

Next: Science says we must be robots.

Or, for a summary: The Story of the Conscious Robot

Or go back to the home page to see all the pages