Tag Archives: Extra-terrestrial intelligence

How does consciousness evaluate itself?

If “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, perhaps the attempt to reflect conclusively on consciousness is like the old picture of Baron Munchausen trying to pull himself out of a swamp by his own pigtail. Despite the usual carpings in the commentary whenever any serious thinking is done online (gosh, if only the author had consulted with me first . . .) an article in Aeon Magazine by cognitive robotics professor Murray Shanahan of London’s Imperial College makes some important distinctions between human consciousness and what he terms “conscious exotica”. The key question he poses is summed up in the sub-headline: “From algorithms to aliens, could humans ever understand minds that are radically unlike our own?”

It’s a great question, even without wondering how much more difficult such an understanding must be when it eludes most of us even in understanding minds very much like our own. Shanahan sets out from a premising definition of intelligence as what it is that “measures an agent’s general ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments”, from which we can infer a definition of consciousness as what it is when the measuring agent is the agent herself.

From there, Shanahan works up a spectrum of consciousness ranging from awareness through self-awareness, to empathy for other people and on to integrated cognition, wondering along the way if the displayed symptoms of consciousness might disguise distinctions in the internal experience of consciousness between biological and non-biological beings. The jury will remain out on the latter until Super AI is upon us, but reflections on the evolution of biological consciousness prompt another thought on the process of evolution itself.

There is nothing absolute about human consciousness. We are where we are now: our ancient ancestors might have gawped uncomprehendingly at the messages in White Rabbits, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and the rest of them, but the doors that were opened by the 60s counterculture were less about means than about ends. Enhanced consciousness was shown to be possible if not downright mind-blowing. We in our time can only gawp in wondrous anticipation of what future consciousness may tell us about all manner of things, including even and possibly especially dances about architecture.

“Teach me half the gladness that thy brain must know, Such harmonious madness From my lips would flow The world should listen then, as I am listening now.” — Shelley”s To a Skylark

Our candle flickers in the cosmic night

On the evidence of our own species, it seems that intelligent life cannot develop without evolving a capability for destroying itself, or at least for acquiescing in a decline through obsolescence into oblivion. What is additionally remarkable is how rapid the evolution from dust particle to dust particle can be, notwithstanding the brief sparkle of celestial fire that lights the passage in between.

This shelf life of intelligence needs to be borne in mind when running the Drake Equation on the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligent civilisations. It is not enough that they defy the odds to kindle themselves into existence. Their chance of connecting with any similar intelligence elsewhere in the universe will be slight if they cannot manage to stick around for somewhat longer than the mere slight smear of time in which Homo sapiens has illuminated its small corner of one little galaxy.

The huge number of intelligent civilisations that might be calculated on the Drake formulation become somewhat more meagre if they appear and disappear on the timeline that our own civilisation seems determined to follow. A truly universal telescope programmed to detect intelligent life might, over the course of all of time, pick up the flickering in and out of existence of so many thousands of smart civilisations like some vast constellation of fireflies, flaring up in their nanoseconds of existence and flashing amidst the vasty depths of the cosmic wilderness. If all civilisations play out like ours – at the time of writing occupying its perch atop Earthly creation for less than .0001% of our planet’s existence – then the chances of any two co-existing, and co-existing in something like the same galactic neighbourhood, must be small.

And when one ET does reach out successfully to us, what are the odds that its message – once filtered through the interstellar Rosetta Stone we have yet to invent – might say anything more meaningful than “Come quickly!”