Tuesday, April 14, 2015

VR and consciousness – some truly freakish ideas

The Hard Problem
For the last year I’ve been playing around with Virtual Reality, using the Oculus Rift’s DK1 then DK2, demoing it to hundreds of people all over the world. I’ve seen them scream, shake, fall and have their mind blown, almost replaced by these experiences. Almost to the last person, the reaction has been ‘that’s awesome’. It’s made me think – think hard.
The fact that it can, in seconds, replace consciousness of the world you know with another completely different world, floating around the International Space Station, walking across the bottom of the ocean, getting your head cut off on a scaffold during he French Revolution, bungee jumping, whatever…. led me to a renewed interest in consciousness. Philosophy has long seen consciousness as an intractable problem. What is it? Does it even exist? Theoretically, we seem to have been wandering around in a cul-de-sac of dead-end irreducibility. PS - if you don’t think this is a problem, think again, as this may mean the death of the human soul, a belief that keeps the three major Abrahamic religions, and others, alive.
Chalmers zombie hypothesis
Consciousness gave Descartes his anchor as the irreducible ‘I’ in I think therefore I am’, but science and solid philosophical debate about the difficulty of how separate minds and bodies interact, ate away at dualism. Some, like Daniel Dennett, now think that consciousness is a superfluous epiphenomenon. David Chalmers, a philosopher, rocked the philosophical world, when he came up with an idea that promises to break this age-old problem, the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. That problem is why consciousness exists at all. Why do we feel anything? Why are we not zombie automatons? It is the subject of Tom Stoppard’s new play The Hard Problem, which received lukewarm reviews. Then again, theatre has never been good at deep philosophical analysis. Chalmers asks us to think of a doppelganger or equivalent of our own selves but without consciousness – just a zombie or Cartesian machine. Then poses a solution – that all networked machines are, to some degree, conscious.
Age of Algorithms
Renewed interest in the problem of consciousness has come from the recent rise of AI in our Age of Algorithms. Many are now practically engaged in replicating human abilities but the dividing line between soft and hard AI is still the notion of deep intelligence and consciousness. Not that AI is not always about ‘replicating’ human abilities and consciousness. We didn’t succeed in conquering the problem of flying by copying birds but by designing a different technology that did it better. Nevertheless, the issue of consciousness remains. In what way do sophisticated ‘thinking’ machines have consciousness? This has sparked a renewed interest in the problem. But another medium is also contributing.
VR as medium of the mind
Chalmers was moved by a childhood experience that corrected an abnormality in his left eye, where the world suddenly popped into 3D. I have the same disorder , and know exactly what he means, but it was my extended experience with VR that blew my mind. Rather than a qualitatively, improved experience of perception, my entire mind was put in another place, through involuntary ‘presence’. My reptile brain forced me into thinking I was somewhere else, doing something I wasn’t actually doing but simple experiencing - doing a real bungee jump. I can only explain it be reference to another experience in my life that was similarly revealing – taking LSD. Stephen Downes and I had an interesting talk in a bar last month on the revelation that act had on us both in terms of the arbitrariness of perception and consciousness. We both agreed that it was a life changing experience that influenced our philosophical view of the world. VR was similar, if not more controlled!
When I first tried VR with a bungee jump using a $350 VR headset and headphones, I was immediately transported to another place, could look around, saw people behind me waving, waved back, walked to the edge of a platform, looked down and it felt real. I jumped and felt myself falling. Then, hanging on the end of an elastic, I looked up and saw the water, down and saw the sky. I was upside down. But I wasn’t – it was all in my mind..
The bold move
Koch has argued that the line has changed over the years, as consciousness has been granted to dogs and higher animals, even insects or anything with a network of neurons. In a bold thought experiment, he extends this further, to include any communicating network. Couldn’t the internet, our computers, our phones – be conscious? The internet has the same number of synapse connections as about 10,000 human brains. Is it in any way conscious?
We have evidence that consciousness is related to networked activity. The obvious examples are sleep and anaesthetic states, where one can measure the actual decline in networked activity as we lose ‘consciousness’. Could it be that consciousness is simply a function of this networking and that all networked entities are, to some degree, conscious? What Chalmers, Koch and other posit, is an explanation that keeps the physics, neuroscience and philosophy in place. It is an intriguing idea stimulated by my experiments in VR.
They have their critics, such as Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland, who simply dismiss consciousness as an illusion. Some even think the problem is insoluble and that our brains are not equipped to solve the problem. But the issue keeps nagging away at me – very time I try VR, which is getting better and better, more ‘real’, more ‘extreme’, more ‘revelatory’.
VR and consciousness
Some experiments in VR may be instructive here. You can easily experience ‘presence’ in VR – the belief that you’re somewhere you’re not. That is commonplace. But consciousness-swap experiments show that you can experience something more – the consciousness of being someone or something else. 
There’s gender-swap experiments where you see your body and external world from a female or male perspective. There’s racial-swaps, disability-swaps, even living the life of someone else for a long period. I’ve been involved in a  social care VR programme where you become an elderly person and see the world from their perspective with blurred vision and a touch of induced memory loss. I’ve also been working on VR ideas that put you in the position of driving while under the influence of alcohol, drugs or distractions, like using your mobile.

We may be no more than super-evolved, networked, operating systems – literally androids. Technology, the internet, AI, philosophical analysis and neuroscience may be coming together t crack the problem of consciousness. I think VR, as a medium, will accelerate this analysis, as it creates a window on consciousness and the opportunity for experimentation that has never been possible before. Indeed, we could be on the verge of seeing consciousness as massively manipulable. I could be lifted from a depressive experience in seconds, see myself as others see me, be someone else. The only limit is the imagination of our own conscious thought to explore these new worlds and new ideas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think this post conflates perception with consciousness. Consciousness includes memory, direction/autonomy (of some kind - free will arguments aside), rationality (and irrationality) and other attributes, as well as the perception of our senses. Humans who are divorced from their senses still retain consciousness.

The idea that networks have consciousness is not much more than a variation on the same determinism that Dennett and others use to deny the existence of consciousness (and free will). But there's something more there than just awareness, and just as Dennett overrelies on neurobiology's ability to alter or analyze certain states of consciousness, including decision-making, omitting the connections between direction and conscious act, and underestimating the participation of the sub-conscious in physical activity, this post seems to leave out some crucial aspects of what it means to be conscious, aspects that are not perceptible in the kinds of networks being discussed.

Yes, networks have access to memory, but are they autonomous in any meaningful way? Are they reflective, able to not simply act but derive meaning from the action? Are they self-aware in the sense that they recognize themselves to exist apart from programming directly designed to create the illusion of awareness?

I don't think the ideas expressed here are "freakish" in any sense. VR can affect consciousness, just as mind-altering drugs can, just as sickness can, just as dreaming can. That technology can change perception so dramatically is impressive, but the illusion that one is not where they think they are is not a new one in human history, and hasn't been for a very long time.