A Universal Classification of Intelligence

I’ve been thinking lately about whether or not it is possible to formulate a scale of universal cognitive capabilities, such that any intelligent system — whether naturally occurring or synthetic — can be classified according to its cognitive capacity. Such a system would provide us with a normalized scientific basis by which to quantify and compare the relative cognitive capabilities of artificially intelligent systems, various species of intelligent life on Earth, and perhaps even intelligent lifeforms encountered on other planets.

One approach to such evaluation is to use a standardized test, such as an IQ test. However, this test is far too primitive and biased towards human intelligence. A dolphin would do poorly on our standardized IQ test, but that doesn’t mean much, because the test itself is geared towards humans. What is needed is a way to evaluate and compare intelligence across different species — one that is much more granular and basic.

What we need is a system that focuses on basic building blocks of intelligence, starting by measuring the presence or ability to work with fundamental cognitive constructs (such as the notion of object constancy, quantities, basic arithmetic constructs, self-constructs, etc.) and moving up towards higher-level abstractions and procedural capabilities (self-awareness, time, space, spatial and temporal reasoning, metaphors, sets, language, induction, logical reasoning, etc.).

What I am asking is whether we can develop a more "universal" way to rate and compare intelligences? Such a system would provide a way to formally evaluate and rate any kind of intelligent system — whether insect, animal, human, software, or alien — in a normalized manner.

Beyond the inherent utility of having such a rating scale, there is an additional benefit to trying to formulate this system: It will lead us to really question and explore the nature of cognition itself. I believe we are moving into an age of intelligence — an age where humanity will explore the brain and the mind (the true "final frontier"). In order to explore this frontier, we need a map — and the rating scale I am calling for would provide us with one, for it maps the range of possible capabilities that intelligent systems are capable of.

I’m not as concerned with measuring the degree to which any system is more or less capable of some particular cognitive capability within the space of possible capabilities we map (such as how fast it can do algebra for example, or how well it can recall memories, etc.) — but that is a useful second step. The first step, however, is to simply provide a comprehensive map of all the possible fundamental cognitive behaviors there are — and to make this map as minimal and elegant as we can. Ideally we should be seeking the simplest set of cognitive building blocks from which all cognitive behavior, and therefore all minds, are comprised.

So the question is: Are there in fact "cognitive universals" or universal cognitive capabilities that we can generalize across all possible intelligent systems? This is a fascinating question — although we are human, can we not only imagine, but even prove, that there is a set of basic universal cognitive capabilities that applies everywhere in the universe, or even in other possible universes? This is an exploration that leads into the region where science, pure math, philosophy, and perhaps even spirituality all converge. Ultimately, this map must cover the full range of cognitive capabilities from the most mundane, to what might be (from our perspective) paranormal, or even in the realm of science fiction. Ordinary cognition as well as forms of altered or unhealthy cognition, as well as highly advanced or even what might be said to be enlightened cognition, all have to fit into this model.

Can we develop a system that would apply not just to any form of intelligence on Earth, but even to far-flung intelligent organisms that might exist on other worlds, and that perhaps might exist in dramatically different environments than humans? And how might we develop and test this model?

I would propose that such a system could be developed and tuned by testing it across the range of forms of intelligent life we find on Earth — including social insects (termite colonies, bee hives, etc.), a wide range of other animal species (dogs, birds, chimpanzees, dolphins, whales, etc.), human individuals, and human social organizations (teams, communities, enterprises). Since there are very few examples of artificial intelligence today it would be hard to find suitable systems to test it on, but perhaps there may be a few candidates in the next decade. We should also attempt to imagine forms of intelligence on other planets that might have extremely different sensory capabilities, totally different bodies, and perhaps that exist on very different timescales or spatial scales as well — what would such exotic, alien intelligences be like, and can our model encompass the basic building blocks of their cognition as well?

It will take decades to develop and tune a system such as this, and as we learn more about the brain and the mind, we will continue to add subtlety to the model. But when humanity finally establishes open dialog with an extraterrestrial civilization, perhaps via SETI or some other means of more direct contact, we will reap important rewards. A system such as what I am proposing will provide us with a valuable map for understanding alien cognition, and that may prove to be the key to enabling humanity to engage in successful interactions and relations with alien civilizations as we may inevitably encounter as humanity spreads throughout the galaxy. While some skeptics may claim that we will never encounter intelligent life on other planets, the odds would indicate otherwise. It may take a long time, but eventually it is inevitable that we will cross paths — if they exist at all. Not to be prepared would be irresponsible.

New Photon Thruster: Get to Mars in 1 Week!

An interesting new patent pending design for a photon thruster appears to be the real deal. Check out the article and who is behind it. (A fellow SRI alumnus!). Getting to Mars in a week means getting to the moon, as well as other nearby planets would be quite fast as well. This could be quite revolutionary.

TUSTIN, Calif., Sept. 7, 2007 — An amplified photon thruster that
could potentially shorten the trip to Mars from six months to a week
has reportedly attracted the attention of aerospace agencies and

Young Bae, founder of the Bae Institute in
Tustin, Calif., first demonstrated his photonic laser thruster (PLT),
which he built with off-the-shelf components, in December.

Plans for a Lunar Ark to Save Humanity

Researchers at the International Space University (ISU), of which I am an alumnus, are proposing an interesting initiative to build an ark on the moon to preserve human civilization and biodiversity, and the Internet, in the event of a catastrophe on earth, such as a comet impact, nuclear war, etc. This project is similar to what I proposed in my Genesis Project posting in 2003.

Humans are just beginning to send trinkets of technology and culture
into space. NASA’s recently launched Phoenix Mars Lander, for example,
carries a mini-disc inscribed with stories, art, and music about Mars.

The Phoenix lander is a "precursor mission" in a decades-long
project to transplant the essentials of humanity onto the moon and
eventually Mars. (See a photo gallery about the Phoenix mission.)

The International Space University team is now on a more ambitious
mission: to start building a "lunar biological and historical archive,"
initially through robotic landings on the moon.

Laying the foundation for "rebuilding the terrestrial Internet,
plus an Earth-moon extension of it, should be a priority," Burke said.

Continue reading

Speed of Light Broken?

Let’s hope this is true. That would be seriously exciting!

From this source

A pair of German physicists claim to have broken the
speed of light – an achievement that would undermine our entire
understanding of space and time.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921

to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, it would require an
infinite amount of energy to propel an object at more than 186,000
miles per second.

However, Dr Gunter Nimtz and Dr
Alfons Stahlhofen, of the University of Koblenz, say they may have
breached a key tenet of that theory.

The pair say
they have conducted an experiment in which microwave photons –
energetic packets of light – travelled "instantaneously" between a pair
of prisms that had been moved up to 3ft apart.

Being able to travel faster than the speed of light would lead to a wide variety of bizarre consequences.

New Simulation Explains Why Extraterrestrial Life Hasn't Found Us Yet

Interesting new study…

It ranks among the most enduring mysteries of the cosmos. Physicists
call it the Fermi paradox after the Italian Nobel laureate Enrico
Fermi, who, in 1950, pointed out the glaring conflict between
predictions that life was elsewhere in the universe – and the
conspicuous lack of aliens who have come to visit.

Now a Danish
researcher believes he may have solved the paradox. Extra-terrestrials
have yet to find us because they haven’t had enough time to look.

(via Kurzweil)

My guess is that the numbers might be different however. An alien civilization that could send out probes at one tenth the speed of light would probably be smart enough to create self-replicating probes, in order to generate thousands or millions of probes over time. This might bring the numbers down significantly — although perhaps still not enough.

Must-Know Terms for the 21st Century Intellectual

Read this fun article that lists and defines some of the key concepts that every post-singularity transhumanist meta-intellectual should know! (via Kurzweil)

British Ministry of Defense Chief Resigns; Cites Concerns About UFO's

Ok, here’s a very unusual news item:

During his time as head of the Ministry of Defence UFO project, Nick
Pope was persuaded into believing that other lifeforms may visit Earth
and, more specifically, Britain.

His concern is that "highly credible" sightings are simply dismissed.

And he complains that the project he once ran is now "virtually closed" down, leaving the country "wide open" to aliens.

Mr Pope decided to speak out about his worries after resigning
from his post at the Directorate of Defence Security at the MoD this

"The consequences of getting this one wrong could be huge," he said.

Read the rest here.  I have several thoughts about this  news and what it might mean… 

Continue reading

How to Build a Landspeeder

So as a kid you watched Star Wars and since then you’ve wanted your very own Landspeeder. The problem is, how to make things hover without using fans, magnets, or special effects? Well, a maverick UK scientist may have invented a way to do it. By harnessing microwaves, and a loophole provided by special relativity, Roger Shawyer has developed a new kind of "relativity drive" that may be the future of space propulsion, and perhaps even terrestrial hovering cars and aircraft. He’s received high-level interest from the UK, US military, and the Chinese and hopes to test it in space in a few years.

I'm Addicted to StumbleUpon

Ack. Thanks to prodding by Josh, I finally made the mistake of installing StumbleUpon in Firefox … and now I’m really seriously addicted to it!  Help… all I can do is sit around clicking the "Stumble!" button all day long. I’ve already found so many cool things that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Like this guided visualization for understanding 10 dimensional space (the space of superstring theory)…(my brain hurts…).

A Problem with Space Travel

As the distance a spaceship travels through space increases, so do the odds that it will collide with debris in its path – such as interstellar dust, micrometeorites, asteroids, dark matter, dark stars, etc.

If you are traveling at super high-speed, through uncharted territory, there is no way to know what is out there.

Even if it is charted territory, debris is always flying through – sometimes at incredibly high speeds. Especially when you near solar systems, or in denser areas.

It should be possible to say that after a certain distance the odds are 100% that a spaceship will experience a fatal collision.

As a result, only short range space travel is probably safe enough to be feasible unless some kind of shield technology is invented that can withstand the  blasts that result from collisions with even tiny things at such high

My guess is that if advanced interstellar civilizations exist, they do not travel linearly through space because it is just too dangerous. They must have a way to “tunnel” – either by using or creating wormholes, or some other means of teleportation, or hyperdimensional travel.

In speaking about this, my friend Josh, suggested the following:

Yeah- and here’s another aspect to that problem.

Assume you are using a near light speed drive to go from star to star.

Any detection system you are using (radar, etc) will only extend slightly in front of the ship- because it is only moving slightly faster than you are- and the faster you go, the less
time you have to detect and deal with obstacles or objects.

If you are moving slowly- perhaps a generation ship or a “frozen cargo” scenario- you could use radar connected to an autopilot- but you still need something to protect you from micrometeorites and interstellar dust- maybe a big electrostatic shield extending far in front of the ship that will attract and deflect such objects (most meteroids are ferromagnetic, so they respond well to electromagnetic fields…)

You really need a rapid response detection system…

Physicists Plan to Create New Universe in Lab

Ok, this will be pretty interesting… as long as nothing unexpected happens, like for example, our universe starting to drain out through the wormhole they are making…that would suck…

2 August 2006

radical new project could permit human beings to create a "baby
universe" in a laboratory in Japan. While it sounds like a dangerous
undertaking, the physicists involved believe that if the project is
successful, the space-time around a tiny point within our universe will
be distorted in such a way that it will begin to form a new superfluid
space, and eventually break off, separate in all respects from our
experience of space and time, causing no harm to the fabric of our

The project takes as its starting point two basic
theories about the foundations of our universe: the big bang and
inflation theory. The big bang theory, as many readers are well aware,
observes that all objects in the known universe appear to be moving
away from one another, suggesting that the universe was jump-started
when all matter and energy were concentrated in an inconceivably tiny
space, allowing them to overcome binding forces and causing a cosmic

It is well-tested and consistent with all currently
accepted models for general cosmology, as tested against advanced
theoretical and observational physics. But it is only one piece of the
puzzle. Inflation is a key theory, developed in 1981, when MIT
physicist Alan Guth observed that there appeared to have been a period
immediately following the big bang when the universe "inflated"
rapidly, allowing distinct regions of matter and energy to function
comfortably free from any forces that might cause them to collapse
against each other or disrupt each other’s evolution.

project is not exactly theoretical physics at work. It is closer to a
physical application of observed phenomena, in combination, with the
aim of achieving an as yet untested physical effect. Inflation theory
helps provide the means of understanding how that effect might be
brought about.

As reported by the New Scientist: "Inflation
theory, subsequently modified by Linde, relies on the fact that the
‘vacuum’ of empty space-time is not a boring, static place. Instead, it
is subject to quantum fluctuations that cause strange bubbles to appear
at random times. These bubbles of ‘false vacuum’ contain space-time
with different —and very curious— properties."

Read the rest here.

Scenario: What would Happen if US got in a War with China?

This is a very interesting scenario showing how China could potentially trounce US forces in a single, calculated strike. While it doesn’t consider the option that US would retaliate nonconventially, shifting the game to a new playing field, it certainly makes a compelling case for China winning in a conventional conflict in their territorial waters at least. The author concludes by suggesting the US has two options — continue seeking world domination and eventually face such a situation, or take a different approach altogether and seek to lead the world in medicine, fighting poverty, and helping emerging countries — a strategy which the author believes would win the hearts and minds of people around the world, leading to longer-term gains for the US than a strategy that seeks leadership through military dominance.

Continue reading

Russia Plans to Mine Helium-3 On Moon

The head of the Russian space corporation, Energia, has been quoted as stating that Russia is planning on setting up a permanent mining base on the moon to mine Helium-3. Helium-3 is a non-radioactive isotope of helium that is rare on earth but plentiful on the moon. It is an ideal fuel for nuclear fusion. It can also be used to make next-generation weapons. Some have predicted a new energy frontier focused on helium-3 in the coming century.

New Quantum Propulsion Being Researched By Air Force

A radical new form of propulsion is being researched that may enable travel from Earth to Mars in 3 hours, and travel to nearby stars in just 80 days. The system is based on a novel quantum theory termed Heim quantum
theory (HQT).

The hypothetical device, which has been outlined in principle but is
based on a controversial theory about the fabric of the universe, could
potentially allow a spacecraft to travel to Mars in three hours and
journey to a star 11 light years away in just 80 days, according to a
report in today’s New Scientist magazine.

theoretical engine works by creating an intense magnetic field that,
according to ideas first developed by the late scientist Burkhard Heim
in the 1950s, would produce a gravitational field and result in thrust
for a spacecraft.

Also, if a large enough magnetic field was created, the craft would
slip into a different dimension, where the speed of light is faster,
allowing incredible speeds to be reached. Switching off the magnetic
field would result in the engine reappearing in our current dimension.

The US air force has expressed an interest in the idea and
scientists working for the American Department of Energy – which has a
device known as the Z Machine that could generate the kind of magnetic
fields required to drive the engine – say they may carry out a test if
the theory withstands further scrutiny.

Professor Jochem Hauser, one of the scientists who put forward the
idea, told The Scotsman that if everything went well a working engine
could be tested in about five years.

However, Prof Hauser, a physicist at the Applied Sciences University
in Salzgitter, Germany, and a former chief of aerodynamics at the
European Space Agency, cautioned it was based on a highly controversial
theory that would require a significant change in the current
understanding of the laws of physics. (Source)

It is interesting to note that this
theory shares a similar physical picture, namely a quantized spacetime,
with the recently published loop quantum theory (LQT) by L. Smolin, A.
Ashtektar, C. Rovelli, M. Bojowald et al. [11, 24-28]. LQT, if proved
correct, would stand for a major revision of current physics, while HQT
would cause a revolution in the technology of propulsion. (Source)

Links for further reading on this subject.

Big Thinkers' Most Dangerous Ideas

The Edge has published mini-essays by 119 "big thinkers" on their "most dangerous ideas" — fun reading.

The history of science is replete with discoveries
that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally
dangerous in their time; the Copernican and
Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious.
What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think
about (not necessarily one you originated)
that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?


Does the Cosmic Background Radiation Contain Hidden Message?

This is a cool idea — some researchers are considering whether the cosmic background radiation may contain an encoded "message from God." OK I doubt it. I think it is more likely to be somewhere in our DNA, or in the digits of Pi, or perhaps in the distribution of the prime numbers. But it’s pretty cool to think about!

NASA Makes Plans to Deflect Possible Asteroid Hit in 2036

This just in

NASA has outlined what it could do, and in what time frame, in case a
quarter-mile-wide asteroid named Apophis is on a course to slam into
Earth in the year 2036. The timetable was released by the B612
Foundation, a group that is pressing NASA and other government agencies
to do more to head off threats from near-Earth objects.

The plan runs like this: Eight years from now,
if there’s still a chance of a collision in 2036, NASA would start
drawing up plans to put a probe on the space rock or in orbit around it
in 2019. Measurements sent back from the probe would characterize
Apophis’ course to an accuracy of mere yards (meters) by the year 2020.

those readings still could not rule out a strike in 2036, NASA would
try to deflect the asteroid into a non-threatening course in the
2024-2028 time frame by firing an impactor at it — using this year’s Deep Impact comet-blasting probe
as a model. Experts would start planning for the "Son of Deep Impact"
mission even before they knew whether or not it was needed.

New Russian Stealth Fighter Uses Plasma Shield

The Russian air force has invented a next-generation stealth technology based on surrounding the aircraft with a plasma shield that completely disperses radar waves. This technology offers significant benefits over existing stealth technology and also enables higher-performance aircraft since the shape no longer has to be altered to achieve stealth.

Simulated Universes and the Nature of Consciousness

Researchers in Europe have completed the first phase of what may be the largest computational physics experiment in history: They built and ran a simulated universe through 14 billion years of development. The experiment used up 25 million megabytes of memory, and the biggest supercomputer in Europe for a month. The result was a “Cube of Creation” of 20 billion light years per side, containing 20 million simulated galaxies. Now they’re studying it to see what evolved. They hope to gain insights into the function of black holes, and other cosmological principles. This is an amazing piece of work — definitely the future of cosmology research.

In previous articles, I’ve speculated that our own universe might also be such a simulation, perhaps run by a much more advanced civilization in a meta-universe outside ours. But in fact, I think our universe is probably quite different from a mere computer simulation (despite how cool it would be if it were a computer simulation!) — because I don’t believe we can explain everything there is in terms of information and computation: I think consciousness doesn’t fit in that model.  After exploring this issue for more than 20 years from the perspectives of computer science and physics, philosophy and religion, I’ve come to believe that consciousness cannot be reduce to, or emerge from, information or computation. As far as I can tell, it’s something at least as or more fundamental than space, time, matter and energy. I would even go so far as to say that we won’t ever really understand what the universe is or how it develops or functions without first understanding consciousness much more deeply.

There are basically two fundamental, mutually exclusive camps on the issue of consciousness that have been sparring for millennia. Either you are in the camp that believes consciousness is something that emerges from the physical universe, or you are in the camp that believes that the physical universe is something that emerges from consciousness. (Note: Even the Buddhist theory of interdependent origination, which says that physical phenomena and consciousness arise in co-dependence at the same time, rather than one from the other, can still be reduced to a version of Camp #2 because in that theory, interdependent events take place by virtue of a primordial unification of mind and phenomena that is equivalent to what I mean when I say “everything emerges from consciousness” — in other words, nothing is truly separate from consciousness)

I am a Camp 2 person. I believe that consciousness is more fundamental than anything else.  The example of a dream can be used to illustrate my view on consciousness: Although everything in a dream is a projection of consciousness, nothing in a dream is conscious. For example if you dream of Sue that is not really Sue: that dream-image of Sue is not a really a conscious person, it’s just a projection of your consciousness. Similarly, in a dream, if you find yourself interacting with a dream-image of Sue, your dream body in that dream is also not conscious, it is equally just a projection of your consciousness.

Even if you experience your dream from the perspective of being a particular character, looking through their eyes, thinking their thoughts, etc., that which is actually having that experience — the consciousness that is dreaming the dream — is outside the dream. It doesn’t appear anywhere within it, it cannot be measured within it, and it has no form or location. But still, as the one having the dream, it is undeniable that there is a dream appearing and an experience of that appearance. Furthermore, the nature of consciousness itself is self-aware — it can realize its own capacity of cognizance — the fact that it is aware, even though nothing to grasp as “consciousness” can actually be located anywhere. This self-awareness, in my view, is not a function of the brain or the body, or any physical system, rather it is completely beyond material phenomena  — beyond all possible universes in fact.

So who or what is projecting the universe in a manner of a dream? Is the universe nothing more than a dream in fact? This question cannot be answered by physics — it can neither be disproved or proved. Even various religions disagree about how to answer it — some label consciousness as soul, or universal or eternal Self or as God, while other systems, such as Buddhism instead argue that it is in fact so completely transcendental that it is entirely empty of self-nature and therefore cannot be reified as one or many, something or nothing, self or other, or truly-existent or non-existent.

Please note that when claiming that everything comes from consciousness, and using the example of a dream to illustrate that, I am not suggesting the philosophical view of solipsism, which posits that everything is just in my own mind, or some cosmic mind perhaps. Nor am I proposing an eternalistic argument that claims that “all is one” or that there is an ultimate, truly-existing soul, or that there are or are not really other beings. From my perspective, which comes largely from my studies of the Buddhist theory of dependent-arising and emptiness, what I am calling  “consciousness” cannot really be conceived of — because it is literally beyond thoughts, and even beyond the universe; is not a thing. Therefore, there is no way within this universe to frame or express the nature of consciousness. All we can do is use analogies, which are just shadows of the real thing, not the real thing itself. However, although we cannot describe consciousness, we can directly experience it as it really is, without using concepts or analogies, because we are it.

There are a number of difficult subtleties that have to be carefully sorted out when you really go deeply into this view of consciousness. In particular, regarding the question of whether other beings exist, or whether there is really a universe “out there” apart from your own mind (whether there is actually a sound when a tree falls and there is nobody there to hear it, for example). My opinion is that it is certainly possible for there to be multiple beings with their own experiences — and furthermore that is certainly what appears to be taking place. Yet to be precise,  we cannot prove that what appear to be other beings are truly-existent “out there” nor can we prove that there are no other beings apart from ourselves — in fact, we really cannot decide one way or the other about this question, at least if we want to be hairsplittingly precise. Therefore, from a philosophical perspective, the best thing to do is to simply not take a position on that question.

There is no way to prove that “everything is a dream” or that “everything is not a dream,” and so we simply have to avoid forgetting that we really don’t know which position is correct. Most people err on the side of thinking “everything is not a dream” and so they get totally absorbed in the intricacies of of daily life and the material world — they become mindless materialists. On the other hand, those who err on the opposite side of thinking that “everything is just a dream” tend to fall into the extreme of being spaced-out spiritualists. So our task, as rational observers of reality is to try to be as true to what we really can observe for ourselves as possible — meaning we have to avoid becoming either mindless materialists or spaced-out spiritualists. To be most true to what we can observe, we have to take the “middle road” and avoid falling into any extreme philosophical viewpoints. This means, in particular, that we should not fall into a an overly materialistic view of thinking that everything that seems to be “out there” really truly exists apart from our own minds, nor should we fall into a nihilistic view of thinking that there is only ourselves or that there is nothing at all.

From the philosophical view of Tibetan Buddhism (which happens to be my favorite), the most accurate way to portray consciousness might be to say that it, and in fact anything else we can label, is neither nothing, one, nor many — and so therefore we avoid falling into the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Eternalism is materialism — it is the belief that phenomena truly-exist on their own — that they can be decomposed to irreducible particles. Western science is basically materialism. Nihilism is the extreme opposite of materialism — it posits that nothing exists at all. Nihilism leads to all sorts of delusions and bad behavior but is fortunately quite easy to refute: indeed, the very fact that anyone is able to hold the belief that they are a nihilist refutes their belief in nothingness.

I should also mention that while I am definitely a Camp 2 person, I don’t discount the utility of science for explaining how the material world appears to function, I just don’t think that it can explain what the material world really is, nor what consciousness is. I think that science is ideally suited to explaining the dynamics of matter and energy in time and space — the various physical patterns that we observe. But at the same time, I think that to really explain everything — a theory also has to explain consciousness, and I don’t think there is a material, scientific explanation for that because consciousness is not simply a pattern in the physical world — it is completely transcendental.

Some scientists try to use the fact that consciousness cannot be located or measured like physical phenomena to be proof that it doesn’t exist at all, but that argument is fallacious. Just because no scientist has ever isolated consciousness or measured it doesn’t mean it’s not there, it just means it’s beyond the scope of their measurement tools. For example, if our only measurement tool is a microscope we cannot prove that galaxies don’t exist simply because we cannot see them through it; for if we later have a telescope we definitely can see galaxies. In the case of consciousness the situation is even simpler: no material measurement tool can measure consciousness, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist because everyone, including every scientist, directly knows that they are conscious. So in a sense we could say that the only “measurement tool” that can detect consciousness is consciousness itself. There’s another interesting fact that is worth mentioning here: no scientist has ever directly seen or measured space, energy, or time (all measurements of these are in fact indirect and inferential)  — but for some reason they are willing to believe in those phenomena. Why are scientists willing to believe in their inferences about the nature of space, time and energy but not consciousness? I find this puzzling.

Science began as what was called “natural philosophy” — it wasn’t confined to the material domain but actually was a much broader undertaking, an attempt to explain everything. Natural philosophers, such as Sir Isaac Newton, for example, were interested in all the dimensions of experience, including the mind, soul and even the possibility of God. They truly wanted to understand the world, and they considered anything observable to be within the scope of science. Gradually, however, this open-mindedness was lost and science became increasingly limited in focus. Today science is incredibly myopic and close-minded — it has in fact become institutionalized to the point where, to succeed and be respected by their peers, scientists must specialize and conform to the point of losing almost all originality and intellectual freedom. A side-effect of this is that scientists have gotten so focused on trying to observe what everyone else observes, that they no longer notice what they themselves observe — they no longer consider their own minds, consciousness, or their own experiences to be valid subjects of observation, nor do they consider themselves to be qualified observers of their own minds, consciousness and experience.

This belief comes from the mistaken idea that it is impossible objectively to observe one’s own experience. Modern science is built on the notion that only observations which can be demonstrated to, and repeated by, other scientists are considered valid. The problem is that all observations, whether of one’s own mind or of some external experimental result are ultimately subjective. So in fact, although scientists like to think that their methods are not subjective, in fact, to be precise they are subjective. Because ultimately all observations are subjective, observing one’s own mind directly is really no more subjective than observing any external physical experiment or phenomena: We cannot really demonstrate anything objectively, whether internal or external, to anyone because ultimately we all sense things subjectively.

If this isn’t enough to hammer in the point that self-observation of the mind is a valid pursuit of science, there is another argument: If consciousness is truly fundamental, then it is not conditioned by anything it observes and so it is perfectly objective in nature. Of course, here we have to be very careful to make a clear distinction between consciousness itself and the many layers of thoughts that may obscure it (thoughts are not consciousness). Using consciousness (without thoughts) to look directly at consciousness is perhaps the most objective scientific experiment possible!

Therefore, just because nobody can demonstrate their consciousness to anyone else doesn’t mean that consciousness doesn’t exist or that it is unscientific to study it by direct self-observation. In fact, the only way to directly study consciousness is by direct self-observation — that is the best measuring device for the job, so to speak. Furthermore, it is indeed possible to “demonstrate” one’s own observations of consciousness to others in a repeatable manner — simply: if they follow the same steps and end up observing the same things about their own consciousness, then your experiment has been repeated successfully. So in fact the direct study of consciousness is valid, objective and repeatable. In short, it is and should be within the scope of scientific study.

Until scientists discover this fact and look inwards at their own minds, they are never going to make real progress in the scientific study of consciousness, because this is the only way to actually study consciousness. (Note for the brain scientists in the audience: merely studying the physical brain is not really studying consciousness itself — consciousness is not a brainstate but is rather that which is capable of knowing or being. In fact, consciousness itself has no content — it is not a set of thoughts or sensations. Brainstates may represent the content of consciousness at a given moment just as a frame on a movie film print represents the content of that particular moment of the movie, but in this analogy consciousness is the light in the movie projector, not the film or the patterns on the film. Don’t mistake the content of a given frame for the light of the movie projector!).

So, I hope I’ve made the point by now that from the perspective of what we can directly observe, for ourselves, it actually makes more sense to start with the hypothesis that consciousness is fundamental — since nobody has ever directly experienced any phenomena outside the scope of their own consciousness. As far as anyone can directly observe, wherever phenomena are found there is also an observer of those phenomena at that very moment. Furthermore, as far as anyone can measure, there is no way to establish that phenomena actually exist “out there” when they are not observed. So from a truly rational, scientific point-of-view, consciousness appears to be fundamental in that it is ever-present in our experience of the universe, and as or more necessary to having that experience, as are space, time and energy.

It is in fact more rational and scientific to hold that consciousness is fundamental until proven otherwise than to hold the reverse hypothesis. After all, as far as we ourselves can observe, our experience of the universe is mediated by consciousness and there is no way to establish that the universe we perceive is separate from our consciousness. All the evidence seems to indicate the contrary: that the universe is not separate from our consciousness. Many scientists who pride themselves on their rationality in all other areas, seem to overlook this fact (are they literally “blinded by science?”). They think of consciousness as some kind of process within the physical brain. Some even attempt to “explain away” consciousness as some sort of epiphenomenon (e.g. an illusion that can be reduced to something physical), or worse, as a mathemagical result of “complex enough” computation (the absurd but oft cited, “someday the computer just gets sooooooo complex that it suddenly wakes up” argument). But none of these approaches to consciousness can account for the actual experience (what the philosopher, John Searle calls “qualia”) of being conscious — an experience which each of has direct and undeniable access to.

I am skeptical that any computer will ever be able to simulate, let alone embody, the actual experience of consciousness. Since our universe and everything material, is in my opinion, emergent from consciousness, not vice-versa, it is not possible to cause consciousness to emerge from physical things: I don’t think you can build a machine that will become conscious. I don’t think we can synthesize consciousness — it’s already there and we don’t create it. We might be able to build very smart machines, but they still won’t be conscious in the same way that truly conscious beings are. In fact, I think the best and fastest way to make something conscious, if that’s what you want to do, is to just have a baby.

Consciousness is not a material thing, nor is it a result of a material process. It can neither be created nor destroyed and it never actually “inhabits” physical matter, which is why we cannot find consciousness anywhere in the brain or body when we try to measure it (i.e. the brain and body are within consciousness — they can be found within consciousness, but consciousness cannot be found within them). And if that’s the case, then no computer simulation will ever really contain actual consciousness — at best it will be merely a projection in the consciousness of whomever makes the simulation. Now why does this matter? Well for one thing it means that we will never succeed in creating artificial intelligence simulations that are conscious, and furthermore, that no simulation of any kind will be conscious. And it follows then that no simulated universe will truly be like our universe — because there won’t be any real conscious beings in the simulation.

My point here is that to really simulate our universe completely we would have to be able to make a simulation that contains conscious beings, but we can’t do that because we cannot make consciousness. And this is important because consciousness is not just some minor force in our universe — in fact it may have a vastly larger role in shaping our universe than we can presently see or understand. Some physicists even go so far as to postulate that if it weren’t for consciousness our universe wouldn’t exist, or alternatively, that our universe has evolved specifically to support conscious life (what is called the anthropic principle). But although we cannot prove or disprove such views at present, we can certainly see the effect that conscious life has had on our home planet: If consciousness can transform our planet from a jungle to a teeming metropolis in a matter of a few million years, then by extension it could do the same thing to entire solar systems, and perhaps over billions of years, interstellar civilizations of consciousness beings could literally transform galaxies. No simulated universe will be able to truly model or account for such effects.

Research into quantum mechanics is also arriving at the fact that consciousness plays an important, but not yet understood, role in shaping physical reality. It is clear that consciousness has a major impact on the outcome of certain types of experiments, for example. Whether you observe a particle or not determines how it seems to behave. Whether you observe a system, determines whether or not it is in one of various possible states. The act of observation seems to be the catalyst which collapses infinite possibility into a particular event. This can actually be measured experimentally on very small scales, but there is speculation that it operates similarly at larger scales too, in some circumstances. But even if merely at the very smallest scales, consciousness — “the act of observation” – is built-in to how physics works, then it follows that it has a emergent effect on the largest scale  — the whole universe. But who knows, maybe the effects of consciousness on the whole are direct, not merely emergent? We don’t know yet.

There’s another reason that consciousness may throw a wrench in computer simulations of the mind and universes alike: Free will. Given that consciousness is totally transcendental, it is not conditioned by anything material. Yet, since everything is a projection of consciousness, consciousness can affect the world. To understand this, we can go back to the dream analogy again: For example, a dreaming consciousness can sense its dream projections, and it is even possible to have a lucid dream in which the dreamer controls the content of the dream, but at no time does the content of the dream ever have the ability to limit or condition the dreaming consciousness. In other words, it’s a one-way interaction. Consciousness can condition what it projects, but projections cannot condition consciousness.

Note here that consciousness is at an entirely different level from thoughts and sensory experiences –they are just mere appearances, not consciousness itself. This means that ultimately conscious beings have free will: They can effect what appears to their consciousness, but what appears to them cannot ultimately effect their consciousness in return — consciousness remains basically free, empty, pure, unconditioned, and untarnished at all times, regardless of what projections currently appear to be taking place. And, if consciousness has free will, then no computer simulation will be able to model it. The reason for this is simple: Computers are logic machines that follow instructions. They don’t have free will, they just follow sequences of logical operations. Nowhere in a computer or computer program is there anything that is truly free. At best we might be able to simulate computer intelligences that act as if they are free, but in fact, their seemingly free behavior is still actually caused by an underlying computer program at some level. Even non-deterministic, “emergent computations” are still reducible to underlying programs. But real free will is irreducible — it is not a result of any programming and cannot be conditioned by any external forces. In other words, consciousness is not a computer program, it is inherently unconditioned and free. No computer program can replicate that freedom.

In conclusion, I think our present civilization is at least several thousand years from really understanding much about consciousness and how it fits into physics, or vice-versa, but if we keep going the way we’re going our civilization probably won’t last that long. So to save time, we could look more deeply into the cosmologies of earlier civilizations that were much more advanced when it comes to consciousness than we are (for example the Buddhist cosmology as represented in the Kalachakra system for example, or the Mayan cosmology, both of which are far more inclusive of consciousness in their explanations of the universe.) I’m not suggesting that those cosmologies are going to help us understand black holes — for that our modern cosmology is probably better — but they certainly could help us understand how consciousness fits in.

There’s a lot more that could be said about this view of consciousness, but I’m not enough of an expert on Buddhist philosophy to explain it all in detail. I should also add that it is possible that my view is not exactly equivalent to the Buddhist view, and if that is the case, then any differences or mistakes herein are my own. If you’re interested in going directly the source (which is by far superior than anything I could write), I would suggest that you start reading up on the philosophy of dependent-arising and emptiness, for example the work of the ancient Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, and then perhaps start reading about the Buddhist conception of mind. There are lots of good books available on these subjects, although some are quite scholarly and difficult for beginners. Another, more accessible approach is to discuss these issues with a qualified scholar and teacher of Buddhist philosophy.

How to Talk to Aliens

Here is an interesting article, written by a chess grandmaster, on how to trade information with alien civilizations, assuming they are ever contacted. The article proposes that at interstellar distances, the only realistic form of trade would be a trade in information — such as technology and scientific knowledge. He suggests that the best way to effect such trade would be for civilizations to send one another the code for artificial intelligences that would act as their "brokers" of sorts. But there is a problem with his proposal. While it certainly is based on less anthropomorphism than the current SETI and NASA idea of sending binary encoded pictures back and forth, it still makes a number of unwarranted assumptions about our potential alien correspondents. In particular, I question the assumption that there would be any need for trade or negotiations at all! For example, given that we establish contact with an alien civilization that is, say, 300 light years away, and given that there is no form of faster-than-light travel available, then it would take at least 300 years (but most likely much, much longer) for either civilization to send a physical spaceship to the other. At time-scales of that length it would probably not make sense to visit one another at all. Given that, why withold anything from one another? Instead, it would make more sense for both civilizations to just send each other everything they know to date, as a gift of sorts.

It would still take 300 years for this data-gift to arrive, but that at least would save both civilizations a lot of time in their respective futures (assuming they did not already know everything in the content of the respective messages). It seems to me that if there is little possibility of ever physically interacting, advanced civilizations would be likely to adopt a policy of altruistically sharing all their knowledge rather than withholding it from one another. Why? Because there is little to no risk of doing so, but at least there is a near-guarantee of benefiting the recipients. In a situation where taking an action is unlikely to cause harm but guaranteed to bring about at least some benefit, advanced civilizations would very likely take the action (assuming the cost to them is not on a scale where it is harmful to them).

Why would they take such action? First of all by demonstrating good-faith to that degree the senders of such a "gift of knowledge"  would have at least some chance of receiving a reciprocal gift from the recipients, which would result in eventual reciprocal benefit to them. But even if no benefit was ever expected or recieved, by the senders, they would at least be benefiting the recipients, which, to a truly advanced civilization (i.e. one that is advanced on social dimension as well as technological dimensions) might be satisfying enough in-itself.

This also makes sense from a sociobiological perspective. According to sociobiology altruism is ultimately selfish and based on the drive to spread one’s genes to future generations. But this argument doesn’t explain cross-species altruism — for example, where a person or an animal takes care of an orphaned baby animal of a different species. In such cases of altruism there is no direct or indirect genetic benefit to the initiator. So why does it take place? Perhaps it is due to a desire to spread Life itself, an even deeper motive than just spreading the genes of one’s own family or one’s species. Perhaps truly advanced civilizations identify with all Life to some degree, and are motivated to help it evolve and prosper in the universe. They might also have a spiritual/religious perspective on generosity — for example, they might believe that helping others is both "the meaning of life" and the most satisfying reward of living. Even the religions that have arisen within our own quite primitive and violent civilization all suggest that kindness is the highest ideal, and perhaps alien civilizations have also come to similar conclusions.

Creator of Sim City Previews Amazing New Game

Many years ago I spoke with Will Wright — one of the most interesting visionaries I’ve met (and who happens to be the creator of Sim City) about his dream of a universe game — one in which the player could evolve life from the simple cellular level all the way up through galactic scale civilizations. Well it seems he has been busy working on this dream, and it sounds fascinating. He previewed it recently at a meeting of game designers, where he discussed the emergent, unpredictable and open-ended nature of the game, which is called Spore. When I spoke to Will about this years ago, I remember that he spoke of wanting to create a game that would enable players to experience the wonder and creative potential of the universe at all levels of scale. It sounds amazing, I can’t wait to try it.

Now You Can Place Phone Calls to Aliens

This is funny — a new site called www.talktoaliens.com now offers intergalactic long-distance telephone service. Simply dial their toll number and record your message. They will then beam it towards a region of high-density stars on a common frequency in the hopes of reaching any intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations that be may listening. Assuming aliens are listening perhaps we ought to be sending them messages like "Send Help Now!" or, "No Vacancy," or more pessimistically "Look Elsewhere: Humans taste bad and make poor zoo specimens."

Invisibility Shield Proposed

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have proposed a new approach to making objects invisible, by tuning special materials such that they cancel the scattering of light. The technology has a few drawbacks — it only works for specific wavelengths of light at various scales — but it’s a start. Objects that are rendered "invisible" by this technique neither absorb nor scatter light, and appear to be much smaller than their actual size, if they appear at all.

An Incredible Flash Production — Must See!

I was fortunate enough to wander across this amazing online Flash presentation that reveals the hidden meaning of the film, "2001." It’s a thoroughly engaging, brilliantly produced, fascinating production — one of the best uses of Flash animation that I’ve ever seen. It also makes some really interesting points about human evolution, our relationship to our tools, and the future. It’s a must-see — takes about 20 minutes to go through it, and well worth it! — also make sure to answer their little survey at the end for a hint about their next production…

Scientists Discuss their Beliefs in the Unknown

The New York Times has published a wonderful and fascinating set of mini-essays by leading scientists about their beliefs in the unknkown and unexplained — from consciousness, to God, to life on other worlds, and the existence of true love.  There are some terrific thoughts in it — one of thoses rare articles that breaks through stereotypes and opens the door to new paradigms. We rarely hear scientific voices venturing this far. It’s a great read for anyone interested in science and the Big Mysteries of life, the universe and everything… (you have to register with NYT to read it if you haven’t already; do it — it’s worth it to read just this article alone!). (Thanks to Joe Rockmore for finding this article!)