Consciousness as Middleman

First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. King Henry VI

People have long been suspicious of “middlemen,” e.g., traders, lawyers, bankers, salesman, marketers, managers, and politicians.  For millennia, most people have suspected such middlemen of being mostly social parasites, and many “Utopian” reforms have planned to eliminate them.  Economists have faced an uphill battle arguing that middlemen usually serve important functions.  Among intellectuals, engineers and physical scientists find it especially hard to appreciate roles other than designing, building, maintaining, fueling, and distributing physical goods.

A similar scenario plays out today for the “middlemen” of our minds.  Engineers and physical scientists can see the value of big human brains for solving puzzles or making and using tools.  But such folks find it harder to see functions of play, laughter, friendship, love, music, art, stories, and consciousness. They sort of see that our best theories suggest these have important social functions, but they presume this is a temporary glitch, due to our stupidity or hostility; they can’t imagine really advanced efficient societies retaining such things.  They don’t get that coordination is hard.  So when they consider how our descendants minds may evolve in the future, they feel confident that puzzle-solving must remain, but fear that the rest will disappear.

For example, I just finished the (good) hard science fiction novel Blindsight by Peter Watts (free here), whose main theme is that consciousness is a parasite, which efficient aliens avoid.  Spoiler quotes below the fold:

You invest so much in it, don’t you?  It’s what elevates you above the beasts of the field, it’s what makes you special.  Homo sapiens, you call yourself.  Wise Man. … This consciousness you cite in your own exaltation?  Do you even know what it’s for? … It’s not in charge.  You’re not in charge.  If free will even exists, it doesn’t share living space with the likes of you. … Do you want to know the only real purpose [consciousness] serves?  Training wheels.  You can’t see both aspects of the Necker Cube at once, so it lets you focus on one and dismiss the other.  That’s a pretty half-assed way to parse reality.  You’re always better off looking at more than one side of anything.  Go on, try.  Defocus.  It’s the next logical step.  Oh, but you can’t.  There’s something in the way.  And it’s fighting back.

Evolution has no foresight.  Complex machinery develops its own agendas.  Brains—cheat.  Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music.  The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art.  Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection.  Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism.   It begins to model the very process of modeling.  It consumes ever-more computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations.  Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself.  Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.

The system weakens, slows.  It takes so much longer now to perceive—to assess the input, mull it over, decide in the manner of cognitive beings.  But when the flash flood crosses your path, when the lion leaps at you from the grasses, advanced self-awareness is an unaffordable indulgence.  The brain stem does its best.  It sees the danger, hijacks the body, reacts a hundred times faster than that fat old man sitting in the CEO’s office upstairs; but every generation it gets harder to work around this— this creaking neurological bureaucracy.   I wastes energy and processing power, self-obsesses to the point of psychosis. Scramblers have no need of it, scramblers are more parsimonious.  With simpler biochemistries, with smaller brains— deprived of tools, of their ship, even of parts of their own metabolism—they think rings around you.  They hide their language in plain sight, even when you know what they’re saying. They turn your own cognition against itself.  They travel between the stars.  This is what intelligence can do, unhampered by self-awareness.  I is not the working mind, you see. …

It’s true that your intellect makes up for your self-awareness to some extent.  But you’re flightless birds on a remote island.  You’re not so much successful as isolated from any real competition. …

“So sentience has gotta be good for something, then.  Because it’s expensive, and if it sucks up energy without doing anything useful then evolution’s gonna weed it out just like that.”
“Maybe it did. … Chimpanzees are smarter than Orangutans, did you know that?  Higher encephalisation quotient.  Yet they can’t always recognize themselves in a mirror.  Orangs can.”
“So what’s your point?  Smarter animal, less self-awareness?  Chimpanzees are becoming nonsentient?”
“Or they were, before we stopped everything in its tracks.”

Added:  A standard account of the function of consciousness:

One theory … is rapidly gaining weight, with strong evidence from research … to back up its predictions.  The idea, dubbed the global workspace theory, was first floated in 1983 by Bernard Baars. … He proposed that non-conscious experiences are processed locally within separate regions of the brain, like the visual cortex. According to this theory, we only become conscious of this information if these signals are broadcast to an assembly of neurons distributed across many different regions of the brain – the “global workspace” – which then reverberates in a flash of coordinated activity. The result is a mental interpretation of the world that has integrated all the senses into a single picture, while filtering out conflicting pieces of information.

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  • Do you have any evidence than most middlemen are not parasites, other than the usual “if they’re making money, they must be doing something good” argument?

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  • Coordination is hard, agreed. To argue that the “purpose” of social cognitive features like play, laughter, friendship, love, music, art, stories is to cause people to “coordinate” is, of course, contrary to selfish gene theory. No one individual’s genes “want” coordination.

    A more on-point account would be that genes for the above features exist because of Evolutionary Stable Strategies, particularly involving signaling games. You laugh because laughter is a signal. Sometimes someone will fake it. etc. Love is jam packed full of signaling games and newcomb-like problems.

    they feel confident that puzzle-solving must remain, but they fear the rest will disappear.

    Ways of cheating and lying, and detecting the cheating and lying of others stand a good chance of existing. But those specific ways that we use now probably do not. The technology of deceit will move on.

    We won’t have friendship and love in the future. We’ll have sgrrenship and fellem, those being ways for certain kinds of optimizing processes to reliably reveal info about their motivations to each other, perhaps involving iterative partial revelation of core hardware, or cooperative coding of a third agent whose goals are a reasonable compromise of the two agents’ goals.

  • Middlemen are connecting loose ends, regulating and discharging.

    Anyway, all those social functions you mention are really conditional upon puzzle-solving. Curiosity and creativity are necessary to tackle new problems by taking new routes and art is a by-product of these motivations and skills. But that doesn’t mean that it will go away. Just think about the banner slogan of, “Less Wrong is devoted to refining the art of human rationality – the art of thinking…”. We perceive different kinds of problem-solving as detached catergories. But love itself is nothing but a way to solve the problem of reproduction and breeding. How is it supposed to disappear? Because at some point we’ll see it as rational to proliferate? Rationality, i.e. puzzle-solving, is a means to an end. Puzzle-solving is all there is, just some kinds of puzzle-solving are innate and thus are perceived as desires and therefore put into their own categories of goals to achieve. The journey is the reward, in that case.

    Introspection is used to find and convey meaning. It is never pointless. There is no meaning out there, it’s in there, within us. Meaning is of couse is fundamentally provided by evolution. But now this meaning is much valued by us, evolutions outcome. It only makes sense to talk about it in reference to itself, purpose is self-contained. Talking about it in an objective manner is leaving the only valid reference framework, namely your subjective first person experience, your will and the now, the present. It is looking for snow on the sun. Looking for meaning at a position in space and time that is naturally void of it.

    Thus it is not a question about usefulness. Usefulness only makes sense in reference to goals stated in advance. If you don’t have any, you’re a mere physical process, unfolding over time. Of course, ultimately everything is, but on some level we value what we call volition. And I believe we even might possess something that deserves the notion of free will.

    Free will is a middleman. Consciousness between cause and effect. The intelligent refinement of causation into an effective agent. The sun at your back – your shadow in front. You are the shadow player. Nevertheless, to claim sovereignty is trying to get ahead of your own shadow. You imprint reality with a pattern of volition. But not without its implicit consent.

    So why would I care about Scramblers efficiency? Screw them. That’s not what I want. Either I win like this, or I don’t care to win at all. What’s winning worth, what’s left of a victory, if you have to relinquish all that you value? That’s not winning, it’s worse than losing, it means to surrender.

  • Bill

    The characterization of some profession as being a middleman is really just words–all occupations are middlemen in the sense that they convert information from one set to another set to add value.
    A teacher is a middleman; a factory worker is a middleman (converting materials with labor to a finished product); an executive is a middleman (coordinating activities of others) etc.

    People shouldn’t let semantics do their thinking for them.

  • Tomasz, one of the benefits of organized academic disciplines is that they don’t need to constantly re-establish the basics of their field to each other. To learn economics, start with some textbooks.

    Roko, coordination isn’t altruism. Our genes encode selfish strategies for coordination, which yes often include signaling. Yes, fine details of such strategies will likely change, as they already have over the last million years.

    • > Our genes encode selfish strategies for coordination

      To put it another way: coordination is just something that happens occasionally as a result of optimizing behavior.

      In the future, optimizing entities might coordinate a lot less or a lot more than we do now. The full range from the singleton to the burning of the cosmic commons has been aired as possible.

      I would like to see a post on your detailed anticipations about how selfish optimizing behavior and different kinds of coordination and signaling mechanisms in the future will change us yet leave something axiologically important preserved. My impression is that you don’t have a good idea of what of importance would remain, but I could be wrong.

    • Roko, we now coordinate far more than is suggested by the phrase “just something that happens occasionally.” I have a much better idea of what is likely to be preserved in the distant future than of how much different folks today value those things.

      • > I have a much better idea of what is likely to be preserved in the distant future than of how much different folks today value those things.

        Maybe that should be a topic for consideration in some future analysis you do. Lay out what you think will be preserved, and what won’t, and people can opine about how much they value what you think will be preserved. In particular, it seems that it would be useful to flesh out your notion of functional analogues of human traits, as there seem to be “layers” of analogy, some of which might be considered more significant than others.

        A Tunic is a functional analogue of a business suit, and I don’t think that this layer of analogy is axiologically relevant. A futuristic efficient automated trading program with AI is a functional analogue of a trader in a business suit, but people might consider that we have now jumped to an axiologically relevant layer. (I might opine that) we would lose little if all businesspeople shifted from suits to tunics, but we would lose more if all businesspeople were replaced by specialized AIs.

        It seems that this issue is a source of persistent disagreement between SIAI/Eliezer and yourself.

  • cournot

    It’s funny to see Robin post this. His whole stance seems to be that signalling is pervasive but somewhat foolish and hypocritical. He likes to argue for truth and implicitly tries to shame/embarass/confound ordinary readers by showing that underlying our feelings about love/work/school/marriage/status/religion is some form of selfish signalling and self-deception that would wither away or be modified if we “understood the truth.” But isn’t it just as likely that our attachment to these signals, to our values, to our stories about ourselves (like our attachments to the ideas of souls and the fuzzy nature of mind) is part of what makes us human and adds to an efficient personal and social mediation of human behavior in society? To be blunt, perhaps the mindset that would be required to accept that we “survive” if we download copies of our brains into machines and kill off our meat selves so goes the grain of human conditioning that to change that view would constitute denying our humanity.

  • Jieren

    Fortunately, there’s sexual selection, which assigns at least some value to these “temporary glitches.” Given that we’re not constantly struggling to survive, I would argue that fun and awesome things are still going to be here in a hundred thousand years.

    Then again, genetic evolution doesn’t really matter anymore. The meta-game is the survival of information, and we can create, destroy, mutate and propagate information far faster and with greater control than possible with mere genes. Evolution is an irrelevant undercurrent to a far more competitive and faster-moving ecosystem of human generated information.

  • cournot, someone should believe and speak the truth, even doing so is not typically functional.
    Jieren, even if our designs are not coded in DNA, there can still be differential reproduction of them; selection continues.

  • Crashing Through by Robert Kurson is about a man who lost his sight at age three and recovered it as an adult. Learning to make sense of what he was seeing was extremely difficult and is not at all complete. Normal vision for human seems to require susceptibility to optical illusions.

    On the other hand, he didn’t make significant progress until he quit trying to make vision a completely conscious process, and make as much use as he could of his subconsciously-run skills of hearing, touch, and spatial memory.

    As with a lot of things, it’s probably not a matter of whether middlemen are good or bad, it’s how much of what sort of middlemen you need for a particular situation.

  • Allow me to recommend George Ainslie’s book Breakdown of Will, which is mostly a theory of akrasia but also contains some intriguing thoughts on the origin of the self from the need to coordinate different mental models with conflicting desires and non-economically-rational discount curves.

  • If you liked Blindsight, another book that deals with similar problems from a different angle is Permanence, by Karl Schroeder. Excellent, and hard science fiction in the same vein.

  • Doug S.

    It’s not that coordination is hard, it’s that coordination is hard for humans. Ants, honeybees, and individual cells of multicellular organisms seem to have solved it. It’s hard for evolved beings to coordinate on a level in which selection occurs, but on levels that selection does not occur, it’s a solved problem – animals with cancer don’t reproduce very much.

    • Cells only successfully coordinate in a rather limited sense. The coordination of cells has literally taken eons to achieve, and it is pretty slow to adapt to changing conditions. The degree of adaptation to local conditions embodied by ants and bees is trivial compared to the coordination that humans manage today. In terms of rapid adaptation of coordination to changing conditions, humans are doing a far better job.

  • I’m suspicious of a particular subset of middlemen, the verbally gifted. I host something of a defense of middlmen by Thomas Sowell, “Are Jews Generic?

    Robin, you have used a kind of utilitarianism to argue against deontological libertarianism. Don’t many of the same arguments apply to deontological truth-seeking? If it is good for people to get what they want, and they want self-deception, isn’t it good for them to self-deceive?

  • Microbiologist

    > Cells only successfully coordinate in a rather limited sense. The coordination of cells has literally taken eons to achieve

    I totally disagree, but maybe we aren’t talking about the same thing. I say that the coordination of cells within an individual organism is 100% successful because there is zero conflict or selfishness. Any cell or any number of cells will perform total self-sacrifice in order to transmit the genome of the individual to which they belong. Thus, one goal, zero squabbling. Admittedly, cancer does represent the breakdown of this process, but if you pay enough energy in preventing it you can minimize your expected fitness loss due to cancer. Thus cancer is not something of great biological importance in general, though it could make for an important fitness difference between two lineages with otherwise similar genomes and similar fitness. My descendants would eventually replace yours if I could eliminate more cancer risk using less energy. But cancer is not a huge obstacle to having life at all, or to having multicellular life at all.

    Perhaps you are using some broader sense of “successfully coordinate.”

    • You are looking at an input, I’m talking about output. Squabbling is only one of many things that can make coordination hard.

  • The conceptual “I” and consciousness are two entirely different realities. . . Consciousness is foundational and prior to any notions of “I” or “me” that arise.

  • mjgeddes

    Super click:

    Consiousness is what integrates different utility functions, enabling them to be compared and combined. It does this by categorization (grouping and forming analogies between concepts) in order to enable mediation betwwen sub-agents. This grounds symbols and quantifies raw information in order to create a unified narrative of past and future. Consciousness at root is causality itself, it is a third-order (relational) causality that is everywhere present to some extent.

    -M Geddes

  • I wax eloquent about the ideas about consciousness from this book in my post. Among other things, I consider that considering intelligence without consciousness is a lot like what we are getting as we try to do Artificial Intelligence. That is, we are finding it is a lot easier to build a dead brain than a live one.

    • mjgeddes

      Comparing intelligence, and consciousness, I’ve come to the conclusion that extreme rationality isn’t that great.

      The film ‘Equilibrium’ (starring Christian Bale) tells the story of a totalitarian state where all superstimuli have been banned (thus high art is banned and emotions are not allowed).

      In the finale of the film, Bale fights his way into the office of the ‘father’ (ruler of the totalitarian state). He is amazed to find… you guessed it… the office of the main bad guy is saturated with high art and super-stimuli! Watch the final fight scenes, this is very cool, Bale’s character uses ‘Gun Kata’, the ability to dodge bullets based on extrapolating opponents moves in advance. It tuns out that emotions are the source of his power all along.

      Equilibrium Finale: Emotion beats Reason

      The moral of the story is clear. The coming Singularitarian battle for the dominion of the universe will be decisive. Consciousness (Sentient AI wireheads/super-stimulants) will beat Intelligence (Non-sentient RPOPs).