|Follow on Twitter as @BellaBathurst|
Of course you are. You're awake, you're sentient, you might even be upright. You're not comatose or dead, and it's reasonable to assume that if you were on some kind of powerful mind-altering drug then you wouldn't be reading this. The point is, you're here, and you're alive, so therefore you're conscious. You know you are."
OK then, since you're conscious and I'm conscious and everyone else is conscious, go ahead. Define it. What is consciousness? Where does it reside? Does it belong to the mind or the body, or does it exist outside both? Is consciousness part of our souls, or does it live in the things we create – our art, our music, our cities and wars? Could it be mechanical or electronic, and, if so, what makes it operate? Most pressingly of all, is it possible we have now made for ourselves a new kind of consciousness, one which exists independently? If so, then what the hell have we got ourselves into?
The search for a definition of consciousness must lay claim to be the world's longest-running detective story. We've had our best minds on it ever since we developed brains big enough to ask questions and, still, we seem to be stumped. Plato and Aristotle couldn't fix it; Kant, Hume and Locke tried different angles; Schroedinger, Heisenberg and Einstein remained in awe before it. None of them came up with the final formula, the definitive, nailed-it for ever, silences-all-critics answer.
Lately though, the hunt seems to have changed gear. Despite big differences about how best to conduct the search and where to look, several of the most persistent sleuths have found themselves disconcertingly close to agreement. No-one is yet at the stage when they are ready to call a press conference and announce to the world they have finally apprehended the suspect, but they have at least begun to converge on these two leads: the Omega Point and the Singularity.
The tipping point
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is an improbable prophet, partly because he's dead, and partly because he's still associated with a famous palaeontological fraud. Born the fourth of 11 children near Clermont-Ferrand in France in 1881, de Chardin developed two interests when young: God and fossils. Aged 18, he entered the Jesuit Order as a novice before completing his studies in philosophy and maths.
|Pierre Teilhard de Chardin foresaw a disembodied intelligence very like the internet. |
In 1912, he became part of the team working on Piltdown Man, the "discovery" of bones in East Sussex which were claimed to belong to an early hominid and thus to provide the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans. Nearly 40 years later, the find was exposed as a hoax. Team leader Charles Dawson had combined the skull of a modern human with the jaw of an orang-utan. Whether or not de Chardin had actually participated in the fraud – his contribution of a missing molar to the skull was a major supporting piece of evidence – his archaeological work was interrupted by the outbreak of war.
When he resumed in 1918, he moved the focus of his studies sideways into geology and began teaching in China. For the rest of his life, he combined writing, spiritual practice, teaching and adventure. By the time of his death in 1955 he'd driven a car across the whole of Eurasia and had a long but supposedly unconsummated relationship with an American sculptor called Lucille Swan...
The Turing test
Last summer, all of those future possibilities got one symbolic step closer. The Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing's famous test – can a machine demonstrate intelligence indistinguishable from that of a human? – was declared to have been passed by the Royal Society in London. A computer had managed to fool a third of the judges into believing it was "Eugene", a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy.
Eugene's supposed age and nationality provided a cover-story for the typos and the gaucheness in the conversation, and anything the programme couldn't understand, it countered with a question. Easy enough to pick holes in Eugene's performance after the event: in an age of trolls and cyber-spooks aren't we all used to the idea that print distorts identity, five minutes is too short? – but still.
|The British Turing Bombe machine was the brainchild of mathematical genius' Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, and enabled Bletchley Park's Cryptographers to decode over 3000 enemy messages a day breaking the codes created by German military Enigma machine during the Second World War. |
Turing's original conditions were only that the computer should be able to hold a brief conversation with each judge, and that 30% or more of those judges should be unable to distinguish between the artificial human and the real. "I'm not interested in developing a powerful brain,'" Turing once said at a meeting of telegraphy executives. "All I'm after is just a mediocre brain, something like the president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company."
Posted by Helge Scherlund at 25.6.15