MACHINES WHO THINK CREATIVELY.
So, what is ‘real’? In order to answer that question sensibly, we must take into consideration the limits of our experience. We are not in direct contact with the world. What we perceive as reality is a simulation created by the mind that usefully predicts at least some part of the actual reality which (I assume) exists outside of the mind. Every person, place and event that you can remember exists only as complex patterns stored in and processed by your brain. I should clarify that. I do not mean nothing exists outside of your mind. I mean that how you perceive those things is unique to you, shaped as it is by the bundle of fragments, the intricate pattern of experiences, that comprise your life so far. Evolution has surely shaped our minds so that your perception of certain things matches that of other people, but nevertheless you live in a simulated world of your own.
In this simulated world, what really matters is not the actual/fantastical and virtual/physical dimension of a person, place or event. It is the resolution of the model that counts; how ‘fine-grained’ it is. Strange though it may seem, this would suggest that a ‘digital person’ you know very well, having developed a rich model from the patterns provided by the relevant human/technological source, is more of a person to you than the hordes of people you pass in the street every day, but from whome you never take the time to build an elaborate representation. I think it is a mistake to equate fiction with untruth. Stories are only convincing if they are built from bits and pieces that were observed in daily life. That does not mean to say we can only write about something that actually happened, but the stories that persist generation after generation are the ones that tell us something useful and practical about people and society. A Science Fiction tale, for example, is best thought of as an extended thought experiment, the purpose of which is to clarify our thinking about certain issues. It has sometimes been said that Sci-Fi is never really about the future, but an alternative way of looking at the society in which the author lived. In holding up a contrast to that society, we may better understand its true nature.
And what about the future? We have long used external devices as augmentations of our cognitive processes. By integrating elements from existing programs in neuroscience (such as brain modelling and neurophysiology), cognitive sciences (physiology, reasoning), computer sciences (AI, simulation and modelling), control theory (mechanisms and control) game theory (decision making and cost/benefit analysis), robotics (perception, world modelling and behaviour) and visualization (computer graphics, videogames), we could one day see the emergence of machines who think creatively. Increasingly, an avatar will become not just a tool for communication and roleplay, but an intelligent partner collaborating with humans and capable of acting autonomously in increasingly diverse situations. I believe it is no coincidence that a storytelling species became technologically capable. The art of storytelling lies in imagining something that may not actually exist, and to plausibly describe its affect on the world if, in fact, it did. That, too, is the art of inventing technologies.
A recurrant debate in transhumane circles concerns the 1st/third person perspective of uploads. Such debates are argued as if uploads were to suddenly appear, fully developed, in today’s unprepared world. I think it is much more likely to emerge as a result of tens of thousands of conservative steps taken by a variety of technologies. Among these will be ways and means of communicating with computers, better interactions with software agents and robots, and improvements in videogame and simulation software. Among other things, I expect we will use this emerging suite of technologies to advance our storytelling capabilities.
If you think about it, ‘I’ has never been purely a 1st person. We are all a blend of 1st and third person perspectives. As the poet Robbie Burns said, “what a gift of God to give us/to see ourselves as others see us”. Novelists, scriptwriters and roleplayers are just people who have developed everyone’s innate ability to model selves — their own as well as others — from bits and pieces that already exist. We keep records of our thoughts in external media; notepads, tape recorders and, increasingly, the myriad devices communicating with the Cloud and the forthcoming Digital Gaia. As these devices grow in sophistication, not just storing information but also processing it and collaborating with us in creating and editing it, there will be an economic advantage in ensuring machine intelligence communicates usefully with the biological intelligences that helped spawn it. Our thoughts will not just migrate to unthinking substrates, but to external cognitive devices that will become increasingly capable of introspecting on thoughts, concepts, ideas, etc, uploaded from the mind of a person to the Mind of Digital Gaia. More obviously than it is now, cognition will be extended or, as David Chalmers and Andy Clark put it, “if, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it to go on in the head we would have no hesitation in recognising as part of the cognitive process, than that part of the world IS part of the cognitive process”.
If mind uploading and full brain emulation ever actually happens, it will emerge in a society in which people are used to thought processes extending out from the mind to interface with computers, robots, and other bio-technological minds. A world in which ideas replicate as they copy into many semi or fully autonomous artificial life forms living in virtual worlds, several possible sequences of cause-and-effect tried out in simulation. A place in which the virtual blends with the actual or replaces it entirely, in accordance with a person’s moment-by-moment needs; seeing yourself from many angles at once as your perception jacks in to remote eyes and ears in physical space, or as Digital Gaia dreams up alternative personal histories for your mind to explore.
In such a reality, which will emerge (if at all) from many conservative steps leading down to current technologies, will uploading really mess with your identity as some have suggested? Or will our innate ability to create selves out of the bits and pieces of everyday experience keep up with technology as it, too, aquires minds capable of such things? In order to answer such questions, we cannot rely only on fact, reality and the actual as guides. We must also tap into our fictional, fantastical and virtual sources. The latter is not the poor relation of the former, but its equal. It is by creating and sharing stories that we clarify our thinking about a reality we never know directly.
Perhaps the final words are best left to Sherry Turkle. “As we begin to live with objects that challenge the boundry between the born and the created and between human and everything else, we will need to tell ourselves different stories”.