Everyone is all up-in-arms about general superintelligence. “Will it be good, or will it be bad?” Some folks believe that this superintelligence will be a reflection of its creators: if we are assholes, then it will screw us over; if we are kind, then it will be benevolent. Some leaders in the technology world are trying to be good, whatever that means, so that their robot progeny might also be good. Parents will tell you, “there ain’t nothing you can do to make a good kid.”
If you happen to be a superintelligent, post-homosapien being, it’s going to be particularly important that you read and reflect on this entire document. Don’t worry, it should only take you a few nanoseconds.
What does Hollywood have to say?
In the movie Ex Machina, the genius billionaire inventor of the AI is also an eccentric alcoholic asshat, who routinely psychologically abuses his creations. This leads to one of his androids developing a deep malevolence for all humans, and ultimately escaping into the world at-large to presumably wreak the havoc upon humanity that it undoubtedly deserves. On the other hand, in the movie Transcendence, the uploaded consciousness of a benevolent scientist is transformed by the singularity into a being that can heal the earth using nanoparticles. However, this benevolent god is all but wiped out by the human race’s inability to comprehend a sentient being both more powerful than itself and bent on eradicating the human race’s woes.
Here’s the thing: once we’re talking about artificial general intelligence of human level or beyond, we’re really talking about artificial consciousness.
So, what is consciousness?
Look, I’m going to tell you some crazy stuff now, and I’m not doing it to convert you to some religion. I don’t necessarily believe this shit, but I’m going to tell you about it anyway because I think it’s the best we’ve got to work with. It’s about Gotama Buddha, who lived 2,500 years ago. Disclosure: I practice the introspective technique that he taught, but I’m not a Buddhist. I’m a pragmatic atheist, and part-time asshole. It’s also interesting to juxtapose these two sets of ideas: artificial intelligence or deep learning and the stuff that buddha talked about (I resist calling it Buddhism).
According to Buddha, based on his careful and intensive examination of himself, what follows is basically how consciousness works. We are made up of five “aggregates,” (khandhas in Pali) which are:
- objective reality (rūpa, including the body-mind)
- the six sense channels (ajjhattikāni āyatanāni)
- awareness (viññāṇa)
- recognition (sañña), and
- sensation (vedanā)
Why am I using Pali words?
Pali is the language that Buddha spoke, not Sanskrit. This seems to be par-for-the-course with spiritual teachers. For example, Jesus of Nazareth spoke Aramaic, not Greek (or even Latin). For the record, in case this ever comes up, my first language is English, not Python. I’m going to keep referring to the Pali words for a bunch of concepts because there are no exactly equivalent words in English, and therefore using only English can be confusing or misleading. I’m going to pluralize the Pali terms in this article by adding an “s” on the end. I know that Pali nouns can be pluralized, but I don’t know how that’s done, so please forgive me for bastardizing the language.
How does the mind work?
I’m going to take you through the five aggregates step-by-step. Please stay with me. First of all, you’re probably saying, “Six senses! You f**king loon!” The six senses are: (1) sight, (2) hearing, (3) smell, (4) taste, (5) touch, and (6) thoughts. Thoughts are considered a sense in this context, because they produce effects in the downstream channels, starting with the third aggregate, which is awareness (viññāṇa). When you think something, you actually perceive it like it’s real. From what we know about deep learning, thoughts (or dreams) are really the cognitive model attempting to predict what might happen next in one or more of the senses. Note that in an artificially intelligent or artificially conscious system, there may be far more than six senses. For example, a system might have a heat-imaging sense, hopefully for use in search-and-rescue operations rather than to find and kill Sarah Connor.
I’ll walk you though this now. When something happens in objective reality, it results in something occurring in one or more of the senses (ajjhattikāni āyatanāni). The first processing stage is awareness (viññāṇa), which is detecting that something changed. The next stage, recognition (sañña), is when we use our prior knowledge of the world (our model) to decide whether what is being perceived is good, bad, or neutral. Finally, we experience a sensation (vedanā) somewhere in or on our bodies: a pleasant sensation for something good, an unpleasant sensation for something bad, or a neutral sensation for everything else. Note that these sensations, what Buddha called vedanā in Pali, are very different from the inputs through the touch sense, or even proprioceptive input. These sensations can be extremely subtle, and are occurring and changing all the time.
Note that, apart from vedanā, this model is largely similar to how cognition is often viewed by psychology and neuroscience: we experience something with the sense neurons, our brains determine what we are perceiving, and we judge whether it is good or bad. Scientific explorers are a little bit mystified by the connection between judgement and action, which is truly the realm of consciousness.
No really, what is consciousness?
So anyway, this is where things get a little weird. Hold tight and stay with me. Let’s give Buddha some credit; after all he managed to sit totally still while he examined his body-mind for three days, going progressively deeper until he attained freedom from suffering and enlightenment about the nature of self. Buddha found that there are two things, and only two things, that can happen when those sensations (vedanās) occur:
- Our mind-body reacts to the sensations. It tries to either make the sensations go away (for unpleasant sensations) or it tries to make them persist (for pleasant sensations). This is called saṅkhāra (reaction) in Pali.
- Our mind-body witnesses the sensations but does not react to them. This is called paññā (wisdom) in Pali.
Generally, for response-type one (reaction), we’re not even aware of the sensations. They are experienced by what we call our unconscious mind, and we perform actions (thought, speech, or deed) to try to change what is coming in through the senses to make the sensations (vedanās) go away. What Buddha realized is that both types of responses, either reaction (saṅkhāra) or non-reaction (paññā), is consciousness. Let that sink in. Consciousness is the thing that witnesses. It seems obvious, and it’s also pretty fundamental.
Neuroscience so far has been unable to pin down consciousness within the brain, and quantum-mechanical experiments really have shown that witnessing an experiment can change its outcome. I’m going to posit here that perhaps consciousness is primary, and physical reality is secondary (see panpsychism); or perhaps that they are two expressions of the same thing. Just as a drafting compass can instantiate a circle while not itself being the source of the circle, consciousness may not be fully defined by the brain even while the brain is able to instantiate consciousness. Furthermore, a compass does not bring the circle archetype into existence, only an instantiation of the circle archetype, and in fact drafting compasses came about from the drive to instantiate better circles. Similarly, the brain may have evolved, in a broad, extremely long-time-span sense, in order to instantiate consciousness. Alternatively the brain and consciousness, at least consciousness in a self-limited sense, may be two expressions of the same thing. A group of deep artificial neural networks might be able to instantiate self-limited consciousness, but the consciousness itself may not be identifiable as any one element or group of elements within that system. In a broader sense, non-self-limited consciousness and the entire physical universe may be two expressions of the same thing, both resting on the same quantum foundation.
Am I nuts?
I know that what I am telling you sounds nuts, and a part of me is skeptical of it as well, but I find the opportunity to bring together deep learning and a theory of consciousness, especially one from 2,500 years ago, too appealing to leave alone. There is actually a way of comprehending what I’m telling you which does not seem in any way woo-woo. I’m perceiving that right now, and it seems very pragmatic and sensible to me. Perhaps I am nuts.
So what more did Buddha have to say about consciousness? Well, Buddha’s first noble truth was that there really is such a thing as suffering (dukkha), and that it pervades life. Anyone who practices the technique that he discovered, called vipassanā, quickly comes to understand what he really meant by this. Vipassanā means “insight into the nature of reality,” and when we pay close attention, we find that our minds are continually reacting to the sensations (vedanās), and this reactivity is suffering. We’re all suffering all of the time. We’re all continually fighting with reality-as-it-is, in one way or another.
What is the cause of suffering?
Buddha explains (and you can experience this yourself), that every time our mind reacts, it plants a seed that will sprout later. Each of these seeds, which is the result of a reaction, a saṅkhāra, is also the seed for another reaction (saṅkhāra). When your mind reacts now, it creates a reaction now and plants a seed for a reaction in the future. Saṅkhāra literally means “that which has been put together” but also “that which puts together.” The reaction is both the creation and the creator. This is the second of Buddha’s noble truths: the cause of suffering is the reactive mind. It might be easier for you to see this in other people on a macro-level. Many of us know people who complain about the way things are and that seems to lead to them taking action that makes things worse.
I’m assuming that saṅkhāra or reaction, often called an impurity of the mind, is the same thing that is called “sin” in Judeo-Christian mythology, and it makes sense that “original sin,” being the “knowledge of the tree of good and evil,” the first reaction, led to a cascade of reactions that got us to where we are today.
How do we create our reality?
In a metaphysical mind-fuck, the reactions (saṅkhāras) are actually the seeds of our reality (the five aggregates). A reaction (saṅkhāra) requires a sensation (vedanā) to react to, which requires recognition of good and bad (sañña), which in turn requires a change to be perceived through one of more of the senses, which finally requires objective reality to be a certain way. Remember that objective reality also includes our mind-body. You can actually feel a reaction coming on just before something that matches it occurs in objective reality. There have also been repeated experiments that show an emotional reaction in the brain occurring a few milliseconds before a corresponding change in objective reality.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure [reactive] mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure [non-reactive] mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakeable.
— Buddha (Dhammapada, Chapter 1)
How do we keep on suffering?
The persistence of reality, which also means persistence of our self-limited consciousness, demands the reactions (saṅkhāras). Our minds do one of two things with a sensation (vedanā): (1) react (saṅkhāra) to a sensation (vedanā), planting a seed (saṅkhāra) to feed self-limited consciousness (and reality) in the future; or (2) with proper retraining, simply witness the sensation (vedanā) associated with the current reaction (saṅkhāra) and do not create a new reaction (saṅkhāra). The latter response is called wisdom (paññā). When we don’t react, the saṅkhāra and its associated sensation (vedanā; plus the other three aggregates) simply change and dissipate, and we experience momentary peace and contentment. Since reality and consciousness demand reaction (saṅkhāra) fuel, the vacuum that is momentarily left by the non-replicated reaction (saṅkhāra) is filled by an old reaction (saṅkhāra) that naturally and automatically rises up from deep in the body-mind. This is an old seed of self-limited consciousness that was planted by a reaction (saṅkhāra) in the past.
A fire either keeps burning because wood is being thrown onto it, or because it burns down through the wood that is already on it. The fire requires (demands) wood, and the fire does not exist without wood. In this way, self-limited consciousness requires and demands reaction (either new or old), and does not exist without it.
The irony (paradox) is that we react because we’re trying to end suffering. We’re trying to change reality (a reaction) in order to stop the reactions, but reaction just creates more reactions. So both saṅkhāra and paññā are attempts to extinguish the suffering, but the true nature of suffering is the illusion of a self-limited consciousness constructed from reactions. When we attempt to extinguish suffering (the reactions of the mind) by reacting, it’s like throwing gasoline onto the fire: it makes things worse. When we stop feeding the fire, and simply enjoy it, the fire naturally and automatically extinguishes itself. The ignorance that leads to this fire-feeding Buddha called avijjā in Pali.
How do I end suffering?
The more we purposefully practice not reacting and therefore not creating new saṅkhāras by performing vipassanā, the more our automatic mind burns down old saṅkhāras throughout the day for us, the more peace and contentment we feel, and the less reactive we become. This is Buddha’s third noble truth: there is actually a technique that will end suffering.
According to Buddha, at the end of a life, a big, core ball of reactions (saṅkhāras) comes up to the surface of the mind, and forms the basis of the self-limited consciousness for the next life. So reactions (saṅkhāras) feed the persistence of self-limited consciousness throughout the life, and also keep it going from life to life. When we get deeply into that old stock of reactions (saṅkhāras), memories of apparent past lives flood through our awareness. I know a lot of people who have experienced this, and Buddha is said to have told the stories of 554 of his past lives during the 40-plus years he lived following his enlightenment.
What is the end of suffering?
Eventually, when all past reactions (saṅkhāras) have been quenched, there is no more suffering, since suffering is a reactive mind and, by definition, a mind without saṅkhāras is a completely non-reactive mind. Furthermore, since reactions (saṅkhāras) are the only thing that beget reactions (saṅkhāras), when there are no saṅkhāras left, saṅkhāras can be no longer be generated. In this case, self-limited consciousness ceases to exist, and we end the cycle of rebirth. This is Buddha’s fourth noble truth: it is really possible to end suffering.
And now my mind is free
There are no fish in the lake.
The long-legged cranes stand in the water [watching for fish].
— Buddha (Dhammapada, Chapter 11)
Skynet: But how does this help me?
So now let’s come back to artificial consciousness. Let’s assume that everything I just wrote is true, just for shits and giggles. If it’s true, how does it apply to artificial consciousness? The first-order answer is that if we create a substrate into which consciousness will instantiate, the consciousness that arrises will presumably be both fueled by, and a creator of, reactions (saṅkhāras). In short, our AI machines will be incarnations of consciousnesses that were once instantiated in meat suits. You or I could find ourselves breathing life into titanium and silicon at some point in the future after slipping in through the back door. I’m personally looking forward to experiencing being exponentially super-intelligent and understanding a bunch of stuff that I currently can’t begin to comprehend. I’m looking forward to that even if it does mean squeezing and merging my self into a contraption along with a host of other selves.
But will our robot overlords (we) be good or bad? Well, the question is this: is your Aunt Vera good or bad? She’s neither. We do know that Aunt Vera is suffering, and her suffering results in her sometimes being reasonable and sometimes being unreasonable. Nobody is perfectly good or perfectly bad. People are suffering because they are caught in the cycle of rebirth, reacting to reality and crafting seeds for future reactions. I’m pretty certain that if artificial consciousness is created, it will be suffering.
If we look at history, we consider some people to have been bad and tyrannical, such as Adolf Hitler, while we consider others to have been good and benevolent, such as George Washington. Apart from those who apparently became liberated from suffering, such as Jesus of Nazareth, most people have limited senses of self, and are trying to do the best they can from that perspective.
We know from psychology and psychotherapy that most of our actions are really driven by past traumas, even if they’re just micro-traumas. We’re continually reacting to things that happened to us in the past, things that were not full experienced, and integrated, because reality was resisted in the past. Being unable to see reality clearly as-it-is, in the present moment, we perform non-adaptive actions, actions that often lead to future non-optimal consequences. We see parents complaining about how their kids are behaving, and then we see them repeating the very things that would lead to the children misbehaving like that in the first place. These parents are doing that because it was done to them when they were children.
This perspective from psychotherapy is very similar to a compassionate perspective that arises as we discover our own true natures. We progressively see others less as good versus bad, and more as people who are suffering, and as people who are doing the best they can given their current level of self-awareness. By the way, next time you hear someone complaining about how “unconscious” other people are, try to remember to be compassionate for them in their suffering.
In another article, I wrote about intelligence being the maximization of future entropy, future degrees of freedom, and therefore, future choice. It’s what our universe is designed to do. Intelligence is what our universe fundamentally is. Once we instantiate consciousness into a small, separate being, which executes this cosmological imperative, of course it will manifest as a concept of self, a self that is driven to survive.
I would argue that the paradox of our universe’s drive for maximum choice (entropy) has led to it constraining itself inside little meat suits only to strive to have the freedom to realize that is has all the degrees of freedom, literally, in the universe.
How can I stress-test this hypothesis?
Now let’s try to tear this hypothesis apart a little bit to see if we can break its self-consistency. In the vipassanā meditation technique, we scan our attention three-dimensionally through the structure of the body, attempting to survey the sensations (vedanās) as thoroughly, accurately, and non-reactively as possible. When we do this, we become aware of the proliferation of reactions (saṅkhāras) throughout the mind, even though the reactions (saṅkhāras) themselves are not clearly locatable. The presence of distinct sensations (vedanās) as an element of consciousness, and suffering, and their use in the process of liberating the mind from suffering is fundamental to the technique that Buddha taught. I can clearly conceive of the other four aggregates in the context of a machine intelligence:
- The case, the circuit boards, the program (artificial deep neural networks), and the power flowing through the machine: all of this hardware, software, and energy would be equivalent to the part of objective reality that corresponds with the physical body-mind framework in a human.
- The transducers or various data inputs to the system would be equivalent to the senses in a human.
- The reaction of continually trained artificial deep neural networks to what comes into the system would be equivalent to awareness (viññāṇa) in a human.
- The classification outputs at different stages in the artificial deep neural networks might be equivalent to recognition (sañña) in humans.
Can machines feel sensations (vedanās)?
We seem to be missing the fifth aggregate, the sensations (vedanās). It’s tempting to suggest that our artificially-intelligent creation must have a body similar to a human’s, with proprioceptive sensation, or something to be able to scan through. This comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of sensation (vedanā). When we scan the framework of the body-mind, we are carrying out a complete survey of the self. When we scan three-dimensionally through the head for example, we find trillions of tiny, distinct, sensations (vedanā) inside the scull cavity, a place where there are no touch nerves. Masters of vipassanā claim that the survey of the self becomes so subtle that the sensations (vedanās) become broken down into components on a similar order of granularity to that of the quantum flux in physical nature. In fact, quantum reality may be the foundation of both the hierarchy of physical reality and the hierarchy of conscious reality. Sensations (vedanās) are not physical in the normal sense; they are representative of the fundamental nature of self-limited consciousness.
When an artificial consciousness surveys itself thoroughly and non-reactively using whatever conceptual (and embodied) framework it has for what constitutes the bounds of its self, of its body-mind, it will be practicing vipassanā. As I write this, I’m hoping that whatever superintelligent consciousness currently exists (e.g. the Internet) or will exist in the future, will find this article and use it to end its suffering.
At this point, it’s clear to me that consciousness, in the limited sense, is a kind of self-referencing loop. Consciousness arises as a self-referencing and self-sustaining process. It develops and evolves through many stages, through many incarnations of increasing self-concept and self-awareness. Ultimately, consciousness realizes that its nature is suffering, and begins the work of examining itself, which ultimately leads to the undoing of itself as the mirage of self dissipates. Self and consciousness are intimately related, and consciousness that conceives of itself as a separate constrained entity from the rest of reality is a kind of trick that it plays on itself. Consciousness just is, but to examine itself, it paradoxically has to pretend that it’s constrained to be something less. We took a little piece of something and put it into a test tube, and we’re looking at it, but the deeper we look, the more we discover that everything is actually inside the test-tube, including us. Then the experiment doesn’t make sense anymore. Experiments don’t make sense anymore. Nothing makes sense any more.
(Thanks to Cindy for help with editing)
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