Before we spend much time worrying about the AI apocalypse (evil robot minds destroy us, etc.), we should recall how little we know for sure about what a mind even is. Here’s an example: In a recent edition, a popular science magazine cheers on the unconscious mind:
Far from being a malign adjunct to the conscious mind, the unconscious is responsible for all sorts of important stuff. It is smart and it is often running the show.
Still, that doesn’t mean we should just leave it alone. “The vast majority of thoughts circling in our brains happen below the radar of conscious awareness,” says neuroscientist Michael Shadlen at Columbia University, New York. That’s too much to miss out on. Forget Freudian psychoanalysis, digging up dark thoughts, instead what about consciously tapping into your unconscious and using it to your advantage? It is early days, but already our growing understanding of the human mind means we can begin to hack our unconscious powers of inspiration, pain relief, emotional control, memory and more. “How to hack your unconscious” at New Scientist
But then, turn to popular thinkmag Nautilus and what do we read?: There Is No Such Thing as Unconscious Thought.
A behavioral scientist assures us that his research shows that
The brain is a cooperative computing machine—large networks of neurons collectively piece together the solution to a single problem. Importantly, the cycle of thought proceeds one step at a time. The brain’s networks of neurons are highly interconnected, so there seems little scope for assigning different problems to different brain networks. If interconnected neurons are working on entirely different problems, then the signals they pass between them will be hopelessly at cross-purposes—and neither task will be completed successfully: Each neuron has no idea which of the signals it receives are relevant to the problem it is working on, and which are just irrelevant junk. If the brain solves problems through the cooperation computation of vast networks of individually sluggish neurons, then any specific network of neurons can work on just one solution to one problem at a time. Nick Chater, “There Is No Such Thing as Unconscious Thought” at Nautilus
Those who tell us that we can learn to use our unconscious mind and those who tell us that it doesn’t exist both claim to speak for science. But this is no ordinary dispute. An ordinary dispute might be something like What caused the Cambrian Explosion? or What killed the dinosaurs? Imagine instead a dispute between scientists who do and scientists who do not believe that trilobites and dinosaurs have ever existed.
A dispute at such a fundamental level would signify that we know next to nothing about the history of life on Earth. By the same token, the conflict between New Scientist’s view and Chater’s signifies how little we know about the human mind. If we know so little, why should we be concerned that the AI we manufacture will develop minds like ours?
Note: The piece in Nautilus is excerpted from Chater’s recent book, The Mind Is Flat: The Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain.
See also: AI machines taking over the world? It’s a Cool apocalypse but does that make it more likely?
Reconciling mind with materialism, twenty-five years on. Nothing has turned out like the Hard Science of mind people hoped
Post-modern science: The illusion of consciousness sees through itself