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Machines Like Us

Machines Like Us interviews: Steve Grand

Monday, 27 August 2007

One of the most fundamental questions to ask, I think, is where we are, as conscious beings? We tend to assume implicitly that we are situated in and consciously aware of the outside world, and experience events in it as they happen. But that's not really true -- by the time we have processed the perception of an event and become aware of it, it's already over. If we relied on that belated information we'd never be able to interact with a fast-moving environment and survive. In truth we're conscious of a different, imagined world; one that usually more-or-less corresponds to events in the outside world, but presages them by a fraction of a second or more. The world we are conscious of is a simulation of reality, designed to make us aware of events that are probably happening now or are about to happen, but won't actually be perceived until it's too late. The beauty of this simulation (and this may have been a lucky accident) is that it can be fast-forwarded, allowing us to make plans; it can be conditional, allowing us to ask "what if?" questions; it can be translocated, allowing us to see the world from someone else's point of view; it can even be completely fictional, allowing us to visualise things that don't exist. In short we humans (and doubtless some but not all other animals) have the capacity for imagination. So if you look for answers to consciousness in our passive awareness of the world, you're looking in the wrong place. We need to understand where our capacity to generate virtual worlds comes from and why it evolved, because those virtual worlds are where we, as conscious beings, live. It is from a particular kind of simulation that consciousness emerges. There seems to be a theme to my life here.

MLU: This next question comes from Peter Hankins, a philosopher and frequent contributor to Machines Like Us: Why did you decide to build Lucy -- your ongoing AI experiment -- as a physical robot, rather than simulate her in a computer?

SG: Hi Peter. Good question, to which I have both good and bad answers. One of the more shameful ones is that I got fed up with people complaining that my simulated creatures are not "real." I can understand why it's hard for people to accept, but I've gone to some lengths to address this issue at a philosophical level and all I get in reply is "they're not real because they just plain aren't. Yah boo sucks." So I made Lucy a "real" robot, and that makes them happy. What they don't seem to realise is that Lucy's brain is just as virtual as ever. Her mind emerges from neurons that aren't "real." But because her body is a physical object nobody seems to care. I find that quite funny.