The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


The Italian neurophysiologist Valentino Breitenberg proposed a thought experiment which consists in mentally building progressively more complex machines, starting with the most elementary ones. At the beginning, there are only “vehicles” that respond to their environment. The first vehicle is simply made of a motor and a sensor: the speed of the motor is controlled by the sensor, motion is meant to be only forward. But in the real world this vehicle is subject to friction (where friction is the “metaphysical” sum of all forces of the environment) and therefore the trajectory will tend to deviate from the straight line. In fact, in a pond the movement would be quite complex. That's the whole point: despite the simple internal workings of these machines, they seem to be alive. We can increase little by little their circuitry, and at each step these vehicles seem to acquire not only new skills, but also a stronger personality.

The second vehicle is still fairly simple: two motors and two sensors. The sensor is designed to get excited by whatever kind of matter. It turns out that depending on the way they are wired, these vehicles react differently to the exciting matter: one runs towards it, while the other runs away from it. One is "aggressive", the other is "afraid".

And so forth. As their circuitry increases, the vehicles seem to exhibit more sophisticated feelings.

By adding simple electro-mechanical components, Breitenberg induces the machines to reason logically (via McCulloch-Pitts neurons).  As the devices get more complicated, shapes are recognized; regularities are represented; properties of objects are discriminated.  Hebbian associations (that get stronger as they are used) allow for concepts to emerge.  Soon the machines start exhibiting learning and memory.  Causation (as constant succession) and attention (as self-control over associations) finally lead to trains of thoughts.

At this point something very similar to the human mind can be said to be born, and all Breitenberg has to do is add circuitry for social and moral skills.

The leitmotiv of Breitenberg's research is that it is far easier to create machines that exhibit "cognitive" behavior simply by interacting with the environment than it is to analyze their behavior and try to deduce the internal structure that produces such cognitive behavior.

Breitenberg's ideas spawned an entire generation of robots, which their constructors appropriately tend to call "creatures".


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