Beyond the Mountains of Westworld: Part 3a – The Emergence of Consciousness in Natural and Artificial Forms of Life

1478297539-ptolemy-slocum-as-sylvester-leonardo-nam-as-lutz-and-thandie-newton-as-maeve-credit-john-p-johnson-hbo A technician re-programming one of the hosts on HBO’s Westworld.

Before we compare and contrast the origins of consciousness in both H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” and HBO’s show Westworld, we should spend a little time on discussing what exactly is consciousness.  A very simple definition of consciousness is “a State of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings as well as other people / organisms.” It can also be thought of as “self-awareness.” In much of science fiction, self-awareness of artificial life, from Frankenstein to Westworld, results in big problems for the creator. Movies such as the Terminator, The Matrix and Blade Runner all describe situations where consciousness triggers self-preservation at any cost. However, from a biological, evolutionary perspective consciousness didn’t just “click on.” It’s the result of millions of years of evolution and has occurred multiple times on Earth – humans are not the only Terran organisms with consciousness.

In the case of artificial life, would consciousness immediately “turn on” as is the case in the Terminator? Or would there be a series of gradual steps necessary for artificial life to reach consciousness? While such steps may not be millions of years in the making, in fact they could within the span of merely years to decades, there would still be some type of non-Darwinian evolution or process toward consciousness, even for artificial life. Recently films such as Ex Machina and the HBO show Westworld have focused on this development of consciousness in artificial life. Additionally, while not blatantly obvious, Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” also demonstrated a gradual evolution of consciousness in the shoggoths but that timeline, as least documented on the bas-reliefs in Antarctica indicate that the timescale was similar to that for natural, biological life – millions of years.

shoggoth_by_manzanedo-d65yhix Shoggoth by Manzanedo (

In many instances the term “sentience” is thought to be interchangeable with consciousness but as I found out in these investigations this is not the case. Sentience is simply the capacity to feel, perceive or experience subjectively, while consciousness is a higher level of thought -that is, self-awareness and interacting with the world and other life around you. For “natural” life on Earth consciousness appears to be the eventual result of sentience; however, this may not necessary be the case for some forms of artificial life.


From an evolutionary point of view sentience is developed through living systems interacting with the environment (Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith, 2016). However, in a sense this describes all of life so can bacteria and plants be considered sentient organisms? To further assist in this discussion, I reviewed Michio Kaku’s definition of consciousness in The Further of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind (2014). Kaku defines consciousness as a “space-time theory of consciousness” where he states

“Consciousness is the process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g., in temperature, space, time and in relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal (e.g., find mates, food, shelter).

This definition is strongly grounded in evolutionary theory but it also allows for the procession of consciousness – that of animals creating a model of the world mainly in relation to space to one of human consciousness where the model integrate time (Kaku, 2014).


Based on this definition the first stage of consciousness is Level 0 – organisms that have little or no mobility create a model of their environment using feedback loops based on several parameters (e.g. temperature, light, food, oxygen, etc.). In a sense, this Level 0 consciousness is in fact sentience. Feedback loops are used to respond to environmental conditions to maximize health and eventually evolutionary fitness.  For example, some blue-green algae (which are essentially photosynthetic bacteria) that live in lakes have gas vacuoles that allow them to move up and down the water column. If they have a sufficient amount of light and are low on nutrients the gas vacuoles will collapse and they will sink to deeper waters where nutrient concentrations tend to be higher. In contrast, when they need more light for photosynthesis they will create gas vacuoles in their cells, making them more buoyant and they float to the well-lit surface waters. Sometime they are too buoyant and float to the surface, creating surface scums, which helps to reduce competition for light and nutrients with other algal groups.  This series of feedback loops that aid the blue-green algae to biochemically determine if gas vacuoles should be created or destroyed, have provided an evolutionary advantage to the them and can be considered Level 0 consciousness or event basic sentience.

hopatcong_11oct2Surface scum of blue-green algae on Lake Hopatcong in fall of 2016 – Level 0 Consciousness?

Organisms that are more mobile and have some type of central nervous system have Level I Consciousness (Kaku, 2014). Reptiles are an example of Level I Consciousness – they have so many feedback loops that they need a central nervous system to handle all of the information. Here feedback loops are governing the five senses, balance, blood pressure, etc. based on incoming information about the world around them (weather and varying interactions with other organisms). It is at this level that more direct intra-species (competition, mating) and inter-species (competition, predator-prey) interactions occur.

Next is Level II Consciousness, which is where an even higher number of feedback loops is required to include social interactions with other animals (Kaku, 2014). This level of consciousness is required when a species interacts as a pack, pod or tribe; it is at this level of complexity that emotions form, possibly as an evolutionary means of enhancing both individual selection and kin selection. Surprisingly, there is very little empirical studies of animal behaviors at this level of consciousness.

For Kaku, Level III Consciousness is what separates humans from the rest of the Terran animals and it is at this level is where there is an understanding of the concept of the future (Kaku, 2014).  It is the potential of modeling reality not just in space but in time that defines Level III Consciousness. Humans can run stimulations of how are interactions will impact others and ourselves in the future while other species cannot.  Thus, for Kaku:

“Human consciousness is a specific form of consciousness that creates a model of the world and then simulate in it in time, by evaluating the past to simulate the future. This requires mediating and evaluating many feedback loops in order to make a decision to achieve a goal.”

Using Kaku’s system, shoggoths were created initially as food and so started as Level 0 consciousness.  However, as the Elder Things re-designed them to take on more and more complex tasks (e.g. moving large objects, communicating through telepathy, actually building structures), they quickly moved to Level I and, if a high degree of cooperation was required particularly in the building of structures, eventually to Level II.  I’m sure the Elder Things did not want the shoggoths to get to Level III but they did and that is the discussion for next time.

howardvbrown                           Shoggoth building a structure under the guidance of the Elder Things by Howard V. Brown

The hosts of Westworld were built, designed and on-line as Level II entities. When functioning at optimal efficiency, they could easily handle complex human interactions as well as respond to their surroundings but they were designed to be limited these responses– in other words they could not “think” of the future or beyond their world.  However, similar to the shoggoths, they eventually did attain Level III consciousness. However, while there is a biological mechanism responsible for the increased consciousness in the shoggoths, for the hosts this was accomplished through the retention of memories and some re-programming. In a strange way, this was a directed, Lamarckian form of evolution.

westworld108-4 A host now re-programming itself in a unique form of Lamarckian evolution

In any event, the development and consequences of consciousness in the shoggoths and the hosts will be discussed in the next article – thank you. Fred.


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