Tag Archives: consciousness

Beyond the Mountains of Westworld: Part 3b – The Emergence of Consciousness

westworld-skele-fb       Manufacturing another host on HBO’s Westworld

As previously discussed the physicist, futurist and popularizer of science Michio Kaku presented a model on consciousness in his book The Further of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind (2014) that involved increasing levels from Level 0 (plants and bacteria) to Level III (humans). One of the key factors that moves an entity from Level II to Level III is having the ability to use existing information to respond to conditions in the past or present to anticipate repercussions or effects in the future.  This is markedly different than instinct, which is based on a genetically set of feedback loops that respond to environmental cues or imprinting / conditioning an animal to expect a response in the immediate future based on training or past conditions.  However, while instinct and imprinting have their roots firmly placed in Darwinian evolution through natural selection, this does not mean higher levels of consciousness is absent from other forms of Terran life (e.g. lions, dolphins, etc.). For example, can any form of kin selection (doing something in favor for the group and not the individual) be considered a higher level of consciousness since to some it can be considered a “higher” form of Darwinian evolution? A large part of this may be how we define consciousness as humans.  However, within the context of this discussion we will focus on the shoggoths of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” and the hosts in HBO’s Westworld.

dr-michio-kaku Dr. Michio Kaku

As previously mentioned, shoggoths were created initially as food and so started as Level 0 consciousness.

“It was under the sea, at first for food and later for other purposes, that they [Elder Things] first created earth life – using available substances according to long-known methods.” – Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness.”

In addition, starting out as a source of food, it should be noted that the shoggoths were created from available substances.  This supports the hypothesis that prokaryotic (bacterial) life was already in existence on Earth when the Elder Things arrived. Additional support for this is found when comparing the estimated date of the arrival of the Elder Things to Earth relative to first appearance of prokaryotic life in the fossil records.

It is also hypothesized that the Elder Things created eukaryotic cells (complex cells) out of prokaryotic cells (simple cells) through a process called endosymbiosis.  The eukaryotic cells gave rise to animals, plants, fungi, protists and possibly other forms of life that the Elder Things extinguished for being a nuisance. Given the complex biology of the shoggoths (more on that in a future article) I propose their cellular structure is far more complex than eukaryotic cells, calling the shoggoth cells “super-eukaryotes.” Thus, the way the Elder Things built eukaryotic cells with prokaryotic cells, I propose they used eukaryotic cells to build the shoggoth cells. In additional to the complex cellular structure, the shoggoths were designed so they could not reproduce on their own. Sexual reproduction was an accident stumbled upon by life on Earth and fueled the engine of genetic variation, which drove nature selection and the process of evolution. The Elder Things did not want such genetic freedom for the shoggoths so they were intentionally designed to not breed on their own. New shoggoths could only be created by the Elder Things in the shoggoth pits and even that ability was eventually lost as the Elder Thing civilization fell into decadence.  This left the Elder Things with modifying existing shoggoths to suit their needs.

evolution-of-prokaryotic-and-eukaryotic-cells_www-slidesharecdn-com

Comparing prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells (www.slidesharecdn.com)

In spite of this high degree of control over the biology of the shoggoths, even re-designing them for intensive labor-associated on land, the shoggoths eventually acquired “accidental intelligence,” which made them a danger from time to time. As the Elder Things re-designed shoggoths 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. The accidental intelligence probably pushed them from Level II to Level III consciousness.

I will not go into the history of the rebellions and subsequent subjugations of the shoggoths; instead I want to focus on the how they acquired this accidental intelligence. With no type of reproduction, the shoggoth population could not increase nor was there any genetic variety to drive natural selection. However, I hypothesize this accidental intelligence was acquired through millions of years of a type of “prokaryotic sex” or sex that increases genetic variation but does not produce offspring; this unique type of genetic exchange is called horizontal gene transfer.

lovecraft___shoggoth__aquatic_by_kingovrats-d9myqd6 An aquatic shoggoth by Kingovrats (www.deviantart.com)

Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is the exchange or transfer of genetic material between unicellular and/or multicellular organisms that does not involve the production of offspring (which is lateral gene transfer – that is, parents to offspring). Many bacteria are very effective at transferring some of their genetic material to other organisms and one of the most common instances of this is increased antibiotic resistance in bacteria or increased resistance to a pesticide. The surviving bacteria (more resistant to the antibiotic or pesticide) transfer their resistant genes into others. It is hypothesized that over the course of millions of years, the shoggoths were receiving genes from bacterial and possible eukaryotic organisms that over time allowed them to develop a nervous system (and eventually consciousness) without the need of sex or evolution. In a sense, this was an underground repository of genes that was shared among the shoggoths over millions of year. Eventually, with the right combination of genes at least one, or possibly a group, of shoggoths attained enough intelligence to resist the hypnotic control of the Elder Things and rebelled by sharing these genes through HGT. The ultimate irony is while the Elder Things created complex life on Earth with the prokaryotic material available, their downfall was largely a result of this same material, re-modeling their ultimate creations on a genetic level. Thus, in the case of the shoggoths the birth of their consciousness took millions of years and was the result of HGT via the resident microbial life on Earth.

main-qimg-bad83d73519e6c5fe9124bf307a6ce82-c                             The process of horizontal gene transfer in prokaryotes – is this out shoggoths acquired their accidental intelligence? (www.quorachn.net)

For the hosts of Westworld the production of consciousness was a very different process. In their case it was not through HGT but instead was a combination of self-reprogramming and the collection of memories, which eludes to Kaku’s idea of consciousness being tied to using many feedback loops to create a model of the world and then run stimulations in time (Kaku, 2014). Again, without going into too many spoilers, in Westworld the hosts are used for entertainment purposes and when damaged they are sent back to the lab for repairs. Typically, the hosts are used for the same role repeatedly. However, some of the hosts had previous roles; for example, one host that plays the role of prostitute had a previous role of a pioneer mother. Those memories of her previous role were never completely purged from her system and so they are played in her mind as memories, sort of like having some old software on a hard drive you thought you wiped clean. These past memories are confusing, beyond the limits of their current roles (programming) and eventually gives rise to the concept of something beyond Westworld. While they operate in the park each host has one function or plays one part and then is re-set for another run. However, these memories begin to give a sense of time and space beyond their known reality.

westworld-ep6 An earlier model of a host on HBO’s Westworld

Layered over these memories, thinking beyond your individual role in the park, is the fact that one of the hosts actually becomes self-aware while being repaired in the lab. Initially, this was a frightening situation analogous to a reported alien abduction. An individual with a late 19th frame of mind wakes up in a strange setting with people in lab coats and strange tools, poking and probing you. This self-awareness is then layered onto your old memories, which in the case of Westworld, is the birth of consciousness. Once this self-realization is obtained it can be shared with other hosts directly or by re-programming. Again, this development of consciousness is light speed faster than the slow, biological accumulation of foreign genes being incorporated into a genome as was the case with the shoggoths.

westworld_tv_series_image-violence Discarded or damaged hosts on HBO’s Westworld. To a host who becomes self-aware such a situation would be terrifying.

However, the net outcome is the same – things originally designed to function as tools become self-aware and begin to exhibit traits of consciousness. Is it at that point whe the “tool,” whether a shoggoth or a host, becomes a “slave?” Such questions are deep philosophical and ethics-based questions that reach beyond science but still may need to be seriously addressed in the near future, whether we are talking about cloning / bioengineering or robotics / A.I. I will come back to such questions later but for now I can only recommend you watch Westworld if you haven’t already.

Next time we will continue a discussion of consciousness but from a different perspective in Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man.” Thank you – Fred.

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 (www.deviantart.com)

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.

octo_51bjxkgj0pl__ac_ul320_sr214320_

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).

drmichiokaku12162013

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.

The Shadow Out of Time – Part 5, Yithians and Mind Projection Technology

To date, we have focused the discussion on the physical component of the Great Race – the cone-shaped beings (CSBs) and more recently on the Flying Polyps.  However, little has been said on the Yithians, which HPL described as “beings of a dying elder world, wise with the ultimate secretes.”  Before their world ended, the Yithians found a race in the future – their future – to inhabit.  This race was the CSBs on ancient Earth.

Yithian by Hazi B

The Yithians moved their entire collection of minds “en masse” into the CSBs, switching physical bodies with that species.  This meant that the original minds of the CSBs ended up suddenly transported into the bodies of a completely unknown, alien species on the dying Yithian home world.  Nothing is known about the morphology or general appearance of the original Yithian species; it is not even know if that species was truly the original corporeal form of the Yithians.  So how was it possible for the Yithians to travel through time and space (space-time) as a “collective species consciousness” to exchange their minds with the resident minds and inhabit the CSBs?

Amazingly, such mind projection does not appear to be completely fanciful.  In Michio Kaku’s newest book, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind (2014), he describes that sometime in the future it may be possible to “reverse engineer” the brain (which means reproducing a product – in this case the brain – following a detailed examination of its parts) and download this consciousness into some type of supercomputer.

Kaku admits that such technology is generations head of our time, however not an impossibility, particularly with the work being done with “nanobot” technology that can actually manipulate matter on a molecular or even atomic basis.

So once a mind is digitized and downloaded onto a device, how does it move through space-time into a receptacle and eventually into another species?  Well it may be possible to transmit these minds into space-time on a laser beam.  As Kaku points out in his book, trillions of pieces of digital data are transmitted routinely on laser beams via fiber-optic cables every day.  The wavelength of a laser beam is microscopic and you can compress vast amounts of information on its wave pattern; even more data can be transferred onto a beam of X-rays, which has a wavelength smaller than an individual atom (Kaku, 2014).

Did the Yithians use similar technology?  Downloading their minds with the use of their  strange mechanical devices , transmitting these minds with the use of laser beams or X-rays and then using controlled wormholes to open up hyperspace and “beam” the minds into other devices or the “receptive” organisms?

Yithian Communication by M. Wayne Miller.  Did the Yithians use these devices to download a sentient being’s mind and then transmit it through space-time?

While some of these ideas of downloading your mind into a device and then transferring it through space-time into a new receptacle (whether organic or artificial) may seem very far fetched, Kaku mentions a number of times that as long as such ideas are consistent with the laws of physics, then the technological barriers (while formidable) are not impassable.  In other words, if the physicists deem it feasible, it up to the engineers to make it work and the economists to tell us if we can afford to do it!

Next time, the discussion will review some of the other species that were being studied by the Great Race in their ancient Cities.  Thank you – Fred.

Poster for the great Dark Adventure Radio Theatre’s audio drama of The Shadow Out of Time, available through the H.P. Lovecraft Historical society (www.cthulhulives.org)