Blog

Aug 17, 2009

A lifeboat for consciousness

Posted by in category: neuroscience

I recently began to worry that something/someone, some field, force, disease, prion, virus, bad luck and/or natural causes could threaten and perhaps destroy the most valuable entity in the universe, an entity more valuable than life itself. Consciousness. What good is life extension without conscious awareness? What is consciousness?

We know the brain works a lot like a computer, with neuron firings and synapses acting like bit states and switches. Brain-as-computer works very well to account for sensory processing, control of behavior, learning and other cognitive functions. These functions may in some cases be non-conscious, and other times associated with conscious experience and control. Scientists seek the distinction – the essential feature, or trick for consciousness.

Some suggest there is no trick, consciousness emerges as a by-product of cognitive computation among neurons. Others say we don’t know, that consciousness may indeed require some feature related to, but not quite the same as neuron-to-neuron cognition.

In either case, humans and other creatures could in principle become devoid of consciousness while maintaining cognitive behaviors, appearing more-or-less normal to outside observers. Such hypothetical non-conscious behaving entities are referred to in literature, films and philosophical texts as ‘zombies’. Philosopher David Chalmers introduced the philosophical zombie, a test case for whether or not consciousness is distinct from cognitive neurocomputation.

I’ve studied and researched consciousness for over 35 years, and work as an anesthesiologist, erasing and restoring consciousness several times per day for surgery. Patients under anesthesia are not zombies. They lack consciousness but also lack cognition. On the other hand, for a very brief period after first emerging from anesthesia following surgery, my patients seem like zombies, behaving purposely but blankly. Like in the old song “She’s not there” by…..The Zombies.

During a routine surgery recently, one of the nurses was talking about a book called ‘Patient Zero’ in which a terrorist group turned people into zombies the terrorists were then able to control. I later discovered there exists an entire genre of zombie terror books and films (‘Invasion of the body snatchers’ being perhaps the original). Could it be possible? How could we protect ourselves from consciousness-snatchers who want to turn us into zombies? Well, we need to understand what consciousness is (but, so do ‘they’).

We do know consciousness correlates with a particular coherent EEG gamma synchrony. Somehow selectively blocking EEG brain-wide coherence while sparing neuron-to-neuron computation and cognition could conceivably erase consciousness. But I would bet on an even more subtle and profound feature or trick. For example I personally believe (with Sir Roger Penrose) that consciousness involves quantum computations in microtubules inside brain neurons.

Microtubules are the major structural component of the neuronal cytoskeleton whose disruption is an essential feature of Alzheimers disease. Microtubules dynamically organize intra-neuronal and synaptic activities, conduct signals, have collective vibrational and electromagnetic modes and quite possibly mesoscopic quantum states. Motor proteins and biomolecular agents traverse and interact with microtubules.

I became obsessed with microtubules in medical school in the early 1970s. Their cylindrical lattice structure of ‘tubulin’ protein subunits looked to me like a computing switching circuit. Through the 1980s, colleagues and I developed models of microtubule information processing in which states of tubulin subunits were bits interacting with lattice neighbor tubulins. With about 107 (10 to the seventh) tubulins per neuron switching at 10^−9 seconds, we calculated a potential for 1016 operations per second in each neuron. This was, and remains unpopular in AI/Singularity circles because it potentially pushes the goalpost for brain capacity significantly. Recent evidence has shown collective microtubule excitations at 10^−7 seconds (rather than the 10^−9 seconds we assumed), indicating a neuronal information capacity of ‘only’ 1014 operations per second.

But here’s the really good news. Microtubules self-assemble. With proper conditions tubulins polymerize into microtubules, and with associated proteins into networks of cross-linked microtubules. In principle, tubulin and other necessary proteins can be genetically mass-produced, and then self-assemble into large arrays. If microtubules process molecular-scale information (quantum or classical), appropriate arrays of microtubules could serve as a repository of consciousness — a ‘Lifeboat’.

These could be useful. Evil forces aside, consciousness-snatchers include aging, disease and death. In 1987 I wrote a book about microtubule information processing based entirely on classical (non-quantum) processes. The brief, concluding chapter considered arrays of microtubules as orbiting consciousness Lifeboats. It foreshadowed the Singularity, and in retrospect also applies to quantum processes. The chapter follows below. And we should understand consciousness not just to preserve it, but to enhance it in any way possible.

From
Ultimate computing: Biomolecular consciousness and nanotechnology
Elsevier, 1987
http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/ultimatecomputing.html

11 The Future of Consciousness

Nanotechnology may enable the dream of Mind/Tech merger to materialize. At long last, debates about the nature of consciousness will move from the domain of philosophy to large scale experiments. The visions of consciousness interfacing with, or existing within, computers or mind piloted robots expressed by Moravec, Margulis, Sagan and Max Headroom could be realized. Symbiotic association of replicative nanodevices and cytoskeletal networks within living cells could not only counter disease processes, but lead to exchange of information encoded in the collective dynamic patterns of cytoskeletal subunit states. If these are indeed the roots of consciousness, a science fiction-like deciphering and transfer of mind content may become possible. One possible scenario could utilize a small window in a specific brain region. Hippocampal temporal lobe, a site where memories enter and where electromagnetic radiation from outside the skull penetrates most readily and harmlessly, is one possible area where information distributed throughout the brain may perhaps be accessed and manipulated. Techniques such as laser interferometry, electroacoustical probes scanned over brain surfaces, or replicative nanoprobes immunotargeted to key hippocampal tubulins, MAPs, and other cytoskeletal components might be developed to perceive and transmit the content of consciousness.

What technological device would be capable of receiving and housing the information emanating from some 1015 tubulin subunits changing state some 109 times per second? One possibility is a customized array of nanoscale automata, perhaps utilizing superconducting materials. Another possibility is a genetically engineered array of some 1015 tubulin subunits (or many more) assembled into parallel tensegrity arrays of interconnected microtubules, and other cytoskeletal structures. Current and near future genetic engineering capabilities should enable isolation of genes responsible for a specific individual’s brain cytoskeletal proteins, and reconstitution in an appropriate medium. Thus the two evident sources of mind content (heredity and experience) may be eventually reunited in an artificial consciousness environment. A polymerized cytoskeletal array would be highly unstable and dependent on biochemical, hormonal, and pharmacological maintenance of its medium. Precise monitoring and control of cytoskeletal consciousness environments may become an important new branch of anesthesiology. Polymerization of cell-free cytoskeletal lattices would be limited in size (and potential intellect) due to gravitational collapse. Possible remedies might include hybridizing the cytoskeletal array by metal deposition, symbiosis with synthetic nanoreplicators, or placement of the cytoskeletal array in a zero gravity environment. Perhaps future consciousness vaults will be constructed in orbiting space stations or satellites. People with terminal illnesses may choose to deposit their mind in such a place, where their consciousness can exist indefinitely, and (because of enhanced cooperative resonance) in a far greater magnitude. Perhaps many minds can comingle in a single large array, obviating loneliness, but raising new sociopolitical issues. Entertainment, earth communication, and biochemical mood and maintenance can be supplied by robotics, perhaps leading to the next symbiosis-robotic space voyagers (shaped like centrioles?) whose intelligence is derived from cytoskeletal consciousness.

Yes, this is science fiction. Will it become reality like so much previous science fiction has? Probably not precisely as suggested; but if past events are valid indicators, the future of consciousness may be even more outrageous.

14

Comments — comments are now closed.

  • Jonathan Maberry on August 17, 2009 12:55 pm

    I hope the nurse enjoyed PATIENT ZERO. As an author I love speculating on doomsday scenarios and how (ideally) they can be averted.

    -Jonathan Maberry

  • Panu Horsmalahti on August 23, 2009 6:38 am

    First of all, there’s not much evidence to suggest that quantum effects are so important that brain wouldn’t work nearly identically even without them. Even so, quantum mechanics can be simulated without true randomness. Also, it’s possible to build a quantum computer for microtubules.

    ‘The visions of consciousness interfacing with, or existing within, computers or mind piloted robots expressed by Moravec, Margulis, Sagan and Max Headroom could be realized.‘
    You already talked about philosophical zombies, so qualia is separate from intelligence, therefore an AI does need qualia to work, or it is the side product of intelligence.

    ‘At long last, debates about the nature of consciousness will move from the domain of philosophy to large scale experiments.‘
    No, qualia/consciousness in non-intelligence context cannot be detected empirically, so it will never move to experiments.

  • Stuart Hameroff on August 25, 2009 1:25 pm

    Panu Horsmalahti August 23, 2009 6:38 am
    First of all, there’s not much evidence to suggest that quantum effects are so important that brain wouldn’t work nearly identically even without them.

    Stuart
    Not true. In the axon hillock (axon initiation segment), firing of each and every action potential involves ion channels which open almost simultaneously, rather than sequentially (Naundorf et al, Nature. 440, 1060–3, 2006). As the accompanying editorial remarks, electromagnetic interactions are too weak, so non-local quantum couplings/entanglements are implicated. And long range gamma synchrony in the brain is too precise for neuronal conduction, also implicating non-local quantum interactions. See my paper The brain is both neural computer and quantum computer, Cognitive Science 31:1035–1045 (2007), also on my website. And anesthetic gases selectively erase consciousness acting solely through quantum London forces.

    Panu Horsmalahti
    You already talked about philosophical zombies, so qualia is separate from intelligence, therefore an AI does need qualia to work, or it is the side product of intelligence.

    Stuart
    Agreed. We have excellent AI cognitive systems now, but not conscious systems.

    Panu Horsmalahti
    ….qualia/consciousness in non-intelligence context cannot be detected empirically, so it will never move to experiments.

    Stuart
    Consciousness/qualia cannot now be detected nor measured. But in the future, perhaps so. For example photon echo detected non-invasively from the retina (part of the brain) may provide a window to the conscious mind.

  • Stuart Hameroff on August 25, 2009 3:09 pm

    Minor correction, Panu Horsmalahti said
    … therefore an AI does need qualia to work, or it is the side product of intelligence.

    Stuart
    Agreed. We have excellent AI cognitive systems now, but not conscious systems.

    But I do NOT agree that consciousness is the side product, or emergent property of intelligence. It is an added feature of some sort, I believe dependent on quantum effects not necessary for intelligence/cognition.

  • neil mcewan on August 26, 2009 7:28 am

    That is somewhat confusing in that the quanta-effects being investigated are in intelligence systems. It seems there should be a way to differentiate quanta from intelligence, or else the two have to be taken togethe: IE you could not have consciousness without intelligence. Quanta are structure of matter, no?

  • Stuart Hameroff on August 26, 2009 7:43 am

    Quanta are fundamental units of anything (matter, energy). The point is that the laws which govern quantum physics are different than those governing classical physics. Intelligence in the brain may be classical computing, but (in my opinion) consciousness involves quantum computing. See my website
    http://www.quantumconsciousness.org

    I do think consciousness and intelligence are different and dissociable, e.g. pure feelings, meditative bliss etc. Have you ever had an overwhelming toothache pain? Any intelligence directly associated with that?
    And we can perform intelligent functions without consciousness, like driving on auto-pilot while daydreaming.

  • neil mcewan on August 27, 2009 3:55 am

    As for pain I don’t necessarily think it implies consciousness as in ‘self-awareness’ so maybe there are degrees of consciousness. If an event happens such as pain any organism is going to feel it since it’s a matter of nerves. It doesn’t seem likely that nerves are conscious, just that they enable pain. In other words, intelligence & consciousness are very tricky to disociate!

  • Stuart Hameroff on August 27, 2009 7:15 am

    Pain is in the brain, not in peripheral nerves. Pain is content of conscious awareness. Consciousness and intelligence are doubly dissociable. You can have either without the other. And self-awareness is only one form of awareness. Meditators work hard to lose the self and attain higher consciousness.

  • neil mcewan on August 27, 2009 7:53 am

    Intelligence without consciousness is very easy so I guess I missaid. Then, you are conscious of pain but is that because of intelligence? Meaning the old chestnut ‘do fish feel pain?’ There’s likely to be a threshold whereby the animal has enough intelligence to register pain. Molluscs can’t possibly have that ability.

    Stuart
    Not true. In the axon hillock (axon initiation segment), firing of each and every action potential involves ion channels which open almost simultaneously, rather than sequentially

    Neil
    Here’s your description of quanta-events. That type of consciousness is a sort of widespread event, non-localised as you say, ie. not something like pain. It seems to me that could well be a part of conscious thought but the idea you can dissociate events in the higher brain into something called ‘abstract consciousness independent of higher brain functions’ doesn’t seem to follow.
    One other point is drugs. the effects of these depend on higher brain functions. Your ‘lifeboat for consciousness’ is something independent of higher brain functions.

  • Panu Horsmalahti on August 27, 2009 8:02 am

    > Have you ever had an overwhelming toothache pain? Any intelligence directly associated with that?

    Yes, pain and feelings are properties of the brain, and are therefore part of “intelligence”.

    > The brain is both neural computer and quantum computer
    Even if the brain is dependent on quantum physics/simulation, does not mean that “qualia” is dependent on quantum physics.

  • Stuart Hameroff on August 27, 2009 3:33 pm

    Many believe consciousness emerges from computational intelligence. But the evidence shows that consciousness and computational intelligence are distinct and separable. Primitive organisms (including molluscs) could have some phenomenal experience/qualia without a lot of intelligence. For a description of consciousness and evolution see http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/penrose-hameroff/cambrian.html

    Computer systems can have intelligence with NO consciousness. For the Lifeboat, intelligent consciousness (e.g. human consciousness) would be worth preserving).

    We know the brain performs many forms of cognition involving intelligence, including sensory processing, complex behavior, learning etc. We more-or-less understand these as computation among neurons. In some instances these cognitive processes are non-conscious (Chalmers easy problems, zombie modes or auto-pilot). But in other instances the same functions are conscious (the hard problem).

    For example when I drive to work every day along a familiar route, I often daydream about various things, and am not really conscious of the road and traffic. I am on auto-pilot or zombie mode (and a perfectly safe driver). But when a horn sounds or something novel occurs, my consciousness returns to driving and I am no longer on auto-pilot, but consciously perceiving the scene and in conscious control. Consciousness is an added feature to cognition. What is that feature?

    Research has shown that consciousness 1) correlates with gamma synchrony EEG, and 2) moves around the brain. I describe this as a mobile agent, a spatiotemporal envelope of gamma-synchronized brain neurons moving through input/integration layers (via dendritic-dendritic gap junctions) of the brains neuronal networks. Whether or not the model is correct, I think the neural correlate of consciousness (NCC) is indeed a mobile envelope moving through the brain, as imaging studies of mind wandering clearly show.

    As to WHY consciousness occurs in this mobile envelope, my own opinion is that quantum computational processes occur in microtubules within the envelope, the Penrose-Haeroff Orch OR model. But as a first step, i.e. the NCC, we should be looking for a function moving around the brain. http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/

  • neil mcewan on August 28, 2009 3:34 am

    There may be a minor confusion by saying ‘conscious of’ anything going — say the surroundings. Molluscs have that. Most of that would be senses — sight, touch. If you ‘amplify’ touch you get pain — ouch!

    That way of talking about conscious you could think of as intelligence — their primitive nervous system. Where you have phenomena experience you have intelligence.

    Since the brain is the intelligent instrument anything taking place there is intelligent! You’re using the brain as an instrument even if not thinking in ‘straight line’ or computational-mode, say by meditating, drugs, instinct. I tend to think where there is qualia it has to be a side-product of intelligence, & the more of it the more qualia.

    My main point is the quality of what we call consciousness is a product of our brains so is not something capable of being synthesized, which is what I understand from your Lifeboat. It only exists in our heads.

  • Len Robertson on November 17, 2009 8:16 pm

    Spaceship Earth is a dead end. Global Rome with a solar system as its province is the future. The wild card altering our future is the search for exoplanets. Nothing has gone the way anyone imagined. At this moment the HARPS project works to confirm organic life on Gliese 581d (if they haven’t already done it). Within the next two decades we will identify our firm galactic neighbors; and, because an interstellar civilization leaves a larger footprint, the our first recognized neighbors will be star travelers.

    A minute after that discovery, we will find ourselves a third rate backwater desperate to catch up. It should be fun.

  • Alex on December 27, 2009 2:32 pm

    As Brodskiy said:
    ”.. to save one man — is possible,
    to save world — no yet..”