🧠 🔮 Consciousness, AI & the future of the metaverse
The human brain feels like the final frontier in biology: a mysterious, squishy locus of incomplete theories and unanswered questions. But its riddles are beginning to unravel. Neuroscientists and philosophers are building a better picture of our brains, how they work and why we think and feel the way we do.
Anil Seth is one of the clearest, most engaging and most cited researchers on the workings of the brain. His work is an effort to answer some of science’s hardest questions with huge implications across all fields of human endeavour: how do our brains give rise to consciousness?
Anil is the Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, where he also runs the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. He’s the author of the new book, Being You: A New Science of Consciousness, which is getting rave reviews from all quarters. Anil also happens to be a member of Exponential View and a dear friend.
I had the pleasure of speaking to him on this week’s podcast. He was absolutely captivating on consciousness research, the state of the art in neuroscience, and the problems a better understanding of the brain could soon start to solve.
You can listen to our discussion here, or read a transcript here.
The Big Idea
One of the key ideas in consciousness science is the distinction between ‘easy problems’ and the ‘hard problem,’ a distinction first made in the ’90s by legendary philosopher David Chalmers (whom I am looking forward to chatting with on the podcast in a few weeks). Easy problems deal with how the brain works: what are the mechanisms at play? The ‘hard problem’ is why consciousness should arise at all. Anil’s research builds on this distinction.
“[I]nstead of addressing that hard problem head on, my approach... is to accept that consciousness exists. And instead of trying to explain how it’s magicked out of mere mechanism, to break it up into its different parts and explain the properties of those different parts… And as we do that, this hard problem seems to lose its lustre of mystery a bit. We’re doing what science always does, which is we’re able to explain, predict and control the properties of a system. And there’s no reason we can’t do that when it comes to consciousness.”
For Anil, understanding the how of the brain can help chip away at the why. Moreover, it can offer real-world solutions to other problems on the way. One example: how to treat people with severe brain traumas.
Patients who suffer serious head injuries often end up in a coma. As Anil explains, they might partially recover, and find themselves in a persistent vegetative state. A neurologist can diagnose such a state from the outside; patients go through sleep-wake cycles, but “there really doesn’t seem to be anyone at home”:
“There’s no voluntary action. There’s no response to command, or to questions. It seems like no consciousness is there and people are often treated that way... But what the science of consciousness is allowing clinicians to do now is to not just rely on external signs of consciousness, but to look inside the brain... [there is] a way of measuring the complexity of brain activity by basically perturbing the brain with a very strong, very brief electromagnetic pulse and then listening to the echo… this measure turns out to be quite a good approximate measure of how conscious somebody is.”
What Anil is describing is somewhat akin – in simplified terms – to a ‘consciousness meter.’ The process, developed by scientists including Marcelo Massimini and Giulio Tononi, measures something called the Perturbation Complexity Index. And it can make a major difference in patients’ lives. The measure…
“... gives quite a good indication of whether somebody is, in fact, conscious, even though they can’t express it outwardly, or will recover at least some conscious awareness. If you track the trajectory of patients over time, you’ll find people that score high on this Perturbation Complexity Index tend to be the ones that do better over time. This is a direct clinical application of focusing on the brain basis of consciousness.”
Brains and the metaverse
Better knowledge of our brains could have broader, more commercial applications, too. Anil takes issue with the metaverse, arguing that we should focus on the world as it is, rather than on alternative realities. But he does note that a fuller understanding of consciousness could help developers bridge the gap between our world and the (as-yet) unconvincing experiences that make up the metaverse:
“[W]hen we understand the role of interactions in shaping experiences, we can design VR environments to be more engaging, less frustrating, more useful to the extent that they can be.”
Our conversation ranged widely and explored whether an AI could ever become conscious; why Anil explains consciousness as a functional hallucination; and the potential impact consciousness science can have on the psychiatric profession.
But as Anil points out, understanding consciousness is important in and of itself:
“Who am I? What does it mean to be me? Why am I me and not you? What happens after I die? Understanding how experiences of the self and the world are constructed can help each of us understand our relationship with the rest of the world, with each other and with nature much, much better, at a deeper level, and I think that is sufficient reward.”