Bob Blum: CONSCIOUSNESS: What, Who, When, and Why

  • February 28, 2010 · 12:00 PM

Lecture 1 in a series on the Neurobiology of Consciousness

by Robert Blum, MD, PhD www.bobblum.com
Consciousness is critically important to our sense of the world and of ourselves.
It is also one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of science.

WHAT is the definition of consciousness? I will focus here on perceptual
awareness. WHO is conscious? We accord that status to our fellow humans and to
certain other animals. I introduce comparative neuroanatomy and discuss
the WHEN of consciousness – when did it evolve? WHY did consciousness evolve? What’s it good for?
(It confers great evolutionary advantage in a fiercely competitive,
and changing world (fight or flight, feed or fornicate, friend or foe?)

I discuss David Chalmers Easy Problem vs Hard Problem and
the Turing Test, its star performer Elbot, and other Zombies and
Sleepwalkers on Autopilot. Bernard Baars: Executive Summary, and Global Workspace Theory.
Template Matching: What one knows one sees.
Consciousnes as "best fit," global constraint satisfaction.
Ray Jackendoff’s intermediate level theory of consciousness. Christof Koch’s search for the NCC: the Neural Correlates of Consc and the
theory of Koch and Crick: thee unconsc. frontal lobe looks at the perceptual (back) brain.
The Neuron Doctrine of Consc. But which neurons? Billions of neurons are
unrelated to Consc: gut, spinal cord, cerebellum.
What properties of neurons correspond to consc?

Emergence: Weak (patterns in groups of components) vs Strong (new phenomena)
Downward Causation by Consc? How does the "spirit world" of consc cause neurons to fire?
Is consc epiphenomenal (ie useless, like the sound of a locomotive)?
John Searle: Biological Naturalism (Property dualism)
Roger Penrose: "Consc is not computable and cannot even be simulated."

Is the brain the whole story? Near Death Experiences:
The Human Consc Project: A Multi-Institution Experiment;
Out of Body Experiences (As a homework assignment)

Recording from and stimulating single neurons. Grandmother Neurons.
Wilder Penfield: Re-experiencing the past by neural stimulation
Koch and Fried: Jennifer Aniston neurons
**********
As preparation I recommend the essay on my website www.bobblum.com
entitled The Mystery of Consciousness
**********
This will be a non-technical lecture suitable for the general public.
Subsequent lectures will cover exciting new research on the neuroscience
of consciousness as revealed by fMRI, electrodes arrays, and microelectrode studies.
*********

Bob Blum was an undergrad at MIT in math/neuroscience and continued his studies of neuroscience in medical school at UCSF. He then completed a PhD in computer science (AI) and biostatistics at Stanford and was on the research staff for ten years.

His team at Stanford developed the RX Project, which automated the discovery of clinical causal effects. RX garnered numerous NIH, NLM, and NSF grants. Bob then returned to clinical medicine as an emergency physician for Kaiser Hospitals. Since retirement he has returned to the study of cognitive neuroscience and its intersection with AI. That is the focus of his website, www.bobblum.com.

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  • Randy S.

    I actually heard a PARC Forum in which the speaker claimed normal conscious phenomena could be explained by QM. Nothing paranormal etc. However, I suppose this fellow may have been an exception in this "field."

    March 4, 2010

  • Randy S.

    Regarding QM as key to consciousness: What is the reply to this obvious thought experiment? Make h bar (plank's constant) arbitrarily irrelevant by replacing a brain with an equivalent giant version that replicates the inputs and outputs to each neuron at a very large scale. The resulting "mind" will certainly act identically to the original, including making claims to feel conscious. But it will be as close to Newtonian as you wish to make it. (Certainly this is a well-worn line of argument?)

    March 3, 2010

  • Richard K.

    I was actually impressed by the inherent simplicity in Jeff Hawkins' "On Intelligence" where he said the key fact is that we're always predicting the near future and can thus discover unexpected things quickly. That helps to notice what might be important details like there is now a bear in the cave. His Numenta co simulates cortical columns rather than neurons and synapses. Great demos a couple of years ago and now a partner sells a recognizer for people in security videos. No CONSC. yet.

    March 3, 2010

  • Richard K.

    I think it's just that quantum mechanics sounds sexy and nobody claims to understand it. The experts say if you think you do, then you don't. It's just weird. Einstein had problems with spooky action at a distance. Me too.

    March 3, 2010

  • Lex R.

    Quantum mechanics seems to be a buzzword brought up at the meet-ups these few times I?ve attended. My use of the term was done to contrast the simplicity that I believe the subject deserves.

    March 3, 2010

  • Alex G.

    Meaning is derived from connections of perceptions. No consciousness or quantum physics needed.

    I'm scared when I'm looking down a cliff. Why? because there's a strong connection between "looking down a cliff" & "dying". subjective Meaning/Feeling created! Where is the quantum physics and/or consciousness?

    March 3, 2010

  • Lex R.

    Consciousness, I see it as a two-fold symptom. It is a symptom because it is not a thing and it seems to be derived from a process.

    March 2, 2010

  • Lex R.

    The two-fold elements of the process appear to be the ability to sense an environment and the ability to derive meaning from those perceptions.

    March 2, 2010

  • Lex R.

    We know about the sensory portion of this, but deriving meaning from those perceptions, now I?m afraid it?s going to take a much deeper understanding of quantum mechanics for that. Especially if our IQs are going to remain intact. Randall you?re a brave man saying thing like this: ?What if consciousness is, at essence, very simple? What if it is simply and only adding as input the recent history of a system's own actions and reactions to all other perceptual streams??

    March 2, 2010

  • Newton C

    Thanks Bob, I consumed a dose of exquisite mind food during your excellent presentation, and excited a bit of my neurons. I'm 100% conscious!

    March 2, 2010

  • Alex G.

    Consciousness does not have to be the goal. It a symptom of good AGI. Consciousness emerges partly from abstract symbolic manipulation, which emerges from non conscious things....

    March 2, 2010

  • Alex G.

    What if consciousness is simply an understanding that "the self is part of the environment". Kind of like realizing that there is a camera man for every show, and not just an invisible observer? If Consciousness is simply an understanding that "I exist" in this world, and that "I have control over MY limbs" then why is it so great?

    Does a spider have any less control over it's 8 legs if its not "consious" of them? Would a butterfly fly any better if it were conscious?

    March 2, 2010

  • Alex G.

    Great start, hopefully we can narrow down the specific issues in the next 2 or 3 talks!

    March 1, 2010

  • A former member
    A former member

    I thought that the talk mixed lots of different categories together, probably causing confusion for the uninitiated. The intelligence of crows and chimps can exist without them being conscious of it. Isn't it possible for beings, say zombies, to formulate unconscious strategies for achieving certain goals in the real world? Then what role does consciousness play? It seems plausible, that we can build robots with intelligence of a raven to function in real world - but would it be conscious?

    March 1, 2010

  • A former member
    A former member

    OK Bob, Cool topic. Lots of knowledge and insight. But remember that you walked into this consciousness minefield voluntarily (maybe you should do what I have done and choose a less controversial topic such as evolution?). The extreme range of audience reaction territory ("Your thesis is not falsifiable as it is based on a logically inconsistent definition of consciousness!" vs. "Is the moon conscious?") is to my mind, evidence of a need to tighten and focus your thesis (or push the human species reset button). Why not reduce the "Who, What, Where... of Consciousness" to introduction/overview (20 min max), and then dive directly into your thesis space ("consciousness is elemental to any intelligent system"). There needs to be some sort of comparison space. What is an intelligence like if it doesn't have consciousness. If you are saying that zombies are the counter-example, you need to show why. I would love to help (with organization, chunking, tempo and typography/layout).

    March 1, 2010

  • clive b.

    AI may have a "Glass Ceiling" or "Silicon Ceiling" without consciousness - makes sense.

    March 1, 2010

  • Sharron H.

    Thanks for a very interesting and informative presentation, Bob. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

    March 1, 2010

  • A former member
    A former member

    An inspiring presentation! Gave me a new appreciation of the highly integral and multidisciplinary nature of this subject. Looking forward to Bob's next talk.

    February 28, 2010

  • Brad

    Great material, but need to manage audience better and hold questions for breaks at say every 1/4 of talk. So 3 q&a sessions during talk, then one at end. Especially when discussing consciousness, because it's a topic so many are passionate about. Bobs material was great, but we wasted a lot of time on inane questions from audience.

    February 28, 2010

  • A former member
    A former member

    It has definitely its limitations to discuss consciousness on a pure scientific and mental level without the experiences you achieve in meditation.
    I didn't get where the presentation tied in, specially where and how it could contribute to our progress in AI related fields. Without the cute animal clips from Youtube it would have been really empty.
    The technical setup was great, Monica took a lot of care for sound and visuals which made the presentation smooth and enhanced the experience.

    February 28, 2010

  • Frank H

    This was an awesome Meetup - can't wait for parts 2 and 3!

    February 28, 2010

  • Alex G.

    The concept was well presented. i wish there was more discussion about about a falsifiable fundamental definition of Consciousness & its direct relation to AI.

    February 28, 2010

  • Jack P.

    Awesome!

    February 28, 2010

  • Robert (Bob) L. K.

    Although the definitions don't have clear boundaries, Bob Blum came prepared to discuss the topic with lots of great examples.

    February 28, 2010

  • Michael P. G.

    Full house! Lots of folks looking for definitions where there are none and Bob handled them nicely!

    February 28, 2010

  • Monica

    I'd like someone with a decent digital camera to take a few pictures of the MeetUp tomorrow (the speaker AND the audience) so we can get more pictures on our web site. Post pictures to our photo album here.

    PLEASE don't use flash since we're videotaping. If your camera can't take pictures of people sitting perfectly still, hanging on to Bob's every word in a well-lit room without a flash, leave the camera at home :-)

    February 27, 2010

  • Monica

    Congratulations, Bob.

    You sold out the event at 70 (The fire marshal's limit).
    I believe you are the third person to do so after Ben Goertzel and Peter Norvig and the first internal member of the group to do so.

    - Monica

    February 27, 2010

  • Koushik

    Looking forward to the meetup.

    How long is this meetup?

    February 20, 2010

70 went

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