The Human Mind, The Collective Mind and Artificial Intelligence


The invention of computers and progress in neurobiology have revolutionized the way scientists and philosophers view the working of the human mind. Not that computers are exactly like brains, but the similarities that do exist opened up a whole new way of looking at the relationship between the brain and the mind; between the physical and the mental worlds. Up to that point in time, opinions were largely divided between dualists, who believed that the physical world and the mental world are in two entirely different realms, and the materialists, who believed that only the physical world exists, e.g. the brain, and that the mental world (the mind) is an illusion that just comes along for the ride. By introducing the new concept of hardware and software, computer science evoked the analogy that the human brain is the hardware and the mind its software program, and that they are both involved in brain processes but exist on different systemic levels. The blueprint for the hardware is largely in the inherited DNA; whereas the software programs develop gradually through interaction between the brain and the environmental and cultural experiences of the individual (although in practice it is not so simple, as neural pathways — the hardware — are also modified to some extent by experience).

Up until the computer age, the dualists, who can be traced back to Rene Descartes in the 17th C, could not account for the way mental thoughts could cause events in the physical world, since the physical world was supposed to be a fully determined, closed system (in which only physical forces could be causes of physical events). On the other hand, the materialists could not account for the subjective experiences which we all know to exist within our minds, and for our strong conviction that our thoughts can cause events in the physical world — that we have free will. How could this be so if our minds are merely an illusion, and are just coming along for the ride, as observers, so to speak?

By contrast, those of us born after the mid-20th C know by second nature that a computer program, devised by a human mind, can cause the physical circuit in a computer to grind out answers to the mental problems presented to it (although not all of us may understand how it is done).

The computational model for the brain and mind has given us confidence, that by simulating the circuits and programs of the brain, we can build artificial intelligence (A.I.) machines and robots that think, at least in a rudimentary way which enables them to drive a car in traffic, for instance. This is the first example of a created mind: in this case a machine mind created by the collective human mind we call “science”; a silicon-based intelligence created by a biological and social one.

However, this is only one of a number of created minds, perhaps the most obvious one. It is preceded by its own creator, “science”, a collective mind, which in turn is created by the individual human mind. Collective minds emerge in human affairs when many individual human minds come together in a co-operative way. When this happens, the collective seems to have a mind of its own. We see this, for example, in the behavior of crowds during demonstrations, within Facebook, in the stock market and on the battlefield, especially during panics. In such cases, the hardware is composed of the individual human brains involved in the collective, connected through language, increasingly via the internet, and the software is the particular cultural program (social justice, social media, markets or war) which is being followed with its own internal codes and rules of behavior.

Perhaps the most amazing example of created mind is the individual human mind, created by the universe and its natural laws. Amazing, because the most complex mind we know was created ostensibly by chance in a mindless universe. Or, does the universe have a kind of mind? Let’s put it to the test. Using the computer analogy again, the hardware for such a mind would comprise all the physical entities moving around and interacting, including forces, protons, electrons, atoms, molecules, rain, wind, volcanoes, planets, stars and galaxies. The software programs would include the laws of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, which determine how all the physical entities interact, and the results of such interactions. You might say that this is a rather elementary form of mind, compared to the human mind. But not so fast! After all, it was this combination which was responsible for the evolution of human DNA, which contains the code, inter alia, for the development of our remarkable human brain, the most complex object in the known universe. Such a mind of nature appears opportunistic: taking advantage of options thrown up by chance to achieve a result. In our case, for example, it took advantage of favorable circumstances for life to have arisen on this planet in order to produce life; and then, by a process of natural selection, through trial and error, enabled human life and the human brain to evolve from that primitive beginning.

Yet, to characterize these achievements as the work of a mind cuts across the conventional scientific view that the universe is probabilistic and mindless, originating in the chaos of the Big Bang. Science, though, has to explain how a planet of the living, like Earth, had any chance of evolving in what may well be an otherwise lifeless universe. For anything so complex to have come about by chance would have required a whole chain of unlikely events, and the probability of these all coming together seems miniscule. However, the multiplicity of heavenly bodies and great age of the universe ostensibly provided enough opportunities for such an unlikely event to have occurred. After all, we are here, so it obviously happened at least once! Encouragingly, astronomers have discovered over 3,000 exoplanets orbiting other stars. Furthermore, the Kepler space observatory data suggest that approximately a quarter of all stars have exoplanet systems, implying the existence of at least 30 billion Earth-size planets in our galaxy alone. No evidence has been found for the existence of life, let alone intelligent life, on any other planet; but it is still early days in the search. So this is science’s answer: life was bound to come about by chance, given enough time, as it did on Earth; and it might even have evolved elsewhere on a planet orbiting some distant star, too far away for us to detect (or for it to have detected us).

Conversely, over millennia, humankind has entertained other explanations for creation — and many of them involve one or more minds residing somewhere up there in the heavens — , but none of them are supported by science as we know it today.

What of the origin of intelligent life? Evolution of the species by natural selection is also regarded by science as a mindless process. Species with chance mutations are given the opportunity to prove themselves in a fight for survival against their rivals in a challenging, and at times catastrophic, environment. This process is repeated over and over again through millions of surviving generations and mutations until a completely new species evolves. It is a kind of natural algorithm — a series of iterative steps which achieve an outcome — to use a computer analogy. In which case, is it not an elementary form of mind? In any event, whether or not we call natural selection a mind, it is still the prime (natural) candidate for creating the human brain and mind.

We evolved to look out for agents in the environment (e.g. rival tribes) to ensure our survival. Because of this, we are inclined to personify phenomena as agents. Thus, people of faith may refer to the agent believed to be at the center of the universe and its natural laws as “God”. On the other hand, non-believers may refer to that agent as “Mother Nature”. In the case of the human brain and mind, we call that agent “the self”, the subjective “I” who experiences life. In the case of the collective human mind, we identify it by its collective name as if it were an agent with goals — “Black Lives Matter”, “Facebook”, “the stock market”, “the army”, “America” — rather than by the names of the individuals who comprise it. Finally, if we ever develop conscious robots, we are sure to refer to them as “Suzie”, or “Charlie”, not as things.

What then is the significance of all this? We are accustomed to thinking that there is only one kind of mind that perceives the world around it, learns, reasons, remembers, has needs, emotes, sets goals, has free will and imposes this will on the world: it is the human mind. Be that as it may, if we use a less restrictive definition of mind, then other minds may exist, as argued above. None match the human mind, but they go some of the way.

If a less restrictive definition of mind were to be employed, what would be the minimum specifications for such a mind? First, it must hold information in memory. If that were all that were required, then a book would be a mind, which clearly it isn’t, as it lays dormant until someone picks it up to read. So, in addition, a mind must use that stored information to affect the world around it. It must be dynamic in real time. But, television and radio do that through influencing public opinion. However, they are not minds, because a mind must be able to reason and make decisions. A computer can do this, but the consensus is that it is not a mind, as it is not capable of operating independently outside programs tailored to specific tasks. Therefore, a (present day) computer fails this test for mind.

What evidence is there for mind in the cosmos? Take a star orbiting a black hole. Do they both possess properties that affect each other? Yes. Each one feels the gravitational pull of the other. Can the star learn from this information and decide autonomously to change its orbit to escape the clutches of the black hole? No. Its fate is sealed by the laws of physics. So it fails this test for mind.

However, messenger RNA and DNA would just about pass this test, as they do transfer inherited information from one generation to the next, and they act autonomously. They do respond to signals from each other and from proteins and other chemicals in the body, and act appropriately; but this is a rather constrained form of responsiveness from which they are not usually free to deviate. Yet, within those constraints, RNA and DNA manage to accomplish some breathtaking tasks, such as setting up the complex human brain in the embryo, and overseeing its development thereafter.

What about A. I.? A self-driving car would pass all these tests, as it holds maps in memory that it uses to find its way. It learns from past experience, detects visual and audio signals, reasons, makes decisions, and navigates traffic autonomously.

Interestingly, a search engine such as Google, also passes all the tests so far. It mines collective human information, with which it can satisfy the searcher and affect his or her subsequent actions. It responds to signals from the searcher in an autonomous way in real time. Can it take the initiative and make decisions which affect future events? Yes, it can prompt the searcher to make certain choices, based on what it has learnt from his or her previous search history and preferences. Amazon does the same.

Consider social media, such as Facebook. This is a form of collective human mind. It also passes all of the above tests. It collects information from, and relays it to, its members. It prompts them to communicate with each other. It makes decisions about members’ interests and preferences in its individualized news feeds and ads, and thus affects their future actions. Once its servers and programs are set up by humans, it operates autonomously, except for maintenance and curation to remove objectionable material. Most content originates from humans in the collective, whose posts, likes, comments and videos are aggregated, shared and communicated, some going viral.

The stock market has many of the attributes of a collective mind. It contains information about the price of stocks, both historical and in real time. It causes investor behavior based on its trends, up or down, and its technical indicators. It receives signals from the world in terms of investor behavior, economic data and news; and it moves automatically and collectively on those signals, up or down, to affect future behavior of corporations, central banks and governments.

If the criteria for mind were to require, in addition, the ability to be conscious, to think abstractly, and to possess needs, feelings and emotions, then only the human mind would pass all such tests, although the minds of some of the mammals, such as the dog and chimp, may come close.

Social media such as Facebook does have needs: to keep receiving clicks in the form of posts, conspiracy theories, views, tags, comments and responses to targeted ads, as these all swell its advertising revenues, which are its lifeblood. You feel compelled (sometimes slavishly) to respond to those needs as they sync with yours. You are hooked. Furthermore, Facebook exhibits collective emotions and feelings, such as when heartfelt or angry videos go viral or a worthy cause is taken up and widely shared. It does not have consciousness, at least, not yet. But this is certainly one of the aims of A.I. research: to instill consciousness in a network, machine or robot. Whether this can ever be achieved, only time will tell.

Do you need to worry about any of this? After all, the individual human mind has had to subordinate its own interests to those of the collective mind for thousands of years. Individuals were persuaded to make this sacrifice because it was supposed to be good for the whole, and hence for them. This is how civilization has been achieved. This is how the pyramids were built and the cities defended against enemies. It is also how totalitarian regimes such as Nazism and Communism have fucked with our minds using propaganda, rallies and slogans. Even in a democracy, the individual mind is continually assailed by adversarial collective minds such as political parties, interest groups, corporations, and an advocacy news media.

But now, social media and other created minds represent an entirely new form of collective mind, with which we willingly co-operate, without any need for persuasion. This is because their needs happen to sync with our own. For this reason they are insidious. We don’t realize our minds are being manipulated and exploited by clever algorithms. Rather, we enjoy the experience.

Further down the road, as A.I. improves it will take over more and more of what our individual minds used to do, and even displace us; and possibly outbreed us.

Maybe all these developments are just the inevitable continuation of evolution, mindless or not, initiated by the universe and its natural laws when they created our living planet, on which our brains and minds first evolved.

Phillip has an MSc from the University of Sydney and attended Stanford University. He became a scientist, diplomat, CEO and writer. He lives in San Francisco.

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