Consciousness Blog 05 December 2009

A recent feature in National Geographic News contrasted four views of where evolution is heading for humans. Roughly speaking the views are: nowhere, because evolution has stopped; evolution will continue, accelerated by technical possibilities; we will take over evolution (the transhumanist perspective); humans will diverge into new species in isolated inter-stellar colonies.

What is remarkable about the quite long discussion of these four views is the complete absence from it of the word 'group', or any equivalent. The entire corpus of human cultural achievement, and all of our evolution from primates to people, has been based on the human innovation of social 'groupishness', which has become more and more entrenched in our psyches as time has passed, and continues to do so. Yet the various proponents of the 'four views' treat evolution as something that operates - or doesn't - at the level of the individual.

Rather more important than the question of whether we will continue to evolve to become more beautiful, or more electronic, or whatever, is how evolution will help or hinder us in resolving the central dilemma of an individual in today's society, caught in an impasse between the pressure towards individualism on the one hand caused by the impersonal State, and the unconscious, tethered to its collective roots.

The options open to a member of contemporary society to resolve this dilemma might be listed as follows:

  • Accept the agenda of the individual versus the State;
  • Return to groupishness; or
  • Fully inhabit individuality with groupishness.

The first of these leads to lack of moral basis in life, due to the unsatisfactory moral leadership given by the State (it demands moral hegemony, but then behaves completely amorally in relation to its citizens, and fails to provide satisfactory models or moral teaching). The result is hoodies and the rest.

The second is very successful for those individuals who do it, but fails to address the pressing questions that are posed by humanity's progress. Examples of communities that have retreated to (or stayed in) past folkish social models are the Hutterites and the Amish. 'Revivalist' US religious communities probably fall into this bracket, as do activist organizations such as Al Quaede. Scientologists, nuns and monks are other examples of communities that solve the problems of modern society by ignoring them.

The third path seems to be the only possible one for an individual who wishes to be 'saved' from the moral desert of the modern world, while continuing to be a part of that world. It doesn't absolutely require a conscious decision to follow such a path, but is probably much more difficult without awareness of what is going on. It is difficult because it requires acceptance of the unconscious, group-based nature of one's psyche, which cannot easily be accessed by the enquiring conscious mind, but which informs the whole of the structure of the personality, especially as regards social dealings with the outside world.

It needs to become the goal of society that all its members should fit this specification, unless they wish to follow the second path. The cop-out, the first path, should not be a permitted option, because that is what will lead to a permanent underclass, and nightmare visions like H G Wells's Eloi and Morlocks. It is quite surprising how many science fiction writers have imagined a 2-layer society of this kind; it is indeed one of the greatest dangers facing humans, but it can be avoided fairly easily as long as an inclusive agenda is adopted by those people who are in a position to influence the choices of individuals and their organizations.

This is not to say that lager and Little Britain are to be banned in favour of a diet of Chateau Petrus and The Art of Fugue. It is not necessary to be elitist in order to understand and participate in collective, 'groupish' activities and mind-sets.

The goal of a more aware and conscious, a more informed individual, with fewer internal barriers to understanding (of billions of them, indeed) can be approached through self-education and through the development of suitable organizations (clubs, associations, virtual worlds).

As technology advances during the next 100 years, there will also come to be ways of changing the human psyche from the outside, so to speak, alongside the autonomous internal growth processes. This offers the possibility of a redesigned human psyche that is not so imbued with groupish motivations. Whether that could be a good thing or not is difficult to say. It's possible to see groupishness as something that holds back individuals from full independent development. Even now, it is possible for a human, having understood the groupish motivations that press up from the unconscious, to resist them while at the same time making a conscious decision to abide by the rules of society, a moral exoskeleton as opposed to the internal skeleton provided by genetic groupishness. That seems somehow rather contrived, when all you have to do is to listen to your unconscious to achieve the same effect. And what is the point of learning to do without other people when the world is more and more full of them? Surely we need to learn to get better at living with other people rather than walking in the opposite direction?

The future for Darwinian evolution of human cognitive faculties is a tough nut to crack. There certainly is a premium on cognitive ability in the modern world, as there has been for thousands of years if not much longer, and on the conforming, cooperative and communicative behaviours that are required for group success. And no-one could pretend for a moment that the modern world is anything but more complex and more demanding cognitively than it used to be. The cult of individuality might be thought to work in the opposite direction, but that is a superficial view. At almost all points, the individual interacts with the modern world through the agency of groups: at school, in the office, in the army, in sport, in the pub. Even a person working in an intensely individual way, say, a top golfer, cannot succeed without her groupish 'support team', the approbation of her peers, and her fan club. And globalization and the Internet will increase, not reduce the opportunities for people to form like-minded groups.

All of this social complexity could be expected to work for greater cognitive social skills, although its impact on marriage and reproductive chances may be lessened by programmes aimed at reducing social disparities.

Bionic and genetic techniques to improve (artificially – whatever that means) cognitive performance may also tend to reduce the role of 'natural' Darwinian selection, although in terms of genetic results it may be hard to tell the difference between an improvement in neuronal memory functioning brought about by genetic manipulation and one brought about by failure to breed on the part of people whose memory skills are too poor to allow them to perform successfully in the world.

As a generalization, it is probably true to say that Darwinian evolution in the strict sense will have a decreasing impact on human mutability during the second half of the century; but it is not clear that this is a very useful conclusion. What is certain is that the human cognitive apparatus, as well as our physical bodies, is going to change as never before.

One particularly intriguing area is the access of consciousness to 'groupish' segments of the brain, that is the parts of the brain which hold knowledge of group memberships, relationships with other group members, and the sets of rules which govern those relationships. Many researchers have supposed that the enormous volume of this information was one of the main causes of increasing brain-size in early hominids. Although some of this information is available to consciousness, some of the time, most of it is hidden, although of course it is used all the time by the unconscious decision-making cognitive apparatus.

Two-way communication between the human brain and external devices (and, indeed, other human brains) in a way that bypasses existing sensory channels seems a near-certainty within twenty years at the very outside, and probably much sooner. Once a human can communicate directly with the cognitive space of a quasi-human external device, or with other human psyches, immense possibilities open up for enhanced group activity. Humans are already well equipped by evolution to handle collective planning, analysis and behaviour; it will no doubt be a stretch for our current brains to encompass a dramatically wider set of cognitive inputs, enabling and even requiring faster mental processing, but there is no reason to suppose that we cannot learn and improve in this direction, as we have done in the past in other respects.

Self-deception is perhaps another matter. Although there evidently were benefits from the interlocking roles of consciousness and deception in the historical context of human social development, it is not clear that it is necessary or desirable for the situation to continue as it is. Humans seem to be born ready to deceive rather than ready to trust, and each individual goes through a long and difficult process of socialization and personal self-development in order to attain a reasonable level of openness, transparency and honesty in social dealings. Many people, perhaps most, never do.

It would arguably be an improvement to the human psyche to arrange better access for consciousness to those parts of the brain it cannot currently access, and to the processes that take place in them. That could include some parts of what we currently term the 'unconscious'. There may be occasions on which a more sentient human being might still choose to be deceptive – but many people might think it an improvement if hypocrisy, bigotry, snobbery and the like played a much less prominent role in human affairs, which is the likely result if people could be aware of the unconscious processes that cause them to dissemble – both to others and to themselves.

Designing the cognitive equipment of humanoid robots will pose greater challenges. Although much progress has been made already in terms of understanding what one might call the flow charts of human decision-making – the interaction of sensory input with data-bases held in the brain, the carrying out of a decision process, and the implementation of the decisions made through efferent nerves (or through speech – an alternative way of giving commands to an external unit), it would not be right to say that the 'wiring diagrams' of the processes involved in the brain have been deciphered to a point at which they could be copied for robotic purposes.

Deciding whether to map the groupish skills and attributes of humans onto robots will be a particularly ticklish process! For example, the possibility of damage to conspecifics is merely taken into account in human decision-making as one among a number of factors, whereas robots (according to Asimov's laws) should put the integrity of humans at the forefront of their decision-making. On the other hand, it is easily imaginable that a robotic designer might want to build reciprocal altruism into a robot programmed to deal with children. Even then, of course, filleting out reciprocal altruism in a human brain may or may not ever be possible in neural terms (too early to say). It may be that, once the relationship of such a trait as reciprocal altruism has been adequately mapped in terms of its functional connections to other cognitive attributes, it will be necessary only to duplicate those connections in terms of robotic electronics. On the other hand, it may be simpler to define a trait such as reciprocal altruism in behavioural rather than neural terms, and design it into the robot in that way. For some traits, there may turn out to be no distinction between behavioural and neural mappings, which would be helpful!

Those who fear that robots might 'gang up against us' are probably wide of the mark; but one can see that designers would be tempted to arrange that humanoid robots would view their own conspecifics as 'machines' rather than having humanoid characteristics, and to avoid building affiliative drives into robots.

By, say, 2030, the functional cognitive structure of the human brain will be well understood, although some 'wiring diagrams' will not yet be mapped, not least because they are dynamic. The issue of the extent to which words are stored in terms of related images or non-linguistic patterns will have been resolved, and appropriate results will have followed in terms of robotic and bionic cognitive devices, and the control of them. The main lines of the cognitive structure of 'human-friendly' robots (ie robots which need to communicate in more than a superficial way with humans) will have been laid out.

Whether or not it does become possible for humans to migrate part or all of their cognitive and sensory apparatus into external electronic assemblies (including levels of consciousness), there are difficulties in reaching satisfactory names for such 'remote cognitive representations'. Conventionally they have been called robots; but the more 'human' they become, the less satisfactory that term comes to seem. The word 'avatar' is also not too satisfactory, since it carries with it the sense of being an artificial construct, whereas in most situations what is wanted, and will be provided, is a more or less faithful (if partial) version of the original. The word clone is also overlaid with a lot of extraneous meanings by now. So the term Remote Cognitive Representation (abbreviated to RCR) will be used to describe a device or construct which faithfully represents all or part of an individual in a 'real' or virtual environment.

It is important to see that Remote Cognitive Representations (RCRs) will become the preferred method of interacting with other people (other RCRs no doubt) in a wide variety of situations, and to distinguish them from avatars as used in gaming or other imaginary (and often deceptive) situations.

Apart their use in Virtual Internet Communities (VICs), Remote Cognitive Representations will be useful for business meetings between robots or in virtual 'rooms', for queuing, for attending conferences, if such still exist, for going to art galleries, concerts, plays, sporting events (and possibly for competing in some of them), for attending educational classrooms or lecture theatres. It will be seen that the Virtual Internet Community is in fact not to be thought of as just a playful Internet social environment – as RCRs become more powerful, the VIC will become the norm for many types of human private or business forum.

It is also clear that VICs allow an individual to become far more efficient, since she can be represented in multiple social settings simultaneously. The RCR which 'powers' the individual in the VIC can of course be given an amount of autonomy appropriate to a particular setting, so that the 'owner' becomes aware of the RCR's sensory and cognitive states only in pre-determined circumstances (quite like consciousness!), or of course at the behest of the owner. 95% of shopping, for instance, does not require a decision process from the owner and could easily be multi-tracked with other activities (child-minding, say).

RCRs will also come to be able to pool the experience of groups of other owners and/or their RCRs. For this type of unit, the expression Remote Cognitive Collective (abbreviated RCC) can be employed. Uses might include multi-university research projects, in which a Remote Cognitive Collective could house the current state of research knowledge as held in the personal cognitive spaces of multiple researchers, or business teams, so that a marketing strategy meeting could take place in an RCC, combining the current knowledge and skills of the individual members of the team, together with externally-acquired sets of market data which would be too voluminous to be held individually.

One way or another, the collective psyche which currently exists among groups of individuals at an unconscious level, as described by Jung and Neumann, will come to exist more transparently in the Remote Cognitive Collective. It's not possible to know, at present, whether Jung's 'collective unconscious' just means an understanding shared by a number of group members, or whether it refers to some sort of buried telepathic ability which humans have lost during the development of speech and visual, especially facial communication. Probably this question will be answered, along with many others, by neuroscientists during the next twenty years.

It is fascinating to speculate on the protocols which would be necessary to govern the awareness by individuals of the state of a Remote Cognitive Collective, and the rules to govern their active participation in what we must still call a meeting, although it wouldn't seem much like a meeting in the 'real world'. From one point of view it would be easier to communicate with the mental states of one's peers in such a meeting, since the RCC would hold data about the current cognitive state of participants in highly organised forms.

There will be a ferocious argument over the issue of whether the individual consciousness should preserve its isolation from the deep-rooted collective unconscious when individuals began to take part in collective cognitive activity, or whether it is better to create pathways to the unconscious so that a fuller and more explicit version of each individual psyche could play its part in the collective experience. The issue of deception will play a major role, and the majority opinion will perhaps be that there is little point in recreating the highly deceptive social behaviours that characterize most human social groups in new fora designed to allow closer cooperation between people. It seems likely that a limited set of additional neural pathways, allowing conscious access to major parts of the unconscious, will be incorporated into the standard model of the human brain.

There will be an equally ferocious argument over whether the 'groupishness' of the human brain should be copied over into external brain representations in RCRs. Again, the likely outcome will perhaps be a general understanding that almost all of human society had been built on the basis of 'groupish' psychological mechanisms, and that therefore we should not try to tamper with the collective underpinnings of our psyches. Once it becomes clear that there aren't any technological limits to what a human can become, that immortality is available (at a price), and that people can make choices as to their life-style, appearance, location and psyche virtually at will throughout their lives (all of these things are likely to be true by say 2060), there will come to seem little point in tampering too much with the 'people' we are already familiar with. It will be widely agreed that it is just much safer to stick with what we already know, apart from the modifications to consciousness and some genetic 'tweaking' to reduce the incidence of anti-social and psychotic behaviour. Thus, the set of group-oriented social skills and behaviours which evolved in the early history of hominids will be preserved.

Needless to say, a global body (in an RCC, naturally) will come into existence to formulate and enforce rules for permitted variations to the human genome, whether expressed in bodily or electronic form. Genetic variation is likely to be prohibited outside the existing genomic range, although some exceptions will be made for robotic, medical and psychosomatic research. And of course there will be a long list of permitted corrective genetic manipulations for the suppression of disease. Codes of Conduct for bionic enhancement and for RCRs will include a very large number of specific exemptions from the basic rules, which will grow in number and complexity year by year. Due to the extreme complexity of genetic evolution, the controlling genetic body will not be a universal body, but will be a delegate assembly, part of the United Nations, which by then will probably consist of more than 300 nations. Any change to the rules will require unanimity; but this will be much more easily achieved in RCCs than in previous types of constituent assembly due to the depth and immediacy of communication that is possible.

Within the regulatory constraints outlined above, a world of RCRs and RCCs will still offer a wild variety of different ways forward for humans, including:

  • Abandonment of bodies altogether. Evidently, this amounts to immortality, if indeed by then it has not been achieved in physical terms.
  • Abandonment of individuality in favour of collectivities.
  • Abandonment of multiple collectivities in favour of one collectivity.
  • The living of multiple simultaneous lives by one individual.
  • The creation of alternative psychical forms and bodies or societies to accommodate them (let's be a tiger today).

Read more in Chapter Eleven of Agent Human by Michael Bell.


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