Unit 2: Future of the Mind – the problem

Descartes famously concluded that ‘I think therefore I am’, taking the conscious experience as the one certainty that could prove existence against the reduction of scepticism. So if we can know anything, it is that we have a consciousness. But the hard problem of consciousness remains, in understanding how it is that our consciousness arises from the reality that we perceive. How is the conscious mind related to the brain, and brain activity? Importantly, how might they be causally related, such that the actions I take have been consciously intended, or not (do I have free will and can I be held responsible for my actions)?

Some argue that the physical world can be fully explained in terms of cause and effect without recourse to this conscious intention, and that in this way all future actions have been determined by events that have already happened and continue to happen. There is even a study that is seen to prove this out, whereby we can observe the brain preparing to act in a certain way prior to the person themselves being conscious of making that decision. In this way, it could be argued that my consciousness is merely a resultant effect or a post-rationalisation of what is occurring due to this causal chain, and that our consciousness is more like an observer than a director of events.

Alternatively, it could be argued that in fact, while we can be sure of our consciousness existing, we cannot be certain of much else. The existence of physical reality as we perceive it is dubious, since our senses are fallible (and indeed can be manipulated), and can be subject to delusion and hallucination, but we have no means of experiencing the world without them.

I recently came upon this interview with a cognitive neuroscientist which convincingly discusses this problem, and how we can best describe our ‘visualisation’ of the world by use of the metaphor of a simplified computer interface (i.e. that the icons and actions as perceived by us bear little relation to the actual complex mechanics of what is occurring within the computer system) which has been advantageous to our survival and so ‘designed’ through the process of evolution. I have not before heard someone so succinctly define the problem in assuming our understanding of space and time is fundamental to the world itself, and not merely fundamental to our own interpretation of it.

For me, this highlights a key problem for the individual, that considering the constraints of our perception, we cannot fully understand ourselves or other agents in the world, let alone the world outside. It speaks to an innate paradox within us, that a fundamental desire is for us to be truly known and understood by others, but we cannot even truly know or understand ourselves. That the ‘individual’ is in fact made up of countless consciousnesses that somehow combine to create our singular experience, is fascinating. Reality seems more surreal than ever!

Hoffman argues we should still take seriously our perceptions of the world, since they have evolved for a reason to enable our survival, but not necessarily take them literally, is I think where we can find the place for art and creativity. By utilising an unconventional way of thinking and problem solving, and by using and abusing the visual language and metaphors of convention, to provoke others to think and see things differently, art might have a unique ability to help us break out of the constraints of perception, at least for an instant. Though cynically we could say that it is just as constrained as anything else. It could be interesting to explore sensory deprivation, or more around automatic art to try and access the consciousness outside perceptions of the external world.

In future, is it possible that we might fully understand the connection between our physical reality and consciousness? If so, this for me implies that we would be able to break out of our current constraints of knowability, and for instance be able to communicate directly between consciousnesses – i.e. something like telepathy. This could be a very different future, one which might be ‘post-language’, and where many of the conventions we use now to try and approximate communicating our inner experience would become defunct (e.g. facial expression, gesture).

Unit 2: Future of the Mind – AI

For our latest brief, we are to explore the Future of one of the following: the Mind, Body, Work, Play, Home or Travel. I have chosen to pursue the Future of the Mind, since this has close relations to the Philosophy of Mind I studied during my degree, and the consumer behaviour I have researched in my career. One avenue I wanted to explore here related to the notion that a future mind might be the artificial intelligence (AI) that are becoming ever more sophisticated in the modern day.

Predictive text is probably the most common AI interaction we have – and it gets more and more sophisticated as technology progresses. Starting with ‘autocorrecting’ typing on numeric keypads using word disambiguation, the latest messaging keyboard function also predicts likely words, emojis or actions you may want to make based on the context of your and your messaging partner(s) recent messages, e.g. it will set up a shortcut to add a diary entry if a time/date is suggested for a meet up, or give a cake emoji suggestion if you are wishing someone a happy birthday. In fact, the system now does not even require that you first enter any words yourself. Relying on a body of knowledge that is based on the context of all user interactions, as well as your own, it can predict to a certain extent likely sentences and phrases that might come up.

XKCD webcomic https://xkcd.com/1427/ – the predictive text model has not yet learned the context of these movie references… yet.

Since the increasing sophistication of AI is a trend often touted as leading us to fully sentient/self-aware AI in the future (who might then be considered persons/minds in their own right), I was interested to explore generative art, making use of the models to create works that might reveal the state of these proto-minds.

First I experimented by continually pressing the left hand suggested text until I had a complete text (below) and then sent this to my boyfriend. I especially like how the model has fallen into a loop on the phrase ‘and I hope you have a good day’. That phrase is a cursory sort of nicety that serves more as a signal that a conversation is coming to a close than indication of a genuine feeling – i.e. i hope you have a good day since I don’t anticipate us interacting again for the remainder of it. The fact that that sign-off gets repeated undermines that function, so stripping it of even this meaning. The model is also failing to give us a full sentence, the breaking of syntactic convention makes this seem more like a meditative poem or song lyric, and the repetition of that phrase reinforces that. It’s interesting too that the arrangement of the repeated words appears to create diagonals across the block of text (wanna, day, you, have, good, day), almost like the creation of a pattern.

And I hope you have a good day – the first predictive text generated using my phone

It’s interesting too thinking about what the ‘I’ in this poem might signify – is it me? Is the model adopting my voice? Or does the ‘I’ refer instead to the predictive model itself?

Later in the day, my boyfriend and I experimented with sending such predictive messages back and forth between our phones, to see how this context might affect the conversation between the predictive models. The text in the green bubbles has originated from my phone, and the white from his.

It’s intriguing that here again, now from my boyfriend’s predictive model, we see a repeated phrase ‘and then I will have to go to pick up the kids tomorrow’. We do not have any kids, so this context must come from this phrase being observed from other messaging users – it’s interesting though that it first appeared in my text ‘let us get the kids’ and that my boyfriend’s one then repeated this. Generally the conversation between the models seemed to mostly orientate around arranging a meeting time and planning for tomorrow. It’s interesting too that they both made some slight use of emoji, though could not be signifying emotion in themselves.

Intriguingly, many of these messages are related to future events/future planning.

Unit 2: Dérive context

In conducting formative assessments this week within my tutor group, I became aware that I had neglected to fully contextualise my projects thus far in unit 2, and so I am keen to rectify this! Rather than something we complete as a first step and move on, we’ve been encouraged to begin there and return to recontextualise as we progress. I believe I have recontextualised as I went along, reflecting on the direction(s) my work took, but that the broader initial context has gone unseen, so I shall focus on that.

Dérive was one of the strategies created by French Letterist art movement, which was later subsumed by the Situationist International group (and more recently adopted by artists such as Wrights & Sites). A strictly urban endeavour, the notion was to ‘drift’ while walking, subverting the usual way in which humans behave in the urban environment, in order to better reveal the ‘psychogeography’ of the urban landscape. This refers to the precise effects of the built environment on the emotions and behaviour of the people within it, and by studying this the Situationists hoped to better envisage and be prepared for their ideal city.

This notion is interesting to me as I have come across before how building design can have a direct impact on people's wellbeing - e.g. whether you have a window and what you can see out of it can have a measurable effect in length of hospital stays.

These art movements were anti-capitalist and anarchist, building on the teachings of Marxism, and sought to reawaken the consumer to authentic experience (so that they might not continue to merely be passive receivers of mass media/commodity). A direct result of their interventions (so called situations), was the Paris uprisings in 1968.

Something that I found to be relevant to some of my ongoing research for the upcoming Future project (i.e. a future where work may mostly be done by machine/AI and the human worker is obsolete) is that the Situationists thought work in advanced capitalist society would become increasingly absurd. As technology progresses, and work becomes more efficient, the work itself will by nature become more trivial. 
In researching this context, I found myself tunneling through wikipedia through link after link of related pages that sounded of interest to me. This reminded me of a game I had played at university around 2007, where you had to get to a destination wikipedia subject page from another (unrelated) subject faster than someone else, e.g. from polar bear to ice cream truck. Very good for long library essay writing sessions... The parallel here with the dérive strategy is quite marked, and I was intrigued that there should now be a dérive app to help you navigate out in the real world, but not a dérive equivalent for the now hugely extensive online world.

It could be fair to say that the Situationists politicised an act that had first been popular in French society in the 1800s and particularly espoused by Baudelaire – flaneur. Though the flaneur too walked aimlessly in an urban environment, they were perhaps more attentive to the other people they encountered, hoping to be an observer of society.

Strangely, I came across this term – flaneur – in a book I am reading, On Photography by Susan Sontag:

Gazing on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal. In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle class flaneur…The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoiteuring… the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes… The flaneur is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, its neglected populations – an unofficial reality behind the facade of bourgeois life that the photographer ‘apprehends’, as a detective apprehends a criminal.

It’s interesting that this class tourism rooted in the notion of the flaneur would find it’s expression later in the works of the anti-establishment Situationists. But then this aimlessness for them served a purpose (unlike the flaneur for whom it was more like a hobby).