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21 September 2023updated 22 Sep 2023 11:03am

Silicon Valley wants to mess with your head

Tech bros are turning consciousness into a political battleground.

By Ed Prideaux

Artificial intelligence programmes are not yet conscious – but there are “no obvious technical barriers” to its achievement in future, concluded a team of 19 leading computer scientists and philosophers in August.

Just a few months ago, concerns around robot consciousness and “existential risk” were major media events. We’ve since seen a regression to the mean: OpenAI’s user base may be shrinking (and its products showing technical decay), its chief executive Sam Altman’s cryptocurrency WorldCoin has plummeted, Bing’s stagnant market share remains unaffected by Microsoft’s AI products. The “doomer” perspective of imminent existential risk, once “the biggest meme in AI”, is back on the fringe. In March Elon Musk joined voices calling for a moratorium on AI research. By July he’d set up his own AI company. The question of AI “consciousness” did, however, raise serious questions about contemporary metaphysics, in an age where older ways of describing reality are becoming ever more prominent.

The notion that machines could be partly conscious has been held by some researchers, most notably by Blake Lemoine, a Google engineer who claimed in 2022 that Google’s AI was sentient and had feelings. Google fired him. Many of Silicon Valley’s AI captains are “materialists” on consciousness. “I am a stochastic parrot, and so r u,” Altman said in response to suggestions that ChatGPT-3 is “just” a statistical machine: the implication being that we humans aren’t so different. For Musk, consciousness is a “physical phenomenon”; for Google’s Ray Kurzweil, a “person is a mind file” and a “software programme”.

This debate around the nature of consciousness was summed up in a New York hotel this summer, when two academics settled a bet formed over a post-conference drinking session in 1998. The wager concerned whether neuroscience would understand how consciousness emerges from the brain in twenty-five years. The philosopher David Chalmers bet against the judgement of the neuroscientist Christof Koch. Consciousness remains a mystery. Chalmers won – and secured both a handshake and a “case of fine wine” in the process.

The bet generated international headlines. The scientists’ apparent defeat raised questions over whether consciousness will ever be understood by physical means. For Chalmers, a professor at New York University, “easy problems” of consciousness ask how the brain and body create consciousness’s different capacities: attention, perception, motor control, information gathering, and other mechanical concerns. The “hard problem”, meanwhile, asks how the state of self-awareness and subjectivity came to arise at all. But why is it so hard?

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While neuroscientists can map the objective correlates of a conscious experience – say, how the blood flow in the brain alters when you consume a chocolate bar – they don’t capture the irreducibly subjective dimension of how the chocolate bar feels and tastes. This explanatory gap, between the “quantitative” and the “qualitative”, strikes a number of philosophers as irreconcilable. It has led some to wonder whether our dominant metaphysics – that of materialism – has become outmoded. 

Materialism understands the world as the interaction of physical entities. It’s the dominant paradigm of the academy. Its influence waned slightly from 2013 to 2020, and it’s possible that belief in materialism has decreased further in the few years since. With matter as the ultimate reality, the materialist picture born of thinkers such as Bacon and Leibniz usually depicts consciousness as a secondary “emergent property”. The neuroscientist Anil Seth describes consciousness as a broad “controlled hallucination”. Natural selection in this picture only promotes evolutionary fitness, and not an alignment with the truths of how the world “really” is.

[See also: Is reality a hallucination? The neuroscientist Anil Seth thinks so]

Metaphysics went out of fashion for much of the 20th century. Oxford philosophers like GE Moore and Bertrand Russell affirmed a “common-sense” view grounded in a particular view of science. Yet the failure to account for consciousness has birthed a “return of metaphysics”, with anti-materialist accounts of reality becoming popular through podcasts and online communities. Professor Philip Goff at Durham, the leading exponent of “panpsychism”, suggests that everything has some degree of consciousness. Bernardo Kastrup, with two PhDs in philosophy and computer science, has racked up thousands of views online making the case for idealism: an ancient school of thought that suggests consciousness – and not matter – is the ultimate reality.

One thing nudging society away from materialism is the surge of interest in psychedelic drugs. In his new book The Bigger Picture, Alexander Beiner, a director of one of Europe’s largest psychedelic conferences, relays his experiences in an Imperial College London trial. He was administered multiple 40-minute infusions with the fast-acting psychedelic DMT, which led to some strange and beatific journeys through inner space that convinced him of idealism. (This is an outcome observed to a non-trivial extent among users of the drug.)

In The Bigger Picture and Kastrup’s Why Materialism Is Baloney, idealism is not presented as a purely philosophical project. Beiner argues that the goings-on of society are necessarily borne of metaphysics. Since what we deem as the real governs everything we do, “reality eats culture for breakfast”. Kastrup believes that a mass uptake of idealism would “change everything” across politics and culture. As well as vanquishing our fear of death – for consciousness is not reducible to decaying matter – idealism may play a role in resisting climate disaster and capitalism. Indeed, if nature and sentient beings are alienated sets of physical things as we’ve been told, then it’s far easier to strip them of their intrinsic aliveness and exploit them in economic production.

As the historian and author Jules Evans has pointed out, similar hopes of a “paradigm shift” towards the mind have been held by circles of scientists and philosophers since at least the 1880s. The philosophical question of idealism’s merits is a complex and protracted one. The main issue with panpsychism, for instance, is the intuitive absurdity of suggesting that quarks and leptons are conscious. How exactly matter and mind interact is also unknown: an issue known as the “binding problem”. Philip Goff suggests that it must simply be in the nature of mind and matter to bind. He and Kastrup argue that the imaginative leaps for mind-centred accounts are implicitly made in materialist ones. At some point in our physical evolution, a whole ontological subcategory must have arisen. However graduated or subtle, the gap is crossed as if by magic.

This politicisation of metaphysics deserves a focus of its own. It seems to form part of a revival of deep critiques of modernity in terms of meaning, religion, tradition, sex and technology in media spaces. The return has come amid the repressed “post-ideological” times of the late-liberal era, when Third Way politics formed a natural bedfellow of the “Decade of the Brain” and Listening to Prozac. Then-exciting advances in government- and pharma-funded neuroscience and pharmacology would solve consciousness and cure mental illness, we were promised. As well as the broader “conspirituality” movement – the combination of New Age culture concerns with conspiracy and false health claims – one lighting rod in this respect has been Jordan Peterson. As well as roundtables on consciousness, the Bible and psychedelics, his extremely popular podcast also deals in a personal brand of right-wing politics heavy in meaning. Also seen in the likes of Aubrey Marcus and Chris Williamson, such a focus on meaning is everywhere throughout the post-Peterson podcast scene: consciousness and its mysteries together with fitness, nutrition, finessing one’s property portfolio, and dunking on the libs.

Such ideological capture of “consciousness” and “meaning” should already reveal the limits of a metaphysicalised politics. But this deeper kind of political contest is largely untapped in leftist discourse. As Alec Gewirtz points out, many leftists “reflexively dismiss spirituality” and metaphysical questions as “woo woo” and distractions from the “real” of wages and failing public services. But the political and spiritual importance of consciousness is only increasing with the rising tide of artificial intelligence.

[See also: Hegel against the machines]

Materialism still reigns in Silicon Valley, however. Powerful figures like Altman view human beings as biocomputers and “wetware”. Yet when the mind is rendered in such terms, it becomes a commodity for use and exchange. One can’t necessarily blame the Valley for that materialist picture, either: it works. With success and abandon, surveillance technologies harvest our attention, addict us to screens, shape our beliefs, and everywhere play around with the contents of our consciousness for shareholder value. The biocomputer vision also informs some of Silicon Valley’s more deranged theology. If consciousness is just an engineering feat (albeit by nature and its “wetware”), then billionaires should, in time, be able to “upload” their consciousness to achieve immortality. But if consciousness can be created and steered, a techno-consciousness of necessarily greater complexity must outcompete (and perhaps destroy) us. 

The same inconsistency seen in their theology arises in Silicon Valley captains’ view of history. They both affirm and forget that they (and in an ideal world, we) have choice over the social realities they are creating. In their view, they are not merely creating consciousness through AI – albeit using exploited Kenyan workers and databases allegedly stolen (according to a recent lawsuit) from human writers – but stewarding it in an enchanted evolutionary process.

Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, suggests that resistance to technological excess requires we affirm attention and consciousness as “sacred”, much as we do life itself. Taking our consciousness and its subjectivity seriously in this way offers a lens for appraising the extremes of a possible tech dystopia. “The technology will be included in people’s brains,” Larry Page, co-founder of Google, infamously said in 2004. “Eventually, you will have an implant which, when you wonder about something, will simply give you the answer.” Such is happening with escalating research into “brain-computer interfaces”, Musk’s Neuralink and the World Economic Forum’s predictions of a “fourth industrial revolution” of “cyber-physical systems”. In similarly dystopian terms, Google’s Eric Schmidt remarked in 2010 that “I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.”

If we accept attention as sacred, other features of our life worlds must be in kind: perhaps real freedom over one’s time, the end of wage-dependency, choice and democracy in place of a mere learning to live with the dictates of Silicon Valley. The question of who we are and what we’re made of is, consciously or unconsciously, part of an accelerating and ever-bewildering modern politics. Consciousness may form a primary and growing battleground.

[See also: Nietzsche, narwhals and the burden of consciousness]

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