2013 / 6 October

Non-Android Humans May Still Be Enhanced – an Interview with Dr. Thomas Ray


Dr. Thomas Ray is  Harvard-educated doctor of Biology, and also the original researcher in the Tierra Artificial Life project. Tierra ended up receiving major media coverage all over the world as one of the most promising forays in generating “evolution” in a digital system. Today, Dr. Ray’s research is honed in on the study of the human mind – and our conversation centered around his thoughts about human enhancement and machine consciousness.

Machines May Never Live

For Dr. Ray, the affective portion of the brain and the cognitive portion the brain (he uses the two separately in order to draw a distinction) work in unison to create the amalgam that we call consciousness. He believes that animals with only a primitive brain (lacking the capacity for language, logic, and reason) are capable of a a certain, limited extent of consciousness, while humans are capable of a higher and richer variety.

The affective brain, as Dr. Ray sees it is a pre-language way of interpreting the world – it creates “flavors” of feeling that help guide animal action. It is a rich tapestry of worldly interpretation that predates any logical understanding – and it is this basic affective conscious function that is at the heart of all consciousness which we recognize today. Dr. Ray refers to this as the “Archaic Mind”, in contract to the “Modern Mind” of language, logic, and reason.

“This is where I begin to doubt that digital systems can begin to replicate the affective mind… because it is based on feeling and has nothing to do with logic,” says Dr. Ray. Though he admits to not having conceived of a succinct rational argument against it, he does have serious doubt with regards to the possibilities of “Universal Computation” – the notion that non-living substrates can be made to house consciousness.

Biological Enhancement

Though Dr. Ray does not have confidence that non-biological substrates may be “brought to life,” he still sees enhancement as a very real possibility for humanity.

Even if machines themselves cannot have life breathed into them, and even if a merger of man and machine is not possible on the level of enhancing our conscious function or mental faculties, biological enhancements may very well achieve this aim – for better or for worse. In his fiction, Dr. Ray talks about the subject of “designer minds,” biological brain alterations that might enhance elements of our present human experience or human potential… or open up entirely new domains of function and experience altogether.

Thomas refers to this as the “logical fail” branch, because it might suppose that the “uploading” scenario (placing human consciousness into machines) proves too challenging or impossible. His fear is that this transition, too, may bring with it tremendous negative consequences, and that we may not only yield dangerous human spin-offs, but we may altogether lose our “humanity.” He fears especially that if we do not fully understand the various functions or elements of our present condition, that our tinkering may create imbalances that do us no good in the short or the long term.

The Danger of Guerrilla Psycho-Pharmacology

Dr. Ray acknowledges that through evolution, humans have been moving in the direction of enhancement, towards “better” or more capable versions of ourselves – and that any “monkeying with the machine” should not be done without a thorough understanding of what it is we’re experimenting with.

Even with proper policy, regulations, and review boards however, lies the danger of “guerrilla psycho-pharmacology,” that once technology is released, it cannot be “un-released” (IE: Bostrom’s notion of the “black ball”). With the development of technology, it will only become easier and easier for rogue scientists and groups to take these technologies that might tinker with consciousness, and to unethically or even maliciously leverage them.

Dr. Ray’s inkling is that moving forward, we’ll want to apply wisdom – a combination of affect and reason – in order to consistently determine our best steps forward, or clues to what might be best for us all (similar to Aristotle’s notion of “phronesis,” perhaps), and that we aught to take the scientific and theoretical study of consciousness and sentience more seriously.

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More about Dr. Thomas Ray:

The original article about the future of consciousness that sparked my conversation with Dr. Ray: http://life.ou.edu/pubs/TruceECAL.pdf
Dr. Ray’s hypothesis on the existence and function of mentals organs: http://life.ou.edu/pubs/OriginsOfMind.pdf

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