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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Understanding consciousness: our future may depend on it

Dick Pelletier

Ethical Technology

November 04, 2013

In his latest book, “Self Comes to Mind,” Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, defines consciousness as, “the ability that we have to look out on the world and grasp it. It is a way evolution found to increase our effectiveness in dealing with life and its struggles.”

    "Imagine, for example birds." Damasio says, "When they look out at the world, they have a sense that they are alive. If they are in pain, they can do something about it. If they have hunger or thirst, they can satisfy that. It's this basic feeling that there is life ticking away inside you." video.

    What consciousness is, and why and how it exists, are some of the oldest questions in philosophy. Many religious and spiritual believers explain consciousness in terms of a "soul", separate from the physical body; a state of mind that lives on after the body dies, or reincarnates into another life. It has been described as everything we are aware of when we are awake, and central to what makes us human.

    My personal understanding of humanity's most mysterious trait goes something like this: all my experiences seem tied to a self, the "I" behind my eyes. I am responsible for my thoughts and actions, as well as how I perceive the future unfolding in such radically-positive ways.

    For example, stem cell and genetic engineering breakthroughs could help me survive into an ageless era of 2030s nanorobots. Will I be included in this bright future? Stay tuned.

    Growing numbers of neuroscientists feel we may soon be able to explain consciousness by discovering how trillions of neuron connections initiate thoughts and direct emotions and actions.

    Though the keys to understanding this unique trait may lie in the 100 trillion connections our neurons make as they communicate with each other, how a mind emerges from this neuronal noise remains a mystery. However, Henry Markram, director of the Swiss Blue Brain Project believes his research will one day succeed in unraveling many of the brain's mysteries by building a silicon copy of the brain. video.

    Markram predicts that by 2023, his project will simulate the brain's trillions of synapses. To accomplish this, we'll need to process 500 petabytes of data, he says, which will require faster computers, predicted by Moore's Law to become available as the future unfolds.

    The most impressive part of the Blue Brain research is that Markram is building a simulated mind in a machine that could include self-consciousness. Many neuroscientists are convinced that no matter how much we know about our neurons, we still won't be able to explain how a twitch of ions in the frontal cortex becomes the Technicolor cinema of consciousness.

    Nevertheless, Markram argues that Blue Brain will transcend the limits of conventional neuroscience. Once we can model a brain, he says, we should be able to model what every brain makes. We should be able to experience the experiences of another mind.

    Blue Brain scientists are convinced that consciousness is just a massive amount of information being exchanged by trillions of brain cell communications. One objective of this research is to discover how neurons give rise to our identity, but the scientists also hope to learn how the mind controls cell activities that cause disease. How thoughts affect health explained here.

    Unraveling consciousness also holds the potential to alter thoughts that allow people to commit violence and other harmful acts. See this National Institutes of Justice article. Positive futurists believe that a crime/violence-free world could one day be ours to enjoy as this research matures.

    Changing human nature through a better understanding of consciousness holds great promise in the decades ahead, to produce a peaceful global village more intent on solving economic and environment issues than arguing over religious and ethnic interests. Will this cutting-edge research produce such an optimistic future? We certainly hope that it will. Comments welcome on this most controversial topic.

Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.


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