Episode 19 Audio: On the Edge

Sorry it's been awhile since I've recorded one of these! I just moved and I'm still getting my recording things to thingify they I think they should.

I thought I'd revisit the idea of consciousness and how it relates to the Orthographic Model of Emotions. This episode has a lot more of the former than the latter.

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Welcome to the nineteenth episode of Self Help for Robots: On the Edge
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Welcome to the nineteenth episode of Self Help for Robots: On the Edge


Welcome to Episode 19 of Self Help for Robots, I’m your host, C.J. Pitchford, and this podcast is literally on the edge!

The number “19” is my favorite number on a 20-sided die. I really believe, despite the fact that each possible result of a roll of the die would be equally possible, that I would see “19” come up more than any other.

A result of “20” was, subjectively, a freak occurrence—again, despite the equal probability that any number in any roll of any die could result at any time—was no more freaky than any other result. But “19” was the highest value, yet not quite at the upper bound of values, it attracted my attention over all other possible values? Do I suck at probability?

Well, we all do, as a logical fallacy that is a construct of our neural wiring. But it’s not the reasoning mind that was attracted to “19” out of “20” but instead the irrational mind that finds meaning and patterns. Edge cases—you know, the old “exception that defines the rule”—help us find meaning in a world that’s not all black and white, not all ones and zeroes…

I bet you can guess where I’m going with this, but before I get to my point, I want to go back to a very fundamental definition of consciousness posited back in the very first episode of this podcast. My theory of consciousness is simple: conscious awareness is literally the modulation of the electromagnetic signals of the brain.

This can simply be understood like the sound of a motor. When the motor is running, it can’t help but make noise. Sometimes, there’s a pattern to the noise, and changes in input, like higher fuel intake or even a misfire, can create changes in output.

The purpose of the motor isn’t to make noise, by the way. The noise is just what you get when you run the motor. Imagine modifying the motor in order to modify the sounds, and then apply that to practicing speech patterns. Learning new habits? Learning how to process visual stimulus? Some habits may be deeply wired, and consciousness is there both as a product of the wiring, and the means by which the wiring is routed or focused.

I was actually taking a shower as I thought about the above metaphor, and fully realized a motor is really, really wrong as a meaningful way to describe what consciousness can do. I mean, consciousness is really a way to be—wait for it—in tune with our environment. Sing Kum-ba-ya consciousness… Kum-ba-ya consciousness… close enough!

Bathed in the soft warmth of falling water, I was mindful of the fact that the universe is really a hostile environment. Mostly vacuum, there are also horribly powerful gamma rays and other radiation that would scatter critical parts of my soft bits quite catastrophically. Only in the warm embrace of a protective Gaia can I be safe (potentially—but without guarantee) of being able to contemplate my consciousness and enjoy a shower.

My limited senses aren’t capable of detecting the baryons that would proceed the deadly gamma radiation emitted by a distant supernova, but they are in tune with my more—say, immediate—environment? The ability to discern light and sound gives me a sense of the environment around me, in the sense of a simulation being constantly modified by changing inputs.

My consciousness—at the time I was bathing—was completely and harmoniously in tune with my somewhat limited environment. I could see the steam. I could hear the water falling. I was aware that I was standing in water and I was wet. My consciousness was subsumed by the sensory experience in sight, sound and touch.

Of course, being aware of my situation in other ways is also part of my consciousness. Before I ran out of hot water, I also had a plan to wash and condition my hair. I had a memory that I had recently conditioned my beard. My consciousness enveloped past, present and future within a single coherent representation of my surroundings. And it also had an inner voice to ask questions and posit some possible answers.

You might be completely wondering by now where I’m going with this, but I beg your patience, as before we get there, let’s go back to the very edge of life, when life began.

I can imagine that a very simple organism could have a very simple nervous system. In fact, it seems evident that if a living being could differentiate touch as a stimulus—even if nothing else—there would be a considerable selective advantage over life forms incapable of the sense of touch.

In a world where there is only eat or be eaten, if I respond randomly to the sense of touch, I can only benefit randomly—if at all. My sense of touch is limited by the internal model at my disposal. If a certain type of touch is to be avoided—like being eaten is to be avoided—than I must respond appropriately.

Through evolutionary trial and error, a specific response to touch can increase a reproductive advantage over competitors for the same limited resources on whatever safe haven. A specific model for touch, in fact, in the simplest of organisms, a simple ternary model would suffice.

Most of the time, the baseline of this model could represent a neutral state, where there was no touch. But, it would have to accurately represent a bad touch on one hand and a good touch on the other so I could respond appropriately. The model can manifest physically as a different frequency response in an electrical pathway, with evolution as the guiding selective force shaping the model.

I’m not quite to the stage where I’m referring to trees talking to each other yet, but that consciousness at an elemental level could be present in very simple organisms. Referring to the sense of touch, I’ve already mentioned one axis of measurement, good neutral and bad. But there must be another axis as well. A sense of self as well, one that could be indeed limited to just one axis: the sense of me. An organism needs to know the context of the stimulus, and there might be a default to the lowest and most common possible value.

As you just heard, irrational behavior limited to stimulus and reaction can be modeled in its simplest form with two axes. Sophistication within the values bounded by the limits of the axes produces more sophisticated models. And somewhere around here, I’m sure that there’s an Orthographic Model of Emotions using three dimensional axes, so there’s that.

And we’re right on the edge of working on that, so until next time, keep helping yourself!

C.J. Pitchford, Paracounselor