Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Evolution of Consciousness

by Richard Crews
Have you seen how computer programs can evolve? For example, one can take a program that draws a stick figure on a screen and then redraws it several times a second. This does not require a particularly long and complicated program--perhaps a few hundred lines of code. Someone skilled in the programming arts could write this program in a couple of hours.

Then you write a program that throws a small error into the first program and runs the new, screwed-up version for one minute. And you arrange for this process to be repeated over and over again. For each run the computer goes back to the starting program and inserts a random error. Usually the error (we'll call it a "mutation") simply "kills" the starting program--it just won't run at all. But now and then the mutation causes the stick figure to jiggle or jump.

Every hour or so you choose a few of the "best" mutations--the ones that have caused some interesting twitch or movement in the figure it draws (one that looks a little like walking)--and you use each of those as a new starting point. Then you go through this process over and over again; actually you write another control program so the computer will make the choices and re-runs and re-re-runs by itself and you go have dinner and go to a movie or something.

The next morning if you have told the computer to pick twitches and jumps that look more and more like walking, when you get to your lab and look in on the process, the computer is drawing one figure after another that walks across the screen. Overnight it has gone through hundreds of trial runs and gradually selected programs that look more and more like real, live walking.

You can look in on this process at--

It is fun to watch "evolution" and "survival of the fittest" in action like this. In fact, it's more than fun--it's downright mindboggling.

One of the ways one can boggle ones mind is to speculate that in the biological world primitive people-like creatures might evolve quite complex predator-evasion skills (like watching out, running for it, hiding, and climbing trees) or skills for hunting, foraging, resting, procreating, etc. in only a few hundred generations of "evolution."

I like to imagine that solving problems--especially complicated human problems such as when to eat, fight, or run away--might be done by drawing up in ones mind a series of little scenarios as to what events might take place and what the outcome of each might be, and then choosing among them to decide on a course of action. Moreover, why couldn't one evolve a process like this for solving daily problems, that is, for dealing with the variations of daily life? Of course one would have to imagine oneself in the scene, getting clawed or getting food, etc.

Voila! The evolution of consciousness, including self-awareness.