Commuter Soul
An installation by Rob Godfrey
en franšais

Commuter's nervous system has been designed to enable consciousness, to give Commuter the ability to 'think'. Machines which have a high level of consciousness are commonly referred to as artificial intelligence. Research into artificial intelligence has been going on for the last fifty years. During this time no one has come anywhere close to building a machine that can think. (Note: the term 'artificial intelligence' gets applied to everything from room thermostats to computer chess programmes to speech recognition software, et al. In the context of the following discussion, artificial intelligence is taken to describe a machine that has a near human level of consciousness)

nothing contributes so much to tranquillize the mind as a steady purpose
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

The digital computer is largely to blame for the hopes and disapointments of the artificial intelligence community, most of whom have placed their bets on super powerful digital computers as the solution to artificial intelligence. Is this the right approach? I don't think so. Let's use a goldfish as an example: could a goldfish calculate the cube root of 42,000? I doubt it very much, because when it comes to evolution/survival, knowing the cube root of 42,000 is not high on the list of priorities (although I do know some very clever fish). A human with a gift for maths, using a pencil and paper could probably calculate this sum in under a minute. Most humans, though, would be unable to do it. A modern day computer would take about ten nanoseconds (thousand-millionths of a second) and would spit out something like this:


In terms of memory and processing power, you could compare the brain of a goldfish to what are called 'first generation digital computers', from the 1950s, yet the motor actions and behaviour of a goldfish are way beyond anything those first generation computers could do. Half a century down the line, a fish is still a fish and computers now have incredible processing power and memory, yet the fish is basically still more intelligent than the computer (in that computers still can't match the motor actions and behaviour of a simple creature like a goldfish). This seems to suggest that there's something else going on in the fish's brain, beyond mere processing power. Of course, it's something called 'thought', albeit very primitive fishy thought, which brings us to the algorithmic approach to artificial intelligence; ie, that the thought processes in the brain can be explained physically in terms of mathematical formula, which can then be expressed logically by a computer programme. The obvious flaw to this approach is that we still don't understand how the brain and thought processes work, and some scientists say it will be a very long time, if ever, before we do understand them. Marvin Minsky, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, once famously stated that he believes the database inside an average human brain could be contained on just one CD (650 Megabytes), and that the computers built back in the 1970s were powerful enough to 'think' like humans, it's just that no one knew how to programme them correctly to enable consciousness.

The brain is a mystery, and it seems like it might remain so for a long time to come. There's also a possibility that 'thought' is an abstract, like the 'soul', and can never be expressed in terms of mathematical formula. This of course will upset the scientists, many of whom believe in God.

If you accept the proposition that 'thought' will not be formularised in a laboratory-near-you anytime soon, does this leave artificial intelligence dead in the water? No: even though you cannot explain 'thought' it is still possible to build a machine that can think. To explore this further we have to dip into the heady world of quantum mechanics.

The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.
JBS Haldane

Put simply, quantum mechanics (which is a wider term for quantum theory and quantum physics) is the study and theory of subatomic particles; ie, particles smaller than atoms. This, of course, encompasses electrons, neutrons and protons, the old school text book idea of what an atom is made of, but it also involves even smaller particles such as quarks, baryons, mesons and a whole host of others which are still being discovered. The thing about these subatomic particles is that they don't obey the laws of classical physics, laws which are also referred to as the Newtonian Universe (the laws put forward by Isaac Newton which form the foundation of all physics). In the quantum universe, particles pop into and out of existance. Time as we know it has no meaning. There are strange concepts like the weak force and dark energy. In the quantum universe particles can interact with each other instantaneously over considerable distances without any observed physical connection (in Einstein's universe nothing is supposed to travel faster than the speed of light). In effect, it could be said that the quantum universe resides in the 'fourth dimension', and beyond. If you want an example of just how mind-boggling quantum mechanics can be, do a search on "Transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics", but not before you finish reading this page.

Some people have theorised that the human mind works at a quantum level. Interesting as this theory is, it's irrelevent in the context of this discussion, because subatomic particles are not fully understood and so we end up in the same blind alley that the artificial intelligence community has found itself in with the brain-as-a-digital-computer concept. However, what we do know is that both subatomic particles and thought exist, even though they may never be scientifically proven to exist in the Newtonian Universe.

So, where does this leave us..? It leaves us with particle accelerators. Physicists use these devices to study the behaviour of known subatomic particles and to find new particles (by smashing known particles together using very high energy electrical fields). In otherwords, because subatomic particles do not obey the laws of classical physics, and thus can't be neatly formularised and created at will, the only way of studying them is to create the conditions under which they can exist.

Commuter is not a particle accelerator, yet it works on the same broad principle: at our present level of understanding 'thought' can not be formularised, so instead of creating the entity known as 'thought', Commuter creates the conditions under which thought can exist.

ix. Thames

Whorls whipped by wind race to the west,
waves slap and suck on slimy walls,
a rippling surge teases and hauls
flotsam to where Romans once blessed
a bobbing bridge. The flood compressed
and seminal, below St.Pauls
the mark is kissed, the ocean calls,
and so Isis will get undressed:
she twists and turns twenty five times
and starts revealing moistened flanks,
her helical fervour is rushing
to show the sky those straining lines,
the squelchy bits and rotting shanks,
to leave her now exposed and blushing.
So, what are the conditions which give rise to thought? first and foremost, emotion. We all know this: if I made derogatory remarks about your mother, what would be happening in your head..? no doubt you'd be thinking, quite furiously. Similarly, if I were a drop-dead-gorgeous person of the sex you're attracted to and I winked at you, your mind, and possibly other bits of your body, would become quite active. This link between emotion and thought is so obvious that it's somewhat surprising how often it's dismissed by many in the AI community. Fiction, too, has always tended to portray intelligent machines as emotionless. A Dr Spock-type machine, cold, calculating, driven relentlessly by logic, would perhaps not work in practice, because thought and emotion are so closely bound. It would seem that you can't have one without the other.

Secondly, a thinking machine would need to have a memory. Its intellect would stem from this memory.

Thirdly, a thinking machine would need to be mortal, and be aware of its own mortality. This one might not seem so obvious. However, consider a creature that was immortal. Would it have any incentive to think? A crass example: a person gets out of bed in the morning and decides what colour socks to wear. That decision will be made fairly quickly; after all, the clock is ticking away. An immortal creature, on the otherhand, could take all day, all week, or a million years to decide what colour socks to wear. Its thought processes would be incredibly slow, precisely because they have no reason to be fast. In fact, if you were immortal what would be the point of 'thinking'? In an evolutionary sense, 'thought' arose as a means of ensuring survival, of cheating death.

Finally, a thinking machine would need to have imperfection. Emotion and mortality come under this heading, yet imperfection also includes manifestations such as clumsiness, illness, sleep, etc, all of which give rise to thought. Hence, a more overall imperfection has to be built into a thinking machine above and beyond emotion and mortality.

To summarise, a thinking machine needs to have the following:


The next section shows how Commuter will put these concepts into practice.

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e-mail: rob@spiderbomb.com