Brain Coffee Video Podcast Episode 1 – Consciousness

Brain Coffee Video Podcast Episode 1 – Consciousness


Welcome to the Brain Coffee Podcast, no appointment needed, for Doctors Eric Leuthardt and Albert
Kim, to open up big questions in neuroscience and in our everyday life. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
We’re both wearing glasses and we’re both wearing cell phones. 100 years ago, we would now be considered
borgs. Right? Dr. Albert Kim
That’s true. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
You know, that marriage of mind and machines is going to continue to happen for restoration
of function, but it does bring in this challenging notion of neural augmentation. Dr. Albert Kim
Yeah, right, right. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Because I think it will happen within our lifetimes where we have simple implants that
can augment cognitive functions. Dr. Albert Kim
More, maybe more memory, more— Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Improved— Dr. Albert Kim
New skills. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
New skills. The biggest example is Elon Musk now is starting
a company called Neuralink. And the idea is he wants to instrument the
brains and record and stimulate millions of neurons so that he can, you know, essentially
kind of make your brain literally interconnectable with an artificial intelligence. So we really massively augment our intelligence. Dr. Albert Kim
On the one side, you have sort of the social consequences of human augmentation. And you have this other side of artificial
intelligence just on its own. I don’t know, Elon Musk is talking about
this and Facebook founder. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
I think there’s a really interesting conjunction in that on one level, you know, we see this
massive scientific effort to really understand and decode the brain. Like how does the brain manage information? How does it create this miracle of our consciousness
and our ability to think? And parallel, we see this artificial effort,
right? So how do we kind of artificially create kind
of an intelligent artificial kind of in silico ability to manage information and perhaps
mimic or even perhaps achieve– Dr. Albert Kim
Sort of reverse, reverse engineering. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
That’s right, and I think you’re going to see these happening in parallel and eventually
there’s going to be a synergy there. Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking say this could
be one of the greatest existential threats to humanity. You know, what is the ethical quality of a
human versus an artificial intellect? Who controls what? Dr. Albert Kim
Do they have independence? I see. No, but I do have to say before we go jump
off this cliff, there is another aspect, you know. There’s, there’s so much data. Let’s take the example of cancer, right? There’s so much data out there. Patient data, individual biological data,
and so using the, these AI programs to try to decipher how patients will do, I mean,
that’s a new use for it as well, that’s really interesting. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
People kind of get highly anxious about the negative consequences of the technologies. You know that was true for, you know, nuclear
energy. That was true for gun powder. That was true for electricity. And I think what we will see by the far majority
is exactly what you’re talking about. This complex ability to manipulate information
beyond what a human brain is possible. Dr. Albert Kim
Right, right. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Can integrate information that is going to enhance and improve our lives. Dr. Albert Kim
Yeah, and I think, so that is not really intended to make a sentient being per se. It’s, you know, it’s really taking a million
variables from a patient— Dr. Eric Leuthardt
That’s right. Dr. Albert Kim
And trying to see if you could predict either a therapy or an outcome, and that’s really
important. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Absolutely. Dr. Albert Kim
I mean, because right now, we’re shooting in the dark a lot of the time, right, without
that. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
I agree, now but here’s actually kind of maybe the fly in the ointment or challenging
question. If you have such a complicated environment
or a complicated system like that— Dr. Albert Kim
And it is, yeah. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Do you ever have a situation where cautiousness happens by accident? Dr. Albert Kim
(laughs) That’s interesting. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
So for instance, when you think about our human evolution like so, or actually our biologic
evolution, that you had this complex milieu of amino acids, energy, lightning strikes,
and you know what? Complex molecules formed and by accident they
formed membranes and by accident they formed cellular organisms. And you have this iterative; that was not
by design. Dr. Albert Kim
Well, so what would you, how would you define consciousness? Like, so, you know, does it– Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Oh, that makes it simple. Dr. Albert Kim
No, no, no, but I mean seriously, just if you want to do an experiment right, you need
a definition. I mean does a fl-, does a fruit fly, which
we commonly use as experimental model. Do fruit flies have a consciousness? Or can we make it a simple enough definition
to include a fruit fly or like a worm or a— Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Now Turing test was originally thought that like, if a computer could fool a human into
thinking it’s a person, that it’s conscious. You know, people are starting to challenge
that notion. But how do we, how do we define self-awareness? One thing I guess I would probably I would
go, you know, if something is truly self-aware, it would pursue self-preservation. Meaning that; in a non-programmed way. Like if you’re truly self-aware, that it
would seek self-preservation. Dr. Albert Kim
So I agree— Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Because you can turn off a chatbot and it’s never going to complain. Dr. Albert Kim
Right, right, so I agree it’s self-preservation and self-awareness definitely would constitute
consciousness, but what if you’re not self-aware? Are you still conscious? Like for instance, if a fly probably just
flies around, I need food. See food, get. You know? Is that consciousness? Dr. Eric Leuthardt
But it is hard-wired to self-preserve, you’re right, you know? And the thing is, consciousness has always
been, sometimes we talk about it in a binary fashion. Meaning that you are conscious or you’re
not conscious. But it could also be kind of a gradient. Meaning that, so there’s the fruit fly. There’s the dog, who kind of honestly, oftentimes
when you interact with it, seems to have emotions and consciousness and self-awareness. There’s a baby. Dr. Albert Kim
Right. Not entirely self-aware. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Yeah, right. And then there’s, so you know, is consciousness
really an evolution of process and do we have different levels of consciousness? Dr. Albert Kim
Well, how about, how about this? At the simplest level, just see if you’ll
buy this. You need input, environmental input. You need a sense of time. And then you need an output, like a reaction
to that. What do you think? I mean just as a— Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Fruit fly still pass. Dr. Albert Kim
Yeah, yeah. I mean that, you definitely need— Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Although they don’t as much of a sense of time, but they have like a. So is there a window, like so for instance,
ravens have a sense of time. There’s been numerous examples of where
ravens can plan ahead. Have you ever seen these experiments where
they— Dr. Albert Kim
No, no, no. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
This is really interesting. So ravens are, have been tested and are as
smart or smarter than chimpanzees in terms of their ability to kind of do serial and
predictive tasks. Meaning that for instance, they’ve learned
like a raven, like there’s this one kind of skill set that a raven has to learn. They have to put a certain amount of rocks
into a colander of water to make something go up to allow them a get a little piece of
food. So and then, they can learn that and then
they can kind of remember it so that they can do it again in the future. Dr. Albert Kim
Wow. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
And so ravens are quite intelligent. They have a sense of time. They have a sense of planning, you know. So are they conscious? And they do it, actually, they do it better
than chimpanzees. Dr. Albert Kim
Interesting. Maybe that’s why Edgar Allen Poe did poems
about them. They’re very scary. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Right, right, they’re creepy, too. Exactly. This has been a historic question. You know, again, we’re approaching Halloween,
if you think about Frankenstein. For instance— Dr. Albert Kim
So that’s not an emerging phenomenon coming out of nothingness and that’s the engineered
emergent consciousness. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
That’s engineered consciousness. In some sense, it’s Frankenstein is the
original question that we are battling with now with AI, right? If we create something that’s self-aware
that isn’t constrained by kind of our human biology and our human rules, what do we get? What are the dangers? And also, putting it, reversing it, what does
that new sentience, that new consciousness experience and what are our moral obligations
to it? For instance, because there was a real question
in Frankenstein, you know, what was Frankenstein, the Frankenstein monster experiencing? Like why did he behave so badly? Dr. Albert Kim
What is he? Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Yeah, what is he? And he want to know and he wanted to have
some meaning and his search for it, you know, he became destructive, right? And it’s kind of this iterative series of
events because of his kind of creation and his inability to deal with his own creation. Dr. Albert Kim
That’s interesting. They had the same question come up in the
new, in the new “Planet of the Apes” series actually. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
I haven’t seen the last one. I gotta see it. Dr. Albert Kim
Cesar asks himself, to the first ape that spoke, he, you know, what am I? Am I just a pet? Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Right, right, right, right. Dr. Albert Kim
And so it’s a lot of the same questions. It’s interesting. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
We project our own questions onto the things we’re creating, right? You know? Dr. Albert Kim
So I mean maybe, I mean, in those examples, the main problem is, they have no group that
they can identify with. That’s one of the biggest problems there. There’s nothing else like Frankenstein. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Right, right, he was alone. Dr. Albert Kim
There’s no Frankenstein family that you can hide out with. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Well, wait until the sequels. Yeah, right, right. You know, I think it actually captures something
that is so essential for kind of us, as humans, is that we need to be connected, right? That humans are fundamentally a social creature
that needs to be together. And if alone, like, it’s really a destructive
thing to that person and to what that person does. I think that’s why, for instance, when we
think about the prison system, one of the most terrible punishments is solitary confinement. Dr. Albert Kim
Right, right. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
You know, that being separated from kind of peers, it’s fundamentally in our nature. Dr. Albert Kim
No, you’re right. And as you know, we, we have problems with
our brains when things don’t connect, when neurons don’t connect, when regions don’t
connect. And so in a very similar way, when humans
don’t connect with others— Dr. Eric Leuthardt
It scales up, right, you know? Dr. Albert Kim
Yeah, that’s right. And so, I mean that, I’d be pretty pissed
as well, if I just woke up and had nobody. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Right, right, right. And there’s simply; you are alone on this
Earth, you know? And like nobody understands you. Although I guess, you know, maybe, you know,
kind of flipping it around just for a moment, when we think about this kind of social connection,
is like thinking about Frank, you know, Dr. Frankenstein. Dr. Albert Kim
Yeah, what was he thinking? Dr. Eric Leuthardt
You know, and that like, what is, you know, what is his role? What is his obligation? Dr. Albert Kim
I mean, OK, for sure he was an egomaniac and he was doing things that probably broke some
kind of, I mean numerous social contracts and ethical concerns. But I mean, what was he going for, you know? Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Essentially, the power to control life. Dr. Albert Kim
Right. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
And again, I think these are themes that still exist today in that what is Dr. Frankenstein’s
responsibility? What is his ethical mandate? And what is the appropriate time to stop? And obviously when you think about, you know,
we talked about with artificial intelligence, but CRISPR. We literally now have kind of Frankenstein’s
capability to control and manipulate life with CRISPR. I mean, you know CRISPR better than I do. Dr. Albert Kim
CRISPR-Cas9, the system you’re talking about where you can basically use an enzyme, a protein
enzyme and some guide RNAs to make a change in the genome in a very precise way. People are using this in humans already. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Yeah, I heard they modified a human embryo, is that right? Dr. Albert Kim
Yeah, that’s right. So I’m not sure if it was CRISPR, but certainly
in the last few weeks, they’ve been able to change gene mutations in an embryo and,
and foreseeably have a viable baby. And so you can think this is, this is great
for a lot of people out there with genetic illnesses. For instance, let’s say for instance you
have Huntington’s disease or some other monogenic, like you know, a disease we know
is caused by one gene, you can, at least you can say my kid is not going to have this life-threatening
disease. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Right, right, right. Dr. Albert Kim
I mean, but even that question is, is that something we should have free rein over? I mean, that sounds like a great idea, you
know, and I’m all for that. I don’t want more people suffering, obviously. So what is sort of the logical absurdity of
that statement, you know? Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Right, well I think there’s a really interesting kind of social and historical trend when we
think about, pretty much every kind of, you know, technology, especially medical technology,
is that we, we historically go from restoration to augmentation. You know? And what are the bounds of that? So again, a classic example is plastic surgery,
right? All the plastic surgery started as restoration
for kind of like facial injuries, breast mastectomies, and then became cosmetic, right? Dr. Albert Kim
Right, right. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
And so kind of a similar analogy, OK, let’s say we restore kind of a defect in a human
embryo. Then what’s the augmentation? Or what’s the, you know, the next stage
when it’s not, you’ve got something normal, but can you make it better? Dr. AlbertKim
Like you personally, would you be OK with changing embryo to make red hair, for instance? Dr. Eric Leuthardt
It’s a touchy question, because; and I think the social norms are changing for how we think
about this. I think society today more and more, thinks
about the malleability of kind of our bodies and our brains. And in some senses, it’s good, because we
shouldn’t think of ourselves as a fixed system, you know? Some people say, I’m not a math person and
so I can never do math, and so, or I can never be this or that. And I think it’s good that we have a sense
that we can change ourselves. Dr. Albert Kim
Oh, yeah. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
But I think you’re seeing that like, you know, how much change is OK? So do we, like should we change our skin to
green, you know? Should we— Dr. Albert Kim
I like green. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Green’s nice. I prefer blue, but anyway, beyond just red
hair, what if I could make my kid smarter? Dr. Albert Kim
Well, you know the other thing, sort of the other thing, wrench I would throw into it
is, we actually don’t know the consequences of changing skin color. Even something simple like that. Like maybe, ‘cause that’s related to early
nervous system development, neural crest. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Right, right, right, right, right. There’s unintended consequences. Dr. Albert Kim
Right, exactly. Maybe that affects other things in the system,
like support cells for you brain or nerves. So maybe changing skin color ends up changing
your mind in some fundamental way, right? It’s possible. Dr. Eric Leuthardt
Yeah, that’s interesting, that’s really interesting. Well, and maybe also I think, you know, just
when we think about it in the broadest evolutionary standpoint, diversity matters. You know? At every level, like species survival, diversity
matters. I mean, the more diverse you are, the more
you’re able to kind of manage kind of environmental changes, any type of change. Because that diversity supports. So I think, you know, just when I think about
it in the broadest social context, diversity of mind, diversity of thought, diversity of
perspective, that that is critically important for our species, you know? And if you try to constrain it or make it
more controlled or monolithic, actually you’re doing a disservice to the human species.

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