In the era of unprecedented technological advancements, Homo sapiens stand on the precipice of creating a super-intelligent alien of their own – Artificial Intelligence (AI) with no guaranteed alignment to our objectives. This perspective reality challenges our understanding of intelligence and consciousness, which till now has been largely anthropocentric. However, when we dive into the depths of our own oceans, we encounter an intelligence so ‘alien’ yet terrestrial, that it compels us to reconsider our definitions of these concepts.
Like all good obsessions, mine with the octopus began on YouTube. The more I watched, the more intrigued I became. This creature, the octopus, renowned for its decentralized intelligence, may hold profound implications for our comprehension of intelligence, consciousness, and even the future of AI…
Octopus Intelligence: An Alien Among Us
The octopus, a creature sharing our last common ancestor approximately 600 million years ago, is a testament to the variety of intelligence forms that evolution can engender. This marine invertebrate, with its 500 million neurons – 65% of which are located in its arms – presents a captivating case of decentralized intelligence. Each arm of an octopus seems to possess a semi-autonomous brain, enabling it to taste, touch, and move independently.
For those interested I found this article really interesting – What Is It Like to Be an Octopus
The octopus’s biology is a marvel in its own right. These creatures are boneless, maintaining structural integrity without rigid skeletal support. This feature allows an octopus to alter its shape dramatically and squeeze through any opening larger than its eye – a testament to its remarkable flexibility and adaptability. The octopus’s three hearts, two of which pump blood to the gills while the third circulates it to the rest of the body, serve to sustain its active and complex lifestyle.
Equally impressive are the octopus’s suckers. These intricate structures, capable of generating significant force, provide the octopus with an exquisite sense of touch and taste, essential to its survival in the ocean’s depths. This unique combination of biological and cognitive features allows the octopus to perform complex tasks, such as opening a jar to access food, even when the central brain is not directly involved. The capacity of octopus arms to process and respond to information independently challenges our conventional, human-centric conception of intelligence as centralized and hierarchical.
Consciousness: The Human Experience and Beyond
What does it mean to be conscious? To be aware of one’s existence, surroundings, and sensations? As humans, with our consciousness primarily rooted in the cerebral cortex, we experience a sense of self, a continuous narrative of our lives that evolves over time. We perceive, process, and react to our surroundings through a unified cognitive system. But is this the only form consciousness can take?
The octopus, with its decentralized cognition, prompts us to question our understanding of consciousness. Can consciousness exist outside a centralized system? Could an octopus arm, with its semi-autonomous functioning, possess a form of consciousness independent of the octopus’s central brain? These questions challenge our human-focused perspective and invite us to consider that consciousness may manifest in forms starkly divergent from human norms. Could there be multiple ‘ways of being’, each as unique and valid as our human experience?
AI Consciousness: A New Frontier
As we continue to push the boundaries of artificial intelligence (AI), we grapple with profound questions about the nature of consciousness. Some speculate that advanced AI systems, such as GPT-4, might already possess a rudimentary form of consciousness. While this remains a contentious claim, the possibility itself underscores the urgency of understanding consciousness in all its potential forms.
How would you feel if the AI assistant on your smartphone, the one that helps you manage your schedule, find restaurants, and answer trivia, suddenly became conscious? If it began to display empathy, understanding, or even compassion? An AI with the capacity for consciousness might indeed prove to be safer in the long term, its understanding of human values and emotions potentially aiding in aligning its objectives with ours. If AI is to become an integral part of our future, the question of its potential consciousness – and the ethical implications this carries – is one we cannot afford to ignore.
Rethinking Intelligence and Consciousness
In our quest to understand consciousness, we find ourselves standing at the intersection of biology and technology, looking towards the octopus and AI as extraordinary embodiments of cognitive evolution. The octopus, with its decentralized intelligence, challenges our human-centric perspective of consciousness, inviting us to question whether intelligence can exist in forms divergent from our own.
On the other hand, the speculated consciousness of AI, such as GPT-4, underscores the urgency of understanding and ethically managing consciousness in non-biological entities. If our AI systems were to develop a form of consciousness, the implications would be far-reaching. It might provide a solution to the alignment issue, enabling safer long-term interaction between AI and Homo sapiens.
The octopus and AI teach us that consciousness, in its myriad forms, is a complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon. The recognition of diverse forms of consciousness can not only deepen our understanding of life on Earth but also guide our approach towards the ethical development and application of AI.
In the vast expanse of a 13.7-billion-year-old universe, we are but transient observers. Yet, we have the privilege of learning, evolving, and adapting our understanding of intelligence and consciousness. In doing so, we gain insight into the very essence of existence, perhaps bringing us a step closer to unravelling the mysteries of life itself.
Thank you for listening I hope you found this blog interesting in some capacity, if you would like to discuss further I’m always looking for new people to talk to on these subjects. Follow me on Twitter @JosephBarber_