Documenting the Coming Singularity

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Consensus vs. Subjective Reality

One of the goals contained within the concept of technological singularity is that of reverse engineering the human brain in order to recreate it in a non-biological context, i.e. a computer.

With this in mind, I spent some time considering one of the most debilitating, yet interesting, phenomena involving the operation of human mind: the occasional conflict between consensus and subjective reality. (I understand that consensus reality is itself an aggregation of many subjective realities, but I use the term in apposition to subjective because it suits my purposes here.)

When I speak of consensus reality, I mean the reality on which we all generally agree. For example, if I were to ask 1,000 English-speaking people to read this sentence, they would generally read it the same way. They would agree on the words used and the order of the words.

But what if one of the thousand people reported seeing a picture of a 12-headed dragon, rather than a sentence? His subjective reality would differ from the consensus. A far milder example of this happens in my family from time to time when it comes to identifying colors. Where I see brown, the rest of my family (the consensus view), in amused fashion, informs me that the color in question is actually green. Apparently I see colors differently than do they. I am outnumbered, and so I acquiesce.

In much more dramatic fashion, this phenomenon occurs in schizophrenics. Often confused with multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia actually involves hallucinations (perceptions that occur without connection to an appropriate source) and delusions (beliefs that are not subject to reason). People with schizophrenia most often hear voices that no one else hears.

“Voices may describe the patient’s activities, carry on a conversation, warn of impending dangers, or even issue orders to the individual.” (NIMH)

Another example of this phenomenon happens sometimes among the elderly with a disease called Charles Bonnet Syndrome. In these cases the problem lies not within the brain, but the retina. It is thought that a growing blind spot in the retina causes the brain to “fill in their growing ‘blind spot’ (called a scotoma) with visual hallucinations of the most terrifying kind.” (Science and Consciousness)

I wonder then, how much of what we perceive about reality is actually formed by consensus? The socialization we receive as we grow from infancy to adulthood, to what degree is it responsible for what we see, hear, and believe to be true?

As we reverse engineer the human brain, one would expect that we will gain a far more detailed understanding of this issue. It wouldn’t do to have strong AI that is subject to paranoid schizophrenia, would it?

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