We experience, thus we exist. Our conscious perceptions form the foundation of our self-awareness. They play a vital role in shaping our understanding of ourselves as sentient beings: present, alive, and significant. However, what is the origin of consciousness, and how does the process of experiencing sensations and developing a sense of awareness contribute to its emergence? Is this capacity limited solely to humans? Do other animals share this ability? And what about the potential for future machines?
In his book “Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness” neuropsychologist Professor Nicholas Humphrey uncovers the evolutionary history of consciousness and argues that consciousness evolved to make us feel that life is worth living. Drawing upon his groundbreaking research on social intelligence, as well as his intriguing findings on blindsight in monkeys and profound insights into the philosophy of mind, Professor Humphrey outlines a fascinating narrative to unveil the evolutionary origins of consciousness. In this episode of Bridging the Gaps, I speak with Professor Nicholas Humphrey.
Nicholas Humphrey, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the London School of Economics, is a theoretical psychologist, who studies the evolution of intelligence and consciousness. He was the first to demonstrate the existence of “blindsight” in monkeys. He has also studied mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda, and proposed the celebrated theory of the “social function of intellect,”. His research holds profound significance in exploring and unravelling the mysteries of the mind and its evolutionary underpinnings.
We start off by discussing the enigma surrounding the emergence of consciousness and the challenges encountered when attempting to understand its nature and origins. Professor Nicholas Humphrey’s book introduces the intriguing concepts of cognitive consciousness and phenomenal consciousness, which we thoroughly explore during our conversation. We then discuss in detail the concept of sentience as presented and explained in this book. We delve into the evolutionary perspective, examining why consciousness became an adaptive trait and how it evolved within living organisms. An intriguing question arises: if our early animal ancestors possessed cognitive consciousness, how did it transition into phenomenal consciousness? Could there exist an observable threshold, such as brain size, neuron count, or processing capacity, at which cognitive consciousness transforms into phenomenal consciousness? We then discuss the fascinating notion of blindsight and its relevance to the theory of consciousness presented in the book. We then delve into the complex concept of sensations, exploring how the firing of neurons and the movement of electric signals within the brain give rise to our subjective experience of consciousness. Lastly, we explore the possibility of consciousness emerging within machines, contemplating its potential evolution beyond organic life.
Complement this discussion with The Case Against Reality” and The Hard Problem of Consciousness with Professor Donald Hoffman and then listen to From Consciousness to Synthetic Consciousness: From One Unknown to Another Unknown with David Chalmers
Smartness has permeated our lives in the form of smartphones, smart cars, smart homes, and smart cities. It has become a mandate, a pervasive force that governs politics, economics, and the environment. As our world faces increasingly complex challenges, the drive for ubiquitous computing raises important questions. What exactly is this ‘smartness mandate’? How did it emerge, and what does it reveal about our evolving understanding and management of reality? How did we come to view the planet and its inhabitants primarily as instruments for data collection?
In the book ‘The Smartness Mandate,’ co-authored by Professor Orit Halpern, the notion of ‘smartness’ is presented as more than just a technology, it is presented as an epistemology — a way of knowing. In this episode of Bridging the Gaps, I speak with Professor Orit Halpern, where we delve into the concept of smartness. We explore its historical roots and its cultural implications, particularly its emphasis on data-driven technologies and decision-making processes across domains such as urban planning, healthcare, and education.
Orit Halpern is Lighthouse Professor and Chair of Digital Cultures and Societal Change at Technische Universität Dresden. She completed her Ph.D. at Harvard. She has held numerous visiting scholar positions including at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, IKKM Weimar, and at Duke University. At present she is working on two projects. The first project is about the history of automation, intelligence, and freedom; and the second project examines extreme infrastructures and the history of experimentation at planetary scales in design, science, and engineering.
Our conversation begins by discussing the idea of “smartness” as presented in the book. To understand it better, we look at a few examples. The book suggests that the smartness paradigm relies a lot on collecting data, analysing it, as well as monitoring people through surveillance. We talk about the possible risks and consequences of this data-focused approach for personal privacy and individual rights. Next, we talk about how the smartness idea connects with the concept of resilience. We also touch on the fact, as presented in the book, that the smartness paradigm often reinforces existing power structures and inequalities. We explore the biases and ethical concerns that may arise with the use of these technologies. Furthermore, we explore the possibility of using the smartness approach to promote fairness and equality. We talk about how it could be applied to create a more just society. We discuss the significance of multidisciplinarity, and the role of higher education institutions and educators to create an enabling environment for an informed discourse to address these questions. Professor Orit Halpren emphasises the importance of exploring these questions and addressing relevant concerns to make sure we create the kind of world we truly want for ourselves.
Complement this discussion with Cloud Empires: Governing State-like Digital Platforms and Regaining Control with Professor Vili Lehdonvirta and the listen to Reclaiming Human Intelligence and “How to Stay Smart in a Smart World” with Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer