Lex Fridman Podcast - #2 - Christof Koch: Consciousness

As part of MIT course 6S099 on artificial general intelligence, I got a chance to sit

down with Christoph Koch, who is one of the seminal figures in neurobiology, neuroscience,

and generally in the study of consciousness.

He is the president, the chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science

in Seattle.

From 1986 to 2013, he was a professor at Caltech.

Before that, he was at MIT, he is extremely well cited, over 100,000 citations.

His research, his writing, his ideas have had big impact on the scientific community

and the general public in the way we think about consciousness, in the way we see ourselves

as human beings.

He’s the author of several books, The Quest for Consciousness and Neurobiological Approach,

and a more recent book, Consciousness, Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.

If you enjoy this conversation, this course, subscribe, click the little bell icon to make

sure you never miss a video, and in the comments, leave suggestions for any people you’d like

to see be part of the course or any ideas that you would like us to explore.

Thanks very much and I hope you enjoy.

Okay, before we delve into the beautiful mysteries of consciousness, let’s zoom out a little

bit and let me ask, do you think there’s intelligent life out there in the universe?

Yes, I do believe so.

We have no evidence of it, but I think the probabilities are overwhelming in favor of


Given a universe where we have 10 to the 11 galaxies and each galaxy has between 10 to

the 11, 10 to the 12 stars and we know most stars have one or more planets.

So how does that make you feel?

It still makes me feel special because I have experiences.

I feel the world, I experience the world and independent of whether there are other creatures

out there, I still feel the world and I have access to this world in this very strange

compelling way and that’s the core of human existence.

Now, you said human, do you think if those intelligent creatures are out there, do you

think they experience their world?

Yes, if they are evolved, if they are a product of natural evolution as they would have to

be, they will also experience their own world.

The consciousness isn’t just human, you’re right, it’s much wider.

It may be spread across all of biology.

The only thing that we have special is we can talk about it.

Of course, not all people can talk about it.

Babies and little children can talk about it.

Patients who have a stroke in the left inferior frontal gyrus can talk about it, but most

normal adult people can talk about it and so we think that makes us special compared

to let’s say monkeys or dogs or cats or mice or all the other creatures that we share the

planet with, but all the evidence seems to suggest that they too experience the world

and so it’s overwhelmingly likely that aliens would also experience their world.

Of course, differently because they have a different sensorium, they have different sensors,

they have a very different environment, but the fact that I would strongly suppose that

they also have experiences.

They feel pain and pleasure and see in some sort of spectrum and hear and have all the

other senses.

Of course, their language, if they have one, would be different so we might not be able

to understand their poetry about the experiences that they have.

That’s correct.

So in a talk, in a video, I’ve heard you mention Siputzo, a dachshund that you came up with,

that you grew up with, it was part of your family when you were young.

First of all, you’re technically a Midwestern boy.

You just –



But after that, you traveled around a bit, hence a little bit of the accent.

You talked about Siputzo, the dachshund, having these elements of humanness, of consciousness

that you discovered.

So I just wanted to ask, can you look back in your childhood and remember when was the

first time you realized you yourself, sort of from a third person perspective, are a

conscious being?

This idea of stepping outside yourself and seeing there’s something special going on

here in my brain.

I can’t really actually – it’s a good question.

I’m not sure I recall a discrete moment.

I mean, you take it for granted because that’s the only world you know.

The only world I know and you know is the world of seeing and hearing voices and touching

and all the other things.

So it’s only much later at early – in my underguided days when I enrolled in physics

and in philosophy that I really thought about it and thought, well, this is really fundamentally

very, very mysterious and there’s nothing really in physics right now that explains

this transition from the physics of the brain to feelings.

Where do the feelings come in?

So you can look at the foundational equation of quantum mechanics, general relativity.

You can look at the periodic table of the elements.

You can look at the endless ATGC chat in our genes and nowhere is consciousness.

Yet I wake up every morning to a world where I have experiences.

And so that’s the heart of the ancient mind body problem.

How do experiences get into the world?

So what is consciousness?


This is any experience.

Some people call it subjective feeling.

Some people call it phenomenology.

Some people call it qualia of the philosopher.

But they all denote the same thing.

It feels like something in the famous word of the philosopher Thomas Nagel.

It feels like something to be a bat or to be an American or to be angry or to be sad

or to be in love or to have pain.

And that is what experience is, any possible experience.

Could be as mundane as just sitting in a chair.

Could be as exalted as having a mystical moment in deep meditation.

Those are just different forms of experiences.


So if you were to sit down with maybe the next, skip a couple generations, of IBM Watson,

something that won Jeopardy, what is the gap, I guess the question is, between Watson, that

might be much smarter than you, than us, than any human alive, but may not have experience,

what is the gap?

Well, so that’s a big, big question.

That’s occupied people for the last, certainly last 50 years since we, you know, since the

advent, the birth of computers.

That’s a question Alan Turing tried to answer.

And of course he did it in this indirect way by proposing a test, an operational test.

But that’s not really, that’s, you know, he tried to get at what does it mean for a person

to think, and then he had this test, right?

You lock them away, and then you have a communication with them, and then you try to guess after

a while whether that is a person or whether it’s a computer system.

There’s no question that now or very soon, you know, Alexa or Siri or, you know, Google

now will pass this test, right?

And you can game it, but you know, ultimately, certainly in your generation, there will be

machines that will speak with complete poise that will remember everything you ever said.

They’ll remember every email you ever had, like Samantha, remember in the movie Her?


There’s no question it’s going to happen.

But of course, the key question is, does it feel like anything to be Samantha in the movie


Or does it feel like anything to be Watson?

And there one has to very, very strongly think there are two different concepts here that

we co mingle.

There is the concept of intelligence, natural or artificial, and there is a concept of consciousness,

of experience, natural or artificial.

Those are very, very different things.

Now, historically, we associate consciousness with intelligence.


Because we live in a world, leaving aside computers, of natural selection, where we’re

surrounded by creatures, either our own kin that are less or more intelligent, or we go

across species.

Some are more adapted to a particular environment.

Others are less adapted, whether it’s a whale or dog, or you go talk about a paramecium

or a little worm.

And we see the complexity of the nervous system goes from one cell to specialized cells, to

a worm that has three nets, that has 30 percent of its cells are nerve cells, to creature

like us or like a blue whale that has 100 billion, even more nerve cells.

And so based on behavioral evidence and based on the underlying neuroscience, we believe

that as these creatures become more complex, they are better adapted to their particular

ecological niche, and they become more conscious, partly because their brain grows.

And we believe consciousness, unlike the ancient, ancient people thought most, almost every

culture thought that consciousness with intelligence has to do with your heart.

And you still see that today.

You see, honey, I love you with all my heart.

But what you should actually say is, no, honey, I love you with all my lateral hypothalamus.

And for Valentine’s Day, you should give your sweetheart, you know, hypothalamus, a piece

of chocolate and not a heart shaped chocolate.

Anyway, so we still have this language, but now we believe it’s a brain.

And so we see brains of different complexity and we think, well, they have different levels

of consciousness.

They’re capable of different experiences.

But now we confront the world where we know where we’re beginning to engineer intelligence.

And it’s radical unclear whether the intelligence we’re engineering has anything to do with

consciousness and whether it can experience anything.

Because fundamentally, what’s the difference?

Intelligence is about function.

Intelligence no matter exactly how you define it, sort of adaptation to new environments,

being able to learn and quickly understand, you know, the setup of this and what’s going

on and who are the actors and what’s going to happen next.

That’s all about function.

Consciousness is not about function.

Consciousness is about being.

It’s in some sense much fundamental.

You can see this in several cases.

You can see it, for instance, in the case of the clinic.

When you’re dealing with patients who are, let’s say, had a stroke or had were in traffic

accident, et cetera, they’re pretty much immobile.

Terri Schiavo, you may have heard historically, she was a person here in the 90s in Florida.

Her heart stood still.

She was reanimated.

And then for the next 14 years, she was what’s called in a vegetative state.

So there are thousands of people in a vegetative state.

So they’re, you know, they’re, you know, they’re like this.

Occasionally, they open their eyes for two, three, four, five, six, eight hours, and then

close their eyes.

They have sleep wake cycle.

Occasionally, they have behaviors.

They do like, you know, but there’s no way that you can establish a lawful relationship

between what you say or the doctor says or the mom says and what the patient does.

So there isn’t any behavior, yet in some of these people, there is still experience.

You can design and build brain machine interfaces where you can see there’s still experience


And of course, these cases of locked in state, there’s this famous book called The Diving

Bell and the Butterfly, where you had an editor, a French editor, he had a stroke in the brainstem,

unable to move except his vertical eyes, eye movement.

He could just move his eyes up and down.

And he dictated an entire book.

And some people even lose this at the end.

All the evidence seems to suggest that they’re still in there.

In this case, you have no behavior, you have consciousness.

Second case is tonight, like all of us, you’re going to go to sleep, close your eyes, you

go to sleep, you will wake up inside your sleeping body, and you will have conscious


They are different from everyday experience.

You might fly, you might not be surprised that you’re flying, you might meet a long

dead pet, childhood dog, and you’re not surprised that you’re meeting them.

But you have conscious experience of love, of hate, they can be very emotional.

Your body during this state, typically it’s REM state, sends an active signal to your

motor neurons to paralyze you.

It’s called atonia.

Because if you don’t have that, like some patients, what do you do?

You act out your dreams.

You get, for example, REM behavioral disorder, which is bad juju to get.


Third case is pure experience.

So I recently had this, what some people call a mystical experience.

I went to Singapore and went into a flotation tank.


All right.

So this is a big tub filled with water, that’s body temperature and Epsom salt.

You strip completely naked, you lie inside of it, you close the lid.


Complete darkness, soundproof.

So very quickly, you become bodiless because you’re floating and you’re naked.

You have no rings, no watch, no nothing.

You don’t feel your body anymore.

There’s no sound, soundless.

There’s no photon, sightless, timeless, because after a while, early on you actually hear

your heart, but then you sort of adapt to that and then sort of the passage of time



And if you train yourself, like in a meditation, not to think, early on you think a lot.

It’s a little bit spooky.

You feel somewhat uncomfortable or you think, well, I’m going to get bored.

And if you try to not to think actively, you become mindless.

There you are, bodiless, timeless, you know, soundless, sightless, mindless, but you’re

in a conscious experience.

You’re not asleep.


You’re not asleep.

You are a being of pure, you’re a pure being.

There isn’t any function.

You aren’t doing any computation.

You’re not remembering.

You’re not projecting.

You’re not planning.

Yet you are fully conscious.

You’re fully conscious.

There’s something going on there.

It could be just a side effect.

So what is the…

You mean epiphenomena.

So what’s the select, meaning why, what is the function of you being able to lay in this

sensory free deprivation tank and still have a conscious experience?



Obviously we didn’t evolve with flotation tanks in our environment.

I mean, so biology is notoriously bad at asking why question, telenormical question.

Why do we have two eyes?

Why don’t we have four eyes like some teachers or three eyes or something?

Well, no, there’s probably, there is a function to that, but we’re not very good at answering

those questions.

We can speculate endlessly where biology is very, or science is very good about mechanistic


Why is there a charge in the universe?


We find a certain universe where there are positive and negative charges.


Why does quantum mechanics hold?

You know, why doesn’t some other theory hold?

Quantum mechanics holding our universe is very unclear why.

So telenormical question, why questions are difficult to answer.

There’s some relationship between complexity, brain processing power and consciousness.

But however, in these cases, in these three examples I gave, one is an everyday experience

at night.

The other one is trauma.

And third one is in principle, you can, everybody can have these sort of mystical experiences.

You have a dissociation of function from, of intelligence from consciousness.

You caught me asking a why question.

Let me ask a question that’s not a why question.

You’re giving a talk later today on the Turing test for intelligence and consciousness, drawing

lines between the two.

So is there a scientific way to say there’s consciousness present in this entity or not?

And to anticipate your answer, cause you, you will also, there’s a neurobiological answer.

So we can test the human brain, but if you take a machine brain that you don’t know tests

for yet, how would you even begin to approach a test if there’s consciousness present in

this thing?


That’s a really good question.

So let me take it in two steps.

So as you point out for, for, for, for humans, let’s just stick with humans.

There’s now a test called the Zap and Zip is a procedure where you ping the brain using

transcranial magnetic stimulation.

You look at the electrical reverberations essentially using EG, and then you can measure

the complexity of this brain response.

And you can do this in awake people, in asleep, normal people, you can do it in awake people

and then anesthetize them.

You can do it in patients.

And it, it, it has a hundred percent accuracy that in all those cases, when you’re clear,

the patient or the person is either conscious or unconscious, the complexity is either high

or low.

And then you can adopt these techniques to similar creatures like monkeys and dogs and,

and, and mice that have very similar brains.

Now of course you, you point out that may not help you because we don’t have a cortex,

you know, and if I send a magnetic pulse into my iPhone or my computer, it’s probably going

to break something.

So we don’t have that.

So what we need ultimately, we need a theory of consciousness.

We can’t just rely on our intuition.

Our intuition is, well, yeah, if somebody talks, they’re conscious.

However, then there are all these patients, children, babies don’t talk, right?

But we believe that, that the babies also have conscious experiences, right?

And then there are all these patients I mentioned and they don’t talk.

When you dream, you can’t talk because you’re paralyzed.

So what we ultimately need, we can’t just rely on our intuition.

We need a theory of conscience that tells us what is it about a piece of matter?

What is it about a piece of highly excitable matter like the brain or like a computer that

gives rise to conscious experience?

We all believe, none of us believes anymore in the old story.

It’s a soul, right?

That used to be the most common explanation that most people accept that instill a lot

of people today believe, well, there’s, there’s God endowed only us with a special thing

that animals don’t have.

Rene Descartes famously said, a dog, if you hit it with your carriage may yell, may cry,

but it doesn’t have this special thing.

It doesn’t have the magic, the magic soul.

It doesn’t have res cogitans, the soul.

Now we believe that isn’t the case anymore.

So what is the difference between brains and, and these guys, silicon?

And in particular, once their behavior matches.

So if you have Siri or Alexa in 20 years from now that she can talk just as good as any

possible human, what grounds do you have to say she’s not conscious in particular, if

she says it’s of course she will, well, of course I’m conscious.

You ask her how are you doing?

And she’ll say, well, you know, they, they’ll generate some way to, of course she’ll behave

like a, like a person.

Now there’s several differences.

One is, so this relates to the problem, the very hard, why is consciousness a hard problem?

It’s because it’s subjective, right?

Only I have it, for only I know I have direct experience of my own consciousness.

I don’t have experience in your consciousness.

Now I assume as a sort of a Bayesian person who believes in probability theory and all

of that, you know, I can do, I can do an abduction to the, to the best available facts.

I deduce your brain is very similar to mine.

If I put you in a scanner, your brain is roughly going to behave the same way as I do.

If, if, if, you know, if I give you this muesli and ask you, how does it taste?

You tell me things that, you know, that, that I would also say more or less, right?

So I infer based on all of that, that you’re conscious.

Now with theory, I can’t do that.

So there I really need a theory that tells me what is it about, about any system, this

or this, that makes it conscious.

We have such a theory.


So the integrated information theory, but let me first, maybe as an introduction for

people who are not familiar, Descartes, can you, you talk a lot about pan, panpsychism.

Can you describe what, uh, physicalism versus dualism?

This you, you mentioned the soul, what, what is the history of that idea?

What is the idea of panpsychism or no, the debate really, uh, out of which panpsychism

can, um, emerge of, of, of, um, dualism versus, uh, physicalism or do you not see panpsychism

as fitting into that?

No, you can argue there’s some, okay, so let’s step back.

So panpsychism is a very ancient belief that’s been around, uh, I mean, Plato and Aristotle

talks about it, uh, modern philosophers talk about it.

Of course, in Buddhism, the idea is very prevalent that, I mean, there are different versions

of it.

One version says everything is ensouled, everything, rocks and stones and dogs and people and forest

and iPhones, all of us all, right?

All matter is ensouled.

That’s sort of one version.

Another version is that all biology, all creatures, small or large, from a single cell to a giant

sequoia tree feel like something.

This one I think is somewhat more realistic.

Um, so the different versions, what do you mean by feel like something, have, have feelings,

have some kind of, it feels like something, it may well be possible that it feels like

something to be a paramecium.

I think it’s pretty likely it feels like something to be a bee or a mouse or a dog.


So, okay.

So, so that you can see that’s also, so panpsychism is very broad and you can, so some people,

for example, Bertrand Russell, tried to advocate this, this idea, it’s called Rasselian Monism,

that that panpsychism is really physics viewed from the inside.

So the idea is that physics is very good at describing relationship among objects like

charges or like gravity, right?

You know, describe the relationship between curvature and mass distribution, okay?

That’s the relationship among things.

Physics doesn’t really describe the ultimate reality itself.

It’s just relationship among, you know, quarks or all these other stuff from like a third

person observer.


And consciousness is what physics feels from the inside.

So my conscious experience, it’s the way the physics of my brain, particularly my cortex

feels from the inside.

And so if you are paramecium, you got to remember, you say paramecium, well, that’s a pretty

dumb creature.

It is, but it has already a billion different molecules, probably, you know, 5,000 different

proteins assembled in a highly, highly complex system that no single person, no computer

system so far on this planet has ever managed to accurately simulate.

Its complexity vastly escapes us.


And it may well be that that little thing feels like a tiny bit.

Now, it doesn’t have a voice in the head like me.

It doesn’t have expectations.

You know, it doesn’t have all that complex things, but it may well feel like something.


So this is really interesting.

Can we draw some lines and maybe try to understand the difference between life, intelligence

and consciousness?

How do you see all of those?

If you had to define what is a living thing, what is a conscious thing and what is an intelligent


Do those intermix for you or are they totally separate?


So A, that’s a question that we don’t have a full answer to.

A lot of the stuff we’re talking about today is full of mysteries and fascinating ones,


For example, you can go to Aristotle, who’s probably the most important scientist and

philosopher who’s ever lived in, certainly in Western culture.

He had this idea, it’s called hylomorphism.

It’s quite popular these days, that there are different forms of soul.

The soul is really the form of something.

He says, all biological creatures have a vegetative soul.

That’s life principle.

Today, we think we understand something more than it is biochemistry and nonlinear thermodynamics.

Then he said they have a sensitive soul.

Only animals and humans have also a sensitive soul or a petitive soul.

They can see, they can smell, and they have drives.

They want to reproduce, they want to eat, et cetera.

And then only humans have what he called a rational soul, okay?

And that idea then made it into Christendom and then the rational soul is the one that

lives forever.

He was very unclear.

He wasn’t really, I mean, different readings of Aristotle give different, whether did he

believe that rational soul was immortal or not.

I probably think he didn’t.

But then, of course, that made it through Plato into Christianity, and then this soul

became immortal and then became the connection to God.

So you ask me, essentially, what is our modern conception of these three, Aristotle would

have called them different forms.

Life, we think we know something about it, at least life on this planet, right?

Although we don’t understand how to originate it, but it’s been difficult to rigorously

pin down.

You see this in modern definitions of death.

In fact, right now, there’s a conference ongoing, again, that tries to define legally and medically

what is death.

It used to be very simple.

Death is you stop breathing, your heart stops beating, you’re dead, totally uncontroversial.

If you’re unsure, you wait another 10 minutes.

If the patient doesn’t breathe, he’s dead.

Well, now we have ventilators, we have heart pacemakers, so it’s much more difficult to

define what death is.

Typically, death is defined as the end of life and life is defined before death.

Okay, so we don’t have really very good definitions.

Intelligence, we don’t have a rigorous definition.

We know something how to measure, it’s called IQ or G factors, right?

And we’re beginning to build it in a narrow sense, right?

Like go, AlphaGo and Watson and, you know, Google cars and Uber cars and all of that,

it’s still narrow AI and some people are thinking about artificial general intelligence.

But roughly, as we said before, it’s something to do with ability to learn and to adapt to

new environments.

But that is, as I said, also, it’s radical difference from experience.

And it’s very unclear if you build a machine that has AGI, it’s not at all a priori, it’s

not at all clear that this machine will have consciousness, it may or may not.

So let’s ask it the other way, do you think if you were to try to build an artificial

general intelligence system, do you think figuring out how to build artificial consciousness

would help you get to an AGI?

So or put another way, do you think intelligent requires consciousness?

In human, it goes hand in hand.

In human, or I think in biology, consciousness, intelligence goes hand in hand, quay is illusion

because the brain evolved to be highly complex, complexity via the theory integrated information

theory is sort of ultimately is what is closely tied to consciousness.

Ultimately it’s causal power upon itself.

And so in evolved systems, they go together.

In artificial system, particularly in digital machines, they do not go together.

And if you ask me point blank, is Alexa 20.0 in the year 2040, when she can easily pass

every Turing test, is she conscious?

No, even if she claims she’s conscious.

In fact, you could even do a more radical version of this thought experiment.

You can build a computer simulation of the human brain.

You know what Henry Markham in the Blue Brain Project or the Human Brain Project in Switzerland

is trying to do.

Let’s grant them all the success.

So in 10 years, we have this perfect simulation of the human brain.

Every neuron is simulated and it has a larynx and it has motor neurons.

It has a Broca’s area and of course they’ll talk and they’ll say, hi, I just woke up.

I feel great.

OK, even that computer simulation that can in principle map onto your brain will not

be conscious.


Because it simulates, it’s a difference between the simulated and the real.

So it simulates the behavior associated with consciousness.

It might be, it will, if it’s done properly, will have all the intelligence that that particular

person they’re simulating has.

But simulating intelligence is not the same as having conscious experiences.

And I give you a really nice metaphor that engineers and physicists typically get.

I can write down Einstein’s field equation, nine or ten equations that describe the link

in general relativity between curvature and mass.

I can do that.

I can run this on my laptop to predict that the central, the black hole at the center

of our galaxy will be so massive that it will twist space time around it so no light can


It’s a black hole.

But funny, have you ever wondered why doesn’t this computer simulation suck me in?

It simulates gravity, but it doesn’t have the causal power of gravity.

That’s a huge difference.

So it’s a difference between the real and the simulator, just like it doesn’t get wet

inside a computer when the computer runs code that simulates a weather storm.

And so in order to have, to have artificial consciousness, you have to give it the same

causal power as the human brain.

You have to build so called a neuromorphic machine that has hardware that is very similar

to the human brain, not a digital clocked phenomenon computer.

So that’s, just to clarify though, you think that consciousness is not required to create

human level intelligence.

It seems to accompany in the human brain, but for machine not.

That’s correct.

So maybe just because this is AGI, let’s dig in a little bit about what we mean by intelligence.

So one thing is the G factor, these kind of IQ tests of intelligence.

But I think if you, maybe another way to say, so in 2040, 2050, people will have Siri that

is just really impressive.

Do you think people will say Siri is intelligent?


Intelligence is this amorphous thing.

So to be intelligent, it seems like you have to have some kind of connections with other

human beings in a sense that you have to impress them with your intelligence.

And there feels, you have to somehow operate in this world full of humans.

And for that, there feels like there has to be something like consciousness.

So you think you can have just the world’s best natural NLP system, natural language

understanding generation, and that will be, that will get us happy and say, you know what,

we’ve created an AGI.

I don’t know happy, but yes, I do believe we can get what we call high level functional

intelligence, particular sort of the G, you know, this fluid like intelligence that we

cherish, particularly at a place like MIT, right, in machines.

I see a priori no reasons, and I see a lot of reason to believe it’s going to happen

very, you know, over the next 50 years or 30 years.

So for beneficial AI, for creating an AI system that’s, so you mentioned ethics, that is exceptionally

intelligent but also does not do, does, you know, aligns its values with our values as


Do you think then it needs consciousness?

Yes, I think that that is a very good argument that if we’re concerned about AI and the threat

of AI, a la Nick Bostrom, existentialist threat, I think having an intelligence that has empathy,

right, why do we find abusing a dog, why do most of us find that abhorrent, abusing any

animal, right?

Why do we find that abhorrent because we have this thing called empathy, which if you look

at the Greek really means feeling with, I feel a path of empathy, I have feeling with


I see somebody else suffer that isn’t even my conspecific, it’s not a person, it’s not

my wife or my kids, it’s a dog, but I feel naturally most of us, not all of us, most

of us will feel emphatic.

And so it may well be in the long term interest of survival of homo sapiens sapiens that if

we do build AGI and it really becomes very powerful that it has an emphatic response

and doesn’t just exterminate humanity.

So as part of the full conscious experience to create a consciousness, artificial or in

our human consciousness, do you think fear, maybe we’re going to get into the earlier

days with Nietzsche and so on, but do you think fear and suffering are essential to

have consciousness?

Do you have to have the full range of experience to have a system that has experience or can

you have a system that only has very particular kinds of very positive experiences?

Look you can have in principle, people have done this in the rat where you implant an

electrode in the hypothalamus, the pleasure center of the rat and the rat stimulates itself

above and beyond anything else.

It doesn’t care about food or natural sex or drink anymore, it just stimulates itself

because it’s such a pleasurable feeling.

I guess it’s like an orgasm just you have all day long.

And so a priori I see no reason why you need a great variety.

Now clearly to survive that wouldn’t work, right?

But if I’d engineered artificially, I don’t think you need a great variety of conscious


You could have just pleasure or just fear.

It might be a terrible existence, but I think that’s possible at least on conceptual logical


Because any real creature whether artificially engineered, you want to give it fear, the

fear of extinction that we all have.

And you also want to give it positive repetitive states, states that you want the machine encouraged

to do because they give the machine positive feedback.

So you mentioned panpsychism, to jump back a little bit, everything having some kind

of mental property.

How do you go from there to something like human consciousness?

So everything having some elements of consciousness, is there something special about human consciousness?

So it’s not everything.

Like a spoon, the form of panpsychism I think about doesn’t ascribe consciousness to anything

like this, the spoon on my liver.

However, the theory, the integrated information theory does say that the system, even one

that looks from the outside relatively simple, at least if they have this internal causal

power, it does feel like something.

The theory a priori doesn’t say anything what’s special about human.

Biologically we know the one thing that’s special about human is we speak and we have

an overblown sense of our own importance.

We believe we’re exceptional and we’re just God’s gift to the universe.

But behaviorally the main thing that we have, we can plan over the long term, we have language

and that gives us an enormous amount of power and that’s why we are the current dominant

species on the planet.

So you mentioned God, you grew up a devout Roman Catholic family, so with consciousness

you’re sort of exploring some really deeply fundamental human things that religion also

touches on.

Where does religion fit into your thinking about consciousness?

You’ve grown throughout your life and changed your views on religion as far as I understand.

Yeah, I mean I’m now much closer to, I’m not a Roman Catholic anymore, I don’t believe

there’s sort of this God, the God I was educated to believe in, sits somewhere in the fullness

of time, I’ll be united in some sort of everlasting bliss, I just don’t see any evidence for that.

Look, the world, the night is large and full of wonders, there are many things that I don’t

understand, I think many things that we as a cult, look we don’t even understand more

than 4% of all the universe, dark matter, dark energy, we have no idea what it is, maybe

it’s lost socks, what do I know?

So all I can tell you is it’s sort of my current religious or spiritual sentiment is much closer

to some form of Buddhism, without the reincarnation unfortunately, there’s no evidence for it

than reincarnation.

So can you describe the way Buddhism sees the world a little bit?

Well so they talk about, so when I spent several meetings with the Dalai Lama and what always

impressed me about him, he really, unlike for example let’s say the Pope or some Cardinal,

he always emphasized minimizing the suffering of all creatures.

So they have this, from the early beginning they look at suffering in all creatures, not

just in people, but in everybody, this universal and of course by degrees, an animal in general

is less capable of suffering than a well developed, normally developed human and they think consciousness

pervades in this universe and they have these techniques, you can think of them like mindfulness

etc. and meditation that tries to access what they claim of this more fundamental aspect

of reality.

I’m not sure it’s more fundamental, I think about it, there’s the physical and then there’s

this inside view, consciousness and those are the two aspects that’s the only thing

I have access to in my life and you’ve got to remember my conscious experience and your

conscious experience comes prior to anything you know about physics, comes prior to knowledge

about the universe and atoms and super strings and molecules and all of that.

The only thing you directly are acquainted with is this world that’s populated with things

in images and sounds in your head and touches and all of that.

I actually have a question, so it sounds like you kind of have a rich life, you talk about

rock climbing and it seems like you really love literature and consciousness is all about

experiencing things, so do you think that has helped your research on this topic?

Yes, particularly if you think about it, the various states, so for example when you do

rock climbing or now I do rowing, crew rowing and a bike every day, you can get into this

thing called the zone and I’ve always wanted about it, particularly with respect to consciousness

because it’s a strangely addictive state.

Once people have it once, they want to keep on going back to it and you wonder what is

it so addicting about it and I think it’s the experience of almost close to pure experience

because in this zone, you’re not conscious of inner voice anymore, there’s always inner

voice nagging you, you have to do this, you have to do that, you have to pay your taxes,

you have to fight with your ex and all of those things, they’re always there.

But when you’re in the zone, all of that is gone and you’re just in this wonderful state

where you’re fully out in the world, you’re climbing or you’re rowing or biking or doing

soccer or whatever you’re doing and sort of consciousness is this, you’re all action or

in this case of pure experience, you’re not action at all but in both cases, you experience

some aspect of conscious, you touch some basic part of conscious existence that is so basic

and so deeply satisfying.

You I think you touch the root of being, that’s really what you’re touching there, you’re

getting close to the root of being and that’s very different from intelligence.

So what do you think about the simulation hypothesis, simulation theory, the idea that

we all live in a computer simulation?

Rapture for nerds.

I think it’s as likely as the hypothesis had engaged hundreds of scholars for many centuries,

are we all just existing in the mind of God?

And this is just a modern version of it, it’s equally plausible.

People love talking about these sort of things, I know they’re book written about this simulation

hypothesis, if that’s what people want to do, that’s fine, it seems rather esoteric,

it’s never testable.

But it’s not useful for you to think of in those terms, so maybe connecting to the questions

of free will which you’ve talked about, I vaguely remember you saying that the idea

that there’s no free will, it makes you very uncomfortable.

So what do you think about free will from a physics perspective, from a conscious perspective,

what does it all fit?

Okay, so from the physics perspective, leaving aside quantum mechanics, we believe we live

in a fully deterministic world, right?

But then comes of course quantum mechanics, so now we know that certain things are in

principle not predictable, which as you said I prefer, because the idea that the initial

condition of the universe and then everything else, we’re just acting out the initial condition

of the universe, that doesn’t…

It’s not a romantic notion.

Certainly not.

Now when it comes to consciousness, I think we do have certain freedom.

We are much more constrained by physics of course and by our past and by our own conscious

desires and what our parents told us and what our environment tells us.

We all know that, right?

There’s hundreds of experiments that show how we can be influenced.

But finally in the final analysis, when you make a life – and I’m talking really about

critical decision where you really think, should I marry, should I go to this school

or that school, should I take this job or that job, should I cheat on my taxes or not?

These are things where you really deliberate and I think under those conditions, you are

as free as you can be.

When you bring your entire being, your entire conscious being to that question and try to

analyze it under all the various conditions, then you make a decision, you are as free

as you can ever be.

That is I think what free will is.

It’s not a will that’s totally free to do anything it wants.

That’s not possible.


So as Jack mentioned, you actually write a blog about books you’ve read, amazing books

from, I’m Russian, from Bulgakov, Neil Gaiman, Carl Sagan, Murakami.

So what is a book that early in your life transformed the way you saw the world, something

that changed your life?

Nietzsche I guess did.

That’s Brooks R. Truster because he talks about some of these problems.

He was one of the first discoverer of the unconscious.

This is a little bit before Freud when he was in the air.

He makes all these claims that people sort of under the guise or under the mass of charity

actually are very noncharitable.

So he is sort of really the first discoverer of the great land of the unconscious and that

really struck me.

And what do you think about the unconscious, what do you think about Freud, what do you

think about these ideas?

Just like dark matter in the universe, what’s over there in that unconscious?

A lot.

I mean much more than we think.

This is what a lot of last 100 years of research has shown.

So I think he was a genius, misguided towards the end, but he started out as a neuroscientist.

He contributed, he did the studies on the lamprey, he contributed himself to the neuron

hypothesis, the idea that there are discrete units that we call nerve cells now.

And then he wrote about the unconscious and I think it’s true, there’s lots of stuff happening.

You feel this particular when you’re in a relationship and it breaks asunder, right?

And then you have this terrible, you can have love and hate and lust and anger and all of

it’s mixed in.

And when you try to analyze yourself, why am I so upset?

It’s very, very difficult to penetrate to those basements, those caverns in your mind

because the prying eyes of conscious doesn’t have access to those, but they’re there in

the amygdala or lots of other places.

They make you upset or angry or sad or depressed and it’s very difficult to try to actually

uncover the reason.

You can go to a shrink, you can talk with your friend endlessly, you construct finally

a story why this happened, why you love her or don’t love her or whatever, but you don’t

really know whether that actually happened because you simply don’t have access to those

parts of the brain and they’re very powerful.

Do you think that’s a feature or a bug of our brain?

The fact that we have this deep, difficult to dive into subconscious?

I think it’s a feature because otherwise, look, we are like any other brain or nervous

system or computer, we are severely band limited.

If everything I do, every emotion I feel, every eye movements I make, if all of that

had to be under the control of consciousness, I wouldn’t be here.

What you do early on, your brain, you have to be conscious when you learn things like

typing or like riding on a bike, but then what you do, you train up routes, I think

that involve basal ganglia and striatum.

You train up different parts of your brain and then once you do it automatically like

typing, you can show you do it much faster without even thinking about it because you’ve

got these highly specialized, what Frans Krik and I call zombie agents, they’re taking care

of that while your consciousness can sort of worry about the abstract sense of the text

you want to write.

I think that’s true for many, many things.

But for the things like all the fights you had with an ex girlfriend, things that you

would think are not useful to still linger somewhere in the subconscious.

So that seems like a bug that it would stick to there.

You think it would be better if you can analyze it and then get it out of the system.

Better to get it out of the system or just forget it ever happened.

That seems a very buggy kind of.

Well yeah, in general we don’t have, and that’s probably functional, we don’t have an ability

unless it’s extreme, there are cases, clinical dissociations, right?

When people are heavily abused, when they completely repress the memory, but that doesn’t

happen in normal people.

We don’t have an ability to remove traumatic memories and of course we suffer from that.

On the other hand, probably if you had the ability to constantly wipe your memory, you’d

probably do it to an extent that isn’t useful to you.

So yeah, it’s a good question to balance.

So on the books, as Jack mentioned, correct me if I’m wrong, but broadly speaking, academia

and the different scientific disciplines, certainly in engineering, reading literature

seems to be a rare pursuit.

So I’m wrong on this, but that’s in my experience, most people read much more technical text

and do not sort of escape or seek truth in literature.

It seems like you do.

So what do you think is the value, what do you think literature adds to the pursuit of

scientific truth?

Do you think it’s good, it’s useful for everybody?

Gives you access to a much wider array of human experiences.

How valuable do you think it is?

Well if you want to understand human nature and nature in general, then I think you have

to better understand a wide variety of experiences, not just sitting in a lab staring at a screen

and having a face flashed onto you for a hundred milliseconds and pushing a button.

That’s what I used to do, that’s what most psychologists do.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to consider lots of other strange states.

And literature is a shortcut for this.

Well yeah, because literature, that’s what literature is all about, all sorts of interesting

experiences that people have, the contingency of it, the fact that women experience the

world different, black people experience the world different.

The one way to experience that is reading all these different literature and try to

find out.

You see, everything is so relative.

You read a book 300 years ago, they thought about certain problems very, very differently

than us today.

We today, like any culture, think we know it all.

That’s common to every culture.

Every culture believes at its heyday they know it all.

And then you realize, well, there’s other ways of viewing the universe and some of them

may have lots of things in their favor.

So this is a question I wanted to ask about time scale or scale in general.

When you, with IIT or in general, try to think about consciousness, try to think about these

ideas, we kind of naturally think in human time scales, and also entities that are sized

close to humans.

Do you think of things that are much larger and much smaller as containing consciousness?

And do you think of things that take, you know, eons to operate in their conscious cause


That’s a very good question.

So I think a lot about small creatures because experimentally, you know, a lot of people

work on flies and bees, right?

So most people just think they are automata, they’re just bugs for heaven’s sake, right?

But if you look at their behavior, like bees, they can recognize individual humans.

They have this very complicated way to communicate.

If you’ve ever been involved or you know your parents when they bought a house, what sort

of agonizing decision that is.

And bees have to do that once a year, right, when they swarm in the spring.

And then they have this very elaborate way, they have free and scouts, they go to the

individual sites, they come back, they have this power, this dance, literally, where they

dance for several days, they try to recruit other deets, this very complicated decision

rate, when they finally, once they make a decision, the entire swarm, the scouts warm

up the entire swarm and then go to one location.

They don’t go to 50 locations, they go to one location that the scouts have agreed upon

by themselves.

That’s awesome.

If we look at the circuit complexity, it’s 10 times more denser than anything we have

in our brain.

Now they only have a million neurons, but the neurons are amazingly complex.

Complex behavior, very complicated circuitry, so there’s no question they experience something,

their life is very different, they’re tiny, they only live, you know, for, well, workers

live maybe for two months.

So I think, and IIT tells you this, in principle, the substrate of consciousness is the substrate

that maximizes the cause effect power over all possible spatial temporal grains.

So when I think about, for example, do you know the science fiction story, The Black


Okay, it’s a classic by Fred Hoyle, the astronomer.

He has this cloud intervening between the earth and the sun and leading to some sort

of, to global cooling, this is written in the 50s.

It turns out you can, using the radio dish, they communicate with actually an entity,

it’s actually an intelligent entity, and they sort of, they convince it to move away.

So here you have a radical different entity, and in principle, IIT says, well, you can

measure the integrated information, in principle at least, and yes, if the maximum of that

occurs at a time scale of months, rather than in assets for a fraction of a second, yes,

then they would experience life where each moment is a month rather than, or microsecond,

right, rather than a fraction of a second in the human case.

And so there may be forms of consciousness that we simply don’t recognize for what they

are because they are so radical different from anything you and I are used to.

Again, that’s why it’s good to read or to watch science fiction movies, well, to think

about this.

Do you know Stanislav Lem, this Polish science fiction writer, he wrote Solaris and was turned

into a Hollywood movie?


His best novel is in the 60s, a very engineer, he’s an engineer in background.

His most interesting novel is called The Victorious, where human civilization, they have this

mission to this planet and everything is destroyed and they discover machines, humans got killed

and then these machines took over and there was this machine evolution, Darwinian evolution,

he talks about this very vividly.

And finally, the dominant machine intelligence organism that survived were gigantic clouds

of little hexagonal universal cellular automata.

This was written in the 60s, so typically they’re all lying on the ground individual

by themselves, but in times of crisis, they can communicate, they assemble into gigantic

nets into clouds of trillions of these particles and then they become hyper intelligent and

they can beat anything that humans can throw at it.

It’s very beautiful and compelling where you have an intelligence where finally the humans

leave the planet, they’re simply unable to understand and comprehend this creature.

They can say, well, either we can nuke the entire planet and destroy it or we just have

to leave because fundamentally it’s an alien, it’s so alien from us and our ideas that we

cannot communicate with them.

Yeah, actually in conversation, so you’re talking to us, Steven Wolf from Brought Up

is that there could be ideas that you already have these artificial general intelligence

like super smart or maybe conscious beings in the cellular automata, we just don’t know

how to talk to them.

So it’s the language of communication, but you don’t know what to do with it.

So that’s one sort of view is consciousness is only something you can measure.

So it’s not conscious if you can’t measure it.

So you’re making an ontological and an epistemic statement.

One is it’s just like seeing the multiverses, that might be true, but I can’t communicate

with them.

I can’t have any knowledge of them.

That’s an epistemic argument.


So those are two different things.

So it may well be possible.

Look, in another case that’s happening right now, people are building these mini organoids.

Do you know what this is?

So you can take stem cells from under your arm, put it in a dish, add four transcription

factors and then you can induce them to grow into large, well, large, they’re a few millimeters.

They’re like a half a million neurons that look like nerve cells in a dish called mini

organoids at Harvard, at Stanford, everywhere they’re building them.

It may well be possible that they’re beginning to feel like something, but we can’t really

communicate with them right now.

So people are beginning to think about the ethics of this.

So yes, he may be perfectly right, but it’s one question, are they conscious or not?

It’s a totally separate question.

How would I know?

Those are two different things.

If you could give advice to a young researcher, sort of dreaming of understanding or creating

human level intelligence or consciousness, what would you say?

Just follow your dreams.

Read widely.

No, I mean, I suppose with discipline, what is the pursuit that they should take on?

Is it neuroscience?

Is it computational cognitive science?

Is it philosophy?

Is it computer science or robotics?

No, in a sense that, okay, so the only known system that have high level of intelligence

is homo sapiens.

So if you wanted to build it, it’s probably good to continue to study closely what humans


So cognitive neuroscience, you know, somewhere between cognitive neuroscience on the one hand

and some philosophy of mind and then AI, AI computer science.

You can look at all the original ideas in your network, they all came from neuroscience,


Reinforce whether it’s Snarky, Minsky building is Snarky or whether it’s, you know, the early

Hubel and Wiesel experiments at Harvard that then gave rise to networks and then multi

layer networks.

So it may well be possible, in fact, some people argue that to make the next big step

in AI once we realize the limits of deep convolutional networks, they can do certain things, but

they can’t really understand.

They don’t, they can’t really, I can’t really show them one image.

I can show you a single image of somebody, a pickpocket who steals a wallet from a purse.

You immediately know that’s a pickpocket.

Now computer system would just say, well, it’s a man, it’s a woman, it’s a purse, right?

Unless you train this machine on showing it a hundred thousand pickpockets, right?

So it doesn’t have this easy understanding that you have, right?

So some people make the argument in order to go to the next step or you really want

to build machines that understand in a way you and I, we have to go to psychology.

We need to understand how we do it and how our brains enable us to do it.

And so therefore being on the cusp, it’s also so exciting to try to understand better our

nature and then to build, to take some of those inside and build them.

So I think the most exciting thing is somewhere in the interface between cognitive science,

neuroscience, AI, computer science and philosophy of mind.



I’d say if there is from the machine learning, from our, from the computer science, computer

vision perspective, many of the researchers kind of ignore the way the human brain works

or even psychology or literature or studying the brain, I would hope Josh Tenenbaum talks

about bringing that in more and more.

And that’s, yeah, so you’ve worked on some amazing stuff throughout your life.

What’s the thing that you’re really excited about?

What’s the mystery that you would love to uncover in the near term beyond, beyond all

the mysteries that you’re already surrounded by?

Well, so there’s a structure called the claustrum.

This is a structure, it’s underneath our cortex, it’s yay big.

You have one on the left, on the right, underneath this, underneath the insula, it’s very thin,

it’s like one millimeter, it’s embedded in, in wiring, in white matter, so it’s very difficult

to image.

And it has, it has connection to every cortical region.

And Francis Crick, the last paper he ever wrote, he dictated corrections the day he

died in hospital on this paper.

You know, we hypothesize, well, because it has this unique anatomy, it gets input from

every cortical area and projects back to every, every cortical area.

That the function of this structure is similar, it’s just a metaphor to the role of a conductor

in a symphony orchestra.

You have all the different cortical players.

You have some that do motion, some that do theory of mind, some that infer social interaction

and color and hearing and all the different modules in cortex.

But of course, what consciousness is, consciousness puts it all together into one package, right?

The binding problem, all of that.

And this is really the function because it has relatively few neurons compared to cortex,

but it talks, it receives input from all of them and it projects back to all of them.

And so we’re testing that right now.

We’ve got this beautiful neuronal reconstruction in the mouse called crown of thorns, crown

of thorns neurons that are in the claustrum that have the most widespread connection of

any neuron I’ve ever seen.

They’re very, you have individual neurons that sit in the claustrum tiny, but then they

have this single neuron, they have this huge axonal tree that cover both ipsy and contralateral

cortex and trying to turn using, you know, fancy tools like optogenetics, trying to turn

those neurons on or off and study it, what happens in the, in the mouse.

So this thing is perhaps where the parts become the whole.

Perhaps it’s one of the structures, it’s a very good way of putting it, where the individual

parts turn into the whole of the whole of the conscious experience.

Well, with that, thank you very much for being here today.

Thank you very much.

All right, thank you very much.

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