Understanding
consciousness?

IMG_5654At the Falling Walls conference on November 9th I have moderated a discussion between Christof Koch, the scientific director of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, and Onora O’Neill, philosopher and political scientist at the University of Cambridge. Christoph Koch, about whom I have recently written a GEO-cover story and who also plays a role in my new book “The Analog Revolution” , had presented the main features of his research in a 15-minute plenary lecture before. Consciousness he defined as a “rise of experience”, ie as a phenomenon of inner experience, including “seeing, hearing, remembering, all inner experiences”, not to be confused with self or ego-consciousness, which in his view only represents a small part of the entire consciousness. Together with Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the hereditary molecule DNA, Koch started searching for “neural correlates” of consciousness quite some time ago. In the beginning it was unclear whether one should search for individual neurons, specific brain areas, specific types of neurotransmitters or certain synchronized vibrations. One of the intermediate results is that consciousness takes place in the cortex, but not in the cerebellum, despite the fact that it includes a majority of the neurons of the brain. Koch approaches the consciousness scientifically from two sides: bottom-up through the tightly organized research at the Allen Institute, where researchers develop open source atlases of brains and examine living bits of brain (“in a piece of the brain the soze of a raisin there are half million neurons, four billion synapses and ten kilometers of connections “). And top-down through the cooperation with Giulio Tononi in the development of the “ href=”http://www.architalbiol.org/aib/article/viewFile/15056/23165867″ Integrated Information Theory “, that treats consciousness as a “fundamental property of highly organized matter” (just like energy and mass) and as a feature that could be shared by “fetuses, birds, bees and iPhones”. Koch: “I want to understand this problem before I die.” In the subsequent discussion in the Forum the audience asked great questions, for example: Is consciousness really tied to an “Ego”? Koch believes Yes, and pointed to the cortex, whereas his stage partner Onora O’neill pointed out how closely the brain is connected to the whole body and how much it needed a social sphere to develop what we call consciousness. To conclude, the two exchanged their roles: Koch challenged the audience to read the philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, and the philosopher O’Neill ventured into the field of neurotechnology: she worries that an anonymous artificial intelligence with consciousness could arise and intervene in human life. It should not be anonymous, she said, asking that for example each drone should have a “unique identifier”…
Falling Walls 2014Berlin, Radialsystem
Copyright Falling Walls Foundation

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