[Computational Complexity] Understanding "Understanding"
Yesterday Manuel Blum gave the invited talk on Understanding "Understanding:" Steps towards a Mathematical Scientific Theory of Consciousness. He started with a history of how trying to understand the mind shaped his academic career. His father told him understanding how the mind works would help him academically. So when we went to college he got interested in the work of McCulloch and Pitts that formulate neurons as automata. This led Blum to study recursion theory with Hartley Rogers and then work with his eventual thesis advisor Marvin Minsky studying the new area of artificial intelligence. In the end Blum wrote one of the first theses in computational complexity under Minsky, not to mention doing groundbreaking work in many areas, winning the Turing award and being the advisor to my advisor (Michael Sipser).
Blum made a strong point that his theory of consciousness is just being developed and emphasizing the word "towards" in the title. Roughly his theory has an environment (representing the world at a certain time) modeled as a universal Turing machine that interacts with several entities (representing organisms or organizations) each modeled as a (possibly weak) computational device. An entity has CONSCSness (CONceptualizing Strategizing Control System) if it fulfills certain axioms.
- The entity has a model of its environment and a model of itself.
- The entity is motivated towards a goal. Blum modeled the goal as a difference between a pleasure and a pain function which looked to me like utility functions used by economists.
- The entity provides a strategy to head towards the goal.
- The entity has a simple serial interface with the environment.
Blum called on complexity theorists to take on the cause of consciousness. He pointed to an extensive bibliography on the general topic maintained by David Chalmers.
My take on the talk: Much of theoretical computer science did get its start from thinking about how the brain works but as computers evolved so has our field and theory has since the 70's focused on understanding efficient computation in its many forms. It's perfectly fine to model humans as efficient computers to understand their interactions in areas like cryptography and economics. But we should leave issues like consciousness, self-awareness and free will to the philosophers since any "theorems" we may prove will have to depend on some highly controversial assumptions.
Posted by Lance to Computational Complexity at 6/14/2005 09:03:00 AM