Sentient Systems
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Sentient Systems • Posted: Aug 24, 2014 13:18:45Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

That story last week about independent autonomous robots coordinating their actions to achieve a common goal, the "Kilobot" story, has renewed public interest and fearful speculation upon the notion of "artificial intelligence". And, of course, such speculations quite naturally wander to the prospect of encountering "extra-terrestrial intelligence". In both cases, we must ask: what is intelligence? How can we recognize it? And possibly, how does intelligence differ from consciousness? To strike a useful answer to any of those questions, we might also want to ponder the question: what exactly is life itself? In other words, when is something alive and when is it not?

As it turns out, the answers to those particular questions are, at this point in time, not completely clear. A related criterion, often used in the fictional TV series Star Trek, is to ask if an entity is "sentient". By dictionary definition, sentience is "the capacity for feeling or perceiving, responsiveness to sensory stimuli." By that definition, those kilobots in that news story were definitely sentient, in that they were able to respond to each other's position on a grid and make autonomous adjustments that more closely approximated the overall goal they'd been tasked with. But then, how different are kilobots from other automatons like ABS and AirBag systems within modern automobiles?

The difference there might be characterized by the number of dimensions along which each system has choice to respond. While an AirBag system only has one dimension to attend to, the magnitude of deceleration, and only one possible response, deploy, an ABS system has several dimensions of both input and response to negotiate, i.e. which wheel or wheels to brake, when, and by how much. Kilobots had a range of possible responses too: left, right, back, or forward, by how much, and when. But they also talked to each other, independently coordinated their responses with information regarding the position of their fellows. ABS systems for driverless cars, no doubt, will have to incorporate similar intelligence when they are developed. In fact, Automobile Magazine reported just this week that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently in the process of developing vehicle to vehicle communication standards and rules.

The notion of sensing and responding calls to mind recent research on the human brain and spinal chord as reported by NPR. In one story, researchers in the field of optogenetics have found that certain behaviors in mice can be turned on and off with light, if the correct mouse brain cells are genetically altered to respond to light. Similarly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently approved use of tiny electrical brain implants to control epileptic seizures in humans. And finally, while researches have previously demonstrated that amputees and paraplegics can control motorized prosthetic arms, hands, and fingers with electrical signals from the brain, they have now shown that live human limbs below a severed spinal cord can also be activated by electrical signals from the brain. In all these cases, what we normally think of as a whole human being is being shown to be made up of independent and, in some cases, subordinate sentient systems. In other words, our arms and legs, as controlled by our spinal cord, know how to execute all kinds of motor functions completely independent of our conscious thoughts. We merely say "go" or "stop" and the rest is handled by some other sentient system we believe to be part of us. The same can be said of epilepsy, depression, and schizophrenia. But in those cases, the "go" or "no go" of our conscious thoughts is being usurped by some other controlling signal, likely a malfunctioning pathway, process, or subsystem of the brain.

It would appear that sentience is not only all around us, from kilobots to ABS systems to birds, fish, animals, insects, plants, and bacteria, but also within us, activated as our ability to think, emote, make voluntary and involuntary movements, digest out food, respirate, and battle infection. The same might also be said of the collective systems that make up our societies, systems which we often play a part in, not unlike a kilobot. For instance, our food distribution systems, in sentient manner, respond to all kinds of stresses, from bad weather, to labor strikes, to health risks, to loss of consumer buying power.

Relative to us as individuals, the interesting question would seem to be: what binds all our sentient subsystems together so that we actually feel whole, like a well functioning, singular, unique human being?

Again, there does not seem to be a clear answer to that question, to the question of identity, of knowing who we are, what we're doing, and what makes us feel whole or not. And though it may sound rather New Age, my personal speculation is that it has something to do with metabolic rhythm, with all sentient subsystems being rhythmically in tune with each other, both internally and externally. For, stress seems to be acutely associated with clashes of synchronicity, when we are out of sync within ourselves, perhaps due to poor sleep, or with something in our environment, like a change of schedule. Further, we seem most comfortable when we've had adequate sleep and feel we are in sync with our social and physical surroundings, when we are "in the groove", so to speak.

In any case, our cultures do recognize the phenomenon of "feeling out of sorts", "out of touch with one's self", "stressed out", "in need of time out, a break, or vacation". And we often do exercise a culturally approved remedy or two, some healthful and some perhaps not so healthful. For instance, it seems quite certain the two gentlemen in the picture above are doing just that, practicing a culturally approved remedy, fishing, in an attempt to find a way back to feeling whole again, at one with one's self, and with life around one.

May you also, in these later days of summer, successfully find a healthful pathway to renewal of wholeness, with self, and with the world around you.

Thursday, May 8th, 2014
Del Rio