BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Mind ... but not the machine?

After sitting around in my “to be read” boxes for the better part of two decades, I finished this a week or so back, and have been trying to find “the right angle” to take in dealing with it in a review. While a very interesting book, William H. Calvin's The Cerebral Symphony: Seashore Reflections on the Structure of Consciousness doesn't ever seem to get where it purported to be intending to be going, but is a most engaging journey on the way.

The book is somewhat oddly structured, sliding in and out of observations of the environment of Woods Hole, MA where Calvin worked for three years. He will, for instance, start discussing a sea bird that frequents a particular location, and spin off into musings on evolutionary strategies. He doesn't, however, quite get to the point (that he speaks of in the introduction) of what he refers to as a “Darwin Machine”, a conscious machine that would evolve by means similar, but vastly speedier than, that in the natural world.
Consciousness is fundamentally a process, not a place or product: How is the fundamental question, not the where or what of the classical “seat of the soul” searches. ... We are conscious machines (among other things), and we can probably create mechanical consciousness as well. Creating “mind” in a machine comes closer to “playing God” than any amount of genetic tinkering -- and to exercise suitable caution, we must understand our own mental processes ...
Again, the fifteen chapters here all are based on things observed on Cape Cod, and around the Marine Biological Laboratory, and the “reflections” keyed by these observations, so take a rather meandering course. Basic concepts of evolution come in, the “good enough” solutions, the “random with rules” behaviors that look purposeful, etc. and are related to various structures and behaviors. He posits how some core adaptations (such as “hammering” or throwing) can be the basis from which the “wiring” for higher behaviors such a language and music are based, and looks how the innate organization of these are “borrowed” between systems (think of trying to talk when attempting an accurate throw).
Multiple scenarios evolving simultaneously suggests, however, that there is more to Darwin Machines than just the set of railroad sidings, evolving away to create a dominant sequence -- it seems as if there are various collections of sequencers, subpopulations with their own internal evolution.
Reading that particular bit, one would hardly guess that it sprung from the relating of a discussion that Calvin was having with his wife regarding a fluid leak in the car on a trip to the beach!

Perhaps I'm being too hard on him in expecting that a book written in 1990 would have a solid vision of what a conscious computer would look like ... after all, Moore's Law has been happily churning along for nearly 20 years at this point, and we still don't have machines that think. He sort of stakes out some markers to triangulate what this would entail, but it's frustrating that he chooses to not go for the big (and, no doubt, eventually embarrassing) proclamation for the mechanical version, and leaves it to just define our own minds as the “wetware” version of this.
My minimalist model for mind suggests that consciousness is primarily a Darwin Machine, using utility estimates to evaluate projected sequences of words/schemas/movements that are formed up off-line in a massively serial neural device.
Let me point out, however, that The Cerebral Symphony is a delightful read, something like half a scientist's personal journal, half the technical by-ways that his thinking about the things he encounters lead him to. The text covers a wide range of considerations, from cultural development, coastal erosion, glacial cycles, music, coastal communities, and many discussions springing from the local fauna (some of the 2-legged variety).

I'm happy to say that this is still in print (if in a paperback edition), but you can find it in the hardcover from the Amazon new/used guys for as little as 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping) for a “very good” copy, and around a buck for a “like new” copy!

If you're interested in contemplations of consciousness, a “look under the hood” of evolution in systems (both biological and theoretical), and are willing to cut Calvin some slack of never quite getting around to pulling the tarp off that that thinking machine he posits, this is quite a rewarding read.

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Tags: book review

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