Monday, 14 July 2014

Building a Mind

Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
One of the fun aspects of writing in the science fiction and horror genres is the concepts that you get to play with. I'm currently busy with the a writing project for work which means that my personal book projects are on hold. However that doesn't mean that the ideas stop coming, I just can't do anything about them. Well that's not quite true - I intend to take some of those ideas and in the form of blog posts to explore the concepts. I won't be going into the story aspects, you'll have to read the books for that!

The first concept is building a mind. This idea will feature in two future stories, one of them being the next in the Mitchell and Morton series - 'The Church of Virtual Saints'. The other is an unannounced project as yet, I'm debating whether it will be another standalone book like Sun Dragon (which I'm still hoping to get out this year, it just needs a final edit pass) or the start of a new trilogy.

The stories come at the problem from completely different angles, but in both cases I need to be able construct a mind from scratch. The concept of the mind is one that continues to attract study from philosophers and scientists alike and while I don't pretend to be able to solve the many mysteries I do need clarify the components so that I can use them.

First I need to answer the question - what is the mind?

For my purposes the mind is a construct the encapsulates an individual's ability to process information and make decisions. A functioning mind requires a few key components which operate in parallel: Intelligence, Consciousness, and Environment. Actually the last two may not be requisites, but we'll get to that. The mind is not just the amalgamation of the components, it provides a management structure for balancing the components and how they interact with each other.

Intelligence

One of the great human mysteries is defining what intelligence actually is. I'm going to take a relatively broad approach and define intelligence as the ability to process information. This of course operates on various levels. The most basic of which are innate decision making processes, these are ones that are hard wired into the individual. Like other components there is a lot of overlap with the others, in this case environment is a big influence on this instinctual level.

Above that base level we have learned responses and at this stage we should look at what information means. We receive information from two principal sources, the first is our senses. We receive a constant influx of information from our senses, this type of input usually requires immediate processing (much is done through the innate ability to form decisions) even if that is to determine that no further processing on that information is required.

The second form of information is transported through our senses but is not the type of information that our senses were designed to convey. This information comes in social and cultural terms and typically involves higher level concepts like language. Deliberate information processing can be described as thoughts. Like the mind a thought isn't an atomic unit, although it does represent the form of information processing in action.

There is a third type of information (I know I said two a moment ago) and that is created by the mind. When information is transformed into something new we create a new piece or cluster of information. This third type epitomises the idea of higher order intelligence. We don't just take the inputs and make decisions we are able to build a model of the world around us and allows us to predict something different. This leads to imagination, the ability to create information about something that doesn't require a basis in reality.

As well as new information intelligence relies on previous information. In humans these are memories, but aren't simple collections of data such as those held on a computer. Instead the information we store is transformed by the decisions we make upon that information. This means that memories are data that continues to evolve as they are used.

Consciousness

Intelligence can be seen to an objective process. We know that in humans that is far from the case, two individuals receiving the same input can make different decisions. Also like intelligence the concept of consciousness is one that is still hotly debated. For my purpose I can distill it into the sense of self. The ability to discern yourself as an individual that is unique.

This self identity leads to emergent traits like personality. The personality of a person is a two way process, it not only affects the decisions made by the mind. Decisions which are made feedback into the concept of personality thus leading it into a constant state of evolution.

An interesting idea here is how consciousness applies to a process like an AI or copied mind. Can a state of meta-consciousness apply to a distributed consciousness? This is an idea that I'm looking forward to explore.

Environment

The environment of a mind has a significant impact upon the process of a mind. Humans illustrate two obvious aspects to this. The first is the brain. A human mind exists due to the biological existence of the brain. It also brings along baggage, as biological entity we have a number of requirements like food, water and air which are so ingrained into our bodies that they can shortcut our decision making process.

Can a purer form of mind exist that isn't constrained in this way? I doubt such an entity can exist, even a software mind that an AI is dependent on physical survival.

Alongside our internal environment is the physical world around us. Our passage through that world shapes our decisions and then our personalities and memories.

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