Month: September 2020

What Can Theoretical Computer Science Contribute to the Discussion of Consciousness?

Lenore Blum

We propose a mathematical model, which we call the Conscious Turing Machine (CTM), as a formalization of neuroscientist Bernard Baars’ Theater of Consciousness. The CTM is proposed for the express purpose of understanding consciousness. In settling on this model, we look not for complexity but simplicity, not for a complex model of the brain or cognition but a simple mathematical model sufficient to explain consciousness. Our approach, in the spirit of mathematics and theoretical computer science, proposes formal definitions to fix informal notions and deduce consequences. We are inspired by Alan Turing’s extremely simple formal model of computation that is a fundamental first step in the mathematical understanding of computation. This mathematical formalization includes a precise definition of chunk, a precise description of the competition that Long Term Memory (LTM) processors enter to gain access to Short Term Memory (STM)), and a precise definition of conscious awareness in the model. Feedback enables LTM processors to learn from their mistakes and successes and emerging links enable conscious processing to become unconscious. The reasonableness of the formalization lies in the breadth of concepts that the model explains easily and naturally. The model provides some understanding of the Hard Problem of consciousness, which we explore in the particular case of pain and pleasure. The understanding depends on the dynamics of the CTM, not on chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and so on. We set ourselves the problem of explaining the feeling of consciousness in ways that apply as well to machines made of silicon and gold as to animals made of flesh and blood. With regard to suggestions for AI, the CTM is well suited to giving succinct explanations for whatever high level decisions it makes. This is because the chunk in STM either articulates an explanation or points to chunks that do.