To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
– William Shakespeare's "Hamlet", Act 3, Scene 1
It was a long time ago. That part, at least, is something I am sure of. Somebody used the expression, “You can sleep when you’re dead,” and I loved it. I think it was one of my computer science teachers, but I'm only partly certain of that. Anyway, I thought it was cool, so, I started saying it myself, except that I turned it around and would say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” To this day, I still say it.
I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
I was young. Strong. I had things to do. Sleeping seemed like a complete and utter waste of time. So much to do and so little time to do it. I had dreams to chase and sleep just got in the way.
“Dreams,” you say?
Sure, sleep has the whole dreaming aspect and that can be pretty cool, but how many dreams can you actually remember? A good science-fiction or fantasy novel, or movie, was more entertaining and far more memorable than any dream.
To take advantage of sleep’s one obvious redeeming quality, I tried, with spotty and rather limited success, to keep a dream journal. I did, after all, fancy myself as a writer, and writers can never have enough ideas. Right? While I still occasionally write out a particularly interesting dream fragment for future inspiration, that inspiration usually fades almost as quickly as the dream. This left me with little to show for hours of oblivion.
In 1993, Nancy Kress, and award-winning science-fiction writer, authored a novel called, “Beggars in Spain.” The book is prescient in many ways regarding the world we currently inhabit, but it centered around a genetically engineered class of children that didn’t need to sleep. They could fill 24 hours of every day in whatever way they saw fit, and that gave them an incredible advantage over most of those poor other humans who were forced to sleep for 8 hours a day.
I won’t give the story away, and you really should read it anyhow, (Nancy Kress is a fantastic and hugely talented author) but the idea that it might be possible to go without sleep was thrilling to consider. What would you or I do without wasting all that time in bed, asleep? Don’t get me wrong; there are some great things to do in bed that have nothing to do with sleeping, and I’m a huge fan, but you can do those things on a couch, a chair, a kitchen counter . . . the possibilities are endless.
I digress… Yes, I hated sleeping. I still hate it. Don’t misunderstand. I need to sleep, and I have no choice in the matter. I’m human and I can’t function without sleep. I just don’t want to. However, as my teenage years gave way to early adulthood, and eventually to middle age, I realized there was something else I hated about sleep, something that went beyond the seemingly obvious waste of time.
My recent issues with sleep are, I suppose, partly due to the passing of the years, but only partly. I’m a tech geek with a focus on information technology (IT) and some of you might know my work in the field of Linux, including other free and open-source software, sometimes called FOSS. My work in computers and software has definitely shaped who I am and what I follow, but I’m also a long-time science-fiction reader and fan. Thinking about ideas with a “if this goes on” and “what if?” starting point is second nature for me. Add to that a healthy (unhealthy?) fascination with religions and things start to get weird.
And yes, I know I was talking about sleep. I’ll get there. I promise.
We are living in the age of nascent artificial intelligence. AI, as it’s sometimes called, has been a dream of people in the IT world for decades now, always just slightly out of reach. AI has also been a staple of science fiction stores for possibly longer. Now, however, we are in a world that can realistically wonder about the potential for superhuman AI as well as artificial general intelligence, or AGI. One fascinating aspect of these developments in AI is that we sometimes don’t understand how our machine intelligences come up with things. Then again, we don’t have a firm grip on how our own minds work, which poses an interesting problem.
That problem is consciousness. I believe myself to be conscious and, as far as I can tell, everyone else I run into is also conscious. However, I cannot be one hundred percent certain of this though I’m about as close to that one hundred percent as I can get while maintaining some rational and scientific curiosity on the whole matter. Clearly there are times when you aren’t conscious in any meaningful sense, while you are sleeping, while you’re deeply involved in a movie, or when you’ve driven an hour from one city to the next without noticing a single thing about the trip. You’ve driven a heavy machine at dangerous speeds over a crazy distance and you can’t remember anything about the process.
We call that being on autopilot, like the computer on aircraft that takes over the mundane parts of flight so that pilots can chat about last night’s episode of “Are you really conscious?”
Look around, at the people who share your lives. Pretend, for a moment, that they might be on autopilot all the time, going through the motions of living without really ‘being there’, answering questions, cooking meals, driving to and from work, and reliably doing their jobs. How different is that from the one-hour drive you don’t remember? Countless papers have been written about so-called “philosophical zombies” and at least one fantastic book by my great friend and writer, Robert. J. Sawyer, in his wonderful “Quantum Night” novel. When you’re done here, pick up a copy. You won’t regret it.
There’s also the brain in a box (or vat) theory which posits that with the right sensory inputs of sight, sound, taste, etc., you or I could be a brain in a nutrient-rich vat (you have to keep that brain alive) believing and feeling as though everything we experience is actually happening, even though we are being ‘fed’ this information via the appropriate sensory inputs in our brain. Sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, and even memories are all there for you to access. How would you know otherwise?
This brain in a vat idea gets a full body upgrade in the 1999 science-fiction thriller, “The Matrix,” where whole bodies are wired into a world-spanning superintelligence that uses our bodies for power while providing our brains with all the necessary inputs to convince us that we are actually living normal lives, whatever that means. In this story, the illusion is complete. Other than the occasional tell-tale “Déjà vu” glitch.
In the 1982 movie, “Blade Runner,” the replicants, bio-engineered human-like beings used for every kind of slavery you can imagine, sometimes develop a conscious identity reinforced with memories, whether real or created. One replicant, Rachel, doesn’t even know she isn’t a normal human being because memories of her childhood, her parents, and her years growing up were implanted before she was activated. From her perspective, she was a little girl, then a teenager, then a young woman, and so on. Memories made it all real for her and gave her a consistent conscious identity.
If a machine, or an AI, thinks of itself as conscious, who are we to say it is not, and if it does, then do we assign it the rights of other sentient, conscious, and intelligent beings. This is an important question and one we need to answer sooner rather than later. If this intelligent and conscious AI doesn’t already exist, I am increasingly of the opinion that it will exist in the near future. I have no problem with my toaster having existed to make toast for me each morning at breakfast, but if my Roomba started to talk to me about its hopes and dreams for the future, I would be increasingly uncomfortable with treating it simply as a vacuum cleaner.
What does it mean to be conscious? Or sentient?
I wonder about that a lot lately, and with increasing frequency. Not Bladerunner specifically, or my speculative Roomba become intelligent AI, but I do wonder about the conscious experience and, perhaps more to the point, the experience of continuity. If you turn off that computer and its running AI program, are you putting it to sleep or killing it. Have you, in fact, committed any crime by turning off or even deleting this program? What if you make a backup and keep it until you need it again and then restore it to the moment when you stopped it in its presumptively conscious tracks?
There’s a story about the ancient Greek warrior, Theseus, and his fabled ship. Our hero goes off on a multi-year trip, seeking out adventures in the old world. Over the years, his ship needs to have a board replaced here and there as boards rot and water starts to seep in. In time, the sails tear and they too, need to be replaced. Years later, it’s the mast. Eventually, over the course of Theseus’ voyage, every single piece of the ship was replaced. Is it still the same ship?
What about us?
You’ve probably heard that every seven years or so, every cell in our body gets replaced. That’s not entirely accurate because some cells get replaced at different times and some parts of your body are basically there for your entire life. Even so, how much of your body needs to get replaced before you are no longer the person you were before? If only one original cell remains, is it still you? What about your thoughts and beliefs? What about those all-important memories that the replicants treasured so? When decades have passed and you are left with a few imperfect retellings of events that happened in your childhood, is it still you that’s thinking about those things, or some other, albeit similar, person who considers these things?
In case you are wondering, or you don’t really know me, I’m not a religious person. Not in the least. I do not believe in a soul per se, but I am attracted to the idea of something that is me outside of, as Yoda would say, “this crude matter.” Who wouldn’t be? We don’t have to turn into “force ghosts” as in the Star Wars universe, but the idea that some part of that conscious self is dualistic in nature from the flesh is an attractive idea. I like my consciousness, in as much as I understand it, and I’d like to keep it.
Let me pause for a fact check. Before I was born, there was no “I” to like my consciousness and when I die, there will most likely not be a consciousness that resembles me in the world. Why should that bother me, and what does that have to do with sleeping?
Twice in my life, I’ve had surgery that required general anesthetic. In both cases, I was taken into the surgery and shortly after being administered the required drugs, I was gone. Just gone. There was no experience of being anywhere and no dreams. Unlike sleep where you are sometimes dimly aware of being in your bed, drifting in and out of various sleep states, including the occasional dream, my experience with general anesthesia was nothing. Nothing except the slow return to consciousness. I did not feel anything, did not dream, did not register movement… just nothing.
Where was “I” during that time. There was certainly no continuity of consciousness. It’s that continuity of conscious experience is something that eats away at me. If my conscious experience can take a break and simply cease to exist for a time, only to be reactivated when certain drugs no longer block the process of thought, then what am I? What are you? Consider again that intelligent computer program, the one that might be conscious. When you turned it off, then rebooted the system, was that any different from my being turned off under anaesthetic?
When I wake from a particularly deep sleep, I often have no recollection of passing into sleep, or of what happens once I am asleep. Many times, I simply return to consciousness with several hours having passed. I wonder, at those times, where “I” have been during that time, and that sends a chill up my spine. I’m obviously still alive in that my body is still breathing and some conscious being is “present,” but I genuinely wonder, at times, if it’s still me. At least, I wonder if the me that went to sleep is the same me that woke up. How can I possibly tell?
Like Blade Runner’s replicants, I have all those imperfect memories to refer to, to give my existence a grounding in time and space. I am here because of where I have been.
I know it’s crazy, but I often can’t shake the feeling, or the fear, that I routinely slip in and out of existence.
In William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Act 2, Scene 2, the eponymous Caesar says the following.
Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
Could it be that all of us, the cowards and the valiant, regularly taste of death, and that this taste occurs every time we go to sleep?
That bothers me. A lot.
That conscious computer program we turned off earlier might be dead, only to await resurrection at our whim. How self-aware do you need to be in order to be called conscious? If we are merely the sum of our memories and experiences, much like that intelligent computer program, or those maligned replicants. You can tell yourself that the program is just information, but if you and I can be turned on and off, how are we any different?
Where is that continuity of experience that affirms we are more than just the sum of our experiences?
We are the sum of our memories, and everything is a memory. The experience you have reading this is already a memory and everything you say and do throughout your day and your life, becomes a memory as soon as it happens. If you spend time practising meditation, you can at least become aware of the immediate moment, but it to becomes a memory, despite your deep awareness of its passing.
It is all just information.
We live in a world wrought with problems, from our recent (or current) COVID-19 pandemic to climate change, to the great worldwide extinctions we are currently witnessing. These are all vitally important. These are big problems, but we have another, and it is also important. It centres around conscious experience. For so many reasons, we need to come to grips with a real understanding of consciousness, what it is, and just who or what, in this world, is conscious. We need to be able to say, with as little doubt as possible, that AI is either conscious or it is not because how we treat other conscious creatures is important.
My fears aside, there is one thing that brings me comfort in all of this. While I might not believe in a religious life after death, the possibility of cheating death for more than a few hours at a time is increasingly real. In the case of that conscious computer program, we catch a glimpse of a future in which we might live, truly conscious, for countless eons, as long as we have access to a power source. The program runs until it shuts down, or is shut down, and therefore remains conscious the entire time.
Should we discover that this is what we are, information, then we might be able to recreate ourselves in a computer or a synthetic body, with our memories intact. We might even find a way to live without sleep, without that nightly loss of consciousness, that little death we all choose to ignore. In this way, we might discover a way to be completely aware, completely conscious of every moment, in ways that meditation masters can only dream of. Sure, that first version of us that wakes in its new and improved body might not be the same as us, but then again, we may not be the same as the "us" that went to sleep a few hours ago.
Every night, I go to sleep, just a little frightened, not that I might die, but that I do die. Every night.
We desperately need to answer that question of whether artificial intelligence can be conscious. “I” desperately need to know.