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Non-Human Consciousness Exists, Say Experts. Now What?

Posted: 07/31/2012 1:01 pm

2012-07-31-brian.hoffstein.jpg By Brian Hoffstein
Contributing Writer, Singularity University.

Have you ever considered the consciousness, or unconsciousness, of your dog? Well, a group of neuroscientists have been thinking on the subject pretty seriously, and it was announced last week that "humans are not the only conscious beings in the universe."

Earlier this month, some of the leading scientists from around the world congregated at the Hotel Du Vin in Cambridge to discuss the evidence that has amassed over the years. The experts reached a unanimous decision that animals -- specifically mammals and birds -- are in fact conscious beings. Through advancements in brain imaging techniques such as fMRI and EEG machines, the scientists concluded that animals show a sufficient degree of characteristics that indicate they are not as non-human as some had believed. The official decision was reached late into the night after the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on July 7th.

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Organized by Philip Low, CEO of NeuroVigil and inventor of the iBrain, the group consisted of 25 of the planet's top minds on the mind, including honorary guest Stephen Hawking.  The scientists discerned the key differences in human and animal brains, mainly found in the frontal cortex, do not play a role in the phenomenon we associate with consciousness. The decision does not in any sense define what consciousness is, which will be a debate that continues to rage on. But moving forward, there are many consequences to this finding that will need to be addressed as we look to develop a more humane relationship with animals.

This announcement arises in a manner similar to the Pluto files in 2006, when the world's leading astronomer's demoted Pluto from planet to "dwarf planet." Both of these events took place outside of the public sphere, and, while not necessarily groundbreaking conclusions, comprise much room for debate. It seems in this day and age, with prolific scientific discoveries being heralded left and right, it is time for some sort of established framework for making decisions of this order. The "philosopher king" mentality, where leading experts decide for the group, has emerged as the status quo -- but moving forward it will be interesting to see how the groupmind of the Internet will react.

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As mankind continues to explore the universe, many more discoveries will prompt an official announcement such as the one Phillip Low delivered this week at Singularity University.  Concluding animals have consciousness might be news, but it's not as revolutionary as some of the things we can expect in the future. What happens when we build the first robot that passes the Turing Test? Would it be considered conscious too? Who would have the final say in the matter?

On another note, with the recent Higgs discovery, astronomers and theoretical physicists are entering their next phase of scientific inquiry. Super Symmetry, dark matter, dark energy and the multiverse are all questions waiting to be answered. Both in the microcosm of the quantum field and the macrocosm of the cosmos, there exist potential discoveries that could totally transform our perspective of life in the universe. All of these open-ended questions, in addition to the black swans we should (paradoxically) expect to encounter along the way, will need to be accounted by some type of bureaucratic standard. How this plays out is still up in the air -- but at this point it would be hard to bet against the Internet. Hypothetically speaking, if the old-school establishment says one thing but the powers-that-be on Wikipedia say something else, who would you listen to?

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

 

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