A Neuroscientist’s Radical Theory of How Networks Become Conscious

The internet is integrated. Could it be conscious?

Koch: It’s difficult to say right now. But consider this. The internet contains about 10 billion computers, with each computer itself having a couple of billion transistors in its CPU. So the internet has at least 10^19 transistors, compared to the roughly 1000 trillion (or quadrillion) synapses in the human brain. That’s about 10,000 times more transistors than synapses. But is the internet more complex than the human brain? It depends on the degree of integration of the internet.

For instance, our brains are connected all the time. On the internet, computers are packet-switching. They’re not connected permanently, but rapidly switch from one to another. But according to my version of panpsychism, it feels like something to be the internet — and if the internet were down, it wouldn’t feel like anything anymore. And that is, in principle, not different from the way I feel when I’m in a deep, dreamless sleep.

Internet aside, what does a human consciousness share with animal consciousness? Are certain features going to be the same?

Koch: It depends on the sensorium [the scope of our sensory perception —ed.] and the interconnections. For a mouse, this is easy to say. They have a cortex similar to ours, but not a well-developed prefrontal cortex. So it probably doesn’t have self-consciousness, or understand symbols like we do, but it sees and hears things similarly.

In every case, you have to look at the underlying neural mechanisms that give rise to the sensory apparatus, and to how they’re implemented. There’s no universal answer.

Does a lack of self-consciousness mean an animal has no sense of itself?

Koch: Many mammals don’t pass the mirror self-recognition test, including dogs. But I suspect dogs have an olfactory form of self-recognition. You notice that dogs smell other dog’s poop a lot, but they don’t smell their own so much. So they probably have some sense of their own smell, a primitive form of self-consciousness. Now, I have no evidence to suggest that a dog sits there and reflects upon itself; I don’t think dogs have that level of complexity. But I think dogs can see, and smell, and hear sounds, and be happy and excited, just like children and some adults.

Self-consciousness is something that humans have excessively, and that other animals have much less of, though apes have it to some extent. We have a hugely developed prefrontal cortex. We can ponder.

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