[00:00:00] Al Scott: The Rational View, is a weekly series hosted by me, Dr. Allen Scott, providing a rational, evidence based perspective on important societal issues.
[00:00:12] Soapbox Media: Produced by Soapbox Media.
[00:00:16] Al Scott: Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Rational View. I’m your host, Dr. Al Scott. In this episode, I continue my exploration into the nature of consciousness and awareness.
[00:00:26] I’ve learned a lot in my exploration to date. I’ve investigated even Hindu and Buddhist ideas on awareness, and I’ve delved into the underlying quantum mechanical nature of reality. I’ve discussed ideas of quantum computing and biological links to the mysteries of quantum mechanics. My guest today is an expert on the cellular basis of memory and cognition.
[00:00:49] If you like what you’re hearing, please press like on your podcast app, share it with your friends. Michael Levin received dual BS [00:01:00] degrees in computer science and biology, followed by a PhD from Harvard. After post-doc training at Harvard Medical School, he started his independent lab at Foresight Institute, focusing on the biophysics of cell cell communication during embryogenesis, regeneration, and cancer.
[00:01:19] In 2009, he moved his group to Tufts, where they use biophysical and computational approaches to study decision making and basal cognition in cells, tissues, and synthetic living machines. Levin holds the van of our bush chair, and directs the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts, working to crack the morphogenic code for applications and regenerative medicine, bioengineering and artificial intelligence.
[00:01:47] Recent work includes the modulation of native bioelectric circuits to control embryogenesis, regeneration, and cancer, and the creation of novel synthetic living [00:02:00] organisms. Dr. Levin, welcome to The Rational View.
[00:02:03] Michael Levin: Thanks so much. Happy to be here.
[00:02:05] Al Scott: Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be an expert in, in these fields and a and a dual bachelor of science degree? That, that’s very interesting.
[00:02:15] Michael Levin: Sure. And, and, and I should say I don’t, I don’t know how much any of us are actually experts in what I think is really a an emerging field. I think we’re just scratching at the beginnings of it right now. But my, my own background is I was from, from the earliest times that I can remember, I was interested in both life and technology and interested in the difference between you know, sort of obvious machines that we use versus the living organism insects that I used to you know, watch as a kid and, and so on.
[00:02:41] And originally I was going to I was going to be do computer science. I was interested in com, in computer science, artificial artificial intelligence. This, that, that seemed like a good a good entryway into understanding mind and how it can be embodied in the physical world is to try to create some during, you know, with, with com computational tools.
[00:03:00] And then while I was in, and so I did some, some, some programming for, for work and things like that. And then, I went to, I went to undergrad. I got a degree in, in computer science. And to, you know right around that time I kind of realized that I think biology’s going to be a really critical part of this, and in particular, developmental biology.
[00:03:18] And we can talk about why that is. And so I, and so I got, I got two, two degrees. One, one in computer science and one in biology. And after that, sort of dropped all the software stuff I was doing and, and basically just went to graduate school in genetics.
[00:03:31] Al Scott: I see. Yeah, no, that, that sounds very interesting.
[00:03:34] And this, I’ve had a lot of parallel interest in, in artificial intelligence and minds, and that’s why I’m doing this particular series of, of podcasts. So why is it that you felt biology is key to this problem?
[00:03:50]Michael Levin: Well, perhaps the, one of the most wonders aspects of of science is, We all make the journey from just a what, what people often refer to [00:04:00] as just physics, you know, a, a collection of ES and chemical networks sitting in an unfertilized egg.
[00:04:06] And then eventually that becomes a, at, at least in the case of humans, it becomes a an advanced cognitive system, able to have second order metacognition and you know, make claims about being not just a machine and, and, and all kinds of fun things like that. But, but that, that journey, right, from being a, a ESC oversight, which many people would look at and say, Okay, this thing is not cognitive in any way.
[00:04:28] It’s just chemistry, but somehow it becomes whatever it is that we are. And that’s a very slow and gradual process. There’s no magical line at which is, you know, some sort of lightning bolt bestows true cognition on us. It’s a, it’s a slow, it’s a slow transformation. And that to me is, if anything is magic, that’s magic there because basically, What you see is, is physics becoming mind.
[00:04:51] It’s that, that happens every single time. Some, some sort of egg becomes an organism or, or human, or, or, or not human. And so, so I think developmental biology in [00:05:00] many ways holds the answer to some of the deepest problems of, of, of science and philosophy, personal identity, all of those things.
[00:05:09] Al Scott: Hmm. Yeah It, it’s, it’s a, it’s a complex field, and I think a lot of us are hesitant to enter biology because it’s so, so complex.
[00:05:17] And physics has a lot of simplicity to it in a controllable experiment where your subjects don’t adapt and evolve and change. So, so congrats to you for, for taking that leap and, and, and taking on the challenge of, of biology in this. So you, your research program is very broad. You, your bio says you’re researching decision making and basal cognition in cells.
[00:05:44] Can you, can you tell me what that means?
[00:05:47] Michael Levin: Yeah. Our, our lab looks like it does a million different things, but actually everything that we do is all connected to one fundamental question and it that, that question plays out in aspects of machine learning and in regenerative biology and in cancer and in evolution and the behavior science and so on.
[00:06:04] It’s the same question. The question is how do complex emergent mind. Arise out of combinations of smaller modules that are also competent in some ways. So, so we are all, you know, all intelligence is our collective intelligence is, right? We’re all made of parts. Ev every intelligence is made of parts and some, some of those parts are themselves very competent and, and so on and down the line.
[00:06:27] And so the question is, how does the scale up work? How is it, what, what kind of relationship between cells gives you a big, a, a large mind, what kind of chemical events give you cells and so on. So at every level you can ask this question about scaling up. I think it’s really interesting. And so in our group, we, we tackle that in a variety of contexts, but the most, the one where we’ve made the most progress is at the level of cells.
[00:06:49] So we study how individual cells become problem solving individuals and have some degree of basal cognition . In various spaces. This is not just the traditional three dimensional space of, of behavior, which is what, what most people study for intelligence, but also other spaces. So, so physiological state space, transcriptional space of gene expression, and in particular morphous space.
[00:07:10] The space of all geometric configurations of the body. So cells, figuring out how cells navigate all those spaces is kind of an invariance that ties all of our work together. Mm-hmm.
[00:07:21] Al Scott: Now I’ve spoken with Dr. Arthur Reber, who’s a, a psychologist or philosopher who, who looks at who, who an, who’s trying to answer the question as well as how, where does consciousness arise?
[00:07:31] And his, his position is that individual cells are sentient or aware to some extent, and. What do you mean by basal cognition? Is that the same sort of thing, that there’s some basic awareness in a cell, that it has a, a first person experience?
[00:07:48] Michael Levin: Well, these are all related terms, but I think we have to be very careful if we’re going to make progress here.
[00:07:53] So I generally do not talk about consciousness almost at all. I mean, we, we can get into it if you want. I have a few things to say, but, but the, the vast majority of my work specifically avoids that issue. So, so basal cognition and as, as I defi, as, as I define ions, which is the ability. Of being aware of events that are ongoing and reacting adaptively, that doesn’t necessarily say anything about consciousness, right?
[00:08:18] So that’s something that to, to a, to a small degree could be attributed to a thermostat. A a, you know, a Roomba navigating your room. There, there are many things that have that have the ability to sense their environment and behave appropriately. The existence of a first person perspective is a whole other sort of kettle of fish that we can, that we can get into.
[00:08:35] But, but basal cognition, the, the field of basal cognition is very, by itself, is very third person science. It, it has to do with behavior, it has to do with prediction of behavior, it has to do with computation, and it has to do with us as third person observers and scientists trying to come up with models for the kinds of things we see these creatures doing.
[00:08:54] And of course, the creatures themselves. Having some sort of model of what they themselves are doing, right? So, to some level of sophistication, there may be self modeling going on and so on. None of none of this specifically involves having to make any claim about consciousness at all. I think, I think you can make great progress in basal cognition and, and do very well and make, learn lots of new things without ever touching the issue of consciousness.
[00:09:16] So, so I just wanna, I just wanna make that clear. When I, when I’m making claims about cognition, it isn’t specifically about consci consciousness at all. I see.
[00:09:26] Al Scott: Okay. That, that’s good because def definitions are, seem to be few and far between in this field, so that’s very , very important. I think a lot of the misunderstanding is that people have different definitions when they’re talking about the same words.
[00:09:37] Michael Levin: Yeah, that’s exactly right. People I, I’ve, I’ve found, yeah, I found that not only do people have different definitions, people have very different rules. As far as what counts as evidence for and against certain claims. And so you will often find, or you will often find two people arguing where one person is trying to argue what specific experimental outcomes and someone else is, and, and the other person is actually arguing about very large scale kinds of interpretation and, and, and philosophical approaches to things.
[00:10:04] So, so, so to me, all agency claims are engineering claims. When you tell me, and we can, we can dive into this, but, but when you tell me that something has a certain level of. What you’re actually telling me is how I go about interfacing with that system, whether it be in a, in an engineering context or in a relationship or whatever it is.
[00:10:21] There are claims about how we are going to be able to interact either in a very advanced way or a very simple way, but there are, you know, certain ways. So, so that’s, that, that’s a very empirical approach in which all of those claims are, are eminently testable. So if we make a specific claim about the agency of some, some system, I interpret that as an engineering protocol, I will then attempt to, to, to interface with that system, using that protocol, and we will find out that we were either right or wrong.
[00:10:45] So if you tell me that a certain system has the cognition to have a particular kind of goal seeking behavior with memory and whatever, well we can try it and find out if that actually helps us understand the system, other people. So, so that’s where I’m coming from. I, I take all of these things as not, not philosophical conjecture.
[00:11:00] These are all empirical claims that are to be tested. Other people. You know, other people may have fundamental commitments to things. And the question then becomes, and it’s very hard to argue when these things don’t match up. It’s hard for two people to have a productive conversation because other people might have specific commitments to certain outcomes.
[00:11:18] And any theory that lands outside of those outcomes is automatically wrong because the commitments take precedence. So it’s a question, you know, some people will say, I, I don’t want to hear any theory in which thermostats have have goals, because I do not believe that thermostats can have goals, period.
[00:11:33] So if you tell me so, so any theory that has that as a, as a, as a consequence, I’m, I’m calling it automatically wrong. Right? So, so the question is whereas, whereas to me that that’s very much an empirical question. We’re gonna find out if, if that’s a useful way to, to think about things, right? And I think that was settled by cybernetics, you know, 60 years ago, but that’s a different story.
[00:11:51] So, so the point is, yeah, people, people often argue and, and I think, and I think they need to set right up front what’s going to be the, the deciding you know, process for these kinds of.
[00:12:02] Al Scott: Hmm. And that’s very you know, very rational coming from the rational view, I, I like the empirical focus and the, you know, very science based approach to this.
[00:12:12] And, you know, the philosophical analysis of this can come later once you have the, the empirical basis settled. And I think that’s, that’s how we make pro progress in science is, is testing our ideas. And, you know, you start from the, the high level theory and you go down and say, Okay, here’s a, an experiment that will differentiate and you make the experiment and you, you come out with a result that, that re helps to, to refine the higher level theory.
[00:12:41] So just, just to be very clear, you know, you say that cells make decisions. I mean, what is, But you’re not talking about awareness or conscious thought. It, it’s responding to stimuli and, and. Goal seeking behavior when you’re talking about decision making, or can you maybe clarify a little bit so that we’re not confused?
[00:13:03] Michael Levin:
[00:13:04] Sure, sure. And, and to, and to be very clear I don’t believe in binary categories about almost anything. And so when we talk about, you know, does it really make decisions, I would replace that with the question of how much is some event profitably viewed as a, a decision versus as something else?
[00:13:23] And so I see everything as a spectrum or a continuum, and then we can sort of discuss where certain events are on this, on this continuum. I think that it’s important to remember that the vast majority of decisions that you make, and I make. Have no awareness to them. So the vast bulk of our, of our behavior and cognitive performance is not the kind of thing where I sit down and I say, All right, now I’m gonna make a decision.
[00:13:46] I’m gonna go to, you know, I’m gonna go to, you know, to grad school, or I’m gonna quit and, you know, do something else. Those kind of conscious decisions are the, the, the icing on the, on the, on top of the cake that is, is our cognition. So, let’s just, you know, sort of know that right from the front, that, that, that even in humans, conscious decision making is a, is a huge minority of what, of what we do.
[00:14:10] Now, having, having said that, yes. When I say decision, I do not mean that, you know, sort of very rare in the biosphere event where it’s second order, meaning I know that I’m about to make a decision. I am, I have metacognition that, that is aware of the process of decision making. I’m not talking about that at all.
[00:14:26] A simple decision. This, the, the. Degree to which something is a decision I would propose. Here’s the definition. I will propose and you can, you know, you can sort of react to see if, if you like it. My, my definition is this some event. One, one more piece of piece of background that we need to get into this.
[00:14:44] Sometimes people will, will frame it like this, they’ll say, Was that a decision or was that just a physical process? I mean you know, I, I can track the, the, the what just happened and it looks just like a piece of physics to me. So, so the thing is that if you zoom in far enough, of course everything is a physical process.
[00:14:59] There’s nothing you’re going to write, you’re going to have, whether in humans or anywhere else, where if you dig in far enough, you’re not going to see just physics. So, so I think this is very much not a, is decision something magical that doesn’t have physics underneath? Of course it does. The question is, what else does the concept of decision making give you beyond, while I’m going to track the electrons and see where this thing sort of ends up.
[00:15:22] And so, so, so here’s, here’s here’s my my take on the decision making, the degree to which something is a decision rests on to what extent is the best model for what just happened. Needing to involve things at a bigger radius in space and time. So if I can explain everything that you just did very efficiently with local causes, that’s not much of a decision.
[00:15:46] That’s a, that’s a, that’s much more closer to the physical, you know, set of pushes. So if you’re a, if you’re a, if you’re a billiard ball and I come over and I, and I sort of push you in a particular way and you go, and then somebody looks at that and says, Okay, how do we explain what just happened?
[00:15:59] You don’t need to know much of anything that happened before the push in order to say what happened. That’s not much of a decision. On the other hand, if you’re going to have a, a complex organism that. Just did something and the, and the, and the best explanation, and then we can get into what’s a good explanation, the best explanation for what happened, talks about, well, you know, two weeks ago it had this experience and that made a huge impact into, in, in what it just did.
[00:16:23] And by the way, it’s also taking in evidence from something that’s happening in the next room, or maybe it’s receiving signals from, you know, once, once you, once you have a process that starts integrating across a, a larger a light cone, so to speak, right? To, to borrow some, some physics terminology.
[00:16:38] The more, the more, the more stuff needs to go into, explain how that process happened, the more likely it is that it’s a decision and not just a piece of physics. That’s, that’s kind of a first order. You know, that’s a, that’s a, that’s a first order explanation. So, so you can start to look at, So, so here are some, some kind of in between cases.
[00:16:55] So, so you have a you have a slime mold and the slime mold is sitting in the middle of a, in the middle of a dish and. What you’ve done is, and we’ve, and we’ve, we’ve recently published exactly this, this work you place one glass disc off about 10 centimeters to the left. You place another three glass discs off to the right and the, and the fise arm.
[00:17:15] The slime mold is sitting in the middle. The whole thing is one cell. Fise arm’s, just one cell. So it’s sitting in the middle. You’ve got one glass disc to the left, three glass discs to the right. These discs are completely iner. They have no food or anything else on them. They’re just glass. And what you will find out is that for the first few hours that slime mold sort of grows in an equal radius.
[00:17:35] It just sort of expands right in the middle. It’s not going in any direction. It just kind of grows. But after a few hours, it goes boom, and it goes right to where the three discs are. So what’s happening is that during the time that it’s, it’s sort of sitting there, the first few hours. It’s put, it’s tugging on the substrate because it sits on this gelatin and it tugs on this, on this agar.
[00:17:54] And by feeling the vibrations that come back, it’s, it’s almost like a kind of sonar. It can basically, it can basically sense where the mass distributions are in its environment. Because the strain angle of these of these, of these weights pushing down on the, on the agar, it can, it, and the, and the, and the sensitivity is in this thing is incredibly .
[00:18:11] These glass discs are milligrams in weight. I mean, the sensitivity of this thing is insane, but what it does after a while is, is it reliably goes towards the three. Okay. It, it prefers going towards the heavier masses. I, I don’t know why. I assume because in the wild, if, if there’s a big mass nearby, something must have killed over and died and could go, go over and eat it.
[00:18:28] I’m guessing that’s what it is. So, so there are two, you know, there are two levels, right? One level is just the physical facts. Do, do we, do we agree that that’s what the fise arm is doing? And anybody can do this experiment and see that Yes, in fact that’s what happens. And then the next, the next thing is, okay, is that a decision?
[00:18:42] So now you can do the same thing with it that you might do with a, with a
[00:18:47] Michael Levin: or, or a bowling ball or anything else. You zoom in and at the micro level of detail, all you’re ever going to see is physics. And so the way it works of, of course, inevitably, what else could possibly be under there? Of course it’s going to be physics, but, but psychologically it’s there’s a, there’s a, there’s a phenomenon, which, which really kind of upsets me every time I encounter it.
[00:19:05] And I see it a lot. Here’s what happens. If I give a talk and I talk about this fise arm doing this, people are amazed. They say, My God, this thing is you know, this, this thing is able to make a, make a, make a choice to go here or there. And then, then, you know, basal cognition, everybody’s very excited. Then, then we show the physical mechanism.
[00:19:21] We show how it happens. Well, here’s how it happens. It, it has a, there’s a certain cytoskeletal set of events, and they set vibrations in the, in the thing, in the, the strain. The strain comes back through the, through the agar, and then there’s a stretch, stretch activated calcium channel. And that gets opened up in a particular way.
[00:19:35] The calcium pulses kind of trigger more growth on once actually you. . Once people see the explanation and they go, Oh, well, well I see how that works. That’s, well, that’s just physics. That’s not, you know, that’s not so cool. And, and, you know, and that, and, and that kind of drives me, drives me crazy all the time because I feel like, well, first of all, having explanations to things should make, should, should, should make you happier, not, not disappointed.
[00:19:58] That’s, that’s first and second. It, it doesn’t change the nature of what happened. Of course, there’s some physical story to be told. Of course there is. And in fact, and it’s, and it’s super cool. I mean, there’s more, there’s memory involved here because during those first few hours that it’s doing this, it isn’t actually going anywhere.
[00:20:13] It’s setting completely still until it forms some sort of some, some sort of biophysical representation of which way the mass is going, and then, and then it takes off, right? So, so there’s all kinds of cool events, but, but of course there’s physics underneath. So now you can start to ask, you know, was that a decision?
[00:20:28] And if you, and if you focus on the physics, you might be tempted to say, Well, now that I know how it works, I don’t think that’s a decision. I think that’s the only way it could have happened, right? If you’re some sort of micro determinist. But that of course is a story you could tell about everything.
[00:20:41] In that case, there are no decisions. So if we’re more, if we’re more on the biological side of things where decisions are, are a useful concept, Then it’s very clear that this is a kind of decision. Does it take into account what happened two weeks ago? No, it does not. Does it take into account what’s going to happen in the future?
[00:20:58] Apparently not, but it does take into account what’s happening over a 12, you know, let’s say a 10 or 12 hour time period on the scale of let’s say 10 or 15 centimeters. That’s a degree of decision making that frankly of the size you would expect of a slime mold. Right. It is, you know, it isn’t the kind of thing you would expect from a human, nor what you would expect from a bowling ball.
[00:21:18] It’s basically what you would expect from a slime mold. So that’s, so that’s my, my take on decision making you, it, it occurs to some level of scale and we do experiments and then we see how much decision making there is.
[00:21:30] Al Scott: Yeah, it does. It seems it’s the black and white response is, is hard to defend when you start getting to that level of detail.
[00:21:37] Everything should be on a spectrum in that case. And, and yeah, depends on which direction you come at it, how you see it. That’s, that’s a good observation. So, Moving on. So many interesting questions that I’d like to explore with you . How, how do collections of individual cells become a unified self?
[00:21:56] This is something that’s come up previously in, in people claiming that, you know, the basis of of awareness is individual cells, but they had no idea about, they had said something about synchronized synchronization, but it’s, it’s a kind of hand wavy, right? You, you were right in the, in the dirt here. What, what’s going on?
[00:22:15] Michael Levin: Okay. So, so I’ll, I’ll tell you a story that I think is reasonable with, with two caveats. One is that, of course, this is this is, we, we don’t know yet that this is going to be the best story. So this is just something that, that I’ve come up with and, and we’ll see, we’ll see over the years, we’ll see how it fares.
[00:22:30] And and B. This is not a story about, about consciousness, Okay? This is a story about cognition. So, so the story I’m gonna tell is this. Imagine that. You are imagine that you’re a single cell and what you are able to, you, you like, like any good successful agent you have is some ability to pursue goals.
[00:22:49] What that looks like is you’re, you’re a simple homeostatic agent. Basically, let’s say the only thing you care about is pH, local pH, right? So if the pH is too low, you add some acid. If the pH is too high, you add some some basin. So, and that kind of thing, right? You’re, you’re basically, you’ve got a little loop, and the way the little loops work is you, you take a measurement.
[00:23:07] And you and, and then you compare it to some sort of memory of a set point that you have a very simple memory, and then you either, you, you act on it and, and so on, right? So, so you’re that level. So now, so now let’s ask, Okay, For that, for that individual, we can, we can draw what I’ve called the, the cognitive the cognitive light cone, which is basically the space, your temporal scale of things that it cares about.
[00:23:27] And it’s quite small. It’s local. It’s maybe it has a little bit of prediction going forward. Maybe it’s got some memory going backwards, but it’s pretty small. Okay? So now imagine that and so now I’m gonna tell you the story of scaling. So now imagine that there are two cells and these, and, and these two cells they can, they can communicate.
[00:23:44] The standard way of communication is that one sends a signal at some diffusible molecule. It sort of floats along in the other, the other cell catches it. That level of communication makes it really simple for both cells to know that that signal is coming from the outside because it comes from the outside.
[00:24:01] You catch it on your membrane, and then you have choices. You can either, you can either respond to it, you can ignore it, you can believe it, you can disbelieve it, you know, whatever. It’s very clear that these are two different individuals talking to each other. Now, evolution figured out a really cool trick to do something different.
[00:24:16] That cool trick, and I’m sure there are others like it, but, but this is the one that we know. It involves something called gap junctions. Gap junctions are these little basically think of a, think of like a of a, of a submarine hatch in the surface of the cell. It’s a little, it’s a little circular thing that can be opened or closed.
[00:24:30] And two of these submarine hatches from adjacent cells can dock together. And cells, most of the cells in your body have these, and then they can be opened or closed. So now the cool thing about that is that if those, if they’re open material, small, small signaling molecules can go from one directly into the internal milar of the other.
[00:24:48] So now couple of interesting things happen when, when, when, when you have that kind of that kind of connection, the first thing that happens, is the information inside the cell doesn’t have any metadata on it in terms of where it came from. So imagine that the, imagine there are two cells, A and B, and they’re connected like this with this gap junction .
[00:25:05] Cell A gets poked by something, it gets injured or something like that. There’s a calcium flux, and this calcium flux and then some second messenger stuff serves as a memory even if it’s short lived. But it serves as a as a, as a memory of an event that happened. It’s an end gram basically, but now this cell is connected to the neighboring cell, that calcium or whatever, the physiological state propagates to the neighboring cell.
[00:25:26] So soon as it propagates to the neighboring cell, that neighboring cell. Has this, this end gram of of damage, which as far as the second cell is concerned, it’s a false memory because the second cell didn’t have any, me any, any damage. However, it can’t tell. Its calcium signal is exactly the same as the one it just got.
[00:25:45] They’re basically right. You can’t tell that this is a false memory in some sense. So what happens is, by sharing, by sharing this kind of information directly into the internal melia, what happens is you start to erode the boundary between the two individuals. If your memories are partially my memories, it, it becomes very difficult for us to keep interpersonal identity.
[00:26:05] It becomes very difficult for us to keep boundaries because, because we’re sharing now, we’re sharing memories. So several things happen when you do this. The first thing that happens is we share memories and we’re now kind of in a mind meld you know, so to speak. That’s the first thing that happens.
[00:26:17] The second thing that happens is because we’re physiologically connected, it becomes impossible for us not to cooperate in the game theory sense of the word. Because, because anything, anything nasty that I do to you comes back immediately. We’re connected physiologically. So there is, there’s no way, even, even if I could muster the the computational Mm effort that it would take to say that, to distinguish us, right?
[00:26:39] We’re sharing most of our memories. So, so that’s not an easy trick. But even if I could, if I could somehow muster the computation that I’m going to do this, and I know it, you know, it’s no good for you, but, but I’m going to do it because I’m selfish. That, that, that doesn’t, that doesn’t work because we’re connected.
[00:26:52] Whatever happens to you, can, it happens to me immediately, right? So, so, so, so these are the things that, that, that happens. So, so we start. So as far as the right, as far as the second cell is concerned, that’s a false memory. As far as the new group individual is concerned, it’s absolutely a vertical memory because that individual did in fact, experience this the same way that a rat, think about what happens when you train a rat to receive a reward for pressing some sort of button.
[00:27:17] Only a few cells of the rat interact with a button, the cells on the pause, and only a few cells in the, in lower intestine in the stomach lining of the front of the rat, get the reward. But so, so, so as a collective individual, you don’t, every cell doesn’t have to be part of the experience in order for you to have an experience and have a link, you know, a linkage between two experiences and all that kind of stuff.
[00:27:37] So, so that, so those are some things that happen. The other thing that, so, so you get cooperation, you get a mind meld. The other thing that happens is, let’s go back to this idea that each cell is a, is a homeostatic agent. When you are connected by gap junctions and, and you are taking a measurement of, let’s say, local pH, when you are connected, you’re no longer taking a local measurement, you’re taking a measurement across the whole thing.
[00:27:58] And if you’re not two cells, you’re a hundred cells, you’re taking a huge measurement because everybody’s kind of connected and everybody contributes to the value of that measurement because you, you, every sale can’t really keep its own independent idea of what’s going on. It’s so now it starts to take measurements as a collective.
[00:28:12] Then you have to compare it to the memory. Well, what memory? You’re all sharing a memory, and by the way, it’s now much bigger, so you have more computational capacity. So maybe whereas before all you could remember was a single scaler, like, what’s my p what’s the right pH level? Maybe now you can remember things like, hey, you know, a proper limb has to have five fingers.
[00:28:29] Right? You can remember bigger things because you have bigger computational capacity. You’re a network. You’re a much bigger network now than you were before. And thirdly, when you act. Instead of very local, tiny little actions in that cognitive light point of a single cell, when the whole collective acts, you can do things like, well, let’s all bend in a cell sheet and, and have some kind of you know biomechanical topology change and we’ll make a, we’ll make a cylinder or something.
[00:28:52] Because you’re no longer acting as a single cell. You are all connected. You can now take larger actions. So look at what’s happened. Everything has scaled up, right? The types of things you can measure has scaled up. The types of memories you can have has scaled up. The cooperativity and the ability to work towards these huge goals has, has scaled up.
[00:29:09] And, and the ability to take action towards those goals has, and, and in fact, you’ve now switched spaces, whereas before you were only acting in physiological space. Now when you’re a sheet of cells doing, doing large scale tissue level things, you are now acting in more morphous space, right? The, she, the, the, the, the space of all possible geometric deformation of that chief.
[00:29:29] So you’ve now been able to access a new problem space by virtue of scaling up. There’s one final thing that happens, and that is the scaling of stress. If let’s, let’s define stress like this. We’re going, we’re gonna say, Stress is the the, the, the physical consequences of the delta, the error between the set point and the homeo of, of the homeostasis and whatever’s going on now.
[00:29:51] So if you would like things to be like this, but they’re actually like this, that delta, whatever that dis the difference is that’s the stress level. And there’s, and there’s one more important component. So a single cell will, like any homeostat, will work towards reducing that stress level. That’s, that’s what drives, you know, all of life, I guess to, to, to try to keep in homeostasis is, is by reducing that stress by, one of the things that cells that are connected can do is they can export those stress molecules to their neighbors.
[00:30:20] So let’s say that you’re stress now, how, how do you keep stress? Well, there, there are, there are intra cell, there are cytoplasmic molecules that are, that are measurement, that are ways we can measure stress response, right? Like he, he shock proteins and things like that. And to the extent that you can propagate those stress molecules to your neighbors, something very interesting happens.
[00:30:39] Imagine that I’m a cell, I’m sitting in this whole group of cells. I’m really unhappy because I know that I need to be up there. I need to be closer to the head or the eye, you know, whatever’s up there. But these cells are pretty happy. They’re not letting me through. Okay? And this is just an example in 3D spaces actually works in any, in any kind of space.
[00:30:55] I’m all stressed. I’m all stressed out because my delta, my error is really high. But what I can do is I can start leaking that, that, that stress state all into my neighbors. Now, now they’re getting stressed out, not because there’s anything wrong with them, but they can’t tell the difference. They’re stressed out because they’re getting a bunch of my stress molecules.
[00:31:12] What that does, what stress does is it raises plasticity. Everybody’s a little more willing to make changes, right? If you’re super happy, you’re making no changes cause everything’s great. As soon as you’re all stressed out, you’re starting to you, you’re getting a little more plastic. And this has been studied in cancer and other, other examples.
[00:31:26] Stress raises plasticity when you, when, when you’re more plastic and you’re willing to sort of move around. And it’s almost like raising a temperature in a, you know, in a, in a, in a chunk of metal. All the, all the domains are a little more ready to, to kind of shift. And then now there’s room for me to get where I’m going.
[00:31:41] And then, and then the stress of the whole thing can, can come back down. Look at, look at what that’s, that does two things. First, it, it raises cooperativity like crazy because my stress be, my problem becomes your problem. Not because we’re altruistic, not because you care about what my issues are, but because until I get, until my stress lowers, your stress can’t lower.
[00:32:00] So it’s an automatic process. It’s really, it doesn’t require, you don’t have to evolve This really, it’s, it’s a, it’s a free lunch kind of thing. That just means as, as soon as I’m able to propagate my error and not just keep it to myself, we, we, we start to share problems. It means that that’s a collective goal.
[00:32:16] Now to reduce. Because because of whatever, whatever my problem happens to be, right? You don’t have to care about my problem. You can’t help it because, because I’m stressing you out. And so, right, And, and the other thing that happens is because of that, much like the previous story, you start to, the, the state of affairs that can stress you out can now be huge because, because the stress is shared then, then it’s not just individual cell states that that can stress you.
[00:32:42] For example, the difference between a, a gradient across the whole thing that might, that might stress the collective now. Whereas before, no individual cell cares about what the gradient is up there that they, they do once they start sharing the stress. So now I, I’ll end this whole thing just by saying that if I’m, if I encounter a new creature, and that could be anything from, from a, from a bacteria to a super intelligent you know, alien.
[00:33:04] If you tell me what kinds of things stress you out, I immediately know your level of intellectual sophistication. If you tell me that the biggest thing that you can be stressed about is the lo local level of sucrose, You’re kind of a bacterium. If you tell me that you’re stressed about things that happen in a, in a 50 foot radius around a particular perimeter, you might be a dog or you might be something similar.
[00:33:24] If you tell me that you’re stressed about the financial markets in the next 10 years, I’m gonna say you’re probably a human, right? Nothing below is ever gonna be stressed by that level of effect. And if you tell me that you are stressed out in a linear range; by the, the state of suffering of all life forms on the planet, I’m gonna say, you’re, you can’t, you’re not a human.
[00:33:46] Humans can’t do that in a linear range. You are some sort of alien, some sort of Buddha, I don’t know what you are, but you’re, but you’re beyond, you’re beyond human, so, Right. So, so to me, Right. To me, the level of the, the, the, the biggest thing that could possibly stress you out is a great indicator of, of your cognitive level.
[00:34:04]Al Scott: Interesting.
[00:34:05] Al Scott: Again, this is, and this is all on the, the, the spectrums, as you say. Of, of, of judges. This isn’t like a, a hard line between one or the other. You’re, you’re looking at, at spheres of influence and spheres of stress.
[00:34:18] Michael Levin: Yeah. I don’t know how to put hard lines on any of this because, because if we take developmental biology and evolution seriously, we never see any real, we never see any hard lines.
[00:34:29] All you see is a slow change. So, so you were an egg, a fertilized egg that at best cared about local physiological conditions and some metabolic conditions, and eventually you might become somebody that’s depressed by the thought of the sun burning out in 4 billion years. That’s a, that’s a massive, Right?
[00:34:45] That’s a, that’s a massive scale up of your, of your cognitive you know, light cone. But it happens slow. There was never like, you know, a, a major transition really there. So it, I don’t know how to put lines on any of this. It’s a gradual process. [00:35:00]
[00:35:00] Al Scott: Hmm. And so from that viewpoint, you would probably say that consciousness is also on a spectrum with different animals and humans and things like that.
[00:35:10] There’s, there’s no sharp dividing line between people say in other animals. What would you say to that?
[00:35:16] Michael Levin: I, I don’t, this, this is gonna sound, sound silly, but I mean it, I I, I mean it seriously, 100%. I don’t know what you mean by people in the following sense. Whatever. And, and, and people say this to me all the time, Well, the human brain does this.
[00:35:29] And they say, Well, let’s, let’s unpack that, the human brain. And they say, You know, the child, when I ask for, you know, when does such and such happen? They say, Oh, it’s when the child, whatever, say, Okay, a, a human, a human brain, or a human child. Now, yes, definitely you know, definitely a cognitive deserving of rights, all this kind of stuff.
[00:35:45] How about a hundred thousand years ago? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely. Still, How about 300,000 years ago? How about 400,000 years ago? I mean, if, if we take evolution seriously, you can just start walking backwards. And are you, are you, is, is anybody really telling us that they’re going to say, This, this set of hominence right here.
[00:36:04] I’m watching them. They are not really conscious. They are not really whatever. Boom. Now they’ve had a child and that offspring that, that creature they’ve had, now it’s got whatever. That seems crazy to me, right? That I just, that, that, that doesn’t, that’s a very strong claim that somebody would’ve to defend.
[00:36:19] I have no idea how you defend that claim. All I see; is smoothly working backwards, you know, developmental event by developmental event all the way back, back down to bacteria. So, so that’s how, when, when I talk to people about this, I don’t start with Perimysium and ask them to come with me to the idea that the Perimysium has some level of first person perspective.
[00:36:40] Nobody likes that. I do it the other way around. I say, Start with whatever you are and let’s just work backwards, and you can tell me when you think it winks out and no one has a convincing story of when it winks out. That’s the problem. You sort of start backwards. Now, some people are, you know, intellectually, I, I suppose the most honest thing is some people will say, Oh, I don’t have it either.
[00:37:00] Then, and then we’re kind of done at that point. At that point we’re kinda done. I don’t have anything after that, but as long as you believe that you have whatever it is co you know, true cognition, true, you know, moral standing, but you pick, you pick whatever it is. I’m just going slowly dial it backwards until we end up an amoeba and you can try to tell me where it, where it disappears.
[00:37:23] Al Scott: no, that, that’s a very, very strong argument for, for not distinguishing. I, I do like that, that approach.
[00:37:30] Michael Levin:. Yeah. Not only that. And, and Darwin, Darwin saw that very clearly. I mean, people, people sort of forgot. He, he talked a lot about basal cognition and, and, and intelligence and plants and things like that.
[00:37:41] He was, he, he understood the, the consequences very well of, of his gradualist theory. There, there’s another, there’s another piece, there’s another reason why I’m not sure what anybody means when they say the human, you know, the, the, the, the, the person or the human. We now have the ability, and we’ve had this for quite some time, and it’s going to grow in, in magnitude massively to modify your standard kind of inborn inborn hardware with different kinds of add-ons.
[00:38:07] So, so the simple ones are glasses and crutches and, and things like that. Those are, you know, wheelchairs. Those are simple. You know, the, the new ones are novel prosthetics that, that let you do things that standard humans can’t do. Novel sensory inputs that might let you see and feel things, you know, you might, you might decide that you need some sort of implant that lets you see in the infrared and ultraviolet range.
[00:38:30] Or you might decide that, forget that what I want is I want immediate input from the stock markets and from the solar weather. That’s what I, that’s what I want my sensory miliar to be. Why not? You could do that? And so, and so then, then we’re gonna find out that yeah, you could also have. An implant that helps control your neurotransmitter levels way better than standard humans do.
[00:38:50] And by the way, you can also connect up to some kind of additional processing, whether that be digital or whether that be an implant. You know, let’s put a third, third hemisphere up in there. We, we know that we, I mean, it sounds kind of crazy, but we know that if, if somebody is, is blind, real estate in the brain gets taken over by other senses, right?
[00:39:08] So, so we know that, that we know that new real estate that doesn’t seem to be doing anything gets taken over by various functions. Well, who’s to say we can’t put additional real estate and they let that get taken over. All of this kind of stuff. Again, it’s all very, very gradual. So if you tell me that person X is still a human because they’re only 2% cyborg, they have some kind of little implant that lets them run their wheelchair or, or a vacuum cleaner or something, I will then ask you about every possibility from 2% all the way up until you become basically a cyborg with a few human cells rattling around.
[00:39:45] And then again, you can tell me where you think things wink out. I, I didn’t make up any of this stuff. This is, science fiction has been dealing with this for, for, you know, probably a couple of hundred years now. But, but nobody really took it seriously. And it’s, and it’s high time because this is all real reality.
[00:40:00] This is all happening now. It’s all, you know, we’re gonna see all this in our lifetime if we, we are already seeing some of it. So again, it’s gonna be very, very weird. Look, I, I think, and this is, this is also an unpopular view, but I think that this binary kind of categorization, there are humans and then there are other things and.
[00:40:18] That’s left over from the Garden of Eden View, where there was Adam and he got to name all the animals and nothing ever changed. And we knew what, what he was, and we knew what all the animals were. And like, that’s it. That’s, that’s gone, that’s gone for so many reasons. It was gone with Darwin, it’s gone with developmental biology.
[00:40:34] It’s gone with bioengineering. That’s just gone.
[00:40:38] Al Scott: Very Interesting. I want to touch on another area of your, of your research in memory. I mean, one of the key aspects of, of awareness is our access to our memories. And you’ve done a lot of work in, in the cellular basis of memory, I think. Do we understand how our memories are stored?
[00:40:54] I, you, you, you’ve referenced calcium from you know, individual cell responses is, is a, is a type of memory. Do we have any idea how our memories are stored?
[00:41:06] Michael Levin: Well I’m, I’m sure, I mean, we have, we have some idea of the things that are important for the process. So there are many, many people who are doing great work in memory, and they, and they will, they know some of the things that are important for that process.
[00:41:18] Do I think that we understand the medium and the encoding? No, I don’t think we do. And that’s, you know, the, the, the story that has held together for some decades of memory being specific changes in synap, you know, synaptic function. That story was already cracking in the, in the seventies and it’s really cracking now.
[00:41:36] And there’s some great people. I can, I can mention later, later on some, some names that you might wanna also talk to. There’s some great people working on this. But that, that, that story is really cracking. And there are, there are numerous, numerous reasons for it. Here. Here are some, if we wanna talk about memory, here’s some, here’s some facts we should, you know, just, just facts we should think about and they, and they can kind of tell us what what we should be looking for.
[00:41:57] Number one. , if you well, the mo the most basic issue is this. Most of us in our old age re have some, some memories of things we did when we were kids. So therefore, there is some kind of structure in your brain that is supposed to remain in variant for 80 years. I, I, I don’t know what that would be. I mean, everything we know about is incredibly, incredibly plastic.
[00:42:19] At the, at the, you know, at the micro scale, I don’t know of any kind of structure that plausibly remains in variant for that long. If you train a caterpillar on a certain task, that caterpillar will, will become a butterfly or a moth. During that process, it basically takes apart its brain. Most of the neurons die, most of the connections are broken.
[00:42:39] It rebuilds a completely new brain. The caterpillar still remembers the, the butterfly still remembers things that the caterpillar learn. So memory is in some sense robust to massive changes of brain structure. By the way, if you’re interested in Questions of of first person perspective and, and, and kind of consciousness and philosophy of mind.
[00:42:57] Think about what it’s like. Never mind what it’s
[00:42:59] Michael Levin: to be a caterpillar. What is it like to be a caterpillar slowly changing into a butterfly? I mean, how’s that you have? Right. You have, you have an adult, you have, you have a, you have a mature organism that has whatever it has in terms of its cognition, and then that brain starts slowly changing into a brain that has completely different preferences.
[00:43:17] It doesn’t wanna crawl anymore. It likes to fly, and now it likes nectar instead of leaves you know, but it still has some of the same individuality because it remembers the original information. But I mean, talk that, that that kind of change makes, you know, the changes of puberty and humans or whatever makes that like a child’s play, right?
[00:43:33] Because we all go through changes, but I mean, this is some serious change, right?
[00:43:37] Al Scott: The entire body plan just gets mixed around in a, in a.
[00:43:40] Michael Levin: The body plan is, That’s right. The body plan is mixed around. You’re gonna be, you’re gonna end up in a completely different creature. You’re gonna be reborn, literally reborn
[00:43:40]Al Scott: As memories are, are, are conserved.
[00:43:50] Michael Levin: At least some, at least some, I don’t know that all of them are, but some some of them certainly are. Yeah. And and, and there’s another, there’s another example, which is perhaps even even more remarkable. And this McConnell, Jim McConnell found this in the sixties, and, you know, he sort of caught a lot of crap for it.
[00:44:03] But we, we reproduced it with modern methods in 2013, and he was absolutely right. They got, they have these flatworms called plenary. And the cool thing, well, one of many cool things about these plenary is that they regenerate every part of the body so you can cut off their heads. They grow the, the tail will grow a new head, but they have a true centralized brain.
[00:44:20] They’re bilaterian like us, so they, they you know, they have a true centralized brain so you can, so, so you can train these plenary. You cut off their heads, you take the tail, the tail will sit there for a week doing absolutely nothing. Then it regrows a brand new brain. Then you find out that the new animal has has still has the memories.
[00:44:38] So now what that tells you is, first of all, memory is not entirely in the brain. That’s A. B, it gets imprinted onto the new brain. But because, because the brain controls behavior. So in order for you to see that, it remembers the brain had to have learned whatever it was. So that, so that, that is imprinted by it’s, it’s imprinted on the, on the brain by, by other cells.
[00:44:57] And this, and by the way, you could have cut that worm into multiple pieces. They will all have the memory. So this is like the old malfunctioning transporter experiment in philosophy 101, right? When there’s more than one copy of you, we can actually do that. Plenary can actually do that. And and, and then of course, you know, of course, this is not just a, a weird curiosity humans undergoing in, in the, in the next decade we’re gonna have you know, adult humans have five, six decades of memory and personality.
[00:45:24] Have stem cells put into their brains to to, to repair degenerative brain root disease. So what happens when portions of your brain become replaced by these naive cells? I, I have, based on this, I have a feeling that it’ll be just fine, but it may, it might not be so, so, right. So this issue of how do memories move around in the, in, in tissue?
[00:45:43] So, So I think you know, all in all, so, so I don’t, so I think we don’t know. There are some people that have done some, you know Glanceman has done some, some, some amazing work recently and, and other people have on, on transplanting memories. So, so you can transplant me, you can transplant both tissues and chemicals from brain to brain, and there’s, there’s some evidence for, for transplanting memories.
[00:46:03] I, I will, I will. No, nobody’s done this in people that I know of. No, this has been, this has been in animal models. Yeah, they’ve done rats. I mean, there was a lot of work in the seventies on, on doing this in rats. I, I will say, I’ll just go on the record here with a crazy, you know, sort of idea.
[00:46:19] I think that the neural network in the neural networks in our, in our brain and in our central nervous system are not for storing information, I think therefore interpreting information. So I think there is some kind of medium, I don’t know what it is. It might be cytoskeletal structures, it might be biochemical structures.
[00:46:34] I don’t know what it is, but I think the neural networks are all about reading that substrate. They’re, they’re the they’re the readout machinery, you know, they’re the, they’re the electronics that read the, the, the hard drive, so to speak. And the hard drive is probably in some way it’s, it’s very stable.
[00:46:48] It’s probably biophysical in some sense, and it can be transferred and transplanted and all the neural networks are, are about interpreting it to know, to know what to do next. That’s just, that’s just, you know, that’s a, that’s a wild speculation.
[00:47:00] Al Scott: Yeah. No, it makes sense. I mean, it looks like a processor and, and people have used neural networks in artificial intelligence to do processing type things and the things that neural networks, Artificial neural networks do our processing base.
[00:47:15] They’re not necessarily memory based. You have a hard disc somewhere with the memories and you have the processor. Access them. And so we don’t really know where this hard disc lies, but it’s not necessarily in the brain based on these experiments. It’s, it’s maybe some sort of distributed chemical system in the body.
[00:47:33] Michael Levin: It, it may, it may, it may well be, And again, it’s unclear how much of this transplants, transfers rather. So I made a, I made a kind of a, a Freudian slip there because of the next thing I was gonna talk about. It how much of this transfers from from, from plenary and people have done transplants in salamanders.
[00:47:48] So there’s a guy named Paul Peach at Indiana who transplanted memories between goldfish and, and salamanders and did a lot of did a lot of, if, if you, if you ever come across it, there’s a cool book called Shuffle Brain by Peach. And it’s all about his experiments on shuffling the brains of of various aquatic creatures.
[00:48:04] It’s very good. But, you know, there’s also been, there’s also been an, I, I have no idea how, how seriously to take any of this. Because there’s, there haven’t been real sort of rigorous studies on it, but, but I’ve spoken to a lot of folks who work in organ transplants and there is some data starting to come out from, especially from heart and lung transplants that there are interesting what, what look like reasonably specific transfers of information from donor to recipient from lung.
[00:48:32] So personality changes, we’re talking wild stuff like you know, changes in political orientation, cha changes in sexual preference like food, you know, vegetarians going immediately that, like, that kind of stuff. There’ll have to be a lot more studies before we know how seriously to take this. It’s, it’s something that is, is widely sort of talked about in the transplant community.
[00:48:52] So at some point we might find out, at some point we might find out that it’s human relevant. I, I don’t know. I’m not making that claim. I, I certainly haven’t done any of the work.
[00:49:00] Michael Levin: I, but, but I think it’s, there’s enough there that somebody should be doing rat experiments with, with transplants and to figure out if, if there’s something to that.
[00:49:07] But I, I would not be shocked at all if that turns out to be real. I think, I think that’s completely plausible based on what we’ve seen in, in plenary and other, other creatures.
[00:49:19] Al Scott: And is there any reasonable hypotheses to, to, to, explain why this could happen?
[00:49:24] Michael Levin: Not, Not really, no. Honestly, no, there’s no, there’s not other, other than, other than the general idea that, that the memory medium is not really what we think it is.
[00:49:35] And maybe broadly distributed through, through tissue in some way. But, but no, this is just, at this point, it’s complete, it’s total guesswork as far as what if, if that’s real, what the, what the mechanism is not known.
[00:49:48] Al Scott: Oh, wow. That’s great. I love, I love mysteries. So what, what, from your research Have you found that, that, that you, you find really surprising?
[00:49:59] I mean, these are very surprising results to me just to learn some of these, you know, that transplants of memories might be possible. And, and this is a serious idea that has experimental support. Is there anything else that surprises you or that you find very intriguing that you’d like to share?
[00:50:15] Michael Levin: Well, let’s see. I mean, I, yeah, I mean, there are many things that are very intriguing. I see surprising things on a, on a daily basis in our work and in other people’s work. I mean, I think one of the things that is, is really intriguing is how much new science and new experiments you can do if; if you’re willing to look for new symmetries.
[00:50:39] So, so, so what I mean by that is, for example, if we, if we accept that provisionally that. All the tricks of the brain and, and, and what happens during a kind of typical cognition are really evolutionary modifications of much earlier bioelectric kinds of events that cells were using before to navigate morpho space.
[00:51:00] And then it’s sort of got pivoted into navigating three-dimensional space. Then one can read almost any paper in neuroscience. As a developmental biology paper. What you do is, and I’ve had, we, we, you know, we’ve, we’ve done this experiment with my students where you take a, you take a neuroscience paper and you put it through Microsoft Word and you do a find replace, and anywhere it says neuron, you do, you replace that with cell.
[00:51:20] Anywhere it says mil millisecond, you say minute or. And then you just read it as a developmental biology kind of kind of paper. And it’s, and it’s amazing how many of those concepts have obvious testable predictions that, that we are checking and that other people should be checking. So all the, all the kinds of, you know, neuroscience is incredibly rich, and I don’t think it’s about neurons.
[00:51:41] Michael Levin: I think, I think all of the things that we see in neurons from, from dissociative identity disorder to various kinds of psychiatric you know problems to various aspects of, you know, perceptual by stability, all this kind of stuff that you get from, from, from, from cognitive neuroscience and these kinds of things.
[00:51:57] They all have somatic analogs. They all have analogs that, that, that work in other contexts, including cellular kinds of things and, and maybe subcellular too. And, and, and actually maybe even super cellular, you know, that. People have shown that ant colonies fall for the same visual illusions that humans do, not the individual ants, the colonies.
[00:52:18] So you can lay out food sources in a particular pattern, and you will see that the way that the colony sends out ants to sort of collect and come back and whatever, they, they make exactly the same mistakes as human perceptual systems make when in the, in the light of this, in these illusions. So it’s like, not the individual ants, but the, but the, but the group cognition of the colony is subject to some of the same you know, limitations of processing mistakes.
[00:52:41] Yeah, exactly right. Exactly the same processing mistakes as humans. Super interesting. And of course that happens on the cellular level as though maybe on the, on a group level. So that to me is one of the most profound things that I find intriguing is the scale and variance of a lot of these things. And how you can find some of the same, you know, you can find some of the same phenomenon at, at multiple scales, I think is is incredibly interesting.
[00:53:06] Al Scott: So you’re, you’ve, you’re very empirical in your approach as, as you’ve said. And, you know, you, you don’t consider the, the hard problem of consciousness much in this research and, and that that comes through in your description of these things. So I, I think there are various schools of thought about the, the so-called hard problem of consciousness.
[00:53:27] And some people say, Well, artificial intelligence will never be conscious because blah, blah, blah. Yeah. But if you look at it on, on. The mechanistic scale of small steps there, as you say there, when does the soul suddenly appear ?
[00:53:43] Michael Levin: Yeah. That’s the, that’s the problem, right? Is, is you’re, you’re left with these sort of medieval irresolvable questions about, you know, what day is it that the, that the soul shows up?
[00:53:52] I, it’s, they’re unsolvable and, and I think that and look, I, it’s, it’s not that I don’t worry about the pr, the, the problems of consciousness. I absolutely do. I just try to keep it very, very separate from all the other work, because, well, for two reasons. One is because I think you can do all this other work without, you know, I, I, I like divide and conquer, right?
[00:54:10] So if we can solve a bunch of stuff without having to solve the hard problem, that’d be great. Because we should, we should solve things we can solve. So I try to keep it separate. I also try to keep it separate because, Because just in terms of making impact, once you start talking about consciousness, Some people write you off immediately because they don’t wanna get into it.
[00:54:27] Other people make it way over complicated with, with things that, again, make it hard to make progress. I, I just try to keep it separate, but, but there but there are some things we can say about, about this. A couple things. First of all, this idea of such and such will never be conscious. I, with the, with the exception of the few is sort of intellectually honest, but, but people who say, Well, we are not conscious either.
[00:54:51] There’s no such thing, right? There’s a few people that say that, but, but, but the majority of the people who say, No, I’m a real human and I’m conscious and such and such, will never be conscious. My, my, my, I, I have two things to say about that. One is the whole gradual developmental thing. Okay? You, you were definitely a, a, a sell at one point, so we can all talk about how you got to be conscious, but it was a nice slow process.
[00:55:15] That’s, that’s the first thing that, that’s really important. It was a gradual process. That’s A. B I really don’t see why. I mean, where, where did we and our consciousness come from now, now that we don’t have the Garden of Eden story anymore? You’re left with just one thing and that’s evolution. So, so what you’re really telling me is that this, this nearly blind sort of meandering hill climbing search that we call evolution, which is just as likely to increase intelligence as it is to decrease it.
[00:55:43] You’re telling me that that process is the only process that can give rise to conscious minds and that no amount of engineering will ever duplicate whatever it is that this natural blind process is doing. I find that completely implausible. If somebody said to me, Hey, what’s more likely if I didn’t know any better?
[00:56:02] And somebody said to me, What’s more likely to produce consciousness? A random search? Or some very smart scientists who will, who by the way, can also use random search if they want to, but they can also have, you know, a rational design. I would say, Well, of course the second one. Well, why, why would you ever think that that evolution has some sort of magic hold on.
[00:56:20] Being able to make conscious agents. So that seems completely implausible to me. So, so I don’t see any reason to think that we could talk about what’s co you know, what the, today’s artifacts are doing. But, but to say that they can’t, it seems, it seems crazy to me.
[00:56:33] Al Scott: Yeah, I think some of the, the objections that are maybe more believable would be the ones that are saying, you know, you can’t use a digital processor to do the same processes that the analog stuff in, in cells and, and bodies is doing.
[00:56:48] And that there needs to be some sort of a field happening and or an effective field. And yeah, I don’t know how much credence to give that.
[00:56:57] Michael Levin: I don’t know. I’ve, I’ve heard about that. I, I think it’s a hard claim to, to really defend, but also that in no way supports the idea of they will never be conscious.
[00:57:07] Right. Because, because it could well be that tomorrow somebody says, Oh yeah I think you’re right. And from now on, I’m gonna make my computers as analog computers with fields and whatever. Why not? I, Right. Who knows what the next architecture is going to be. It, it, it’s fine to say that today’s, I mean, I, I agree that today’s architectures are not likely to give us what we consider to be the full, you know, sort of conscious experience.
[00:57:31] I agree with that, but, but I don’t think we’re, we’re that far from architectures that will, and I certainly don’t think it’s possible to say we will never do it. I, I, one other, one other thing that I, that I just wanna point out this idea of I, I, I, as I said, I kind of hate binary distinctions for almost anything.
[00:57:47] And so at one point I was sitting around thinking about, okay, what is the most what is the most, most, like the strongest binary distinction? That, that we couldn’t turn into a continuum, right? Like what’s the, what’s really the most, the most persistent binary thing? And, and the thing that came to my mind was, well, first person versus third person descriptions.
[00:58:06] So, so from the third person perspective, no, there’s no hard problem with consciousness because it all in the third person, it all boils down to behavior. I have no idea what, if any consciousness you have, all I can do is make guesses based on your behavior. However, from the first person perspective, there absolutely is an interesting hard problem of consciousness because I know some things, not a lot, but I know some things about my own behavior, but I also have this first person experience that is, is telling me that, that I don’t have any science that, that predicts what that experience is going to be.
[00:58:36] That’s a problem. So that’s the hard problem of consciousness. So I, so I have two things. So I have two things about, two things to say about that. One is that, Let’s assume for the moment that, that some, in some number of years, somebody has a cor a, a correct theory of consciousness. Let’s say somebody’s got one.
[00:58:55] Okay? My question is, is very simple. Nevermind what it actually does. I wanna know what format do its predictions come in. We know from from every other theory, we know what format the predictions come in. They’re either numbers or they’re shapes, or there’s some, there’s something. What is the format of a prediction of a theory of consciousness?
[00:59:13] What does it give you? So if I tell you, Hey, guess what? I’ve made a frogalottle. It’s a 50% frog brain, 50% axle lottle brain. I want your correct theory of consciousness. Tell me to tell me what it’s like to be a frogalottle, right? What do you hand me with you? Like, what comes out? Is it, is it a, it’s not gonna be numbers that doesn’t help.
[00:59:30] You know, is it gonna be a poem? Is it gonna be art? Like what is it going to, I have no idea what it’s gonna be. And so this is a, this is, this to me is the hard problem of consciousness, right? Not, not what is the details of the theory. I don’t even know. And so, okay, so, so start. So I started thinking about that and I started to think about this this, this, this idea of breaking, breaking that bi, that, that binary divide, which seems pretty sharp.
[00:59:53] I mean, like Dekar said, it seems pretty, pretty pronounced. And, and I, and I, and I came up with this thought experiment, let’s, which is pretty doable even today. So let’s, let’s think about this. So here I am, I’m studying somebody’s brain. Let’s say I’m studying your brain. And what I’ve got is I’ve got some, some electrodes in your brain collecting some data.
[01:00:11] They come through a computer, their process, I’m looking at ’em on the screen and. I, I, they, they’re saying something about, we’re doing some neural decoding, let’s say. And so I can say something about what, what’s going on in your mind right now? Some, something about what memories you have of something.
[01:00:25] Now, at that point, that’s a completely third person perspective. I don’t know what conscious experience goes along with any of what I’m seeing. What I see is things I could predict behavior on, but I don’t really know anything about what it’s like to be whatever it is that, that you are. So that’s the first thing.
[01:00:39] Then I then I look at it and say, you know, this computer in the middle is super clunky. Why am I using my retina to look at a screen to interpret electrical data that’s coming out? To help with that? Let’s just do this. I’m gonna, I’m gonna take the electrodes that are coming outta your brain. I’m going to directly stick them into a relevant part of my brain so we can get this computer out of the way.
[01:01:00] And I’m going to feel the data the same way that I could feel. For example if I wanted to, I could take you know, I could take data from from the, from the the, the Collider, right? The Large Hadron Collider. I could take that data and I could put it into a glove or, or an artificial retina. I could feel that data directly the way I see light photo, right?
[01:01:18] Why not? So, so at this point, I’m gonna get rid of this computer and I’m just to say the heck with all this stuff, I’m just gonna direct. So now your brain and my brain are linked. Now I think you can already see where this is going to some extent, if we do the linkage correctly. I’m going to start to actually, the, I’m, I’m no longer quite a third person.
[01:01:35] I’m meant like, like, like, like one, like, like one and a half person perspective now because, because, because how do I normally know how I feel? Well, parts of my brain read other parts of my brain, right? How do I know what my state is? The, the pieces of the brain are communicating. Well, now you’re in the same circuit.
[01:01:51] Why not? And then I say, You know, these, these, this electrical interface is really clunky. It doesn’t have the bandwidth of proper cellular connections. Here’s what I’m gonna do. We’re just gonna, we’re just gonna physically attach our brains together. That’s totally doable. If we were salamanders, you could literally take the two brains, stick them together, the cells would, would attach, and you would have one giant brain and they would all talk to each other.
[01:02:14] Right? Now what, what, what would happen after that? I don’t know. But, but here’s what happens after that. Once our brains are connected, Whatever it is that my brain is doing when the two hemispheres talk to each other. Because, because you might be tempted to say so. So I’ve run this by people and what people say is, Oh, that’s a crazy thing.
[01:02:32] We, we don’t know what that connection is gonna do to consciousness. Say, Well, guess what? You already have that because you’re left hemisphere in your right hemisphere have to talk to each other. And in fact, the front of your brain, in the back of your brain have to talk to each other. So we’ve already know that pieces of brain talking to each other is what’s responsible for consciousness.
[01:02:48] We already know that. So now, well, my brain is just bigger now. It’s got two, it’s got four, four hemisphere now. But the, the basis of it is still exactly the same. But here’s the thing from that, what I don’t find out is what it’s like to be you. What I do find out is what it’s like to be this new creature.
[01:03:07] That’s really me. You. That’s what we find. That’s what both of us find out. So I don’t think it’s become a new self. That’s it. That’s exactly right. We become a new self and we, and people say, Oh, come on. That’s crazy. But, but we know this happens all the time because if we divide the two hemispheres, what do you get?
[01:03:23] You get two, basically two, two cells. Because we know from the split brain studies, the two halves have very different outlooks on things, right? You know, these experiments where you, you, you do a split brain. You ask verbally, you say, How do you like your job? Well, I’m an accountant and I like it. Fine.
[01:03:37] You let the opposite hand answer questions in writing and it says, Screw this. I hate this. I wanna be a race car driver. And so we, we already know, we already know that that exists. So if we can, you know, at, at what point is there fusion? And then, and then the most interesting thing is all the work on dissociative dissociative disorders, right?
[01:03:54] What used to be called multiple personality disorder. So we already know the boundaries of these cells are flexible. They’re flexible in, in the body, in the of cells. They’re flexible in the, in the brain. So, so now we can smoothly. So now there’s kind of a smooth continuum between this third person and first person.
[01:04:11] So even that, I think is really a continuum because we can construct all of these in between cases, which are totally plausible, where you slowly go from being an external scientist who can say nothing about the cognition, the consciousness, and only cognition to being, I am now part of this, this system.
[01:04:28] And I think it’s probably not an accident that some ancient thinkers talked about this and they talked about, you know, the difference between chemistry and alchemy, right? The difference is that, yeah, you can do, you can do chemistry as a third person’s kind of perspective and just sort of study what happens outside of you.
[01:04:44] To really do experiments on consciousness, you will not be the same afterwards. The only way to do experiments in consciousness is to change your consciousness in some way. Right. And there’s a million ways that people thought about doing that, right? So that’s what I think, you know, that’s, that’s the difference.
[01:04:59] But, but again, it goes in, in gradations. So I do think it’s an interesting problem, but it’s not the same problem as just studying cognition.
[01:05:08] Al Scott: Well that. This has been a, a very enlightening discussion and I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you. Likewise. We’re getting to the end of our, our time slot here.
[01:05:17] So thank you so much for coming on the show and, and discussing your, your research with us and, and your views on, on consciousness and cognition. Wow. Lot, lot to think about from this. I’m gonna, I’m gonna fire off a ration view t-shirt to you for, for coming on the show. Nice. Thank
[01:05:32] Michael Levin: Nice. Thank you. That’s great. Thank you so much.
[01:05:33] Al Scott: And thank you so much. One last question that I ask all of my guests. And I think I’d be very interested in your response. What, what science fiction interests you? What do, what do you like reading?
[01:05:46] Michael Levin: Yeah. Well I, there’s a lot I’ve read, I’ve read quite a lot of, mostly the older stuff.
[01:05:52] I think the, my favorite my favorite author is Stanislaw Lem. So he’s a Polish, he is a Polish writer that I, you know, he, he just plays with all this kind of stuff that we were talking about. All these, all these unconventional boundaries and things that yeah, that’s, that’s probably my, that’s probably my favorite.
[01:06:09] I like
[01:06:09] Al Scott: I like, the science fiction that gives me new ideas.
[01:06:12] Michael Levin: Yeah.
[01:06:14] Al Scott: That’s the thing I, I like so much about, about reading that new, new fiction. So thank you again for coming on. Appreciate you very much.
[01:06:18] Michael Levin: Yeah. Great conversation. Thank you. [01:06:26] Al Scott: If you’d like to follow up with more in depth discussions, please come find us on Facebook at the Rational view and join our discussion group. If you like what you’re hearing, please consider visiting my patronPage at patron.podbean.com/therationalview. Thanks for listening.