Thursday, April 27, 2017

Prior Indigenous Technological Species?

NYPost |  The solar system that humanity calls home may have once been inhabited by an extinct species of spacefaring aliens, a top scientist has suggested.

A space scientist has suggested ancient extraterrestrials could have lived on Mars, Venus or even Earth before disappearing without a trace.

In a fascinating academic paper about “prior indigenous technological species,” James T. Wright from Pennsylvania State University raised the fascinating possibility that evidence of these extinct aliens could exist somewhere in the solar system.

Wright is an astronomer who received global attention after suggesting an “alien megastructure” had been spotted in orbit around a distant star.

Now the stargazer has said advanced aliens may have left behind “technosignatures” for us to find — if only we knew where to look for them.

“A prior indigenous technological species might have arisen on ancient Earth or another body, such as a pre-greenhouse Venus or a wet Mars,” he wrote.

However, most of the archaeological evidence of an ancient civilization would probably have been lost.  Fist tap Big Don.

Whose Prosthesis Are We? REDUX (Originally Posted 10/08/07)

“I think cultures are kinds of virtual realities where whole populations of people become imprisoned inside a structure which is linguistic and value-based.”

“Now, if we’re gonna become a planetary being, we can’t have the luxury of an unconscious mind, that’s something that goes along with the monkey-stage of human culture. And so comes then the prosthesis of technology, that all our memories and all our sciences and our projective planning abilities can be downloaded into a technological artifact which is almost our child or our friend or our companion in the historical adventure.”
(Terence McKenna 1998)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Embarrassing the Powerful is Indispensable to Human Rights and Freedom

counterpunch  |  US authorities are reported to have prepared charges to seek the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. This overreach of US government toward a publisher, whose principle is aligned with the U.S. Constitution, is another sign of a crumbling façade of democracy. The Justice Department in the Obama administration could not prosecute WikiLeaks for publishing documents pertaining to the US government, because they struggled to determine whether the First Amendment protection applied in this case. Now, the torch of Obama’s war on whistleblowers seems to have been passed on to Trump, who had shown disdain toward free speech and even called the U.S. media as “enemies of the people”.

Earlier this month, CIA Director Mike Pompeo vowed to end WikiLeaks, accusing the whistleblowing site as being a “non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia”. He also once called Edward Snowden a traitor and claimed that he should be executed. This declaration of war against WikiLeaks may bring a reminiscence of George W. Bush’s speech in the aftermath of 9-11, where he said, ‘either you are with us or against us’, and urged the nation to side with the government in his call to fight global ‘war on terror’.

In a recent interview on DemocracyNow!, journalist at The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald put this persecution of WikiLeaks in the context of a government assault on basic freedom. He spelled out their tactics, noting how the government first chooses a target group that is hated and lacks popular support, for they know attacking an idea or a group that is popular would meet resistance. He explained:
“…. they pick somebody who they know is hated in society or who expresses an idea that most people find repellent, and they try and abridge freedom of speech in that case, so that most people will let their hatred for the person being targeted override the principle involved, and they will sanction or at least acquiesce to the attack on freedom because they hate the person being attacked”.
Demonizing and scapegoating of a particular group or organization is an alarming tendency toward an authoritarian state. At a news conference last Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions also chimed in to emphasize how Assange’s arrest is a priority. This targeting of WikiLeaks is a threat to press freedom and could be seen a slippery slope toward fascism.

Without Wikileaks How Would We Know the U.S. Koreas/China Policy?

downwithtyrrany |  [Update: It's been suggested in comments (initially here) that Clinton's "we" in her answer to Blankfein's question was a reference to China's policy, not our own. I'm doubtful that's true, but it's an interpretation worth considering. Even so, the U.S. and Chinese policies toward the two Koreas are certainly aligned, and, as Clinton says, "for the obvious economic and political reasons." (That argument was also expressed in comments here.)  I therefore think the thrust of the piece below is valid under either interpretation of Clinton's use of "we." –GP]

"We don't want a unified Korean peninsula ... We [also] don't want the North Koreans to cause more trouble than the system can absorb."
—Hillary Clinton, 2013, speech to Goldman Sachs

Our policy toward North Korea is not what most people think it is. We don't want the North Koreans to go away. In fact, we like them doing what they're doing; we just want less of it than they've been doing lately. If this sounds confusing, it's because this policy is unlike what the public has been led to assume. Thanks to something uncovered by WikiLeaks, the American public has a chance to be unconfused about what's really going on with respect to our policies in Korea.

This piece isn't intended to criticize that policy; it may be an excellent one. I just want to help us understand it better. 

Our source for the U.S. government's actual Korean policy — going back decades really — is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She resigned that position in February 2013, and on June 4, 2013 she gave a speech at Goldman Sachs with Lloyd Blankfein present (perhaps on stage with her) in which she discussed in what sounds like a very frank manner, among many other things, the U.S. policy toward the two Korea and the relationship of that policy to China.

That speech and two others were sent by Tony Carrk of the Clinton campaign to a number of others in the campaign, including John Podesta. WikiLeaks subsequently released that email as part of its release of other Podesta emails (source email with attachments here). In that speech, Clinton spoke confidentially and, I believe, honestly. What she said in that speech, I take her as meaning truthfully. There's certainly no reason for her to lie to her peers, and in some cases her betters, at Goldman Sachs. The entire speech reads like elites talking with elites in a space reserved just for them.

Why North Korea Wants Nuclear Weapons

counterpunch |  It was the terrible devastation of this bombing campaign, worse than anything seen during World War II short of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that to this day dominates North Korea’s relations with the United States and drives its determination never to submit to any American diktat.
General Curtis Lemay directed this onslaught. It was he who had firebombed Tokyo in March 1945 saying it was “about time we stopped swatting at flies and gone after the manure pile.” It was he who later said that the US “ought to bomb North Vietnam back into the stone age.” Remarking about his desire to lay waste to North Korea he said “We burned down every town in North Korea and South Korea too.” Lemay was by no means exaggerating.

On November 27, 1950 hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops suddenly crossed the border into North Korea completely overwhelming US forces. Acheson said this was the “worst defeat of American forces since Bull Run.” One famous incident was the battle at the Chosin Reservoir, where 50,000 US marines were surrounded. As they escaped their enclosure they  said they were “advancing to the rear” but in fact all American forces were being routed.

Panic took hold in Washington. Truman now said use of A-bombs was under “active consideration.” MacArthur demanded the bombs… As he put it in his memoirs:
I would have dropped between thirty and fifty atomic bombs…strung across the neck of Manchuria…and spread behind us – from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea- a belt of radioactive cobalt. It has an active life of between 60 and 120 years.
Cobalt it should be noted is at least 100 times more radioactive than uranium.

He also expressed a desire for chemicals and gas.

It is well known that MacArthur was fired for insubordination for publically announcing his desire to use nukes. Actually, Truman himself put the nukes at ready and threatened to use them if China launched air raids against American forces. But he did not want to put them under MacArthur’s command because he feared MacArthur would conduct a preemptive strike against China anyway.

By June 1951, one year after the beginning of the war, the communists had pushed UN forces back across the 38th parallel. Chinese ground forces might have been able to push the entire UN force off the peninsula entirely but that would not have negated US naval and air forces, and would have probably resulted in nuclear strikes against the Chinese mainland and that brought the real risk of Soviet entry and all out nuclear exchanges. So from this point on the war became one of attrition, much like the trench warfare of World War I. casualties continued to be high on both sides for the duration of the war which lasted until 1953 when an armistice without reunification was signed.

Of course the victims suffering worst were the civilians. In 1951 the U.S. initiated “Operation Strangle” which officialls estimated killed at least 3 million people on both sides of the 38th parallel, but the figure is probably closer to 4 million. We do not know how many Chinese died – either solders or civilians killed in cross border bombings.

The question of whether the U.S. carried out germ warfare has been raised but has never been fully proved or disproved. The North accused the U.S. of dropping bombs laden with cholera, anthrax, plague, and encephalitis and hemorrhagic fever, all of which turned up among soldiers and civilians in the north. Some American prisoners of war confessed to such war crimes but these were dismissed as evidence of torture by North Korea on Americans. However, none of the U.S. POWs who did confess and were later repatriated were allowed to meet the press. A number of investigations were carried out by scientists from friendly western countries. One of the most prominent concluded the charges were true. At this time the US was engaged in top secret germ-warfare research with captured Nazi and Japanese germ warfare experts, and also experimenting with Sarin, despite its ban by the Geneva Convention. Washington accused the communists of introducing germ warfare.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Magical Technosignatures of Truly Intelligent Species

space | So, intelligence can be considered on a planetary scale?

Grinspoon: The basic ability to not wipe oneself out, to endure, to use your technological interaction with the world in such a way that has the possibility of the likelihood of lasting and not being temporary — that seems like a pretty good definition of intelligence. I talk about true intelligence, planetary intelligence. It's part and parcel of this notion of thinking of us as an element of a planet. And when we think in that way, then you can discriminate between one type of interaction with the planet that we would have that would not be sustainable, that would mark us as a temporary kind of entity, and another type in which we use our knowledge to integrate into planetary systems [in]some kind of long-term graceful way. That distinction seems to me a worthwhile definition of a kind of intelligence

Especially then going back to the SETI [search for extraterrestrial intelligence] question, because longevity is so important in the logic and the math of SETI. There may be a bifurcation or subshell [of life] that don't make this leap to this type of intelligence. The ones that do make that leap have a very long lifetime. And they're the ones that in my view are intelligent. Using your knowledge of the universe to prolong your lifetime seems like an obviously reasonable criterion [of intelligence]. If you use that criteria, then it's not obvious that we have intelligence on Earth yet, but we can certainly glimpse it. You also wrote that sustainable alien populations could be harder to detect. What would that mean?

Grinspoon: One possible answer to the Fermi Paradox, which asks "Where are they?" is that they're all over the place, but they're not obviously detectable in ways that we imagine they would be. Truly intelligent life may not be wasteful and profligate and highly physical. Arthur C. Clarke said that the best technology would be indistinguishable from magic. What if really highly advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature? Or is hard to distinguish.

There's the set of assumptions embedded in [the search for extraterrestrial intelligence] that the more advanced a civilization is the more energy they'll use, the more they'll expand. It's funny to think about that and realize that we're talking about this while realizing things about our own future, that there is no future in this thoughtless, cancerous expansion of material energy use. That's a dead end. So why would an advanced civilization value that? You can understand why a primitive organization would value that — there's a biological imperative that makes sense for Darwinian purposes for us to multiply as much as possible, that's how you avoid becoming extinct. But in a finite container, that's a trap. I assume that truly intelligent species would not be bound by that primitive biological imperative. Maybe intelligent life actually questions its value and realizes that quality is more important than quantity. 

I'm not claiming to know that this is true about advanced aliens because I don't think anybody can know anything about advanced aliens, but I think it's an interesting possibility. That could be why the universe isn't full of obviously advanced civilizations: there's something in their nature that makes them not obvious.

The Unconscious is a Machine for Operating an Animal |  I call it the Kekulé Problem because among the myriad instances of scientific problems solved in the sleep of the inquirer Kekulé’s is probably the best known. He was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth—the ouroboros of mythology—and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” Well. The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesnt it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.”

Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.

A logical place to begin would be to define what the unconscious is in the first place. To do this we have to set aside the jargon of modern psychology and get back to biology. The unconscious is a biological system before it is anything else. To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.

All animals have an unconscious. If they didnt they would be plants. We may sometimes credit ours with duties it doesnt actually perform. Systems at a certain level of necessity may require their own mechanics of governance. Breathing, for instance, is not controlled by the unconscious but by the pons and the medulla oblongata, two systems located in the brainstem. Except of course in the case of cetaceans, who have to breathe when they come up for air. An autonomous system wouldnt work here. The first dolphin anesthetized on an operating table simply died. (How do they sleep? With half of their brain alternately.) But the duties of the unconscious are beyond counting. Everything from scratching an itch to solving math problems.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Automation Grift?

theminskys |  Part 1 of this article made a case that macroeconomic data does not suggest that there is rapid automation occurring broadly in the economy nor in large industries or sectors. Other indicators, like slack in the labor market, support that assertion. It pointed to periods of rapid automation in the past as well, and found these were times with generally low unemployment and healthy job growth.

Regardless of the data past or present, there are still claims that society is on a precipice, facing mass unemployment due to wide-scale automation. Many say that the technology in the near future is different than developments that occurred in the past, and that instead of slow or moderate change that the economy can adapt to, the rate of change will be so profound that suddenly millions will be out-of-work. 

There are good reasons to be suspicious of this narrative. First, it is very difficult to predict how technology will develop and affect the world, and if it will be viable or even necessary in the first place. Second, adopting new technology — for example, automating a process and replacing workers — and more importantly, the threat of adopting new technology, gives power to employers and capital instead of workers. This weaponization of technology needs to be credible in order to be taken seriously; hence, it relies on the broader narrative that rapid automation is happening. The first point will be considered now; the second, in Part 3.

50 Years of Change Atop the Fortune 500

slantmarketing |  If you’re curious about the story of modern humanity, you’ll find few things more fascinating than the shapeshifting ways of our markets and industries, over many years and decades. These shifts reflect our whole society, our inspiration, our impulses, and our shortcomings. These shifts are us, as we make history, step by step, dollar by dollar, in good ways and in bad.

Brick-and-Mortar Stores Are Shuttering at a Record Pace

cnn |  Stores are closing at an epic pace. In fact, the retail industry could suffer far more store closures this year than ever. 

Brokerage firm Credit Suisse said in a research report released earlier this month that it's possible more than 8,600 brick-and-mortar stores will close their doors in 2017. 

For comparison, the report says 2,056 stores closed down in 2016 and 5,077 were shuttered in 2015. The worst year on record is 2008, when 6,163 stores shut down. 

"Barely a quarter into 2017, year-to-date retail store closings have already surpassed those of 2008," the report says. 

If stores do close at the rate Credit Suisse is projecting, it could mean America will lose more than 147 million square feet of retail space this year. 

Physical store fronts have been eclipsed by ecommerce masters like Amazon. The toll it's taken can be seen in emptying malls and shopping centers across the country. 

Among the casualties announced so far this year: Bebe said it's closing all of its retails spaces, JCPenney (JCP) announced plans to shutter 138 stores by July, Payless ShoeSource is closing hundreds of stores, and Macy's (M) said it's shutting down 68 locations. 

And onetime retail powerhouse Sears -- which also owns Kmart -- said in March that the company has "substantial doubt" that it can survive.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

How Ayn Rand Seduced Young Minds

rawstory |  The ‘Atlas Shrugged’ author made selfishness heroic and caring about others weakness.
Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society….To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.— Gore Vidal, 1961
Only rarely in U.S. history do writers transform us to become a more caring or less caring nation. In the 1850s, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was a strong force in making the United States a more humane nation, one that would abolish slavery of African Americans. A century later, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) helped make the United States into one of the most uncaring nations in the industrialized world, a neo-Dickensian society where healthcare is only for those who can afford it, and where young people are coerced into huge student-loan debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

Rand’s impact has been widespread and deep. At the iceberg’s visible tip is the influence she’s had over major political figures who have shaped American society. In the 1950s, Ayn Rand read aloud drafts of what was later to become Atlas Shrugged to her “Collective,” Rand’s ironic nickname for her inner circle of young individualists, which included Alan Greenspan, who would serve as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1987 to 2006.

In 1966, Ronald Reagan wrote in a personal letter, “Am an admirer of Ayn Rand.” Today, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) credits Rand for inspiring him to go into politics, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) calls Atlas Shrugged his “foundation book.” Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) says Ayn Rand had a major influence on him, and his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is an even bigger fan. A short list of other Rand fans includes Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; Christopher Cox, chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission in George W. Bush’s second administration; and former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.

But Rand’s impact on U.S. society and culture goes even deeper.

Visualizing the Collapse of the American Middle Class

visualcapitalist |  The fact is many people have less money in their pockets – and understandably, this has motivated people to take action against the status quo.

And while the collapse of the middle class and income inequality are issues that receive a fair share of discussion, we thought that this particular animation from Metrocosm helped to put things in perspective. 

The following animation shows the change in income distribution in 20 major U.S. cities between 1970 and 2015:
Animation: The Collapse of the Middle Class in 20 Major U.S. Cities
The differences between 1970 and 2015 are intense. At first, each distribution is more bell-shaped, with the majority of people in a middle income bracket – and by 2015, those people are “pushed” out towards the extremes as they either get richer or poorer.

A Broader Look at Income Inequality

This phenomenon is not limited to major cities, either. 

Here’s another look at the change in income distribution using smaller brackets and the whole U.S. adult population:

Income distribution
Courtesy of: FT (h/t Metrocosm)

It’s a multi-faceted challenge, because while a significant portion of middle class households are being shifted into lower income territory, there are also many households that are doing the opposite. According to Pew Research, the percentage of households in the upper income bracket has grown from 14% to 21% between 1971 and 2015.

The end result? With people being pushed to both ends of the spectrum, the middle class has decreased considerably in size. In 1971, the middle class made up 61% of the adult population, and by 2014 it accounted for less than 50%. 

As this “core” of society shrinks, it aggravates the aforementioned problems. People and governments borrow more money to make up for a lack of middle class wealth, while backlashes against globalism, free trade, and open borders are fueled

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Secret Societies, Ancient Ciphers, Machine Translation

wired |  The master wears an amulet with a blue eye in the center. Before him, a candidate kneels in the candlelit room, surrounded by microscopes and surgical implements. The year is roughly 1746. The initiation has begun.

The master places a piece of paper in front of the candidate and orders him to put on a pair of eyeglasses. “Read,” the master commands. The candidate squints, but it’s an impossible task. The page is blank.

 The candidate is told not to panic; there is hope for his vision to improve. The master wipes the candidate’s eyes with a cloth and orders preparation for the surgery to commence. He selects a pair of tweezers from the table. The other members in attendance raise their candles.

The master starts plucking hairs from the candidate’s eyebrow. This is a ritualistic procedure; no flesh is cut. But these are “symbolic actions out of which none are without meaning,” the master assures the candidate. The candidate places his hand on the master’s amulet. Try reading again, the master says, replacing the first page with another. This page is filled with handwritten text. Congratulations, brother, the members say. Now you can see.

For more than 260 years, the contents of that page—and the details of this ritual—remained a secret. They were hidden in a coded manuscript, one of thousands produced by secret societies in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the peak of their power, these clandestine organizations, most notably the Freemasons, had hundreds of thousands of adherents, from colonial New York to imperial St. Petersburg. Dismissed today as fodder for conspiracy theorists and History Channel specials, they once served an important purpose: Their lodges were safe houses where freethinkers could explore everything from the laws of physics to the rights of man to the nature of God, all hidden from the oppressive, authoritarian eyes of church and state. But largely because they were so secretive, little is known about most of these organizations. Membership in all but the biggest died out over a century ago, and many of their encrypted texts have remained uncracked, dismissed by historians as impenetrable novelties.

It was actually an accident that brought to light the symbolic “sight-restoring” ritual. The decoding effort started as a sort of game between two friends that eventually engulfed a team of experts in disciplines ranging from machine translation to intellectual history. Its significance goes far beyond the contents of a single cipher. Hidden within coded manuscripts like these is a secret history of how esoteric, often radical notions of science, politics, and religion spread underground. At least that’s what experts believe. The only way to know for sure is to break the codes.

In this case, as it happens, the cracking began in a restaurant in Germany.

Thirteen years later, in January 2011, Schaefer attended an Uppsala conference on computational linguistics. Ordinarily talks like this gave her a headache. She preferred musty books to new technologies and didn’t even have an Internet connection at home. But this lecture was different. The featured speaker was Kevin Knight, a University of Southern California specialist in machine translation—the use of algorithms to automatically translate one language into another. With his stylish rectangular glasses, mop of prematurely white hair, and wiry surfer’s build, he didn’t look like a typical quant. Knight spoke in a near whisper yet with intensity and passion. His projects were endearingly quirky too. He built an algorithm that would translate Dante’s Inferno based on the user’s choice of meter and rhyme scheme. Soon he hoped to cook up software that could understand the meaning of poems and even generate verses of its own.

Knight was part of an extremely small group of machine-translation researchers who treated foreign languages like ciphers—as if Russian, for example, were just a series of cryptological symbols representing English words. In code-breaking, he explained, the central job is to figure out the set of rules for turning the cipher’s text into plain words: which letters should be swapped, when to turn a phrase on its head, when to ignore a word altogether. Establishing that type of rule set, or “key,” is the main goal of machine translators too. Except that the key for translating Russian into English is far more complex. Words have multiple meanings, depending on context. Grammar varies widely from language to language. And there are billions of possible word combinations.

Will Artificial Intelligence Be the Last Human Invention?

npr |   It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about a new industrial revolution.

JEREMY HOWARD: I mean, it's not just a new phase of the Industrial Revolution. It's a - it's an entirely new revolution.

RAZ: This is data scientist Jeremy Howard.

HOWARD: So we went through the process of replacing hunting and gathering with domestication. We went through the process of replacing animal energy with mechanical energy. We're now going through the process of replacing human intelligence with artificial intelligence.

RAZ: So for the past 25 years, Jeremy has been working on a technology called deep learning, and it's based on the way the human brain and nervous system work.

HOWARD: Deep learning relies on a particular kind of function called a neural network. It is heavily inspired by neuroscience and can actually compute anything.

RAZ: Anything because these machines can learn and perceive. They can see, hear, read, write. They can make decisions all while being able to process billions of data points.

HOWARD: It's creepy.

RAZ: Yeah.

HOWARD: And it's possibly about to get creepier.

RAZ: (Laughter) Oh, no. But before we get to the creepy part, we should point out we're already using these neural networks for a lot of pretty cool things.

HOWARD: So today, we have a thousand-layer neural networks doing things like Skype translation. I don't know if you've tried that.

RAZ: Yeah. We just actually tried it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Perturbational Complexity Index

nature |  Understanding the brain basis of consciousness remains one of the outstanding challenges in modern science. While rigorous definitions are still mainly lacking, consciousness can be defined rather broadly as that which “vanishes every night when we fall into dreamless sleep” and returns the next morning when we wake up1. Equally, when we are conscious, our conscious experiences are populated by a variety of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that collectively form an integrated conscious scene. These observations lead to an intuitive distinction between conscious level (how conscious one is) and conscious content (what one is conscious of, when one is conscious). The large majority of recent neuroscientific research into consciousness has treated these dimensions separately2,3,4,5. Investigations of conscious level typically contrast global changes in brain activity among different states including wakeful awareness, various sleep stages, and different forms of anaesthesia. Many of these studies attempt to isolate neural changes that accompany alterations of conscious level independently of changes in general physiological arousal. Studies of conscious content have focused primarily on uncovering differences in brain activity between closely matched conscious and unconscious perception, while conscious level is maintained constant6.

Recently, following early suggestions that increased conscious level may be related to an increased range of conscious contents3,7, there has been growing interest in characterising how conscious level and conscious content may relate2,5. One empirical approach to this question is to apply emerging measures of conscious level to experimental manipulations that primarily affect conscious content. Here, we capitalise on the profound effects on conscious phenomenology elicited by psychedelic compounds, specifically LSD, psilocybin, and subanesthetic doses of ketamine. These drugs normally have profound and widespread effects on conscious experiences of self and world. More specifically, they appear to “broaden” the scope of conscious contents, vivifying imagination8 and positively modulating the flexibility of cognition9,10. At the same time, the states they induce are not accompanied by a global loss of consciousness or the marked changes in physiological arousal as seen in sleep or anaesthesia. These observations raise the question of whether theoretically-grounded measures of conscious level would be changed in the psychedelic state.

Empirical measures of conscious level have reached a new benchmark with the development of the perturbational complexity index, PCI11. The PCI quantifies the diversity across channels and observations of the EEG response to a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) pulse and has been shown to robustly index levels of consciousness6, ranging from anaesthesia induced by various substances11,12, sleep stages11 and graded disorders of consciousness such as (emergence from) the minimally conscious state11,13. Notably, all these comparisons resulted in lower PCI values compared to a baseline state of wakeful awareness.  Fist tap Big Don.

Spiritual Reductionist Consciousness?  |  The Integrated Information Theory of consciousness derives a mathematical calculus and gives rise to something known as a consciousness meter, which a variety of clinical groups are now testing. If you have an anesthetized patient, or a patient who’s been in a really bad traffic accident, you don’t really know if this person is minimally conscious or in a vegetative state; you treat them as if they’re conscious, but they don’t respond in any meaningful way.

How can you be sure they’re conscious?
You’re never really sure. So you want a brain-based test that tells you if this person is capable of some experience. People have developed that based on this integrated information series. That’s big progress. The current state of my brain influences what happens in my brain the next second, and the past state of my brain influences what my brain does right now. Any system that has this cause-effect power upon itself is conscious. It derives from a mathematical measure. It could be a number that’s zero, which means a system with no cause-effect power upon itself. It’s not conscious. Or you have systems that are “Phi,” different from zero. The Phi measures, in some sense, the maximum capacity of the system to experience something. The higher the number, the more conscious the system.

So you could assign a number to everything that might have some degree of consciousness—whether it’s an ant, a lizard, bacteria, or a vegetative human being?
Yes, you or me, the Dalai Lama or Albert Einstein.

The higher the number, the more conscious?
The number by itself doesn’t tell you it’s now thinking, or is conscious of an image or a smell. But it tells you the capacity of the system to have a conscious experience. In some deep philosophical sense, the number tells you how much it exists. The higher the number, the more the system exists for itself. There isn’t a Turing Test for consciousness. You have to look at the way the system is built. You have to look at the circuitry, not its behavior, whether it’s a computer or a biological brain. This has now been tested and validated in many patients, including locked-in patients who are fully conscious, people under anesthesia who are not conscious, people in deep sleep, and those in vegetative states or minimal-conscious states. So the question now is whether this can be turned into something practical that can be used at every clinic in the country or the world to test patients who’ve just been in a bad traffic accident.

Obviously, there are huge implications. Do you turn off the life-support machines?
First, does the patient suffer or is nobody home anymore? In the famous case of Terri Schiavo, we could tell the brain stem was still functioning but there wasn’t anybody home. Her consciousness had disappeared 15 years earlier.