BB #62: More News

It’s time for another Friday news dump from my list of links. (Actually a folder of emails sent from my iPad, where I do the news reading, to my laptop, where I write my blog posts.)

The intent, originally, is to write a full post about them — which I sometimes do — but often, if the urge to bang out a post right away isn’t there, the email with that link ends up sitting in the folder. The longer they sit, the less likely I am to post about them.

So occasionally I open the cage and let some of them return to the wild…

The first one is actually a blog post:

Quantum Frontiers: Quantum information in quantum cognition

The idea that quantum effects have something to do with how minds arise from brains is controversial. The big problem has been specifying exactly where and how such putative effects occur — there is nothing apparently quantum about the physics of the brain as far as we currently know.

There is no obvious gap that demands explaining. There is the physics, the chemistry, and the biology. It seems to fully explain the mechanism.

Except for two glaring questions:

  1. Why is consciousness (whatever it is) phenomenal?
  2. Why is consciousness not epiphenomenal?

Put another way: Why is there something it is like to have a complex brain? And: How do mental states affect physical reality?

Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff have a theory involving microtubules in the brain. Their idea isn’t just controversial, it has been frequently disdained.

But recently some scientists are having second thoughts about quantum cognition. The linked article is about a paper by theoretical physicist Matthew Fisher.

Fisher started by considering a common example of quantum computation: nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) — the process that underlies an MRI and involves quantum information (QI) in nuclear spins.

Nuclear spins, Matthew reasoned, might store QI in our brains. He catalogued the threats that could damage the QI. Hydrogen ions, he concluded, would threaten the QI most. They could entangle with (decohere) the spins via dipole-dipole interactions.

He reasoned that phosphorus was a good candidate, and then designed a molecule that would allow entangled states to persist as long as possible.

Matthew designed this molecule to block decoherence. Then, he found the molecule in the scientific literature. The structure, {\rm Ca}_9 ({\rm PO}_4)_6, is called a Posner cluster or a Posner molecule. I’ll call it a Posner, for short. Posners appear to exist in simulated biofluids, fluids created to mimic the fluids in us. Posners are believed to exist in us and might participate in bone formation. According to Matthew’s estimates, Posners might protect phosphorus nuclear spins for up to 1-10 days.

So what makes this interesting is that Fisher started from a requirements point of view and then went looking for a system that met those requirements.

And apparently found one.

The post links to an earlier post on the site (by John Preskill), and that earlier post (from 2015) is worth reading just for the debate between Preskill and Stuart Hameroff.

The latter was rather put out that Preskill said: “Penrose and Hameroff had some interesting ideas, but I find Fisher’s arguments more persuasive.”

FWIW, the basic idea seems to be that quantum “computations” among entangled neurons might promote a synchronous firing.

A comment by Hameroff caught my eye:

Without quantum effects in the brain (1) real-time causal action is impossible and consciousness is necessarily epiphenomenal, (2) global brain zero-lag coherence/synchrony is (probably) impossible, (3) photosynthesis would be impossible and we probably wouldn’t exist. If a potato can utilize quantum coherence its likely our brains (and life in general) evolved mechanisms to do so.

I like the bit about the potato. Good point!

§ §

This next article caught my eye because it’s about the brain operating in a state of criticality:

Quanta: Do Brains Operate at a Tipping Point? New Clues and Complications

I’ve long wondered if there isn’t some sort of balance point in the brain.

In particular I’ve wondered if it has anything to do with our apparent sense of free will. Specifically, I’ve wondered if it might be the means by which we have genuine free will.

If the mind is a system with a lot of cognition happening all the time, some of which is below our ability to access, then perhaps various related thoughts compete in a very noisy environment that operates in a critical or balanced state such that very small inputs can tip that balance.

For example, what really happens when I stand at my pantry door gazing at various cans of soup trying to decide what to have for dinner?

Obviously I’m imagining having each of them and picking among which of those possible futures I prefer. Given two similar choices, say Minestrone or lentil, what tiny impulse decides on one or the other?

The argument against (and the linked article only moves the needle a little bit — there is still much to understand) is that the brain’s operation seems too robust to be affected by tiny inputs.

And, as far as operating in critical state (the article’s topic), there is better evidence of such behavior, but there are still issues.

They and their colleagues also analyzed public data on monkeys and turtles. Although the data sets were too limited to confirm criticality with the full three-exponent relationship, the team calculated the ratio between two different power-law exponents indicating the distributions of avalanche sizes and durations. This ratio — which represents how quickly avalanches spread out — was always the same, regardless of species and whether the animal was under anesthesia. “To a physicist, this suggests some kind of universal mechanism,” Copelli said.

Alain Destexhe of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, the critic who proposed the equation relating the three exponents as a test of criticality, called the universality of the results “astonishing,” but said he isn’t sure if it means what critical brain proponents say. He points out that because avalanches in alert brains scale similarly to those in brains under deep anesthesia — when they have no sensory input — criticality may have nothing to do with how the brain processes information, and could be due to some other aspect of brain dynamics.

As with ideas about quantum cognition, this is an interesting path to explore. It may come to nothing, but it does seem to show there’s a lot going on with brains that we have yet to understand.

More to the point, it seems to argue that cognition is more than the sum of neural activity alone — the brain may function more holistically than that.

§ §

Jumping from human brains to artificial “brains” this caught my eye (because, to be honest, I just love stories about how AI sucks):

Quanta: Where We See Shapes, AI Sees Textures

Why do I hate AI? (And, yes, I do hate AI.) Because I see us increasingly putting our eggs in a basket we haven’t fully explored. Because I see us increasingly making it an inextricable part of our lives.

Just like we did with the internet.

And now so many stories in my news feed are about hackers and scammers and spammers and all the vulnerabilities inherent in our (apparently very badly built) systems.

If I were president (and apparently literally any idiot can be), I’d issue a Edict making it illegal for any tech company to create new features or products until they prove all their code is bulletproof.

But I digress.

The point of the article is pretty much carried in its title. Our brains process shapes, but these AI vision systems process textures.

Which is why they’re so easily fooled. It also very likely accounts for certain failures in the Tesla self-driving system, a system that relies entirely on vision.

More to the point, it emphasizes that AI works very much differently than our brains, and maybe we should stop trying to even make such systems act like us.

It reminds me a bit of the early days of music and video players. Many tried to make their product look onscreen as a real object, a real CD player or a real VCR. But these were usually the worst user interfaces — often clumsy and weird because they were onscreen interfaces not real objects.

A new technology often calls for a whole new way of doing things!

§ §

Lastly, an article that caught my eye because it was about something I’d never considered:

The Atlantic: A New Clue to How Life Originated

Abiogenesis fascinates me. As with the Big Bang or “the hard problem” of consciousness, I see it as one of the great unsolved mysteries of existence.

For me, the big question has always been: How did RNA get started? I’ve never heard a really good theory — just guesses about “self-replicating clays.”

This article concerns something else: How did the first cells get started?

Life is built from tiny cellular bricks, and a question I’d never considered is how those little packages got started.

This article is a pretty neat story of discovery and seems to answer that question!

§ §

And that’s the news for now.

Stay newsworthy, my friends!


About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

25 responses to “BB #62: More News

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I have two issues with quantum theories of consciousness. There doesn’t appear to be anything in the data implying or requiring it. Indeed, biological systems, being warm, wet, and noisy, seem inherently incompatible with maintaining superpositions.

    The other is in not seeing how it’s supposed to actually solve the problem of consciousness. It seems to just be combining two mysteries together. (For this discussion, I’m accepting the purported mystery of consciousness as a mystery.)

    On that Hameroff quote… Never mind. 🙂

    I’ve been meaning to read that article on the origins of life.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “There doesn’t appear to be anything in the data implying or requiring it. Indeed, biological systems, being warm, wet, and noisy, seem inherently incompatible with maintaining superpositions.”

      If you read the linked article, you’ll find:

      But most physicists believe that useful entanglement can’t survive in brains. Entanglement consists of correlations shareable by quantum systems and stronger than any achievable by classical systems. Useful entanglement dies quickly in hot, wet, random environments.

      So the general consensus agrees, and this is where Matthew Fisher started, acknowledging that. But he also considered the NMR process, which is a quantum computation in a hot, wet, random environment.

      He then tried to imagine a molecule that, in theory, would preserve entanglement as long as possible. Once he came up with one, he went looking for it in biology… and found a viable candidate (Posner bodies).

      Fisher himself acknowledges this as speculation, but there isn’t anything that rules this out so far. (To me this all makes a lot more sense than, for instance, panpsychism, which I personally place on the same level as spirits of wind or trees or pixies.)

      “The other is in not seeing how it’s supposed to actually solve the problem of consciousness.”

      I haven’t read Fisher’s paper, yet, just the articles about it, but there seems to be an idea that quantum computation might entangle the synapses giving them some kind of synchronicity beyond the neural system itself.

      If there’s any truth to this at all, we’re obviously in the very early stages of understanding.

      “It seems to just be combining two mysteries together.”

      Certainly a possibility. Many have commented that, given two of life’s greatest mysteries, it’s not just easy but almost natural to conflate them.

      But… what if it’s really just one mystery after all?

      “On that Hameroff quote… Never mind. :-)”

      Heh. But it does make an interesting point. Nature is very good at using everything at her disposal, and she does make use of quantum effects in photosynthesis and how animals use magnetism to navigate.

      There is also the, let’s not say mystery, let’s say uniqueness and power of brains compared to everything else in nature. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it turns out mind does leverage quantum effects.

      So, yeah,… what if it’s just one mystery after all?

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        From what I’ve read, the quantum effects in biology are either limited in scope (the quantum walk in photosynthesis), or still speculative (such as in magnetoreception).

        My take on it is that quantum physics are undoubtedly involved in cognition, just as they’re involved in everything else. But their involvement follows normal quantum physics principles. It might imply that the brain does quantum computing, although I don’t see any evidence even for that yet.

        If there’s any magic, there doesn’t seem to be any real room for that magic to propagate out into the environment. It seems very similar to the panpsychic argument about consciousness somehow being in the instrinsic properties of matter. These ideas might get us to a sort of epiphenomenalism, but again I still don’t even see the supposed explanation to get us to that.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “My take on it is that quantum physics are undoubtedly involved in cognition, just as they’re involved in everything else. But their involvement follows normal quantum physics principles.”

        No one here is positing any magic. Any quantum cognition would, of course, follow normal quantum physics principles.

        Everyone involved admits it’s speculative, but we do have the hard problem to solve, and it’s not impossible this has something to do with it.

  • Alien Resort

    Consciousness may just be a survival instinct. If the chaos resulting from so much electrical activity were not checked in some way, the organism would quickly burn out.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Consciousness may just be a survival instinct.”

      Maybe, but it still leaves the mystery of why there is “something it is like” to be human (or any of the higher animals).

      I’m not sure what you mean about electrical activity. (Electric eels seem to do okay with a lot more voltage than we ever have in our skulls!)

  • James Cross

    “Why is there something it is like to have a complex brain?”

    You have leaped to the assumption that a complex brain is required for consciousness without having laid out any argument.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Take your pick,…

      (A) Why would I have to argue something I consider self-evident?

      (B) Much of my blog makes that argument.

      (C) I wasn’t really making arguments here, just talking about some articles I found interesting.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “You have leaped to the assumption that a complex brain is required for consciousness without having laid out any argument.”

      Upon reflection, no, I haven’t. I’ve merely stated that complex brains are conscious (which I consider self-evident). I’ve made no reference whatsoever to what else might be conscious.

      • James Cross

        “Put another way: Why is there something it is like to have a complex brain? ”

        You clearly put the rhetorical question in the context of the consciousness question. Complex brains are only self-evidently complex brains and even that assumes there would be some agreement on what complexity means. Does it mean large? How large? Structurally intricate? Which structures are critical?

        However, your second question was interesting.

        “And: How do mental states affect physical reality?”

        Am I missing where you talk about that?

        Phosphorous is interesting. A while back I worked on posting something about probabilities of certain characteristics of life on earth being found elsewhere. I never completed it. But the top two were carbon-based and requiring/using water as a solvent. However, somewhere near the top was use of ATP for energy transfer. ATP is universal in life on earth. It stores energy when the third phosphate group is added and releases it when it breaks down to ADP by losing it. The Posner molecule is like a ring of phosphates (looking superficially at least like a carbon ring) around calcium atoms. Calcium is also tied to neurotransmitter release.

        OT somewhat. But found this article about the claustrum recently. Apparently the last thing Francis Crick worked on before death.

        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1569501/

        “Within the context of the neurobiological theories of consciousness mentioned in the introduction, the highly networked nature of the claustrum raises the question of whether it acts as a sort of ‘Cartesian theatre’. This is a metaphor, introduced and ridiculed by the philosopher Dennett (1991), for the fictitious centre where the mind and brain meet, where ‘it all comes together’ and consciousness occurs.

        We think that a more appropriate analogy for the claustrum is that of a conductor coordinating a group of players in the orchestra, the various cortical regions. Without the conductor, the players can still play but they fall increasingly out of synchrony with each other. The result is a cacophony of sounds.”

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “You clearly put the rhetorical question in the context of the consciousness question.”

        It’s nothing more than “the hard problem” — the phrase you’ve picked out here is a casual restatement of the #1 item on the list above: “Why is consciousness (whatever it is) phenomenal?”

        “Does it mean large? How large? Structurally intricate? Which structures are critical?”

        It means like ours (or the higher animals). Many billions of neurons (86 billion in humans); many thousands of interconnections (7,000 on average in humans).

        “Am I missing where you talk about that?”

        Apparently. Again, the part you’ve picked out is a restatement of the two list items above it.

        All I was citing is:

        1. The hard problem of consciousness.
        2. The problem of epiphenomenalism.

        These are well-acknowledged questions in the field.

  • James Cross

    You talked about “mental states affecting physical reality??

    Like telekinesis?

  • James Cross

    That would be the brain causing mental states, wouldn’t it? Not the other way around.

    Unless you are saying consciousness is not epiphenomenal (your point #2) or mental states really can be causative. I’m still not seeing where you discussed that unless it was in other posts.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I don’t understand why you’re so obsessed with a passing comment referring to two well-established questions in the study of consciousness.

      “I’m still not seeing where you discussed that unless it was in other posts.”

      Again: It wasn’t the point of the post.

      • James Cross

        Maybe I am just misreading that entire part of the post. You talk about everything is explained by physics and chemistry, then raise what you call two glaring questions. But then you never come back around to the questions.

        It seemed to me you had set up the quantum discussion in the context of the questions but then I was expecting some link between that and the quantum discussion.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Maybe I am just misreading that entire part of the post.”

        I think you have. (Perhaps I’m doing you a disservice, but from where I sit it feels like you read my posts and comments for something to attack. I’m starting to think of you as a “sniper.”)

        “You talk about everything is explained by physics and chemistry,…”

        Do you mean this bit:

        The idea that quantum effects have something to do with how minds arise from brains is controversial. The big problem has been specifying exactly where and how such putative effects occur — there is nothing apparently quantum about the physics of the brain as far as we currently know.

        There is no obvious gap that demands explaining. There is the physics, the chemistry, and the biology. It seems to fully explain the mechanism.

        I choose my words carefully. All of them. In particular, that final line: “It seems to fully explain the mechanism.” That word “seems” is important.

        But as I go on to say, there are substantial mysteries that demand an explanation, and there has long been speculation that quantum effects might play a role, because physics as we know it now can’t account for phenomenalism.

        This is a new approach to the idea of quantum cognition. That’s all that part of the post was about.

        “But then you never come back around to the questions.”

        In the limited space I allowed myself, there wasn’t room to get into it. Both the linked articles delve into it as, I’m sure, does Fisher’s paper (which I haven’t had a chance to read, yet).

        “It seemed to me you had set up the quantum discussion in the context of the questions but then I was expecting some link between that and the quantum discussion.”

        I would refer you to the articles and the paper. This is all very speculative at this point — more an avenue for investigation.

        Often I figure that a reader might be interested, there are things that can be explored in comments. Mike and I did get into the quantum aspects a bit. Compare his entry into the thread with your sniper round attack.

  • James Cross

    I got the “seems” part but I can’t see how even if we found for certain quantum events all over the brain that it would help with either question. It would, for sure, add a major woo factor to the brain but, aside from that, there is still the problem of translating from entangled particles to phenomenal experience and deriving the latter from the former. It would just move the problem from explaining it with higher level electrochemical reactions to the more fundamental quantum behaviors. Otherwise, the same issues would exist.

    The one area where quantum explanations might help would be if you bought into panpsychism, which I know you don’t. Then one might argue, for example, that every entangled pair of particles creates a psychon and when you get enough them you have consciousness. You know “every time a bell rings an angel…”

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “I can’t see how even if we found for certain quantum events all over the brain that it would help with either question.”

      But your (or my) inability to see something doesn’t mean that others don’t. Even that no one saw it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

      “…there is still the problem of translating from entangled particles to phenomenal experience and deriving the latter from the former.”

      Absolutely. This is all very speculative and preliminary, but more and more scientists seem to be thinking there may be something here.

      (If you read the comments in the older post (by Preskill) Hameroff is quite put out that (A) there’s a growing trend accepting the idea of quantum cognition, but (B) the Hameroff-Penrose idea is still being ignored.)

      As I said to Mike, “Everyone involved admits it’s speculative, but we do have the hard problem to solve, and it’s not impossible this has something to do with it.”

      “The one area where quantum explanations might help would be if you bought into panpsychism, which I know you don’t.”

      Yeah, sorry, I totally don’t. 🙂

      I don’t think the argument is that quantum effects create consciousness so much as that quantum effects may play some kind of role in the brain.

      In the post I mentioned Hameroff’s comment to the effect that photosynthesis is a quantum effect that nature has leveraged. It wouldn’t surprise me at all that nature has leveraged quantum effects in one of the most mysterious and potent things it ever created.

      • James Cross

        I’m not buying into panpsychism either but it did occur to me that my (in jest) suggestion about psychons being created with entanglement would also explain non-locality. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I don’t follow. Entanglement is certainly a case of non-locality, but I don’t understand how psychons would explain it?

      • James Cross

        Keep in mind this isn’t serious.

        If the entanglement of particles produced a psychon, then the psychon could form a connection between the particles and would explain how each particle would “know” the other’s state.

        Let me repeat this isn’t serious but we could run with this idea to explain all sorts of things.

        The psychon could exist in different dimensions from the three/four we can measure. So it could account for all sorts of Psi phenomena. It could also have negative mass which would account for faster than light communication. A explosion of psychons at the Big Bang could account for the Guth expansion and setting of the fine tuning constants. The development of consciousness in the universe could be creating new psychons that form the Dark Energy accelerating the expansion of the universe.

        Of course, psychons are a class of particles. There are three actual types: Larry, Moe, and Curly. But I won’t get into that.

      • James Cross

        And, of course, it explains consciousness too.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        If only it were that easy!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Let me repeat this isn’t serious…”

        No. And as such I can’t take it seriously. 😀

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