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MIDAS, Department of Computational Medicine & Bioinformatics, and the Smale Institute Co-Present: Lenore Blum and Manuel Blum

April 22, 2021 @ 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm

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A Theoretical Computer Science Perspective on Consciousness

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The quest to understand consciousness, once the purview of philosophers and theologians, is now actively pursued by scientists of many stripes. This talk looks at consciousness from the perspective of theoretical computer science. It formalizes the Global Workspace Theory (GWT) originated by cognitive neuroscientist Bernard Baars and further developed by him, Stanislas Dehaene, and others. Our major contribution lies in the precise formal definition of a Conscious Turing Machine (CTM), also called a Conscious AI. We define the CTM in the spirit of Alan Turing’s simple yet powerful definition of a computer, the Turing Machine (TM). We are not looking for a complex model of the brain nor of cognition but for a simple model of (the admittedly complex concept of) consciousness. After formally defining CTM, we give a formal definition of consciousness in CTM. We then suggest why the CTM has the feeling of consciousness. The reasonableness of the definitions and explanations can be judged by how well they agree with commonly accepted intuitive concepts of human consciousness, the range of related concepts that the model explains easily and naturally, and the extent of its agreement with scientific evidence.

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Department of Computational Medicine & Bioinformatics, Department of Mathematics, University of Michigan Michigan Institute for Data Science
Smale Institute


Lenore has been passionate about mathematics since she was 10. She attributes that to having dropped out of school when she was 9 to wander the world, then hit the ground running when she returned and became fascinated with the Euclidean Algorithm. Her interests turned to non-standard models of mathematics, and of computation. As a graduate student at MIT, she showed how to use saturated model theory to get new results in differential algebra. Later, with Mike Shub and Steve Smale, she developed a foundational theory for computing and complexity over continuous domains such as the real or complex numbers. The theory generalizes the Turing-based theory (for discrete domains) and has been fundamental for computational mathematics. Lenore is internationally known for her work in increasing the participation of girls and women in STEM and is proud that CMU has gender parity in its undergraduate CS program. Lenore Blum lblum@cs.cmu.edu

Manuel has been motivated to understand the mind/body problem since he was in second grade when his teacher told his mom she should not expect him to get past high school. As an undergrad at MIT, he spent a year studying Freud and then apprenticed himself to the great anti-Freud [1] neurophysiologist Warren S. McCulloch, who became his intellectual mentor. When he told Warren (McCulloch) and Walter (Pitts) that he wanted to study consciousness, he was told in no uncertain terms that he was verboten to do so – and why. As a graduate student, he asked and got Marvin (Minsky) to be his thesis advisor. Manuel is one of the founders of complexity theory, a Turing Award winner, and has mentored many in the field who have chartered new directions ranging from computational learning, cryptography, zero knowledge, interactive proofs, proof checkers, and human computation. Manuel Blum mblum@cs.cmu.edu


April 22, 2021
1:00 pm - 2:00 pm
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