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Self, selves and emerging self

Mind’s I, a collection of short essays to reflect of the meaning of “self” and “soul”. Credit: Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett

In the recently published second White Paper by the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative there are very brief mentioning of self, selves and super self in relation to machines and human machine symbioses.

Here I would like to share some thoughts on this based on discussions that took place in that framework. It is a fascinating area that keeps expanding as artificial intelligence progress and the boundaries are getting fuzzier.

I would like to address it here to stimulate thoughts and comments that will be used in the preparation of the next White Paper, structuring the consideration in:

  • Mind’s I
    – Our body self and extended self
    – Our cognitive self
  • Digital Twin – The Computational Brain Hypotheses
  • Machine’s Self – Machine’s Awareness
  • Selves
  • Emerging self

Mind’s I – Our body self and extended self

I decided to use as header of this part Mind’s I, a wonderful collection of thought provoking narrative on the concept of “self”, see image of the book.

Everyone of us, human beings, has a sense of self. It seems that this sense of self is not present at birth. It develops in the first two years, first by learning that we have a specific location in space, we learn the difference between us and the ambient, we learn where our hands are till we can be aware of that without looking at them. What happens is that our brain, through repetition and experiment, creates a model of our body and using the data received from proprioceptors (in our joints) can map the position of our body parts on that model.

This sense of self is also “programmed” into robots. They need to know their position in the environment. New generation of robots, that have been programmed to be autonomous and to face potentially unexpected situations, have more sophisticated understanding of their position vs the environment. As an example, a self-driving car needs to foresee where it will be in the near future and make sure that its position does not overlap with the position of other objects that might be moving to the point of intercepting it.

I’ll come back to this sense of self in autonomous systems.

For now, let’s go back to our sense of self. It is known that a high percentage (60-80%) of people that lose a limb keep “feeling that limb” (the phantom limb). The brain keeps using the model it has developed and will take some time to change the “self” (and in many cases it will not be able to change it). On the other hand, the progress of prosthetics is such that they are becoming more and more seamless and some people are starting to feel those prosthetics as an integral part of their body to the point that the brain incorporate the prosthetics in the self.

The key point is that the prosthetics have to be seamlessly integrated with the body so that they are no longer perceived as a foreign part. An example? Think about a dental implant. After a little while the artificial teeth are no longer perceived as “artificial”, they become an integral part of the self.

Hence, the self can embrace a prosthetics. What if this prosthetics augment the body?

Neil Harbisson was born with no capability to see colours. For him the world was in black and white (plus all the greys in between!). A prosthetics implanted on his skull converts the colour images detected by a video camera into sounds that are sent to his hearing nerve. Over time, through synesthesia, Neil has started to convert sounds into colours in his brain so that now you can say that he is no longer colour blind. From his point of view (excuse the pun) he is now augmented, he is capable of something he was not capable before the implant. His self now is a “coloured” self (like ours…).

Now, just think of the possibility of having something similar implanted on you, this time with the video camera capturing the ultraviolet spectrum so that you can see what a bee sees, and amazing new world of flowers that you never saw before. Or, imagine to be a fireman and to have an implant that lets you see in the infrared. You would be able to see if something is hot, or just warmer than the environment. You can look at a house and see people inside as warm shadows! Well that would surely help you in your work. After a while your brain will extend your “self”: your new one will be one that has an augmented relation with the world being able to detect information as never before. These are both cases of extended selves, self that transform the feeling you have of your body.

There is also another aspect of self, what I call the cognitive self. Next post.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.