The Mystery From 70,000 Years Ago

About 70 thousand years ago something happened that resulted in modern humans. Whatever caused this change, it resulted in what appears to have been a major leap in cognitive capabilities. It was quite possibly the change that most differentiates us from Neanderthals and other archaic humans and what has made us unique among hominid apes.

While anatomically modern human skeletons can be found dating to 200,000 or more years ago, we do not find broad evidence of sophisticated tools, artwork, and ornaments until around 70,000 years ago in Southern Africa. This period is just before a migration of humans first from Southern Africa to East Africa and the later migration of humans, which can be genetically linked to all modern humans, from East Africa to the rest of the world. We have multiple lines of evidence – linguistic, paleontological, and genetic – pointing to humans who are the ancestors of modern humans from this time and these places. In addition to better capabilities to survive and exploit any ecological niche, quite possibly these humans had superior weapons, greater organizational ability for warfare, and possibly even a greater propensity for warfare. I believe they may have lived in larger groups than other humans at that time. In the next 30-40,000 years these humans displaced other archaic humans, killed off the megafauna, and spread rapidly to Asia, Europe, Australia, and eventually the Americas. In the process, humans proved themselves able to survive in almost any environment from the cold reaches of the far north to the heat of the tropics, from deserts to rain forests, from mountains to the ocean.

The secret to this change could not have been a larger brain. By the time of appearance of the first anatomically modern humans, brain size was already the same as modern human brain size. For that matter, the brain size of Neanderthals was larger. This change occurred without a major change in anatomy so it must have been relatively subtle. We might suspect the change to involve language capabilities but that doesn’t resolve what exactly triggered the change to come about. Was it a random language gene mutation? Or was it some broader change that might affect a range of cognitive abilities?

We are now getting hints that the change that resulted in modern humans is linked to changes in the maturation rate of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The change is a delay in the time required for the PFC to fully develop. This extended period of development meant that synaptic connections formed over a much longer time period and, we might logically assume, formed during extensive social interaction.

Evidence from a 2012 study Extension of cortical synaptic development distinguishes humans from chimpanzees and macaques suggests that a delay in the maturation of the PFC is a key feature that distinguishes humans. The contrast in development time of the prefrontal cortex between humans and other apes is quite remarkable. The time of peak expression of synaptic genes in the PFC is less than one year in chimpanzees and macaques, but around five years in humans. Although there may have been a gradual lengthening in PFC maturation during earlier human evolution, the study authors believe the major change occurred sometime after the human Neanderthal split. The study suggests, in addition, that it was likely Neanderthals had a maturation time more closely resembling apes than humans. This provides more evidence that this PFC maturation delay may be key to human cognitive abilities and behaviors.

Isolating the change in PFC maturation to a time around 70,000 years ago is a paper by Andry Vyshedskiy.

Our research into evolutionary origin of modern imagination has been driven by the observation of a temporal limit for the development of a particular component of imagination. Modern children not exposed to recursive language in early childhood never acquire the type of active constructive imagination called Prefrontal Synthesis (PFS). Unlike vocabulary and grammar acquisition, which can be learned throughout one’s lifetime, there is a strong critical period for the development of PFS and individuals not exposed to recursive language in early childhood can never acquire PFS as adults. Their language will always lack understanding of spatial prepositions and recursion that depend on the PFS ability. In a similar manner, early hominins would not have been able to learn recursive language as adults and, therefore, would not be able to teach recursive language to their children.

I think linking the delay in maturation of the PFC to modern language capabilities makes a lot of sense as well as tying recursion to the broader PFS capability. We know children not exposed to language at critical times in development do not ever acquire good language skills. Likewise, we know children exposed to multiple language from an early age learn to speak as natives and that the older we are before exposure to a new language the harder it is to pick up the language. Vyshedskiy himself points to individuals with PFS deficits associated with damage to the PFC. Since our best estimates for origins of modern languages and modern human behavior as expressed by artwork and ornaments tie to the same time, it makes sense to link all these things together.

Vyshedskiy goes on to hypothesize a somewhat complicated scenario that I won’t get into about how all of this came about around 70,000 years ago.

I think the picture how all of this came about might be straightforward.

Let me speculate that sometime early into last glacial period, perhaps about 100,000 years ago, numbers of humans migrated to Southern Africa in response to climatic changes. There they developed stable, non-nomadic settlements based extensively on shellfish. Settlements such as that would almost be prerequisite for allowing for a slower PFC development. We have evidence of widespread consumption and transport of shellfish from this location. Shellfish are rich in iodine and fatty acids which increase dopamine activity. Dopamine is heavily involved in the PFC and would be essential for reinforcing PFC reward-based social learning. At that point, seemingly the stage would be set to allow a gradual increase in PFC maturation time. The increase in maturation time could have been caused either by a single mutation or perhaps even by preexisting but initially not widely distributed genetic traits. In an environment such as this, feedback from the social learning from one generation to the next could have slowed the development of PFC to allow for additional social learning. Outgrowth of the social learning would be new cognitive skills for language, imagination, art, social control, and behaviorally modern humans.

Posted in Brain size, Human Evolution | 3 Comments

Building an Artificial Human

Let’s suppose we decide to create an artificial human.

If you’ve watched the television show Humans, you might imagine what we want to create to be something like the synths in the show except even more human-like. The synths in the show are almost always easily distinguishable from real humans by their eye color, which is usually green but can be some other unusual colors. Some synths wear contact lens to mask their eye color to pass as humans. Aside from the eye color, most synths can still be easily detected by a certain artificialness in their facial expressions and emotions. The writers had a good reason for making the synths less than perfect since part of the show’s intent is to pose the question of what it means to be human. That isn’t a question we are trying to address here. The synths we are trying to make will be almost indistinguishable from humans except by opening their insides or following them around long enough to see them hooking up to a power outlet instead of eating dinner.

Let assume we have a team of engineers that has solved the engineering problems associated with the artificial human body. For short, I am going to call the artificial human body the shell. The shell has two arms and two legs. It can walk, run, jump. sit. It can lift a pin with its fingers. The shell looks completely human down to the sexual organs and capabilities, whether it be male, female, or metrosexual. The shell has a skin that looks and feels completely human. It has human-like senses: touch sensors over its body, sensors for hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting (although it doesn’t swallow). All the senses work in the normal human ranges. The eyes are human-like color. The face of the shell can form completely human-like expressions. Its voice unit can shriek, cry, and emit every phoneme required for human language. I see no showstopper problems why this shell could not be created mostly with current knowledge. Although there certainly may need to be some engineering breakthroughs to miniaturize all the parts and package them together, many capabilities of the shell have already been demonstrated in some form in robotics labs.

The next question is what sort of control unit do we put into the shell to run it?

We have had another team of engineers working on that while the first team (Shell Team) was working on the design of the shell. The time comes to go to the control unit team (CUT) and ask what they have for us.

CUT tells us they have developed an interconnected, parallel processing network that can be connected to the sensor feeds the Shell Team has designed and is compact enough to fit into the head of the shell (which was unused empty space anyway so where better to put it).

We ask if it will be conscious.

CUT tells us this is version 1.0, and they don’t think it will be conscious. They are not sure exactly what consciousness is but, at any rate, they didn’t attempt to design consciousness as a feature, since it seemed unnecessary. Their only doubt is whether the unit might just be so good that consciousness will emerge anyway even though they didn’t design for it.

Let’s go with version 1.0 and see what happens.

The first prototype with CU 1.0 comes out of the lab and has some problems. It can do the basic stuff – walk, lift things, find its car in the parking lot (a challenge for many real humans). Unfortunately, it breaks into crying jags for no reason. It doesn’t get jokes. It mixes up words like thinking “bare knuckles” is a reference to a bear. Its facial expressions are a little weird and it has a strange tic of blinking and head jerking whenever ice cream is mentioned. It also on a whim (apparently) decided to destroy some equipment in the lab before technicians could get to the kill switch.

Well, this is technology. Maybe we should have called that the beta version but no matter. We send it back to the lab which in the meantime we have had repaired. In a few weeks CUT announces version 2.0. It shows progress but is still with problems. We go through a few more iterations. Finally, two years later, CUT announces version 3.1.

The prototype with CU 3.1 comes out of the lab and seems perfect. All the bugs of the previous versions are fixed. The Shell Team has also done some minor fixes. The prototype is put in various situations – grocery stores, shopping malls, waiting in line at the DMV. Nobody seems to notice any issues except one observer remarked that the prototype seemed unusually patient at the DMV. We think that could be problem but on second thought decide that maybe we not only have created a passable artificial human but a better human. The prototype can even lie. We ask it if it is conscious. It tells us it is. We think that is a lie, but we’re not sure.

We ask CUT if it is conscious. CUT is convinced it is not conscious. But funny you should ask, they say. One of the developers happened to code a debugging routine and ran it while the voice unit was hooked up. The CU started giving marital advice that seemed pretty good and convinced the developer that it had become conscious. They could enhance the debugging routine slightly and make it part of the code base if we wanted.

It takes two more versions to get the consciousness routine working properly.

CUT announces CU 3.3. The prototype is assembled and comes out of the lab.

We run all the tests and it passes with flying colors. The only difference we notice is that now it becomes impatient waiting in the DMV line.

Posted in AI, Consciousness | 17 Comments

The Hard But Unserious Problem of Consciousness

Some fellow bloggers have dusted off an old paper by David Chalmers Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness. Since there is almost always some obligatory homage paid to the Chalmers “hard problem” whenever contemporary discussions of consciousness arise, one of the posts is appropriately called Chalmers Again. The other post Chalmers’ theory of consciousness tries to glean the outline of an actual theory of consciousness from the paper. I am not sure Chalmers’s intent was to provide such a theory. Chalmers reveals his intent when he writes:

At the end of the day, the same criticism applies to any purely physical account of consciousness. For any physical process we specify there will be an unanswered question: Why should this process give rise to experience? Given any such process, it is conceptually coherent that it could be instantiated in the absence of experience. It follows that no mere account of the physical process will tell us why experience arises. The emergence of experience goes beyond what can be derived from physical theory.

Chalmers may think of himself as a materialist or physicalist but in that statement, he shows himself to be a closet idealist.

Is Chalmers Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness all it is cracked up to be?

Continue reading

Posted in Consciousness | 63 Comments