Emotion as a Property of Information Part 2: Engineering Joy

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     If emotion has a physical basis, then it is possible to engineer emotions to stably maintain more optimal states. While such an endeavor might raise concerns regarding its apparent connection to recreational drug abuse, it is important to understand that recreational drugs represent an extremely crude form of emotional engineering. Using current street drugs to alter one’s mood is like trying to fly by jumping off a cliff while holding a pair of cardboard sheets. More rationally engineered pharmacological agents (i.e. antidepressants) are somewhat better in this respect, but still very primitive. To rationally design more positive emotional states, I propose that human and animal brains should be transferred to a more easily modifiable substrate and undergo cognitive rewiring consistent with joyful sentiments described by an information-structural theory of emotion.

     In this scenario, biological brains would first be gradually replaced by equivalent, engineered neural prosthetics. By maintaining continuous information transfer between neurons and machine components, the uploaded consciousness would not be a mere duplicate as in scan-copy mind uploading. Each neural prosthesis would contain some form of neuromorphic circuitry that simulates the region of the brain undergoing replacement. Such simulations would likely require multi-compartmental models of neurons along with fairly advanced learning rules and perhaps some models to approximate the effects of gene expression alterations due to non-synaptic chemical signaling. Note that a complete synaptic and dendritic connectome for the individual would also be necessary. This might be obtainable by MRI microscopy or similar technologies (this is a complicated topic, so I will cover it in depth elsewhere). The prosthetics would carry a dense array of nanoscale sensory and stimulatory equipment on their surfaces, allowing for detection of neurotransmitter release from presynaptic neurons and for stimulation of postsynaptic neural activity.

Engineering Emotion Figure1

     Once the brain is completely replaced, consciousness might be transferrable to another location by temporarily inactivating part of the computerized cerebrum and connecting the rest to a supercomputer that simulates the inactivated part by an electromagnetic (or similar) conduit. After this connection is established, the remaining part of the brain still housed in its host body could be inactivated and then the supercomputer could turn on a simulation of that same part, completing the brain inside the supercomputer without breaking the continuity of the individual’s conscious experience. Since uploaded minds would exist in a programmable environment, they would be much more amenable to emotional engineering than biological brains.

     In order to emotionally enhance uploaded consciousness, a quantitative understanding of emotion will be necessary. Fortunately, many of the technical challenges associated with mind uploading are similar to the challenges associated with a quantitative theory of emotion. By studying the neural correlates of emotion and relating them to experiences, we might make strides in developing this theory of emotion. I suggest that mapping neural circuitry at the resolution of individual dendritic spines will be sufficient to understand the physical correlates of human emotion. This assumes biologically realistic models of individual neurons, but it is arguable that such models already exist in the form of multicompartmental conductance-based models equipped with learning rules. I would propose that relatively minor improvements are required to model single cells. The more challenging area is likely understanding neural circuitry throughout the human brain as a system. Currently, we can only speculate about universal informational principles that might underlie emotions. For instance (mentioned in part 1), many positive emotions might involve stable positive feedback loops. But by studying the brain, we could achieve enough understanding of emotions to replicate and augment them in a non-biological substrate.

     Emotional engineering might yield spectacular results in the long term. Post-singularity, we might convert entire worlds into computronium, allowing for a simulated paradise to be designed. Organisms living in this simulation could choose to live with minimal capacity to suffer and tremendous capacities for joy, love, and wonder. Though some might claim that this would be a “false bliss,” I argue that existentialist philosophy counters such claims. In existentialism, emotions are real and meaningful by virtue of being felt. If an emotion is truly positive, fulfilling, and lasting, then there is no reason to condemn it simply because it has been engineered. We might explore the universe as well, accumulating more matter to transform into computational joy-substrate. I would suggest that, the more processing power we acquire, the more we could intensify our positive emotions. Eventually, the entirety of the cosmos might be optimized for joy. This would not be a hedonic device, its happiness would possess a spiritual component. The universal brain would act as a technological nirvana, a resplendent celebration, a sonata machine.

Notes on Neocortical Interneurons

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Parvalbumin-expressing (PV) cells

  • Fast-spiking, GABAergic
  • Two types of PV cells classified by axonal contacts to target pyramidal cells.
  • (1) Axo-somatic or axo-dendritic (proximal dendrites)
  • (2) Axo-axonic: strongly “edits” firing in an inhibitory manner
  • In layer II/III of the primary somatosensory cortex, PV cells have high connectivity both to and from excitatory pyramidal neurons. This facilitates a strong inhibitory loop, damping the region most of the time

Somatostatin-expressing (Sst) cells

  • GABAergic
  • Sst cells target distal excitatory pyramidal cell dendrites, often in layer I
  • Sst cells receive excitatory inputs from nearby pyramidal cells. The unique molecular properties of these synapses cause the Sst cells to hyperpolarize more slowly between inputs, enabling integration of bursts of firing from the pyramidal cells. This is not the case for other types of cortical cells

Sst Cell Spikes Diagram

Vasoactive intestinal peptide-expressing (VIP) cells

  • GABAergic
  • Inhibits other inhibitory neurons. They more frequently inhibit Sst cells than PV cells

Neurogliaform cells

  • GABAergic
  • Neurogliaform cells do not have post-synaptic partners. Instead, they release GABA into the extracellular space, thus increasing IPSPs in their general area

List of Proposed New Fields

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  • Computational Philosophy: not philosophy of computation, but philosophy using computational tools and methods.
  • Mathematical Systems Optimization: for social, biological, and cosmic challenges: (This would probably be mainly theoretical now, but could be applied post-singularity).
  • Virtual Sociology: how to manage a society that lives inside a simulated universe. Especially when the people in the simulated universe might be able to manipulate their reality at will. For instance: how do we prevent non-productive forms of hedonism + antisocial behavior from predominating in such a society?
  • Neuronanotechnology. Not enough people focus on applying bionanotechnology in neuroengineering, I think that having neuronanotechnology as a named field could help bring more people into the area.
  • Neuropoetry: kind of like cyberpoetry, but even more interactive. Example: you’re reading a poem and your brain is being stimulated at the same time to shape the experience in a unique, artistically meaningful way.
  • Non-Invasive Cellular Connectome Mapping: methods and tools for in vivo imaging of neurons, synapses, and dendrites.
  • Bioarchitecture: going beyond bionic architecture to actually incorporate biology and biotechnology into the structures of buildings. Example: growable buildings and partially growable buildings.
  • Neuroaesthetics: new flavors of artistic meaning emerge from considering both the observer’s brain and the artwork being observed as part of a unified system.
  • Physical Affective Neuroscience: attempting to quantify the exact physico-informatic structures that give rise to emotional qualia. The central goal of the field is to formally explain what arrangements of matter and energy states will lead to “positive” qualia and distinguish them from those that lead to “negative” qualia.
  • Objective Ethics via Utilitarianism, Integrated Information Theory, and Panpsychism: research into an objective framework for morality. If an action will increase the net “positive” qualia across spacetime (as understood by panpsychic integrated information theory), the action is morally “good.” However, since we cannot measure qualia over all spacetime, we must establish a set of rigorous, probabilistic methods for estimating what will have “good” and “bad” effects.
  • Theoretical Engineering: detailed proposals for engineering systems that are beyond current technology, but may be possible in the future. For instance, we don’t have a practical way to develop wormhole-based technology yet, but we have some theoretical basis for explaining wormholes mathematically. We might propose a method for developing ways to use wormholes in a technological fashion.
  • Entomological Cybernetics: engineering-oriented study of control systems and communications within insect physiology and social organizations. Application of this research to develop artificial systems that mimic insects and cyborg insect systems (so long as these systems are demonstrated to be important enough that any harm done to the insects is outweighed by their benefit to other organisms; this means that the cyborg insects should not be used as toys).
  • Human ecology: the study of humans from an ecological perspective. Care should be taken to avoid biases from harming the objectivity of this research (i.e. social Darwinism should be avoided).
  • Ecoengineering: the engineering of ecological systems to maximize “good” qualia and minimize “bad” qualia. Computational ecoengineering may serve as a test ground for ecoengineering techniques.
  • Dynamical Systems and Genius: there is a hotly debated correlation between genius and insanity. This field would study that relationship from the perspective of dynamical systems (stability, fixed points, bifurcations, etc.)
  • Literary Exploration of Genius, Love, Risk, Imagination, and Madness: a literary body of work that deals with exploring themes that interrelate genius, love, risk, imagination, and madness. Also, the analysis of that body of literature.
  • Romantic Rationalism: the development of a rational framework that does not ignore emotion as part of the human experience and recognizes the intrinsic value in “positive” emotional qualia. In fact, this form of rationalism would revolve around emotion while still using data, objectivity, and logic to help maximize the net gain in “positive” qualia across the universe.

Emotion as a Property of Information Part 1: The Physical Basis for Panpsychism

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     When considering the fundamental substance of the universe, I am inclined to propose an information-based description. All physics may arise as a consequence of informatic processes. To unify this description with the experience of consciousness, I suggest that information and consciousness are synonymous. This would support panpsychism, the idea that “everything has at least some level of consciousness.”

     To explain more completely, consider a rock. Any rock encodes information in its crystal structure. When sunlight hits the rock, energy is transferred into the atoms on the stone’s surface. From there, the energy propagates through the rock as heat. The pattern of thermal diffusion is dependent on factors such as the distribution of temperature in the rock at t=0 (immediately prior to contact with the sunlight), the relative densities and compositions of different parts of the rock, and the types of impurities present in the rock. As the sunlight shifts away from the rock, leaving it in shadow once again, heat begins to radiate back out. Depending on the processing inside the rock, the heat will radiate from different patches on its surface at different rates.

     Now consider a human. When light contacts the human’s retina, a signal is transduced by opsin proteins and a cis-trans isomerization of the cofactor retinal. After several more steps, a signal encoding the pattern of light on the retina is transferred into the brain, where it is processed by an elaborate series of excitatory and inhibitory neural interactions. These neural processes take into account the individual’s past experiences, other sensory information, and more. The data is repeatedly transformed until it yields instructions for a motor response, perhaps turning the head away or blinking.

     The rock and the human are similar in that they both are subsystems of the universe that take in data, transform it depending on internal structures, and generate some output. Of course, the rock does not experience the world in the same way that humans or even insects do. The rock’s experience is far more primitive. Compared to most biological organisms, rocks possess poor memories. The rock can store some hazy memories in its distribution of residual thermal energy from a previous encounter with heat, but these data are highly disorganized and difficult to retrieve in a form that resembles the original heat stimuli. Consequently, a rock probably lives “in the moment” and does not reflect upon its past experiences. Perhaps the stone experiences a fuzzy, often randomly changing, procession of sensations and mild swells of emotion, never really pausing to consider their implications.

     By comparison, a human will experience more directed responses to specific stimuli. If a human sees someone she knows, some brain regions will be predictably activated. However, the human brain’s output is dependent on all current sensory information as well as its state at time t, leading to a colossal space of possible responses to an individual stimulus. The brain’s structure evolves over time as experiences accumulate, leading to variable responses even given identical sensory data. Unlike the rock, humans recall past events and so construct a continuous temporal context. With this context, humans can reflect upon their own experiences as well as predict future events.

     Given these parallels between biological and non-biological information processing, I suggest that physical panpsychism may represent an accurate description of reality. This could provide a generalizable path to the neural correlates of consciousness, in which specific patterns of information are synonymous with specific conscious experiences. For instance, stable positive feedback loops might be involved in positive emotions like curiosity, excitement, and love. Of course, the human brain’s vast meshwork of data-transforming pathways gives rise to far more nuanced types of curiosity, excitement, and love than could be generated by an individual positive feedback loop. However, I would postulate that stable positive feedback loops could form the backbone for more complicated sentiments. It should be noted that some positive feedback loops can give rise to negative emotions (i.e. as in OCD). In these cases, the positive feedback might be coupled to other patterns of information which possess intrinsically unpleasant properties, overriding the intrinsic goodness of the loop. Another item to note is that positive feedback loops might only retain their pleasantness for as long as they are stable. If the loop can no longer reproduce or propagate its pattern (such as during habituation processes), the positive emotions may begin to fade. With this method of understanding consciousness, I argue that information structures may correspond to emotions in a quantifiable manner.