Non-Fiction Reviews


Sentience
The Invention of Consciousness

(2022) Nicholas Humphrey, Oxford University Press, 16.99, hrdbk, xii + 243pp, ISBN 978-0-198-85853-9

 

What is sentience? At first this might not seem a key question for the SF aficionado into science but science fiction has a number of tropes that directly impinge on this subject, not least extraterrestrial civilisations and artificial intelligence (AIs). If we do encounter technological aliens how will their sentience resemble of differ from ours. And as for artificial intelligence will it become sufficiently like ours that it is granted the equivalence of human rights? Indeed, how will we be able to determine whether or not an AI is truly sentient? And, yes, extraterrestrials do crop up!

Nicholas Humphrey is a psychologist based at Cambridge U. with a substantive career behind him who has specialised in the evolution of intelligence. In Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness he reviews some of the science behind elucidating what is sentience and it is an intriguing journey that covers much ground but principally looks at the rise of animal intelligence lading to full-blown human sentience with some forays into AI.

Along the way we cover some ground of which seasoned SF readers will have heard of including 'blindsight' that was popularised by the Hugo short-listed novel by Peter Watts who is himself a bioscientist. We also address related questions such as whether or not we all see colours in the same way (colour blindness aside).

This book is both fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because it tackles some fundamental questions that have dogged philosophers over the ages a good few are cited. Frustrating because while the book does provide many insights, it does not give definite answers. In part this is because psychology (let alone neuroscience, network maths etc) has not yet managed to develop a sufficiently good tool kit. How, for example, would one score, or rank, sentience: what metric would one use?

I also found it frustrating because of my lack of knowledge of the field of psychology. I disagreed with some of the assertions but then I come to this discussion from some psychological pig ignorance. Yet, having discussed with fellow bioscientists the question of intelligence in octopi (Jack Cohen had an octopus in his lab) I was a little perturbed by a graphic of an 'attractor dimension' (a sort of analogue for intelligence) against time that has octopi significantly lower than that for canines. I was sufficiently perturbed that I sought out the source academic paper only to find that it lacked a detailed methods section and knowing that the nervous control system of octopi is more distributed than that of highly centralised mammals, I wondered if that research had properly measured that metric?

My being perturbed by some aspects of this book should not be taken as a negative criticism as any book that stimulates questioning, and cause a reader to look into some of its source material, says something about that book's value and interest. (It might even say something about my own sentience, or even my own journey, hopefully, towards full-blown sentience?)

Finally, some readers especially those steeped in SF literature may disagree, or at least be a little uncomfortable, with some of Nicholas Humphrey's analysis. For example, I personally have an as yet untestable hence currently unscientific belief that we will one day develop a true artificial sentience (the trajectory of our creating devices capable increasing information processing seems to me to be heading that way), while I sense Nicholas Humphrey is sceptical. Nonetheless, the author successfully outlines some of the issues we will have to address as we head towards that goal (even if we never quite reach it). However, most readers are likely to buy into one of his other conclusions that we fully sentient creatures have a duty of care and stewardship over other animals of demonstrably lesser intelligence.

This book is clearly of relevance to sentient creatures. I wonder if, one day, an AI will get to read it and provide a thoughtful critique?

Jonathan Cowie

 


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