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Hello there, Anil Seth…

image of Anil Seth. image.
Anil Seth, professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at University of Sussex, will visit Lund University in May to give this year's prestigious Segerfalk lecture. (Image source: Anil Seth)

Almost 14 million viewers have watched Anils Seth’s TED Talk “Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality”. In the beginning of May, he visits Lund University and Neuroscience Day to give this year's prestigious Segerfalk lecture. We meet on zoom for a conversation about AI, the mystery of consciousness and – of course – to find out what he knew about Sweden.

… how would you explain consciousness?

It is what we lose when we fall asleep and even more profoundly when we undergo general anesthesia. It is any kind of experience whatsoever. Like when we open our eyes, we have a visual experience. There is the redness of the sunset or the blueness of the sky – there is something more happening than just objects interacting. One central part of consciousness is the experience of self, of being a person.

The view on what consciousness is, does it vary in between societies?

There are variations even within one society. For some, it is intimately tied up with intelligence and language, while others place emphasis on sensory experience. Across cultures there appear to be interesting differences in how the ‘self’ is considered, with some placing less emphasis on individuality and more on that part of experience that is shared with others. There might be different philosophical perspectives as well. In the West, most people working in this field – but not all! – think of consciousness as a product of the brain or the body. In eastern philosophies, people might think about consciousness as potentially still separable from the body and the brain - in ways that used to be common in the west too.

image of anil seth. photo
(Image source: Anil Seth)

Like how we view time differently…

Yes, and in physics there is a huge debate on what time is: whether it is something that flows in reality, or just in our minds. Certainly, there is a difference between how time seems to unfold in the physical world, and time as we experience it. There’s some fascinating work by anthropologists in South America showing that for some relatively isolated tribes, the future would be behind them and the past in front of them. Because the past has happened, so they can see it, but the future has not happened yet. They can’t see it. This differs from most in the West and shows how differing conceptions of time can be reflected in language. These things I find fascinating because they reveal assumptions that we are not even aware of making - until we come across a different possibility.

What sparked your interest the research field of consciousness?

I have been interested in consciousness since I was a child, but I never thought I would work on it for a career. In the 90’s there were not many people working on consciousness, it was considered mainly a philosophical problem. But that changed. My route was still indirect: I did my PhD in AI, which turned out to provide a lot of useful tools for how we think about the brain and the body and mind – and how they relate.

image of anil seth. photo.
(Image source: Anil Seth)

What would you like to achieve with your research?

I would like to find out the answer to the question how consciousness happens, but I am aware that this question might not be the right one. Sometimes in science, you progress by changing the question, not by finding the answer to what we assume is the question. Ideally, I would like to progress in either of these things to the extent that there is no longer a sense of mystery about the nature of consciousness. But failing that, a more realistic goal is simply to make progress on our understanding of consciousness in a way that makes a positive difference to society.

If you solve the mystery of consciousness, would that not take away the mystery of life?

I really don’t think so! Every time science has shed light on something previously mysterious, it has deepened the sense of awe and wonder of that phenomenon. The scale of the universe is so much bigger and grander than we assumed in the era before modern astronomy. Understanding how life works does not drain life of its beauty, it has added to it. Even though we do not fully understand what is going on with consciousness yet, the partial understanding that we do have encourages us to take consciousness less for granted. So I think that the opposite is true.

In your book “Being you” you mention that we seem to mix up consciousness with intelligence. Should we be more scared of an artificial consciousness rather than artificial intelligence?

The name AI is part of the problem. By calling something an artificial intelligence, we are already endowing it with a sense of it being an agent. These systems are very powerful, but they are still computer algorithms. AI systems are getting more powerful, which has led some people to wonder whether there be a point when these things become conscious. But why should there be? Consciousness is not the same thing as intelligence – our tendency to conflate the two is anchored in our anthropocentric bias – to see everything through a human lens. But, if artificial consciousness does happen, whether intentionally or not, it will be a massive ethical catastrophe, since we then have introduced the potential for suffering at a new industrial scale.

More realistically, but also problematically, we are facing a situation where AI systems can increasingly give us the impression that there is a conscious mind at work: a sort of cognitive illusion where we can’t help attributing consciousness even when we know it’s just a bunch of algorithms spinning away. This could be problematic because a lot of our ethical and legal norms depends on our assumptions about what in the world is conscious or not; for example, the point at which something has moral and ethical status. This landscape becomes more complicated if it is populated by artificial systems that appear to be conscious.

In May we will great you here in person! Have you been to Sweden before?

I have! Twice, and I am very excited to come back and visit!

What comes to your mind then when you think about Sweden?

Some of my friends are going to see the ABBA show here in London, that is of course one thing: the music. Then Scandinavian bad weather, but also Scandinavian style. Things work in Sweden, and they also look good. One other thing that comes to mind when I think of Sweden, of course: Carl Linnaeus, the founder of taxonomy in biology. The Big Guy!

Neuroscience Day on May 4th 2023

Neuroscience Day in Lund is an annual event bringing together both researchers and research students in the Lund - Malmö - Copenhagen area to stimulate interaction in an informal setting.

Link to more information and registration


The research of Anil Seth

Anil Seth is interested in the nature of consciousness. One of his current projects is to understand how people’s experiences differ for the same shared world. The Perception Census has been designed to study this, and he is still looking for people to take part in this project. His hope is that it will help us to understand more about how perception differs among all of us, and help build new platforms for better empathy, understanding, and communication.

Link: The Perception Census

Together with his research group Anil Seth has previously done work showing that they can simulate what having a psychedelic hallucination might be like. Next step in the research is to see if it is possible to simulate different kinds of hallucinations, which can help understanding the brain basis of normal experience too. They also helped bring to life a major public art project, called Dreamachine which was enabled 40,000 people to safely experience visual hallucinations in the UK last year, using stroboscopic lighting experienced on closed eyes. The team are now refining this method to explore its potential as a treatment for depression.

Link: Dreamachine

Link: Read more about these ongoing research projects