David Mumford’s thoughts on consciousness

I have been reading David Mumford’s blog recently. David Mumford received a Fields Medal (Nobel Prize of Mathematics) for his work on algebraic geometry. He received many other awards including the National Medal of Science in 2010.

He writes about many different topics. His blogpost titled “Can an artificial intelligence machine be conscious, part II?” attracted my attention. That lead me to his more formal writing on the same subject:

Thoughts on Consciousness

In these articles he makes a point that never occurred to me. I wanted to share it with you.

  • For a robot to be conscious it has to experience time and feel emotions.

This is not an ironic statement. He is making a serious point.

Here’s few quotes from the blogpost and the article mentioned above:

“I believe that emotions are an essential ingredient of human consciousness. Unfortunately, the scientific study of the full range of human emotions seems stunted, largely neglected by many disciplines.”

“From my point of view, however, I think all scientists are missing the essential nature of consciousness. Sure we are conscious of what our eyes see and our ears hear, sure we are conscious of moving our body and making plans actions and sure, we can even fill our consciousness with the imaginary world of a novel or the proof of a theorem; but I think all this misses what makes consciousness absolutely different from anything material. Consciousness creates for us the experience of time, living in the present moment, the now, and it does this continuously moment after moment.”

“However, as I said above, an essential ingredient of human thought is missing: emotions and emotional intelligence. To my knowledge, the only computer scientist so far who has endeavored to model emotions, is Rosalind Picard at the MIT Media Lab. Without a thorough study of emotions, computer scientists will flounder in programming their robots to mimic and respond to emotions in their interactions with humans and AIs will never connect deeply to humans. Computer scientists, at the very least, need to code the
crucially important skill that we might call artificial empathy. However, going back to the question posed in the section heading, for a robot to actually be conscious, it would have to both experience time and feel its own emotions.”

David Mumford has many comments on the concept of time distributed over many blogposts. The latest blogpost on this topic is titled “Ruminations on cosmology and time” (this is technical article with formulas, etc.).


“In physics, time is static, simply one way to put coordinates on the 4-dimensional panoply of all events, past, present and future and in any place whatsoever. We can artificially construct a mathematical “flow”, a one-dimensional group of homeomorphisms of space-time, but no such flow is given by physics and it has no distinguished set of points called the present moment. To live in a world of time seems to me a wonderful gift and I have no clue how, like God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, one might give this gift to a robot.”

Interesting comment on Maya:

“Thus Maya can be seen as a description of one’s phenomenal self-image, a convincing reality but only a small window into what is out there, constructed by our limited consciousness.”

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