What is awareness? Why does physical processing in our brain give rise to rich conscious experiences? When did awareness – the ability to consciously feel sensory events, objects, thoughts and emotion – first appear on Earth?
The nature and origin of awareness is one of the greatest questions about existence, alongside the question of the nature and origin of matter, and the nature and origin of life itself.
Science has made enormous strides in decoding the underlying principles of the physical universe – we now have confidence that matter originated in the Big Bang, together with space and time. And although life’s origins is still a frontier topic, we think that it is plausible that living systems arise as an emergent property of increasingly complex processes, eventually transitioning from geochemistry to biochemistry, to the first living cells.
But whatever our convictions about emergence or the fundamental status of conscious experience may be, there is still no fully developed or commonly accepted account of awareness, even at a mechanistic level. This is an enormous gap in human knowledge, as well as an opportunity for discovery.
Finding answers, insights, or even breakthroughs towards solving the origin and nature of awareness is an exceptional challenge because of the striking transdisciplinarity and coupling of the many big questions tied to this phenomenon. Nonetheless, from technologically driven initiatives in brain science and the formation of multidisciplinary institutes, to the leadership of professional societies, a number of dedicated efforts are underway to address similar questions.
YHouse embodies a plan to accelerate progress through a fresh, bold approach that incorporates, at a minimum, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, robotics, animal studies, developmental psychology, anthropology, and sociology. YHouse aims to also engage the areas grouped under the general heading of cognitive science, together with physics, mathematics, computer science, logic, philosophy and more.
YHouse is a fully transdisciplinary institute: Through the lens of natural science we can study awareness as a multi-faceted and multi-scale phenomenon. It can be traced through complex biochemical, organizational, and neuronal processes in living systems. Above all, consciousness, or awareness, is intimately connected to the way our brains operate, something that we are increasingly learning to explore from an objective, third person point of view.
But what are we to make of the obvious correlation between brain processes and our personal experience? This is the core question of the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness: harder than tracing the wiring diagram of the brain is the question of how that wiring corresponds to what we think, feel, remember and imagine in our subjective awareness.
Social science allows us to interrogate forms of shared social awareness. How do human beings buy into collective identities, forming incredibly strong tribal, national, religious and ideological ties? How does awareness influence how we recognize and respond to major societal problems and cultural challenges – including poverty, racism, violence, environmental deterioration, political tensions and other critical issues?
In the humanities, literature brings us rich descriptions of varieties of awareness that inspire and motivate us in our lives. And philosophy has long explored diverse approaches to the question of how we can think about thinking; how we can analyze language and concepts, including the very concept of “concept”. In other words: how can we use our own awareness to analyze awareness? This critical circularity is something not present in either the question of the origins of the Universe or the origins of life.
It would also be a waste to neglect the vast database of human experiential information gathered over the last few thousand years. That data spans many traditional explorations of the mind, from monotheistic mystic traditions to Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, to mention a few major lineages. Regardless of personal interest and preference, there are clear precedents for enabling valuable research: from St. Augustine’s thinking about the nature of time, Islamic scholastic thinking about atomism, and the Cambridge Platonists’ inspiration to Newton.
Most critically, right now a host of disruptive innovations based on unprecedented scientific and technological breakthroughs are altering the landscape of our existence, and the way we think about the primacy of our own minds.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is bringing us self-driving cars and champion Go players. Interactive robots are finally getting out of labs and factories. And the Internet of Things (IoT) is starting to connect sensors, gadgets, and machines everywhere, creating a vast and intelligent fabric of infrastructure. A grand experiment in complexity and emergent phenomena is taking place, the likes of which may have only happened once before in the past four billion years with the origins of living systems.
A human brain contains roughly a hundred billion neurons. While each neuron is simply a small signal-processing unit, together this huge network of neurons allows us to think, feel, imagine, and create. Before long, much more than a hundred billion sensors and gadgets will be connected in the IoT. The information processing capacity will be unprecedented.
How will that translate into the emergence of intelligence, and in what form can that intelligence be considered to be aware or conscious? Will the IoT lead to new forms of awareness that could approach or even eclipse that of humans – a piece of the often-discussed “Singularity” extrapolation? And looking in the other direction, what can we learn about our own minds, and their evolution, now that we may be on the brink of building artificial minds?
The time is right for YHouse to help bring the world’s most inspiring and creative thinkers together to create a new type of research community to address all of these challenges and opportunities: A community that focuses cutting-edge inquiry on the central question of awareness and is fiercely transdisciplinary, assembling multiple areas of thought and insight in a quest for breakthroughs. An environment that celebrates open discourse, innovation and progress, and unfettered creative exchange between science, humanities, art, design, and technology.