Counting the Components of My Consciousness

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 20, 2018

When the scientific discipline of artificial intelligence emerged in the 1950’s academics began to seriously believe that someday a computer will become sentient like us, and have consciousness and self-awareness. Science has no idea how humans are conscious of reality, but scientists assume if nature can accidentally give us self-awareness then science should be able to intentionally build it into machines. In the over sixty years since scientists have given computers more and more awareness and abilities. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: What are the components of consciousness needed for sentience? I’ve been trying to answer that by studying my own mind.

Thinking Machine illustration

Of course, science still doesn’t know why we humans are self-aware, but I believe if we meditate on the problem we can visualize the components of awareness. Most people think of themselves as a whole mind, often feeling they are a little person inside their heads driving their body around. If you spend time observing yourself you’ll see you are actually many subcomponents.

Twice in my life, I’ve experienced what it’s like to not have language. It’s a very revealing sensation. The first time was back in the 1960s when I took too large a dose of LSD. The second time was years ago when I experienced a mini-stroke. If you practice meditation you can learn to observe the moments when you’re observing reality without language. It’s then you realize that your thoughts are not you. Thoughts are language and memories, including memories from sensory experiences. If you watch yourself closely, you’ll sense you are an observer separate from your thoughts. A single point that experiences reality. That observer only goes away when you sleep or are knocked by drugs or trauma. Sometimes the observer is aware to a tiny degree during sleep. And if you pay close enough attention, your observer can experience all kinds of states of awareness – each I consider a component of consciousness.

The important thing to learn is the observer is not your thoughts. My two experiences of losing my language component were truly enlightening. Back in the 1960’s gurus of LSD claimed it brought about a state of higher consciousness. I think it does just the opposite, it lets us become more animal-like. I believe in both my acid and mini-stroke experiences I got to see the world more like a dog. Have you ever wondered how an animal sees the reality without language and thoughts?

When I had my mini-stroke it was in the middle of the night. I woke up feeling like lightning had gone off in my dream. I looked at my wife but didn’t know how to talk to her or even knew her name. I wasn’t afraid. I got up and went into the bathroom. I had no trouble walking. I automatically switched on the light. So conditioned reflexes were working. I sat on the commode and just stared around at things. I “knew” something was missing, but I didn’t have words for it, or how to explain it, even mentally to myself. I just saw what my eyes looked at. I felt things without giving them labels. I just existed. I have no idea how long the experience lasted. Finally, the alphabet started coming back to me and I mentally began to recite A, B, C, D, E, F … in my head. Then words started floating into my mind: tile, towel, door, mirror, and so on. I remembered my wife’s name, Susan. I got up and went back to bed.

Lately, as my ability to instantly recall words has begun to fail, and I worry about a possible future with Alzheimer’s, I’ve been thinking about that state of consciousness without language. People with dementia react in all kinds of ways. From various kinds of serenity, calmness to agitation, anger, and violence. I hope I can remain calm like I did in the bathroom at that time. Having Alzheimer’s is like regressing backward towards babyhood. We lose our ability for language, memories, skills, and even conditioned behaviors. But the observer remains.

The interesting question is: How much does the observer know? If you’ve ever been very sick, delirious, or drunk to incapacity, you might remember how the observer hangs in there. The observer can be diminished or damaged. I remember being very drunk, having tunnel vision, and seeing everything in black and white. My cognitive and language abilities were almost nil. But the observer was the last thing to go. I imagine it’s the same with dementia and death.

Creating the observer will be the first stage of true artificial intelligence. Science is already well along on developing an artificial vision, hearing, language recognition, and other components of higher awareness. It’s never discovered how to add the observer. It’s funny how I love to contemplate artificial intelligence while worrying about losing my mental abilities.

I just finished a book, American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee about wolves being reintroduced into Yellowstone. Wolves are highly intelligent and social, and very much like humans. Blakeslee chronicles wolves doing things that amazed me. At one point a hunter shoots a wolf and hikes through the snow to collect his trophy. But as he approaches the body, the dead wolf’s mate shows up. The mate doesn’t threaten the hunter, but just sits next to the body and begins to howl. Then the pack shows up and takes seats around the body, and they howl too. The wolves just ignore the hunter who stands a stone’s throw away and mourns for their leader. Eventually, the hunter backs away to leave them at their vigil. He decides to collect his trophy later, which he does.

I’ve been trying to imagine the mind of the wolf who saw its mate killed by a human. It has an observing mind too, but without language. However, it had vast levels of conditioning living in nature, socializing with other wolves, and experiences with other animals, including humans. Wolves rarely kill humans. Wolves kill all kinds of other animals. They routinely kill each other. Blakeslee’s book shows that wolves love, feel compassion, and even empathy. But other than their own animalistic language they don’t have our levels of language to abstractly explain reality. That wolf saw it’s mate dead in the snow. For some reason, wolves ignore people, even ones with guns. Wolves in Yellowstone are used to being watched by humans. The pack that showed up to mourn their leader were doing what they do from instinct. It’s revealing to try and imagine what their individual observers experienced.

If you meditate, you’ll learn to distinguish all the components of your consciousness. There are many. We are taught we have five senses. Observing them shows how each plays a role in our conscious awareness. However, if you keep observing carefully, you’ll eventually notice we have more than five senses. Which sense organ feels hunger, thirst, lust, pain, and so on. And some senses are really multiple senses, like our ability to taste. Aren’t awareness of sweet and sour two different senses?

Yet, it always comes back to the observer. We can suffer disease or trauma and the observer remains with the last shred of consciousness. We can lose body parts and senses and the observer remains. We can lose words and memories and the observer remains.

This knowledge leaves me contemplating two things. One is how to build an artificial observer. And two, how to prepare my observer for the dissolution of my own mind and body.


What Happens When Humans Aren’t the Smartest Beings on Earth?

What if people weren’t the crown of creation?  What if we had to play second banana to Humans 2.0, AI machines, visiting aliens, cyborgs or other potentially smarter beings?  I think our fear is they would treat us like we have treated chimpanzees.  What if intelligent machines emerge, homo sapiens superior evolve and we make SETI contact, and suddenly we’re number four on the totem pole of intelligence?


Unless we destroy the planet and make ourselves extinct, sooner or later we’re going to be replaced at the top of the smart chart.   How will that effect us personally, our society, and how we think about our future?  Most primitive cultures when contacted by modern humans haven’t fared well.  Science fiction has been preparing us for centuries, but I’m not sure if science fiction has done a good enough job covering all the possibilities.

Possible Replacements

It doesn’t take a lot of time to think up possible replacements who could claim our throne as being the smartest beings on the planet.

  • Genetically enhanced humans
  • Naturally evolved humans
  • Artificial beings
  • Cyborgs
  • Uploaded humans
  • AI super computers
  • Robots
  • Androids
  • Alien visitors
  • SETI contact

I’m not sure if we’re not already seeing a natural selection in our species.  Our severely polarized society, divided between liberals and conservatives, between the scientific and the religious, between the secular and the sacred, might already be moving us towards separate species.  The conservative fraction that clings to the past is becoming anti-intellectual and anti-education.  If the scientific minded only breed with the scientific, won’t they produce a line of smarter humans?  Of course natural selection doesn’t always produce successful adaptations.  Some people have suggested the rise of autism comes from overly smart people mating with other overly smart people.  It might turn out that intelligence isn’t an important trait, or one vital for survival.

Then there is genetic engineering.  Think of the movie Gattaca, the old classic Brave New World, or Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress.  We’re getting very close to making customized homo sapiens sapiens.  In just a few generations we could have a new species that make us look outdated.  Gattaca was a salute to the natural human, but was it realistic?  We loved Vincent for competing and winning, but can humans really compete with super humans?  Again, we’re assuming that intelligence is trait that wants to win out.

We might even be doing something now that will lead to a more naturally evolved humans.  As more women select Caesarian sections for childbirth, we’re changing an important factor that might lead to change.  Our brain size has always been limited to the size of the birth canal – now its not.  Over time we might see new adaptations.  Read Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio.

Work with our genome has shown that DNA is an erector set for building biological machines.  How soon before we start creating new recipes?  Whole new artificial beings could be created, or animals could be uplifted to human intelligence and beyond.  Think about the science fiction of Cordwainer Smith and H. G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau?

Google Glass might be our first step toward becoming cyborgs with auxiliary brain power.  Wearable computers, artificial limbs and senses could lead to supercharged brains and all those science fiction scenarios where people jacked into machines.

I’m not a big believer in uploading brains into computers, but a lot of people are.  Now that my body is getting old and failing, the idea is becoming more appealing.  People like Ray Kurzweil hope to find immortality this way, and such ideas have been the theme of many SF stories.  Sometimes those stories are wished for fantasies, and sometimes they are feared nightmares.

What I’m waiting for is the technological singularity.  AI super computers should be just around the corner if I can live long enough.  Many people fear AI minds with stories ranging from “Press Enter _” by John Varley to the latest movie Transcendence, but I’m hoping machine minds will be benign, or even indifferent to humans and animal life.

Who Do You Want To Do Your Brain Surgery?

If after we get bump down the intelligence list, how is that going to change society?  If you need brain surgery would you want a human or post-human holding the scalpel?  Or would you prefer an AI mind that is 16 times smarter than a person?  If a human and a robot were running for President, who would you vote for?  Liberals like smart dudes, but conservatives don’t.  They like old friendly duffers like Ronald Reagan.  But what if the robot had the combined intelligence of all of Congress, the Supreme Court and every CEO in America?

We’re already designing smart cars to drive us because it will be safer, and we already have planes with automatic pilots, how long before we have machines doing everything else for us?  Will we just sit around and eat bon-bons?

If we share Earth with beings more intelligent than us, won’t we ultimately let them run things?  What if they were smart enough to tell us how to handle global warming so we suffered the least, paid the least, but got the maximum benefits from changing our lives, thus making the Earth’s biosphere more stable?  What if they gave us wealth and security, and protected all the other species on the planet as well?  Would we say, hell no!  Would we say we prefer to take our chances with failure just so we could make our own decisions?

Democracy v. Plutocracy v. Oligarchy  v. Cyberocracy

We like to think we currently rule ourselves through collective decision making, but more than likely, we could already be an oligarchy or plutocracy, ruled by a limited number of rich people.  What if we could create powerful super computers that ruled us politically and ran the economy?  Would you prefer to be ruled by a handful of rich people, or a handful of smart machines?  Remember who flies your 787 now.  This idea scares the hell out of most people, but just how smart was George Bush at running the country, or how much better is Barack Obama, who most people would say is brainer?   What if decisions about taxes weren’t made by people filled with emotions?  What if we told the machines to maximize freedom, minimize taxation, maximize security, health and wealth, minimize pollution and environmental impact, and so on, and then just let them figure out the best way.

What If Post-Humans and Robots Are Atheists?

How will ordinary humans feel if their replacements reject God?  What if massive AI brains see nothing in reality to validate religion?  What if SETI aliens, say “What is a God?”  One of the common traits of western civilization impacting newly discovered primitive people is their demoralization of losing their gods.  Look what Europeans did to the Native Americans.  How are we going to feel when we’re invaded by post-humans and intelligent machines?  Will they make us move onto reservations?

The Art and Science We Can’t Imagine

What if our minds cannot feel the art and understand the science of our intellectual descendants?  We can look back over thousands of years, to what our ancestors have imagined, built and perfected, and understand what they created.  We know them because we’re an extension of who they were.  When greater minds come after us, they will understand us, but will we know them?  At what point will we no longer be able to follow in their footsteps?  Whether we like it our not, our brains have limits. We’ve always been used to exploring at the edge of reality, so what happens when we become aborigines to beings who see us as the first beings, and they are the later ones?  The ones who leave us behind.

Getting a PhD

Of course, being a scientist might not be as much fun if you had to compete with Human 2.0 folk, or AI minds.  Vincent in Gattaca pushed himself to inhuman efforts to compete against gene enhanced humans, but I’m not sure most people would do that.  AI minds could do a literature search for a PhD and distill the results in no time.  They would probably inherently know how to create and test a hypothesis, set up the experiments and research, and since they’d have math coprocessors in their brains, instantly do all the statistics.  Could any Human 2.0 or 3.0 individual compete with AI minds that are 16 or 64 times as smart as a Human 1.0 is now?

pug in lap

Life as a Lap Dog

If we couldn’t be the top dog, would we want to be a lap dog?  Or would we want to live like the Amish and exclude ourselves from the future modern world?  Can you imagine a mixed society of Humans 1.0, Humans 2.0, AI minds, robots, cyborgs, androids, uplifted animals and artificial beings all coexisting happily, or even roughly happy?  We don’t get along well with each other now, and we haven’t been too kind to our fellow animal citizens on this planet.  But then, maybe we’re the problem.

I already know I’m not the smartest geek in the group now.  I know I’m well down on the list of GRE scores.  I’m not a boss or a leader.  I’m not on the cutting edge of anything.  And most people are like me.  I putter around in my small land, ignoring most of the world.  Maybe that’s why I’m not scared of being replaced at the top, because I’m nowhere near the top.

You know, here’s a funny thing.  If an AI robot walked up to you at a party, one that has the brain power of 64 humans, what would you ask it?  What are you dying to know?  Is there anything the robot could tell you that would drastically change your life?  I’d probably say to it, “You read any good books lately?”

JWH – 4/23/14

The Evolution and Education of Artificial Minds

After space travel, one of the most loved themes of science fiction is robots.  Many people, going back centuries, have imagined creating artificial people.  Writers of robot stories have seldom explored the technical details behind what it means to create a thinking being, they just assumed it will be done – in the future.  Since the 1950s artificial intelligence has been a real academic pursuit, and even though scientists have produced machines that can play chess and Jeopardy, many people doubt the possibility of ever building a machine that knows it’s playing chess or Jeopardy.

I disagree, although I have no proof or authority to say so.  Let’s just say if I was to bet money on which will come first, a self-aware thinking machine or a successful manned mission to Mars, I put my money on arrival of thinking machines.  I’m hoping for the both sometimes before I die, and I’m 61.

There is a certain amount of basic logic involved in predicting intelligent machines.  If the human mind evolved through random events in nature, and intelligence emerged as a byproduct of ever growing biological complexity, then it’s easy to suggest that machine intelligence can evolve out the development of ever growing computer complexity.

However, there’s talk on the net about the limits of high performance computing (HPC), and the barriers of scaling it larger – see “Power-mad HPC fans told: No exascale for you – for at least 8 years” by Dan Olds at The Register.  The current world’s largest computer needs 8 megawatts to crank out 18 petaflops, but to scale it up to an exaflop machine, would require 144 megawatts of power, or a $450 million dollar annual power bill.  And if current supercomputers aren’t as smart as a human, and cost millions to run, is it very likely we’ll ever have AI machine or android robots that can think like a man?  It makes it damn hard to believe in the Singularity.  But I do.  I believe intelligent machines are one science fictional dream within our grasp.


[click on photos for larger images]

Titan is the current speed demon of supercomputers, and is 4352 square feet in size.  Even if all it’s power could be squeezed into a box the size of our heads, it wouldn’t be considered intelligent, not in the way we define human intelligence.  No human could calculate what Titan does, but it’s still considered dumb by human standards of awareness.  However, I think it’s wrong to think the road to artificial awareness lies down the supercomputer path.  Supercomputers can’t even do what a cockroach does cognitively.  They weren’t meant to either.

It’s obvious that our brains aren’t digital computers.  Our brains process patterns and are composed of many subsystems, whose sum are greater than the whole.  Self-aware consciousness seems to be a byproduct of evolutionary development.  The universe has always been an interaction between its countless parts.  At first it was just subatomic particles.  Over time the elements were created.  Then molecules, which led to chemistry.  Along the way biology developed.  As living forms progressed through the unfolding of evolutionary permutations, various forms of sensory organs developed to explore the surrounding reality.  Slowly the awareness of self emerged.

There are folks who believe artificial minds can’t be created because minds are souls, and souls come from outside of physical reality.  I don’t believe this.  One proof I can give is we can alter minds by altering their physical bodies.

To create artificial beings with self-awareness we’ll need to create robots with senses and pattern recognition systems.  My guess is this will take far less computing power than people currently imagine.  I think the human brain is based on simple tricks we’ve yet to discover.  It’s three pounds of gray goo, not magic.

Human brains don’t process information anywhere near as fast as computers.  We shouldn’t need exascale supercomputers to recreate human brains in silicon.  We need a machine that can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and can learn a language.  Smell, touch and taste might not be essential.  One thing I seldom see discussed is learning.  It takes years for a human to develop into a thinking being.  Years of processing patterns into words and memories.  If we didn’t have language and memory would we even be self-aware?  If it takes us five years to learn to think like a five-year-old, how long will it take a machine?

And if scientists spend years raising up an artificial mind that thinks and is conscious, can we turn it off?  Will that be murder?  And if we turn it off and then back on, will it be the same conscious being as before?  How much of our self-awareness is memory?  Can we be a personality if we only have awareness of the moment?  Won’t self-awareness need a kind of memory that’s different from hard drive type memory?

I believe intelligent, self-aware machines could emerge in our lifetimes, if we all live long enough.  I doubt we’ll see them by 2025, but maybe by 2050.  Science fiction has long imagined first contact with an intelligent species from outer space, but what if we make first contact with beings we created here on Earth? How will that impact society?

There have been thousands of science fiction stories about artificial minds, but I’m not sure many of them are realistic.  The ones I like best are:  When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold, Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers and the Wake, Watch Wonder Trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer.




These books imagine the waking of artificial minds, and their growth and development.  Back in the 1940s Isaac Asimov suggested the positronic brain.  He assumed we’d program the mechanical brain.  I believe we’ll develop a cybernetic brain that can learn, and through interacting with reality, will develop a mind and eventual become self-aware.  What we need is a cybercortex to match our neocortex.  We won’t need an equivalent for the amygdala, because without biology our machine won’t need those kinds of emotions (fear, lust, anger, etc.).  I do imagine our machine will develop intellectual emotions (curiosity, ambition, serenity, etc.).  An interesting philosophical question:  Can there be love without sex?  Maybe there are a hundred types of loves, some of which artificial minds might explore.  And I assume the new cyber brains might feel things we never will.

In the 19th century there were people who imagined heavier than air flight long before it happened.  Now I’m not talking a prophecy.  Most people before October 4, 1957 would not have believed  that man would land on the Moon by 1969.  I supposed we can pat science fiction on the back for preparing people for the future and inspiring inventors, but I don’t know if that’s fair.  Rockets and robots would have been invented without science fiction, but science fiction lets the masses play with emerging concepts, preparing them for social change.

My guess is a cybercortex will be invented accidently sometime soon leading to intelligent robots that will impact society like the iPhone.  These machines with the ability to learn generalized behavior might not be self-aware at first, but they will be smart enough to do real work – work humans like to do now.  And we’ll let them.  For some reason, we never say no to progress.

I’m not really concerned cybernetic doctors and lawyers.  I’m curious what beings with minds that are 2x, 5x, 10x or 100x times smarter than us will do with their great intelligence.  I do not fear AI minds wiping us out.  I’m more worried that they might say, “Want me to fix that global warming problem you have?” Or, “Do you want me to tell the equations for the grand unified theory?”

How will we feel if we’re not the smartest dog around?

JWH – 5/19/13

Why Humans Won’t Be the God of Robots

There’s a scene in the film Prometheus where an android asked a human why he would want to meet his maker?  The human replied that he’d like to ask his maker why he made him.  So the android said to the human, “Why did you make me?”  And the human replied, “Because we could.”  And the android then asked, “Will that answer be good enough for you?”

Science fiction has always loved the motif of man being the God of robots and AI machines – but I don’t think that will be true.  Not because artificial intelligence can’t exist, but because of how AI will evolve.

Please read “’A Perfect and Beautiful Machine’: What Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Reveal About Artificial Intelligence” by Daniel C. Dennett at The Atlantic.  No really, take the time to read this essay, if you are at all interested in artificial intelligence because this is an elegant essay about how AI will evolve.  It’s also a unique comparison of Charles Darwin and Alan Turing that observes concepts I’ve never read or thought about before, especially about the nature of evolution.  But for those who won’t take the time to read the article, I’ll summarize.  Darwin’s theory of evolution, according to Dennett, proves that God or an intelligent designer didn’t create life on Earth.  And Turing, with his Turing machine, proves that computers can produce creative output with no intelligent mind at all.  What I get from this is simplicity can produce complexity.

But back to AI and robots.  For a long time we’ve thought we could program our way to artificial intelligence.  That once we learned how intelligence worked we could write a program that allowed machines to be smart and aware like humans.  The belief was if random events in physics, chemistry and biology could produce us, why couldn’t we create life in silicon by our own intelligent design?

The solution to AI has always been elusive.  Time and again we’ve invented machines that could do smart things without being smart.  Machine self-awareness is always just over the horizon.

What Dennett is suggesting, is artificial intelligence won’t come from our intelligent designs, but from programs evolving in the same kind of mindless way that we evolved out of the organic elements of the Earth.  That humans can create the context of AI creation, that humans can be the amino acids, but they can’t be the designers.  The programs that produce AI need a context to evolve on their own.  In other words, we need to invent an ecosystem for computer programs to develop and evolve on their own.  How that will work I have no idea.

This means we’ll never get to code in Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.  It also suggests that complexity doesn’t come from complexity, but the creative power of non-intelligent design.  There’s a lot to this.

I’m also reading Imagine by Jonah Lehrer and it discusses how creativity often comes from our unconscious mind, and through group interaction.  Often creative ideas burst out in an Ah-Ha! moment after we have digested the facts, chewed them over, worried, given up and then forgot about the problem.  We are not even the God of our own thoughts and creativity.  That intelligent design is the randomness of evolution.


Time and again the Lehrer book talks about creativity coming from process and not an individual expression.  If you combine what Dennett and Lehrer are saying you catch a whiff of spookiness about unconscious forces at play in our minds and life in general.  Conscious thinking become less impressive because it’s only the tip of the iceberg that surfs on the deep waves of the unconscious mind.  Evolution is a blind force of statistics.  Is creativity just another blind force like evolution?

If Dennett is right, our conscious minds will never be powerful enough to conceive of an artificial mind.  And Dennett also says that Charles Darwin by coming up with the theory of evolution indirectly proves that a God couldn’t have created us whole in a divine mind.  If you think about all of this enough, you’ll start seeing this is saying something new.  It’s a new paradigm, like the Copernican revolution.  We’re not the center of the universe, and now conscious thought is not the crown of creation.

[I didn’t write this.  Thousands of books that I’ve read did.]

JWH – 6/28/12

How To Turn Smart TVs in Genius TVs, But Will They Become HAL 9000s?

In recent years TV makers have been adding features from the Internet (Netflix, Pandora, etc.) to their sets and calling them Smart TVs.  Let’s imagine the trend continuing so that we have Genius TVs – what features would they have?  Do we really want them?

Right now we have many devices, services, apps, sites that all work in different ways.  Smart devices are ones where two technologies blend together, like Bluetooth consoles in cars recognizing Bluetooth smartphones so you can have hands free phone calls while driving.  To make them smarter, they can also be GPS screens, rear view videos, engine monitoring, radios, CD players, etc.  Genius devices are one that blend in many technologies and make them work together.  Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Broadband, USB, TCP/IP are all enabling technologies that bring electronic devices together.

In a way, all of this is very scary because we’re making machines smarter and smarter.  If you’ve ever read John Varley’s classic story, “Press Enter ■” you’ll know what I mean, but for right now we’re all rushing headlong into convergence of intelligent machines.  Most people love their gadgets but often get overwhelmed in how to manage them.  That’s why inventors work so hard to let machines talk to one another so they can figure out how to work together without human intervention.

This also reminds me of scenes from the dystopian film Fahrenheit 451, based on the classic Ray Bradbury novel, and of course, Big Brother screens in Nineteen Eighty-Four.   I’m in love with gadgets, but such gadgets haven’t always been portrayed well in science fiction.  And there was HAL 9000 of course.


Our machines are getting smarter to make it easier for us to be dumber.

Here’s an example.  When I sat up my new Roku I had to add each channel I wanted, and for each channel the Roku would give me a code that I had to enter in at a web browser.  For Netflix I went to and entered the code, and then went back to the Roku to see that I had been validated.  In the future I could validate my identity with the Roku, and then it could go down its lists of channels and automatically check with each service to see if I had an account and configure the Roku device for me.  The smarter Roku would know more about me, and have access to my accounts.

With a Genius TV, I should be able to identify myself and it should configure itself automatically for everything I like to do with its designed features.  It will be a video phone, and so it will get my contacts from the cloud, so I can say, “Call Connell” and it will know who I want.  Or I could say, “Take me to the next episode of Breaking Bad I want to watch” or “I want to look at all the photographs of my father” and it would know what I want to do.  Of course, I’ll be developing a symbiotic relationship with my Genius TV.

If you’ve ever used the program Zite on the iPad you’ll know how a program can consolidate your interests with articles appearing on the Internet each day.  I should be able to tell my Genius TV that I’m interested in learning about how people lived in Boston from 1850-1875 and it would go get me diaries, photos, newspaper articles, books, etc., and format them in an interesting way to process all the data.  This goes way beyond Google.  I’m talking about a digital Jeeves like in the P. G. Wodehouse books who is smarter than me, and who can take care of all my needs.  Siri is the first step to a Genius TV.  But what if we all had our own personal Siri that really knew us?

A Genius TV must be completely Internet aware, not just design to work with a few services like a Roku box.  It needs to be voice activated.  It needs to integrate with my Internet provider, phone provider, my TV provider, broadband provider, my cloud services, my home security provider, utility provider, security cams, home network, cameras, and even local over-the-air TV and radio.  I mean, this sucker’s got to be aware of everything.  Before we all run headlong into this future, I really do recommend reading “Press Enter ■” if you can find a copy.  [There are no legal copies I can link to, but just remember my warning.  There are dangers to the future we’re all heading into.]

We won’t have an Einstein level Genius TV for years, but TVs on sale today are getting smarter all the time.  So this essay should help you think about the possibilities the next time you buy a new TV.  The simple way to look at it is to think about what devices that you own now that you can eliminate.  Think how smartphones have eliminated so many older gadgets, well the same thing will happen to smart and genius TVs.

Here’s all the devices that’s connected to my current entertainment center in my den.

  • 56” TV
  • Blu-ray player
  • CD/SACD player
  • Receiver
  • Roku
  • Home Theater PC
  • Old game unit
  • Ethernet switch
  • 5 speakers

I picture a Genius TV being a larger wall mounted screen with maybe or maybe not a visible speaker bar, and that’s it.  Elegant and simple.  It can see me and I can talk to it.

I can buy the physical setup now if I’m willing to give up CD/DVD/BD discs and go without the computer and better sound I get from the receiver/amp.  Right now Smart TVs don’t have PCs built into them.  My current HTPC is bigger than the receiver, but I could buy one that’s smaller than a Mac Mini.  Music, movies and radio are all available via a computer now, so I could do a lot of consolidation now by buying a smart TV from Sony or Samsung, and a Zotac mini-PC.

I could fake the start of a Genius TV by buying a Smart TV and adding a small computer like this one,


However, a real Genius TV will have a fully functional computer built-in.  An iPad screen has more pixels than a HD TV, and smartphones and tablets now have 2 and 4 core CPUs.  They are small and getting smaller and cheaper.  Adding one to a TV set is a no brainer.  Just think of of a smart TV as a 60” iPad.  Once you have a computer inside your TV you are connected to the world.  You don’t need a stereo receiver to get local AM/FM radio because you can get internet radio from all around the Earth.  TVs are built with 5.1 surround sound now, so we can jettison the receiver.  See how it eliminates older devices?

Most people have already given up CDs and DVDs, and BDs never really caught on.  But we’ll also give up game discs, paper photographs, and even paper personal records, books, newspapers and magazines.  The closer we get to Genius TVs, the less clutter we should have in our lives.  We’ll have different size screens.  Now’s the time to ask if this is good or not, because we’re already moving in this direction as fast as inventors can invent.  Machines have eaten our music, and they are about to eat our books.

Contemplate everything you use a TV or video screen for now.  How could you converge all of these activities into one elegant device?  One that would integrate or replace your other devices.  You’d still need a smartphone, and maybe a tablet, but all the TVs and computers in your house could be replaced by a Genius TV in each room, like the wall screens in the houses in the classic film Fahrenheit 451 shown above.

What all do you do with your TV, computer, phones and other gadgets in the house now?

  • Watch over-the-air TV
  • Watch cable/satellite/broadband TV
  • Watch DVD/Blu-ray discs
  • Watch Roku, AppleTV or similar Internet TV devices
  • Play video games with Xbox, Wii, Playstation
  • Use a computer connected to your TV or display
  • Skype
  • Video picture frames
  • Play family videos
  • Look at family photos
  • Listen to AM/FM/satellite music with a receiver hooked to TV
  • Listen to subscription music via the internet
  • Listen to ripped music on a hard drive
  • Watch pay-per-view TV
  • Run computer programs
  • Use tablet/smartphone apps
  • Use smartphone
  • Read books
  • Take an online course
  • Play DVD courses from The Teaching Company, or other educational training
  • Record shows with DVR
  • Medical monitoring
  • Web cameras
  • Security cameras

Okay, you get the picture.  Now think of the electronic components involved:

  • Screen with 1920×1080 resolution
  • TV tuner
  • Ethernet networking, wired or wireless
  • Cable/satellite tuner
  • Roku/AppleTV/etc. tuner
  • Computer
  • Sound/speakers
  • Hard drive
  • DVD/Blu-ray drives
  • Lots of clickers to control each device
  • Computers, tablets, ebooks, smartphones, GPSes, etc.

But let’s simplify this system.

  • 1920×1080 screen (or 2048×1536 or 4096×2160)
  • Electronic brain – or TV/CPU
  • Soundbar

Like the old component stereo systems of old, it’s easier to build and maintain a system from parts, that way you can upgrade or replace any part without replacing the whole.  The TV/CPU would have components itself.  Power supply, motherboard, memory, SSD drive.  It’s time to get away from optical drives, so let’s just assume our Genius TV won’t use DVD or Blu-ray, but the TV/CPU could have a slot for a drive for be backward compatible for those people who collected thousands discs and can’t part with them.


Den and living screens would be wall mounted, and they would include a video camera.  I picture soundbars now, but even they could be shrunk or hidden so all we see is the big screen.  That leaves us to imagine the TV/CPU.  They could be designed to easily hide in various kinds of furniture or also wall mounted.  They would need two wires, one for the power and the other for TV/Internet, which is now coax, but that wire could be redesigned into a wireless network.  Computers are becoming powerful enough, and wireless networking fast enough, that we might only need one TV/CPU brain to control all the screens in the house.  Our Genius TV could be completely hidden away, near where the fiber optic cable comes in from the street.

Of course, the controllers (clickers, keyboards, mice, game controls, motion sensors) for each screen in the house would be wireless, and we’d need them until which time we perfect human-machine verbal communication, and the video cameras that watch us can read our every movement and intent.  One day it will be just intelligent screens and people.

I think TVs should have full computer power, but not need Apple or Microsoft operating systems.  They will use those OSes for the foreseeable future, but eventually that will change.  I picture Genius TVs more like giant tablets with personalities.  The current iPad has more screen resolution than a HD TV.  Imagine if your TV had a library of apps like you find at the Apple or Android app store and could talk to your as easy as you talk to your friends?

Isn’t it time we have a world standard operating system?  So any screen size can run the same apps?  Once the screens become Geniuses, it won’t matter what OS they run, they will be smarter than us anyway.

If all our data is in the cloud, would we even need a SSD drives?  Wouldn’t 16-32gb of local memory for each screen  handle it all?  After the optical drive disappears won’t hard drives disappear next?

Can you imagine the opening menu on this Genius TV?

  • TV
  • Movies
  • News
  • Magazines
  • Music
  • Audiobooks
  • Internet
  • Apps
  • Videophone
  • Games
  • Photographs
  • Videos
  • Documents
  • Security
  • Medical

Or would we even need a menu if it was completely voice activated?   Most people can’t imagine the possibilities.  I’m sure I’m just barely scratching the surface of what’s possible.  Could you have have imagined the iPhone back in the 1990s?  Look at the video on this page about Pebble watches.  It’s a Bluetooth watch the integrates with your smartphone.  This synergy between two devices, watch and smartphone, creates surprising spinoffs.  Combing TVs, computers, internet, cable TV, phones, AI, etc. will produce some surprising spinoffs we can’t foresee now.

One thing that’s sweeping the country right now is online education.  At first in colleges but also for K-12 schooling too.   If you seen TED talks and Khan academy videos, imagine what a Genius TV could do for education.  Combine it with Skype and Google Hangout and home schooling becomes more social.  But instead of studying with children from the same school, or district, it would be possible to find other students anywhere in the world to form a study group.

If you have a 14-year-old kid who is fascinated by chemistry, you can hook them up with other 14 year-olds also fascinated by chemistry, and have them watch lectures from the very best chemistry professors in the world, and then have them remote view chemistry laboratories that are doing real chemistry.  Suddenly a TV becomes a lot more than a TV.  And computers become more than computers.

What happens if politics becomes truly participatory?  Why let just 100 senators vote on a bill, when anyone who is interested could participate?  TV has always been passive.  The Internet and computers are active.  Combining live events with the internet and TV screens should produce endless forms of real-time two-way/multi-way social networking.

What happens when your computers, TV, utility meter, security system and medical monitors mind meld into one system?  Is it a computer?  Is it a TV.  Do we need a new name?  Let’s not pick HAL 9000.  We’ll interact with large wall sized screens, so we’ll think we’re talking to a TV, but one that’s very smart.  Not some box that just passes on hundreds of video feeds.  As we add more intelligence to these devices won’t they seem more intelligent and individual?

Read Wake by Robert Sawyer.  No, I mean it.  You need to be prepared for the future.  There are science fiction stories that can help you imagine this future better than I can.  Read Rudy Rucker’s The Ware Tetralogy.   People are all nuts over vampires, zombies and werewolves right now.  Those undead creatures aren’t real and won’t happen.  Intelligent machines are happening.  Pay attention.  We’re all gadget crazy, but what happens when our TVs do become geniuses?


JWH – 4/16/12

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