William James and AI | Alan Heirich
Modern AI has been very successful at learning maps between high dimensional spaces. Maps can have impressive dynamics, such as are exhibited by real time robotic controllers trained by reinforcement learning. Our brains and conscious experience have dynamics too but these are not captured by the current generation of machine learning models.

One of the best accounts of these internal dynamics comes from the writings of 
William James. William James was an influential 19th century philosopher and psychologist. He wrote without the benefit of modern neuroscience but his introspective descriptions still outpace both neuroscientific understanding and AI models. Here then are some characteristics of our human consciousness taken from “Psychology: The Briefer Course” first published in 1892.

1. Associative Memory
The ability to retrieve memories based on similarity or arbitrary association is central to our flow of ideas. This is outside the scope of current AI models. Here is James’ lucid description of his own internal flow of associations (from Association: Partial Recall):

“...after looking at my clock just now (1879), I found myself thinking of a recent resolution in the Senate about our legal-tender notes. The clock called up the image of the man who had repaired its gong. He suggested the jeweler’s shop where I had last seen him; that shop, some shirt-studs which I had bought there; they, the value of gold and its recent decline; the latter, the equal value of greenbacks, and this, naturally, the question of how long they were to last, and of the Bayard proposition.”

This is something that you can observe in yourself, with practice. Allow your old thoughts to linger as your attention turns to new ones. With time you will be able to recreate your own chain of associations. You will be surprised at what you learn about yourself.

2. Attention
It’s clear that living beings use an attentional mechanism to narrow the scope of their mental processes. Modern AI currently has no such concept.

“It is a feeling which everyone knows, but which most people would call quite indescribable. We get it in the sensorial sphere whenever we seek to catch an impression of extreme faintness, be it of sight, hearing, taste, smell, or touch; we get it whenever we seek to discriminate a sensation merged in a mass of others that are similar; we get it whenever we resist the attractions of more potent stimuli and keep our mind occupied with some object that is naturally unimpressive. We get it in the intellectual sphere under exactly similar conditions: as when we strive to sharpen and make distinct an idea which we but vaguely seem to have; or painfully discriminate a shade of meaning from its similars; or resolutely hold fast to a thought so discordant with our impulses that, if left unaided, it would quickly yield place to images of an exciting and impassioned kind.” (from Attention: Voluntary Attention)

3. Ego
There must be some sense of “I”. Our minds are constantly evaluating, unconsciously and consciously, how our environment affects us.

“Each mind, to begin with, must have a certain minimum of selfishness in the shape of instincts of bodily self-seeking in order to exist. The minimum must be there as a basis for all farther conscious acts, whether of self-negation or of a selfishness more subtle still. All minds must have come, by way of survival of the fittest, if by no directer path, to take an intense interest in the bodies to which they are yoked, altogether apart from any interest in the pure Ego which they also possess.” (From The Self: Teleological Uses of Self Interest)

4. The concept of free will
James believes our thought process is a result of cerebral activity but he identifies a special capability of choosing to apply attention (from Attention: Attention and Free Will):

“No object can catch our attention except by the neural machinery. But the amount of attention which an object receives after it has caught our mental eye is another question. It often takes an effort to keep the mind upon it. We feel that we can make more or less of the effort as we choose... it will deepen and prolong the stay in consciousness of innumerable ideas which else would fade more quickly away.”

Despite this mechanistic understanding James felt the question of free will was undecidable by science.