Earlier this week I found myself in Rome in the morning with about 20 minutes to spare. Walking around the neighborhood I was staying in (Trastevere), I came across an elderly nun walking along one of the bigger, and more crowded, streets of Rome. As I waited for her to go through a narrow passage in the sea of people, a young woman pushing a stroller physically nudged her out of the way, using the stroller to deny the physical space in front of and adjacent to the older woman as she overtook her. The nun grimaced but seemed resigned to what happened. I saw this unfold despite having been out for only about ten minutes. In contrast, having walked US streets in San Francisco, Boston, and New York for over twenty years, I don’t recall seeing a similar situation happen even once. It follows that frequentist estimates of such occurrences in American cities and Rome suggest very different underlying distributions.
Two weeks ago I attended NIPS, one of the leading conferences on machine learning and AI. This was my first time at NIPS, but I got the impression that they always like to have a sprinkling of neuroscience talks swimming in the sea of machine learning presentations. This year, they had no less than four talks with some variation of “consciousness” or “brain” in the title. They were given by Giulio Tononi, Scott Aaronson, Stanislas Dehaene, and Terrence Sejnowski. Despite the ambitious-sounding titles, unfortunately most of these talks did not really tackle the fundamental basis of consciousness, except for Giulio Tononi’s. On the other hand, while all the other talks were reasonably accessible, I found Giulio’s talk to be largely impenetrable. It was intriguing enough however that I will try to summarize my understanding of his theory, and offer some thoughts of my own on the subject. I should warn that I am not going to say anything particularly coherent, and I may in fact be grossly misrepresenting what Giulio intended to say because of my limited understanding of his talk.