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    Multitasking, Consciousness, And George Lucas
    By Samuel Kenyon | August 7th 2010 08:52 PM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Samuel

    Software engineer, AI researcher, interaction designer (IxD), actor, writer, atheist transhumanist. My blog will attempt to synthesize concepts...

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    Humans can only be conscious of one task at a time.

    Tasks that user experience and interaction designers are concerned with are usually relatively complex.  Tasks that require you to think about them.  Generally this means you are aware of what you are doing.  Later on you might be so familiar with a standard task that you don't have to be aware of it, but at first you have to learn it.  You might think this means consciousness is only needed for learning tasks.  However, in many cases not being aware during a task can result in failure--because your consciousness is required to handle new problems.

    And yet it seems like we are multitasking all the time.  I routinely have 3-4 computers and 5-6 monitors with dozens of applications running at work, typing a line of code while somebody asks me a question.  In this photo you can see me multitasking while teleoperating a robot (this was my old office in 2008 with only 4 monitors...)


    But I'm not consciously attentive of all that simultaneously.  I just switch between them quickly.  Typing while listening to someone talk is difficult without accidental cross-pollination, but it is easy if you have a buffer of words/code already in your head and you're just unconsciously typing it while your attention is now focused on the completely different context of listening to a human talk.

    Task switching and flipping between conscious and unconscious control happens so quickly and effortlessly that it's hard to believe that there is really just one task getting "processed" at a time.  For some strange people, like computer engineers, this makes perfect sense, since that's how basic CPUs work--one simple instruction at a time, millions of times per second.  Multiple programs can run on serial computers because the computer keeps all the programs in memory, and then hops between them very fast.  A little bit of this program, then a little bit of that program, and so on.

    As Missy Cummings, a former Navy pilot and human factors researcher, puts it: "In complex problem solving tasks, humans are serial processors in that they can only solve a single complex problem or task at a time, and while they can rapidly switch between tasks, any sequence of tasks requiring complex cognition will form a queue..." [1].

    For this reason, Cummings has warned people of the dangers of cell phone use while driving.  However, you can in fact drive while using a cell phone.  You can do lots of things while driving.  Have you ever been spaced out while driving (or walking) and found yourself transported to another location?  Who was driving in the interim?  You have trained yourself to drive enough that your mind can actually do it unconsciously.  However, if there is a problem or an unexpected event you will be alerted to that consciously--or you will not be alert and crash into something or someone.

    But, since we can get close to multitasking--by switching quickly and letting learned tasks run unconsciously--why would user interaction designers be worried about multitasking?

    Well first, as we already mentioned, often you need to be snapped out of auto-pilot to handle a new or emergency situation.  In some situations, not being conscious most of the time on the primary task can be very dangerous.  Do you want your ambulance driver to be playing GTA IV and polishing his/her nails on the way to rescue you (from your texting-related auto accident)?

    Secondly, the more you multitask, generally the less efficient you become at all the tasks.  Personally, I have also found that if the tasks are in very different contexts, the context switching itself uses a lot of energy.

    As Dave Crenshaw said (quote via Janna DeVylder) [2]:
    When most people refer to multitasking, they are really talking about switchtasking. No matter how they do it, switching rapidly between two things is just not very efficient or effective.
    And see DeVylder's blog post "Save Me From Myself: Designing for Multitasking" for a good intro to the design considerations of multitasking.

        
    Why is it Serial?

    I think that serial consciousness evolved in animals because they are situated and embodied.  It wouldn't work to have two conscious threads trying to drive one body in different directions.  Multiple threads have to share resources.  Having one thread conscious at a time gets closer to guaranteeing that multiple threads don't conflict.  I would expect that when the system breaks down it would be very confused and might hurt itself.

    Note: If the term "thread" is too computerese for your liking, then perhaps you can think of trains.  Consciousness is like a train station with only one track.  The metaphor breaks down pretty quickly, but hopefully that will get us on the same page.

    Certainly there is parallelism in the brain--indeed that is touted as one of the brain's great advantages.  The parallelism is also very different from most of our digital computers (for those who like to compare brains to computers).  But cell networks are at a much lower level in the skyscraper of the mind.  

    What about behaviors?  Somewhere in the middle levels of the mental skyscraper, we do have parallel behaviors, but they are automatic.  The autonomic nervous system (ANS) keeps everything running--breathing, heart rate, sweating, digestion, sexual arousal, etc.  You can be conscious about some of these behaviors, such as breathing, but you don't need to do that.  And I would venture that if you could, and tried, to turn off the ANS and control all those functions consciously at the same time, you would die quickly.

    It may be trite but it's worth invoking a manager hierarchy metaphor: The top manager is consciousness, and as you go lower, things become more automatic and less directly controllable by the higher up manager.  And this top manager is not director George Lucas, who supposedly micro-manages the tiniest details in his movies.  This manager is more like the other George Lucas, the one who oversees a vast empire--he doesn't care about details (fast-forward to 08:15 in the video below for the relevant discussion).





    References

    [1] Cummings, M.L.,& Mitchell P.J., "Predicting Controller Capacity in Remote Supervision of Multiple Unmanned Vehicles", IEEE Systems, Man, and Cybernetics,Part A Systems and Humans, (2008) 38(2), p. 451-460.

    [2] D. Crenshaw, The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done.  Jossey-Bass, 2008.

    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    It wouldn't work to have two conscious threads trying to drive one body in different directions.  Multiple threads have to share resources.  Having one thread conscious at a time gets closer to guaranteeing that multiple threads don't conflict.
    Actually you're talking about two different things.  You can have multiple instruction streams in a computer but it's all under the control of a single operating system.  As you mentioned, resources are shared and serialized to avoid having conflicting actions occur simultaneously.

    In the human brain it appears that something similar occurs, since often we may be unconsciously working on a problem for which a solution suddenly appears and it is raised to our conscious level (interrupting whatever we might currently be doing).  As long as no physical action is required, then such a process might occur in a variety of situations.

    Of course, the computer analogy is not entirely appropriate since it is based on an engineered solution, so it's usually incorrect when applied to biology.  However, as humans we tend to be enthralled with our ability to rationalize thoughts, and behave as if this is the only purpose in the brain.  Even our concept of consciousness is highly suspect, since we can barely describe it in ourselves and yet we're quite prepared to conclude that no other animals possess it.

    The simple reality is that ALL life possesses awareness.  It must be aware of the environment and other organisms for it to be considered alive..  However, it is clear that all life does not possess a brain, so there lies our first problem.

    Once we get past the awareness issue, we have to determine what we mean by consciousness and whether that's necessary.  Clearly it's not for most of the autonomous functions you've described, so once again, we're left with a question regarding what we mean by consciousness (and more specifically your point about multi-tasking).

    I personally suspect that the reason why organisms don't multitask is because that level of brain control is the least reliable aspect of awareness and consciousness.  We can easily see how often it breaks down in humans as well as how often it reaches unreliable conclusions.  However, no organism can rely solely on instinct or hard-wiring, so it would seem that the brain evolved a mechanism to allow a method for dealing with exceptions or novel situations.   The more long-lived an organism, the greater the need for such flexibility.  However, as evidence by the autonomous system, it doesn't appear that biology has a great deal of confidence in providing control over the truly important things to maintain life.
    Mundus vult decipi
    SynapticNulship
    In the human brain it appears that something similar occurs, since often we may be unconsciously working on a problem for which a solution suddenly appears and it is raised to our conscious level (interrupting whatever we might currently be doing).  As long as no physical action is required, then such a process might occur in a variety of situations.

    Indeed. And perhaps even when physical action is required, there are built-in arbitrators in the unconscious realm to prevent conflicts, e.g. two unconscious behaviors try to use the same resource (like a leg or an arm) and an arbiter chooses the current highest priority command or combines them together, etc.  Really I need to define what the resources are and I have not done that.
    SynapticNulship
    The simple reality is that ALL life possesses awareness.  It must be aware of the environment and other organisms for it to be considered alive..

    That sounds tautological.  Why do you define non-aware organisms as non-life?

    However, no organism can rely solely on instinct or hard-wiring, so it would seem that the brain evolved a mechanism to allow a method for dealing with exceptions or novel situations.

    I think that organisms can rely solely on instinct and hard-wiring, indeed I would consider the simple rules of cellular automata and Braitenberg's Vehicles evidence of how powerful simple hard-wiring can be for a creature.  However, obviously some animals like humans have consciousness (or so the humans claim :), and as you say, maybe it evolved because of the advantage of handling novel situations.  I'll have to do some investigation of the existing literature on the evolution of consciousness.

    Gerhard Adam
    That sounds tautological.  Why do you define non-aware organisms as non-life?
    ... because it makes no sense otherwise.  An unaware organism can't distinguish anything in its environment, of which the most important is to determine what is food.  In addition, no organism arbitrarily engages in cannibalism, so there must be a level of awareness that allows recognition of others of its species.  That awareness may be as simple as a chemical signal, but it exists nonetheless.

    Using the computer analogy, it would be like having a program with no conditional logic (IF/THEN/ELSE) statements.  Even a computer system requires interaction with the "external" world in the form of I/O operations.  While that situation is engineered as part of the overall configuration, it provides a means of introducing variable input and taking advantage of the programming logic.  A program with no I/O capability is useless. 

    Similarly with life.  "Awareness" is the "I/O process" by which biological existence occurs.
    I think that organisms can rely solely on instinct and hard-wiring...
    Once again, we have a problem because in the case of multicellular organisms, they must be capable of sensing their surroundings in order to cooperate.  Failure to do so is precisely what gives rise to cancers.

    I'm not talking about consciousness to the degree that these actions require thought, but that there is a level of awareness that allows such interactions to occur.  In the case of cancers, it is clear that something has gone amiss with that communication between cells which suggests that hard-wiring hasn't taken place otherwise why would the behavior deviate? 

    Instead, it would appear that there is an awareness to the level of being responsive to regulatory chemicals and signals.  When the mechanism for that breaks down, we have chaos.

    In other organisms, instinct may be much more prevalent if the population is sufficiently large so as to avoid the issues of inappropriate choices.   In those cases, there would be sufficient "logic" present to create certain responses to situations, but if it didn't affect overall fitness, then such responses would tend to dominate even from the occasional wrong choice.

    The one issue I have in comparing such behaviors to automation is that, to the best of my knowledge, we've never seen an animal have to "re-boot".  This suggests that whatever controls their behavior is sufficiently sophisticated to allow continued operations even when presented with completely novel situations.  I realize I'm on much thinner ice here, because there's nothing to preclude just repeated behaviors even if nothing results, but generally it appears that behavior is more complicated than that.
    Mundus vult decipi