AGI: Guidelines for How to Begin

Getting comfortable with determinism

From Narrow To General AI
9 min readMay 23, 2023

This post is part 2 of a series on AGI. You can read part 1 here. See a list of all posts here.

Summary of part 1: There are an overwhelming number and diversity of challenges in the path towards a full theory of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). These include explaining the breadth of human intellectual pursuits, the details of moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings, a range of philosophical paradoxes, and even self-imposed obstacles. To begin, then, one must first find what is a constant in all minds at all times.

Rocks and chairs can’t think. There must be something peculiar to the brain that makes it able to perform the intelligent activity we ascribe to it.

Though this seems obvious, the implications of this fact are difficult for the mind to fully appreciate. It entails that in day-to-day experience, through introspection, you should expect to find a set of fundamental, built-in rules that manifest as automatic, compelled, and inescapable mental reflexes. Such rules would apply inflexibly to every one of your thoughts, motives, and feelings, no matter how concrete or abstract, from momentary, passing mental associations to lifelong ambitions. The further down you dig, the more convincingly you would find them at the bottom of every mental behaviour, including so-called higher contemplations, like self-realization, spiritual growth, complex problem-solving, conceptualization, and so on. Even your feelings and opinions on free will should be bound up in them. Every minuscule detail should be accounted for; once the theory is complete, there should be no need for vague hand-waving or inscrutable black-boxes. These rules would appear to you like an unstoppable river that drives forward the boat of your conscious being; or perhaps your consciousness itself is that river.

This is generally not what people see in their minds. Despite how close we are to our “selves”, and how much we care about the results of this investigation, we know our minds only faintly. There are reasons for this. The first is that introspection is fundamentally limited. All mental functions are invisible to you at the time they are active, because they happen before you know they have happened, and knowledge about any event can only be formed after the event has occurred. This delay, combined with the fact that introspection is only an imperfect interpretation of mental events, means that a gap is created in the negative space before any mental event you see in your mind. This gap needs to be filled in order to explain its cause and where it came from.

Frequently, people fill this gap with some version of “free will”. The popular, intuitive model of the mind assumes nearly all actions, choices and thoughts are instigated by personal motives. Doing so places the individual in a position of power and self-control, which is appealing. When questioned on the roots of those motives themselves, e.g. with questions like “but why do you like freedom?”, or “why do you care about what goes on in your mind?” the mind pushes back, as if insulted by the challenge to its autonomy. Our notions of individual choice and liberty generally don’t like finding or admitting to any underlying rules. Yet a diligent theoretician of mind must not be put off, indeed they must actively search such things out, no matter how unpleasant, humbling, or nihilistic. They must seek for mechanisms behind so-called “free” motives, and interpret motives as a critical part of the total machinery; and that includes any desire for truth, freedom and autonomy. Such motives are some of the most potent forces pushing forward the “river” mentioned above.

If you did one day understand how these rules drove your thoughts and feelings, you may still be unable to change them. Perhaps you would not even want to. Perhaps they may point the way to a higher meaning in life beyond such simple notions as freedom; where a person accepts the nature of what it means to be human in every detail.¹ Any final answer to how the mind fundamentally works must be of the type that a person can completely accept, because it would represent an inescapable necessity or recipe for conscious being. There should be no argument, no attempt to reverse course, or to get out of the consciousness “contract” by finding a loophole, such as is often done by appealing to quantum physics. No one should yearn for freedom from what they fundamentally are. Freedom from what you are would be a loss of self, like a death. Any answer to the question “what does the mind do?” that triggers a resistant response is therefore likely incomplete or overgeneralizing.

Many mental events, behaviours and responses can be overcome, negated, ignored or altered once you become aware of them. You may have an impulse to eat a particular food, and you could also overcome that impulse and restrain yourself. Where a behaviour can be overcome in this way, it is the ability to overcome that is considered the fundamental function, not what has been overcome, or what is doing the overcoming. The other two are learned and selected for by the person’s unique history and experiences. They can be left out of any catalogue of basic mental functions, because they follow the template of a more fundamental, built-in faculty. To give another example, you can choose not to value statistical probability or evidence when forming your beliefs, but you can’t choose not to value.

When developing a model based on your own unique intellect, there is always the risk you end up ascribing to humans more than is their due. You, as a researcher, are investigating from the standpoint of an adult, and introspection into your thoughts may mislead you about what your mind is actually doing, and the path by which you got here. People tend to introduce their own ideals into any psychological model they design — e.g. the mind must be rational, or intelligent, or moral². To pull back from this and impartially observe what the mind is doing, without embellishment or rose-tinted glasses, initially takes a strong stomach and nerves of steel.

It is precipitous to jump to a model of the mind without first establishing its core requirements. A lot of the things you add to it may in fact be nice-to-haves, not strictly needed. If a mind can function without a certain feature it is, by definition, not necessary. They may be qualities or faculties that are proper only to a mature intellect and consciousness. These may as likely be acquired skills as naturally-occurring neural structures.

Higher mathematical skills, for example, are largely absent in the uneducated. Ethics are take-it-or-leave-it, and often take a backseat to baser desires. The lazy, ignorant, delusional, obnoxious, and sociopathic still have minds, and even in the wise and virtuous, not all parts are equally wise and virtuous at all times. People can deliberately ignore logical consistency if it suits their agenda; that faculty is not so ubiquitous in daily life that it can’t be dispensed with. Nor is it a requirement for a mind, if it is to be a mind, to understand the world as it truly and objectively is, without bias, distortion, or preferential interpretation. Indeed this latter skill would be difficult to measure until we knew what objective truth was; a difficult task in itself. Should memories of dreams be counted as objective truths? All we can say is that the mind is able to acquire any one of these skills, capabilities, or virtues, but we can’t say that the mind is compelled or predestined to do so. Like playing the guitar, you are born with the ability, but not the obligation.

So what is a mind compelled to do to be a mind at all? The answer to this question seems difficult to scope out. In a way, if you knew the answer with enough clarity, you would also have a clear model of the mind itself. So at this stage, it’s better to keep the list conservative and loosely defined. You should only include things you’re absolutely certain of, and leave finer details unresolved. The result will not be a complete answer, but it is a foundation on which to anchor further investigations.

So enough caveats and preambles; let’s start with a preliminary, uncontroversial list of all the automatic functions that every mind performs. Each of the items in this list happens without your explicit awareness or control:

  • The mind must sense things through its senses³. As anyone in a noisy transatlantic flight will attest, your mind can’t shut off its senses, or decide what comes through them. How your mind interprets the content of the senses, if it registers them at all, is a separate matter.
  • The mind must like and dislike certain things, be it consciously or unconsciously. The mind is destined to feel pain and urges, both physical and psychical, as well as related pleasures.
  • The mind must learn things; as in, it must change over time. This process happens unconsciously and is impossible to suppress through force of will. Any such learning is incorporated in subsequent mental events, like thoughts and actions.
  • The mind must have thoughts. An individual has only limited and indirect control over which thoughts occur when; they tend to be spontaneous. (See more on thinking in the next article).
  • The mind must incorporate past experiences into future actions and thoughts. What this means in practice is left open-ended for now.
  • The mind must control the physical actions of the body. Although actions are largely taken by choice, the connection between the mind and physical actions is unconscious and invisible to the mind. Once triggered, no part of it can be controlled or suppressed.
  • The mind must sense its own mental activity (introspection). As with the external senses, the content of introspection is spontaneous and uncontrolled. Once “seen”, the mind subsequently may have thoughts about what it saw. This means it learns from self-observation just as from observing the world.
  • The mind must pay attention to various things, either in the world or in itself. It may feel like you do this by choice, since what you pay attention to is aligned with your desires. However, the act of paying attention actually happens before you are aware of it, and the manner in which that alters what you experience is out of your control. It is perhaps noteworthy that when your attention is turned to your inner life, subsequent mental behaviours are imbued with a feeling of “free will”.
  • Finally the mind must, from time to time, express certain specific emotions, like humour (laughing), sadness (crying), anger, frustration, fear and anxiety, relief, and bliss (a sense of peace and fulfillment). Though these are based on circumstance, their affect is not something you choose: you rarely choose to laugh, unless it is disingenuous. I left this item to the end of the list, since there are neurological conditions that impair the outward manifestation of emotion (e.g. agelasta). So although they are likely built-in, they may not be absolutely necessary.

There is another, lesser-known built-in faculty that should be mentioned here: that of sensing relative spatial directions. It allows your mind to differentiate two differently arranged sets of objects, and retain that relative positioning even in thoughts. Direction “sense” is heavily integrated into vision and hearing. It works imperceptibly; so much so that many people don’t realize they have it.

In the next section we’ll discuss things that have been deliberately been left out of this list, like memory and planning, and explain why they are not included.

Next article: What can be left out

¹ Likely the person would turn their focus away from the challenges of dealing with the mind, since those are now addressed, and towards challenges of dealing the the world.

² It is difficult to find any exception to this rule anywhere in the intellectual world (philosophy, cognitive psychology, psychoanalysis, etc). It is perhaps inevitable. If this is the case, what does it say about the kind of person who would fully understand the human mind? What does it say about their morals and ideals?

³ Proprioception and vestibular sensation are included in this category of sense. The latter influences attention as well.



From Narrow To General AI

The road from Narrow AI to AGI presents both technical and philosophical challenges. This blog explores novel approaches and addresses longstanding questions.