The Substrate of Mind


In the past, I have often discussed the future within The Ratchet.  Many times, this discussion is in some way related to the technological singularity and its implications for humanity.  However, the likelihood of a transition to a planet dominated by non-biological intelligence is essentially dependent on one large philosophical assumption: that the substrate of intelligence and consciousness is unimportant.  This means that myself, and others that believe the technological singularity to be inevitable, are making a leap of faith to some degree.  Of course, there are competing schools of thought on whether the substrate of intelligence matters, and it is not at all clear which is right.  In The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) by Edward O. Wilson, he posits that the human condition and consciousness is quite uniquely the domain of biology.  In other words, the substrate is critical, and that no matter how advanced artificial intelligence may become, they will not be conscious.  In his own words:

“I am further inclined to discount the widespread belief that robotic intelligence will in the near future overtake and potentially replace human intelligence. This will certainly occur in the categories of raw memory, computation, and synthesis of information. Algorithms might in time be written that simulate emotional responses and human-like processes of decision-making. Yet even at their most extreme and effective, these creations will still be robots. If anything can be drawn from the picture of human condition assembled by science, it is that as a result of prehistory our species is extremely idiosyncratic in both emotion and thought. Our particular passage through the evolutionary maze stamped our DNA at every major step along the way.”

— Wilson, 2012: 96

In this analysis, Wilson believes that artificial intelligence will likely continue to improve, but will always lack something that makes us special.  Under this view, robots don’t replace us, but simply continue to enhance our existence.  Wilson believes that because the substrate of artificial intelligence is non-biological, no level of complexity or ingenuity of design will ever find the “soul in the machine.” (Vinge, 2007).

However, leading futurist Ray Kurzweil has a different approach to consciousness, and how he believes we should conceptualize it.  For Kurzweil, the actual substrate on which a mind is constructed is less relevant than the system itself.  From his recent book How To Create A Mind(2012):

“My own view […] is that consciousness is an emergent property of a complex physical system. In this view a dog is also conscious but somewhat less than a human. An ant has some level of consciousness, too, but much less that of a dog. The ant colony, on the other hand, could be considered to have a higher level of consciousness than the individual ant; it is certainly more intelligent than a lone ant. By this reckoning, a computer that is successfully emulating the complexity of a human brain would also have the same emergent consciousness as a human.”

— Kurzweil, 2012: 203

So is there anyway to truly know whether the substrate used to build a mind is important?  I would contend that waiting is really the only way to know.  At some point during this century we should discover whether artificial intelligence can achieve (and surpass) human intelligence.  If this happens, the question of whether the substrate of mind matters, will cease to matter.  In my opinion, if artificial intelligence is created at or above human levels, we will likely act as though they are conscious.  This is not that dissimilar than the state of things now.  We all have faith that every other human shares the experience we subjectively understand to be consciousness right now.

Personally, I am definitely willing to take the leap of faith and state that the substrate is probably less important than the system itself.  However, I must still acknowledge a great internal struggle regarding the issue.  Consciousness is not easily studied by empirical inquiry.  It may be impossible to actually understand the underlying cause of consciousness.   Of course, it is possible that there is something about the human mind that cannot be transferred and enhanced non-biologically.  Perhaps consciousness really is a product of biology, and can only be based on a biological substrate.  Regardless, as I stated above, the answer to this mind-numbing question should be revealed this century, perhaps within the next few decades.  The answer may define our future.


Kurzweil, R.  2012.  How To Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed.  New York: Penguin Group.

Vinge, V.  2007.  What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen.  Seminars About Long-Term Thinking, the Long Now Foundation.

Wilson, E.O.  2012.  The Social Conquest of Earth.  New York: W.W. Norton.


About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email:

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