mind-the-gap-1484157Can a silicon-based machine achieve consciousness? It is becoming an increasingly pressing question as scientists move closer to artificial intelligence. Yet we don’t understand our own consciousness, so how would we know? Maybe it already has happened…

We don’t understand what is consciousness, how consciousness came to exist, or why it exists. Because we don’t understand why it exists, we can’t answer whether it has any causal impact on the world. Aspects of human consciousness include:

  • Consciousness appears to offer a more flexible and sophisticated control, at the expense of speed, which is important when encountering novel situations.
  • It also appears to enhance social coordination through better understanding of other minded creatures.
  • Consciousness may improve the unification and integration of reality, or at least the perception of the reality required for primitive survival.
  • It may provide more global access to information within the brain.
  • Does it enable free will? Or, just create the illusion of free will?
  • Intrinsic motivation seems to be created by consciousness, or at least the perception of will.

Are all of these aspects possible within a silicon consciousness?

Another problem to consider. If consciousness is by definition subjective, then only a machine would know if it is truly conscious. This assumes objective and subjective are completely separate, with which a monism materialist might disagree (arguing the feeling of consciousness is simply the result of billions of neurons firing in a complex system).

Assuming a machine tells you it is conscious, do you believe it? A functionalist would argue “yes” since thoughts, beliefs, and even subjective states are simply functional states. A skeptic who believes there is something non-material about consciousness would simply argue the machine is a zombie, missing the essence of consciousness. Would the “conscious” silicon zombie then try to eat the skeptic’s brain? Maybe the kernel of an idea for my next book…

In an effort to understand consciousness I have been reading “Consciousness: An Introduction,” by Susan Blackmore. It offers a broad arc through research and experiments about consciousness, methodically building a case that there is little evidence supporting a dualist view of consciousness (implying humans have a soul or something other than matter that passes on). I believe she is an atheist, or someone who does not believe there is a God or gods.

Getting back to silicon-based zombies gobbling up human brains. There are several arguments why machine consciousness may ultimately prove different than human consciousness, although each are inconclusive:

  1. Neurons could never be replicated by artificial means to replicate the information processing speed within the space and thermodynamic limitations, or the chemical interactions cannot be replicated to sustain the emotional response required of consciousness.
  2. Consciousness requires a long period of learning, interacting with its environment. “Biological capacity to produce experiences, and these experiences only when they are felt by some human or animal agent.” (Searle, 1997)
  3. Consciousness involves something greater than the parts (Holism), whether that is interpreted as a soul, a physical aspect in our universe we have yet to discover in our reality.
  4. Before artificial consciousness could become a reality, a new type of physics is required to explain consciousness, including quantum entanglement and wave function collapse in a complex system.
  5. A spectrum exists of consciousness, defined either by self-awareness, ability to imitate another, awareness of time, or intentionality to originate. Silicon may reach low level consciousness, but not high level.

All of this dances around the central issue, which is the gap in our understanding of consciousness. The large bulk of scientific research suggests consciousness is a product of the material activity of our minds (monism/ physicalist). But… the answers you find are determined by the questions you ask, and scientists ask decidedly objective questions. Therefore there is little surprise they arrive at objective answers.

Put differently, if scientists discovered tomorrow a reality beyond what we perceive (either quantum or cosmological), a reality the mechanisms of the mind can utilize, then all the scientific research into consciousness becomes lacking and religious teachings on consciousness again offer guideposts to follow.

In Evolved I take this path because well, science fiction is a wonderful platform to explore what could become main stream in science.