Can Machines Be Given Consciousness?A prominent researcher in consciousness studies offers reasons for doubt
The chief scientist and president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, who is currently testing his theory of consciousness in a contest with another one, has put considerable thought into the question and he is unsure. Here are two things Christof Koch (right) is sure about:
Although experts disagree over what exactly constitutes intelligence, natural or otherwise, most accept that, sooner or later, computers will achieve what is termed artificial general intelligence (AGI) in the lingo.Christof Koch, “Will Machines Ever Become Conscious?” at Scientific American
But, he points out, machines could be smarter than we are without being conscious:
Consider the embarrassing feeling of suddenly realizing that you have just committed a gaffe, that what you meant as a joke came across as an insult. Can computers ever experience such roiling emotions? When you are on the phone, waiting minute after minute, and a synthetic voice intones, “We are sorry to keep you waiting,” does the software actually feel bad while keeping you in customer-service hell?Christof Koch, “Will Machines Ever Become Conscious?” at Scientific American
The second thing he is sure of is that consciousness just evolved somehow, according to the laws or vagaries of nature:
There is little doubt that our intelligence and our experiences are ineluctable consequences of the natural causal powers of our brain, rather than any supernatural ones. That premise has served science extremely well over the past few centuries as people explored the world. The three-pound, tofulike human brain is by far the most complex chunk of organized active matter in the known universe. But it has to obey the same physical laws as dogs, trees and stars. Nothing gets a free pass.Christof Koch, “Will Machines Ever Become Conscious?” at Scientific American
Koch’s article in Scientific American is long and thoughtful and we will look at some of the specifics in Part II, including the different implications of his Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness vs. the rival Global Workspace Theory (GWT) for consciousness in machines.
But first, wait a minute.
We do not really know what consciousness is. Serious disputes rage within the academy about whether consciousness is an actual or illusory state, whether it is physical or non-physical (immaterial), whether only life forms are conscious (as opposed to inanimate objects), and whether the universe as a whole is conscious.
The relationship between consciousness and the brain is not clear either. Some humans function reasonably well with split brains or partial brains. In the world of nature generally, plants, fungi, and some other life forms communicate extensively without anything like a brain. While the claim is not usually made that they are conscious, their capabilities challenge us to define what exactly consciousness does. Everyday mammals, such as dogs and cats, clearly demonstrate consciousness but just as clearly lack higher-order thinking skills like the ability to abstract.
All this is true whether or not “our intelligence and our experiences are ineluctable consequences of the natural causal powers of our brain, rather than any supernatural ones.” In other words, apart from any other issues, we don’t know nearly enough about consciousness to know what features machines should exhibit to satisfy the criterion.
Mark what follows: The claim that machines will become conscious is one of those unfalsifiable prophecies that can survive indefinitely without fulfillment. It will generate ambitious copy in science media twenty years from now even if we are still puzzled by the most basic issues in consciousness studies.
Fortunately, the two theories in the historic World Templeton Foundation contest are clear enough in their outlines to permit some distinctions to be made.
Next: Which consciousness theory permits self-aware machines and why?