Robots in the News

Robots in the News October 19, 2007

For science fiction fans, there is plenty of good news. New Star Wars TV shows are in the works. The plural is correct – there is both a 3D Clone Wars featuring familiar characters, and a live-action series on which work has only just begun, but which will not focus on the Skywalkers or other main characters from the movies. Although I haven’t watched them yet, the “flashback” mini-episodes that are paving the way for the start of the new season of Battlestar Galactica have begun to appear on the Sci-Fi Channel’s web site. New Star Trek and X Files movies are also drawing closer.

For droids that were hoping to think, the news is bad, even though the prospects haven’t actually changed. A Yale University professor has, according to the subtitle of an article on the subject, argued that machines will never be conscious.

If you read the article, you will discover that he has in fact argued no such thing. He has asserted it, but the truth is that no one knows what the result may be if we are ever able to make an artificial brain which replicates the sheer number of neurons and connections between them found in human brains. The article thus may cause flashbacks to Beauregard and O’Leary’s book The Spiritual Brain which is based on similar assumptions, it would seem.

While some are presupposing impossibility, others are imagining what the possibilities may be. There is a new book out called Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships which I plan to read. I’ve actually done some writing recently on the topic of religion and artificial intelligence, and questions like these will need to be answered long before philosophers are able to define consciousness, much less tell us whether a machine is capable of it. People are already having online second wives, never mind affairs. Will sex outside of marriage with a robot be considered adultery? The first divorce lawyers to deal with a case of that sort will have their work cut out for them.

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  • The Yale professor who asserts the impossibility of conscious robots amuses me. How does he know anybody is truly conscious? How does he define it?He says, “In conscious thinking, you experience your thoughts.”Right. And how do you or I know “you experience your thoughts”? Because you or I say so?What if I’m lying? What if I tell you I’m conscious, but really I’m not? How exactly would you know?What if I’m lying to myself? What if I tell myself I’m conscious, but really I’m not? How exactly would I know?You can’t assess whether anyone is “experiencing” consciousness because the definition of “experiencing” in this context is (it seems) specially formulated to mean something that is absolutely beyond observation or proof. It’s a double-edged sword. If “experiencing consciousness” is beyond observation, then it can always be posited as a unique and irreproducible phenomenon, but you can never prove that it really exists, either.It’s sort of like God.Where is Wittgenstein when you need him?

  • I think that, when it comes to oneself, Descartes would ask you “If you are not conscious then who is asking whether or not you are, if you in fact doubt it?” His key insight was that it seems impossible to doubt our own existence, our own consciousness. The Indian tradition made the same observation independently of (and earlier than) Descartes.We then can easily work by analogy that other human beings have consciousness because I do.That’s one reason why the moral and ethical challenges of animal rights, robots and aliens are so difficult – we cannot reason analogically. Nevertheless, in my opinion, if we ever try to simulate human intelligence, and that which we create behaves as though it is conscious, then we have a moral duty to treat it as though it is.

  • Descartes doesn’t answer the question of what consciousness is. If you say that a person who questions his or her own existence must be “conscious,” then all you have said is that self-reflective monologue is a prerequisite to consciousness, but you never get to a foundational or exhaustive definition. It just goes in a circle:How do you know you’re conscious? You engage in self-reflective monologue. Why do you engage in self-reflective monologue? Because you are conscious!That’s just a word game. “Consciousness” is just this word for something that has no definition and no independent function; you can just say “self-reflective monologue.” And, as I pointed out and you carried along into the realm of duty, if an entity appears to engage in self-reflective monologue, then we have no way of knowing whether that is “real” or not. Which makes me question whether we’re even talking about something that can be “real” or “not real” (or “legitimate” or “illegitimate”).If somebody said, “This piece of fruit is red,” and someone else said, “Yes, but is it legitimately red?” we would recognize the question as nonsense.

  • I didn’t mean to suggest that Descartes answers the question of what consciousness is. I only meant to say that he saw clearly that ‘this inner monologue’, which has something to do with what we mean by consciousness, whether it is ‘evidence of consciousness’ or is itself ‘consciousness’, is something the existence of which cannot be doubted, at least by ourselves in relation to our own inner monologue.Precisely because it seems by definition impossible to prove that someone or something is conscious or experiences certain qualia, where there is a question of rights of ‘persons’, we must err on the side of defending the rights of those who seem to deserve them, because of the possibility if we go in the other direction of being guilty of slavery, abuse and all sorts of other evils, even if we persuade ourselves that we aren’t doing so because those we’ve “enslaved” are supposedly not really persons.

  • I agree completely with the results of your analysis. I just think we should go further and say that the idea of “consciousness” is superfluous at best and dead wrong at worst.Of course, the analysis runs the other way, too, which I would do. Even entities that look like humans should be analyzed by this standard. It’s not hard to see where that quickly runs afoul of the major issues around which religious conservatives rally.