Artificial Consciousness

Artificial Consciousness February 7, 2019

Autonomous self-driving Ubers won’t be taking you on shopping trips or cross-country vacations before 2030. That is because “artificial intelligence” is only one of those things, artificial. It is not the other.

Oh, I’m not a Luddite, but I do think I’m something of a realist. They have basic operational shortcomings that make them dangerous:

  • They go blind in bad weather. Cameras can be obscured by rain, snow, dust. When lane lines disappear the vehicles don’t know where they are and when snowflakes bounce off laser sensors, they appear as obstacles to be dodged.
  • Absent lane lines and curbs, travel turns into a negotiation between algorithms.
  • Lacking volitional will, driverless vehicles must deal with humans who are better at driving and less predictable.
  • Left turns are inherently chancy for any driver, artificial or not.
  • They have killed five people: one Arizona pedestrian, three drivers in the U.S; one driver in China. That’s not as many as vending machines kill every year, but then there are fewer driverless cars.

Those problems may be solved, of course, but algorithmic programs are layered within programs buried under levels of endless code. A driverless car confronts many things unanticipated. An algorithm is really at its best when designed only for one thing: beating a chess champion or a Go prodigy comes to mind. Design one for both chess and Go it will probably need a toggle switch.

But this is called an artificial intelligence, which is little more than clever marketing. My AI robotic vacuum barely finds its way back to the charging station; 8 times out of 10 I have to carry the poor beeping thing to its home.

And here we move ourselves into the arena of consciousness; specifically the notion of artificial consciousness where, it appears, an artificial intelligence awakens to itself or is nudged into wakefulness.

I watched an episode of Star Trek Voyager (1995-2001). The holographic doctor is essentially ignored by human crew members. People do not talk to him directly in sick bay. He will seek a symptom and the patient will invariably reply not to him but to his pretty alien but flesh and blood (oh, wow. is she flesh and blood) assistant. She feels badly for the doctor (who, incidentally, can walk through walls). He is not regarded for his talent and medical skill. He is a mere computer simulation, who does surgery and other trivial things, like wave medical tricorders.

His assistant insists to him and to the captain, he should be made crew; he has “feelings.” Why, the captain asks? He is a programmatic hologram, his feelings are machine-made and he is a rather caustic hologram at that, according to the crew. It’s just programming; that can be corrected.

It all gets fixed without programming when he is permitted to deactivate himself when he needs quiet time, and activate himself as he chooses. He becomes volitional (save for doing evil) within the boundaries of his programming and is told he needs a name.

Ah, but is he now conscious, as if “consciousness” finally is lodged only as a physical element of the brain?

The consensus of science and much of contemporary philosophy says human consciousness is all biological, all material. Our random-firing neurons fire only in response to the urges of eons of evolutionary development.

When we can figure out where it is ultimately located, how it really works, we can map it, code it, box it up, and put it in a computer to drive cars.

But the problem to explain is the human experience of the brain. Why, as a machine, does the brain persistently insist to itself that it possesses something more, that we have a nonphysical reality and the potentiality of soul? If self-consciousness is only an evolutionary element, I do not see how conscious awareness of death is any sort of benefit. It does not require intelligence or self-conscious awareness to be a successful species.

Short answer: we are more than our parts.

The Hard Problem has boyfriend and girlfriend arguing the nature of consciousness. She, unlike her thoroughly materialist boyfriend, aches to believe that people are more than the mere summation of their biological components. “When you come right down to it,” says the girlfriend, “the body is made of things, and things don’t have thoughts.”

She is not far from Ecclesiastes, I think.

“God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart…” (3:11)

Russell E. Saltzman publishes every Tuesday and Thursday at noon Central Time. He can be reached on Twitter as @RESaltzman, on Facebook as Russ Saltzman, and by email: russell.e.saltzman@gmail.com
Photo: iStock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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  • Illithid

    “If self-consciousness is only an evolutionary element, I do not see how conscious awareness of death is any sort of benefit.”

    But it’s not hard to see how an ability to predict future events might have evolutionary advantages. Realizing that we’re going to die would be a side-effect of that.

  • Russell E Saltzman

    We cannot predict future events (where’s my flying car?). Death, though, may be the one thing that makes us human, and demands speculation on origins and endings. Ernst Becker”s “Denial of Death” suggests fear of death is *the* driving human force. So, maybe on those terms, you might be right.

  • Illithid

    We can’t always accurately predict the future, but well enough to be useful. I predict I’ll be at work at noon today; I could be wrong, but the odds are good.

    I don’t think I’d agree with Becker. Teen boys, soldiers, skydivers… I proffer these as counterexamples. Unless he’s saying that such actions are driven by the attempt to deny mortality, which I suppose is possible.

  • HematitePersuasion

    The ever-popular argument from ignorance.

    But the problem to explain is the human experience of the brain. Why, as a machine, does the brain persistently insist to itself that it possesses something more, that we have a nonphysical reality and the potentiality of soul? If self-consciousness is only an evolutionary element, I do not see how conscious awareness of death is any sort of benefit. It does not require intelligence or self-conscious awareness to be a successful species.

    Short answer: we are more than our parts.

    Or even more compactly: Goddidit!

    But that is not an explanation or an answer. It answers nothing. It has no explanatory or predictive power. It leads nowhere, illuminates nothing, enlightens no one.

    My answer: I don’t know.

  • HematitePersuasion

    The ever-popular argument from misunderstanding evolution.

    But the problem to explain is the human experience of the brain. Why, as a machine, does the brain persistently insist to itself that it possesses something more, that we have a nonphysical reality and the potentiality of soul? If self-consciousness is only an evolutionary element, I do not see how conscious awareness of death is any sort of benefit. It does not require intelligence or self-conscious awareness to be a successful species.

    Some outcomes of evolution are side-effects. Some are deleterious effects that occur in conjunction with something strongly selected for (sickle-cell anemia, for example …) Some are consequences of nothing more than accident and genetic drift. I am not — cannot — prepared to educate you (or anyone) on the current understanding of evolutionary processes. I am undoubtedly ignorant of current development and thoughts. But even my 20-year-old understanding of the topic is more than sufficient to know that this deceptive reduction from survival of the fittest to what survives must contribute to fitness is utterly wrong.

  • Daniel G. Johnson

    My question is why the “something more” must necessarily be nonphysical. And, why should the soul be nonphysical? As a former Lutheran (who was made to read Tillich), and now a Jew, I’m prone to be wary of otherworldly non-grounded paradigms. My suggestion is that there is good reason to consider the “something more” and the soul within the physical. As a Jew, this means for me that the “something more” that grounds my ego (soul) is the value I discern attached to creation, especially in contexts that do not benefit me directly. As a former Lutheran, I would not assign this sense of value to actions/ideas on my part, but rather to my experience, from time to time, of free-standing ultimate good (grace).

  • Petrus

    As Bernardo Kastrup has pointed out, one of the most valuable and meaningful things that human consciousness can produce is a statement about “what it’s like to be me.” That has already tremendous implications for the creation of meaning. A machine can’t make any statement about what it’s like to be a machine, can it? There is no preprogramming for a living subjectivity.

    Kastrup has some very interesting speculations on the body-mind-consciousness problem:

    “The brain doesn’t generate experience for the same reason that a whirlpool doesn’t generate water. Yet, brain activity correlates with inner experience—the localized contents of the whirlpool—because it is what the latter looks like from a second-person perspective, just as lightning is what atmospheric electric discharge looks like from the outside.

    “The brain isn’t the cause of experience for the same reason that lightning isn’t the cause of atmospheric electric discharge, or that flames aren’t the cause of combustion. Just as flames are but the image of the process of combustion, the body-brain system is but the image of localized experience in the stream of universal consciousness.”

  • Russell E Saltzman

    I did not say “God did it.” I prefer finding God, if he is to be found, on the oblique. But the reference at the end, I find suggestive. But for materialists, likely it isn’t enough, or it’s too much.

  • Russell E Saltzman

    I don’t disagree with you. I repeated only what I researched: that self-consciousness is largely regarded as an evolutionary outcome.

  • Sheila

    Your remark about people killed by vending machines struck a chord. We have a neighbor who got a serious (thankfully non-fatal) shock when he returned a DVD into the slot at a Redbox.

    Good article, btw.

  • Russell E. Saltzman

    Sounds just strange, doesn’t it? A common ordinary dispensing machine out to get us. And thank you for the nice word.