Blog: When consciousness, self-awareness and a smart machines come together
Will our understanding of “self” change forever.
Remember the words spoken by Hamlet in Act 3 Scene 1 by William Shakespeare that said?
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
In this, the most popular and most searchable of Shakespeare’s quotes, Hamlet is making a statement about life and death. He is, among other things, pondering about a state of being versus a state of not being. In essence, being alive and being dead. Consciousness and self-awareness or nothing. Does the lack of consciousness which in a way is the absence of awareness represent death?
Humans have been contemplating these thoughts for many millennia.
Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, dubbed the father of modern western philosophy said “cogito ergo sum” in English; “I think, therefore I am”. What Descartes is saying is that thought exists and since thought cannot be separated from “me”, therefore, “I” exist. He claimed that consciousness is the proof of existence.
But what about the idea of being human?
Does consciousness equate to being human? Consciousness, which is being aware of one’s own existence, thoughts, and surroundings, is a requirement for humanness, however, is that the only definition of being human or can we add another criteria. Should the notion of sentience be added to this definition?
While to be conscious it is to be able to have some kind of subjective experience or awareness of something, or in other words to be able to experience external as well as internal stimuli, sentience refers to the ability to have positive and negative experiences. In other words, being sentient is the ability to feel emotion, have feelings, form attachments and have distinct personalities.
But today, in the 21st Century we have other terms that we are also dealing with. Some of these are “Artificial Intelligence” and “Artificial Consciousness”.
We often think Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) as a robot, machine or computer that thinks for itself. An “intelligent” machine capable of being a flexible rational agent, able of perceiving its environment and taking actions that guarantee or in the least maximize its chances of success at whatever task or goals it undertakes. It can do this through the usage of deduction, reasoning, and problem solving. However it will do all of this sans feeling, emotions, passions, or personal attachments.
On the other hand with Artificial Consciousness (A.C.) we could take a man-made artifact to the next level. We could create a synthetic, artificially engineered artifact and endow it with human-like consciousness and sentience.
Alan Turing who was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie “The Imitation Game” developed a test in which a machine can be evaluated on its ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. This test would be conducted by a human evaluator who would judge the machines ability to have a conversation with a human while generating human-like responses. The machine is said to have passed the test if it is indistinguishable from a human 70% of the time.
However this test cannot measure in any way shape or form how much, if any consciousness or sentience an artificially constructed artifact possesses.
Creating such an artifact is a tall order. While most academic papers and articles concerning artificial consciousness seem to deal in the subject of what this capability is, and what it is to be endowed with artificial consciousness, none describe or report on an actual device that can accomplish this feat.
Science fiction writers such as Alex Garland want to take us into the direction in which we imagine an “Ex Machina” world where an intelligent humanoid robot such as Ava acquires a perverse form of consciousness and sentience. Or a “Westworld” scenario concocted by Michael Crichton in the original film version by the same name, in which the robots attempt to ultimately take over. Science fiction is full of androids, humanoids, robots, with varying degrees of self-awareness, passions, and feelings that give them the capability of love, friendship, sexual desire, and ethical perception.
Interestingly, as we analyze and ponder all of these concepts and futuristic ideas, one big intangible and enigmatic question comes to mind. It is a question that takes us away from the scientific, into the realm of the spiritual and the unknown. Does acquiring a combination of self-awareness and sentience equate to attaining a soul. Obviously, the next leap in logic, regardless how insanely unscientific it might be, is; does attaining a soul, make an entity, in this case a man-made artifact, a human?
These questions have profound philosophical implication in our modern world. Questions about whether fetuses possess a soul, rights of flesh and blood humans versus the rights accorded to sentient and self-conscious machines, and brain-dead people. Can we destroy a self-aware sentient machine, especially when that machine is no longer able to produce? These are only but a few of the questions modern society must face as science peals away the layers of the onion that connects us to spirituality.
Even if our opinion of the concept of a soul or a spirit that inhabits our body and continues to exist even after death, is nothing more than wishful thinking by those superstitious people who are ultimately just fearful of death, these questions continue to be of importance. The fact that we have entered a new realm in human evolution and especially in how we view our world and ourselves will affect how we structure our laws, and how we shape our moral codes, this discussion is undoubtedly of importance.
Advancements such as bionics, thought recognition, and brain-computer interface (BCI) technology will perhaps act as a stepping stone into the more complex world of self-aware and sentient man made artifacts. As usual, technology runs far ahead of laws and societal norms. Technology also has the proclivity to eviscerate moral codes, religion and taboos. Let’s hope that through all of these changes we hold on tight to our humanity.