In my last post (quite a while ago now), I talked about IBM’s Watson playing Jeopardy. I introduced the Turing test and gave a short analysis of Watson’s performance. The discussion that ensued examined some interesting points and I’d like to elaborate further on some of these issues. In this post I’d like to talk about consciousness and in future posts make the jump to discussing conscious robots. For most of this post, I’ll be taking notes from a paper that appeared in the AIAA Journal of Aerospace Computing, Information, and Communication .
To even get the discussion off the ground we’ve got to disambiguate a few important terms, namely intelligence, autonomy, and consciousness.
Kurzweil defined intelligence as “a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience” .
Autonomy, OTOH, “refers to systems capable of operating in the real-world environment without any form of external control for extended periods of time” .
It’s important to note that intelligence and autonomy can be largely uncoupled. For example, an autonomous aircraft can operate (i.e. fly, communicate information, etc.) for long periods of time, but it may not reason, or comprehend ideas. OTOH, a supercomputer that has software simulating intelligence might not be able to do anything of interest, but it can reason, plan, and solve problems.
Clearly people disagree about what it means to be conscious. Descartes’ dualism is still alive and well in both philosophical and theological circles, including Mormonism. If we include the dualist notion in our definition of consciousness, we may as well end the discussion here and now. Technology cannot put a “spirit” or “soul” into a robot, therefore, there cannot be any conscious robots ever. If you take this view, I invite you to elaborate in the comments below with reasoned arguments as to your position.
I am not convinced of the dualist nature of human beings, and consider it a distinct possibility, indeed one that seems to be supported ever more by our advancing scientific knowledge, that humans are physical machines whose consciousness has sprung as a natural consequence of evolution and natural selection.
With this possibility in mind, a well accepted definition  of consciousness revolves around the concept of self-awareness – which seems to separate us from most everything else in the natural world. The “state of awareness” includes:
- Subjectivity: our own ideas, moods, and sensations are experienced directly
- Unity: all sensors are melded into one experience (i.e. we don’t consciously separately process vision data from our eyes and audio data from our ears, rather those data are processed and combined into an overall sensory “experience”).
- Intentionality: experiences have meaning beyond the current moment.
It is worth mentioning that consciousness is also associated with attention, which brings objects, concepts, etc. into our consciousness. This allows us to process huge amounts of information.
If we accept these definitions, we can make some interesting observations. First, there are
other animals that appear to be “conscious.” Dolphins, elephants, gorillas, magpies, chimps, orangutans, orcas, and some pigs exhibit self-awareness by passing the mirror test. It is interesting to note that dogs, cats, and young human babies all fail the mirror test (an important point that will be elaborated on in later posts). In fact, humans don’t generally pass the mirror test until they are 18 months of age.
Second, this POV certainly has far reaching implications for various theologies. If humans are only physical machines, is there a life after death, or do we cease to exist when we die? Does such a POV imply that spiritual experiences are nothing more than neurons firing together with an active sub-conscious and limbic system? If other animals exhibit “consciousness” and we accept the dualist position, does this mean other animals are capable of spiritual experiences?
Third, if we adopt this POV, we can make a very strong case that humans will indeed invent robots capable of obtaining consciousness. We’ll explore this, and more thoroughly discuss consciousness in the next post.
For now, what are your thoughts on consciousness, and the possibility of developing conscious robots, or more likely, robots capable of obtaining consciousness?
 Long, Lyle and Kelley, Troy. “Review of Consciousness and the Possibility of Conscious Robots,” Journal of Aerospace Computing, Information, and Communication. Vol. 7. February 2010.
 Kurzweil, R., “The Singularity is Near,” Penguin Group, London, 2005.
 Bekey, G.A., “Autonomous Robots: From Biological Inspiration to Implementation and Control,” MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005.
 Dennett, D.C., “Consciousness Explained,” Back Bay Books, Boston, MA, 1992.