In my last post I gave some definitions of Autonomy, Intelligence, and Consciousness and discussed some possible implications with the intent of further discussing artificial intelligence.

In this post, we’re going to dive a bit deeper into consciousness, and set the stage for a discussion of how conscious robots might emerge.

Consciousness in Philosophy

In the study of philosophy of mind there are two main viewpoints, the dualist and the physicalist. The dualist, the primary platform of which lies on Descartes’philosophy that there is a soul, maintains there is an immaterial part that interacts with the material body resulting in a person’s “mind” [1]. The physicalist maintains that the mind, body, and consciousness arise from physical processes that arise from material.

As with most things in philosophy, the two sides of this debate continue to disagree. However, as neuroscience advances, and we continue to learn more about how the brain works, it is becoming clearer that the brain can be viewed as a complex nonlinear system of systems [2] from which “consciousness emerged as a product of increasing biological complexity, from non-conscious precursors composed of non-conscious components” [3]. As a result, Dennet said about whether or not a machine can be conscious

We have known the answer to this question for a century. The brain is a machine. It is a conscious machine. the brain is a biological machine just as much as the heart and the liver. So of course some machines can think and be conscious. Your brain and mine, for example.[4]

Interestingly, in Mormonism (which I failed to mention last time) Joseph Smith carved out another interesting idea spelled out in D&C 131:7-8

7 There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes;

8 We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.

This view is interesting in that it gives a nod to physicalism, yet (seemingly) reserves that the spirit matter cannot be detected. I think this leaves the believing Mormon with the (unchallengeable) understanding that yes, Mormons are physicalists, but science will not and cannot ever detect what makes up consciousness and the spirit. To me, at least, this puts Mormon theology in the same camp as the dualists, only with a twist!

Consciousness in Psychology

Consciousness in psychology often centers around questions about how memories are formed, retained, and recalled, how emotions arise, and the role of the sub-conscious in a person’s life. There is disagreement as to whether or not memory in humans can be represented by a symbolic system. Nevertheless, William James, an early pioneer in psychology stated:

For practical purposes, nevertheless, and limiting the meaning of the word consciousness to the personal self of the individual, we can pretty confidently answer the question prefixed to this paragraph by saying that the cortex is the sole organ of consciousness in man…My final conclusion, then, about the substantial Soul is that is explains nothing and guarantees nothing. I therefore feel entirely free to discard the word Soul from the rest of this book.[5]

Freud seemed to have a similar sentiment in declaring

The process of something becoming conscious is above all linked with the perceptions, which our sense organs receive from the external world.[6]

Some Thoughts

I have provided a very secular approach to the idea of consciousness. From the vantage point of computer scientists, and scientists in general, this is admittedly the presupposition since there is little to do if we admit a dualist or even Mormon point of view.

My own point of view follows more closely along the secular lines. I think the burden of proof lies with dualists to provide evidence of something immaterial (since there doesn’t seem to be anything else in the universe that is immaterial) that interacts with something material. I think the reasonable null hypothesis should be that there is not anything other than physical processes going on in the human body giving rise to everything we observe in human behavior. For me personally, I find the thought experiments useful, but unconvincing, and certainly science and technology has not supported the dualist point of view.

The Mormon viewpoint espoused by Joseph Smith seems more probable if we make the reasonable assumption that science just hasn’t yet discovered all the possible levels, states, or kinds of matter. Given the hunt for the elusive Higgs boson, I’m more open to the possibility. However, if we insist, in Mormonism, that the spirit matter cannot be detected at all, but only with “purer eyes” then I find it as unconvincing as the dualist position.

As I stated previously, no serious scientist or engineer believes we can create the correct set of circuits, processors, and algorithms and “turn on” consciousness. Rather, consciousness in robots is viewed as a possibly emergent behavior, much like many scientists believe consciousness emerged in biological bodies.

Many people are under the impression that because computers operate on a strictly discrete mathematical basis that there cannot be emergent behavior that can’t be accounted for. Such people likely do not understand the nature of modern day complex systems. When physical systems are put together to act in an uncertain world they often exhibit unpredicted behavior. There is an entire field dedicated to the science of system integration that tries to understand the compositionality and composability of various pieces of a full system. We might idealistically claim that there is always an identifiable cause of some particular system behavior. But the reality is we may not be able to identify it given our technology. The trick is, the exact same thing could be said of ANY physical system, consequence, action, or even human behavior. The practical result is that we don’t know if humans have free will, or are deterministic machines, and although we can insist that robots are completely deterministic, they appear (in some of the very same way humans do) to exhibit non-determinism.

Whether it is from this, or some other by-product of computational power and memory that consciousness emerges is unclear to me. The human brain is the most complex physical system in the known universe, and we are not anywhere near having the needed computational power, efficiency, storage, or sensors to produce that kind of information processing. Nevertheless, I do believe it possible and highly probable that consciousness will eventually emerge in robots.

Next time we’ll discuss what neuroscience and the AI community itself have to say about consciousness in robots. Later we’ll discuss a more specific engineering approach to the development of such a system.

[1] Descartes, R., “Meditations on First Philosophy,” Translated by John Veitch 1901, Reprinted by Prometheus Books, New York, NY, 1989

[2] Kurzweil, R., “The Singularity is Near,” Penguin Group, London, 2005.

[3] Seager, W., “A Brief History of the Philosophical Problem of Consciousness,” Chap 2, edited by P.D. Zelazo, M. Moscovitch and E. Thompson, The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007

[4] Dennett, D.C., “The Practical Requirements for Making a Conscious Robot,” Artificial Intelligence and the Mind, Vol.A349 No. 1689, 1994, pp. 133-146.

[5] James, W., “Principles of Psychology,” Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York, NY, 1890

[6] Freud, S., Strachey, J., and Gay, P., “An Outline of Psycho-Analysis,” W.W. Norton, New York, NY, 1989