Can Computers Become Conscious?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Can Computers Become Conscious?
Certain people such as Ray Kurzweil have proposed that a person’s mind could be “downloaded” to an advanced computer system allowing for a type of immortality.

If computers are complex enough, will they attain consciousness someday? And what would that mean for humanity?

According to some experts, like Ray Kurzweil, the answer is not a question of if it’s a question of when. According to Kurzweil we are fast approaching a milestone he calls the “singularity”, a point at which the complexity and intelligence of computers will suddenly shift to an era of “superintelligence”. Presumably, this will even lead to fully conscious computers, with an intelligence that far outstrips our own.


So how can we determine whether Kurzweil and others who hold this view are really in touch with reality? On some level I think they’ve been watching too many science fiction movies. Now lets state up front that as a matter of basic principle, there is nothing we know of that would prevent the development of an intelligent computer.


If a computer were made complex enough with the right hardware, it would seem that at the very least, a computer could be constructed that would appear conscious. Whether it really would be conscious is something open to debate, and the truth is nobody has a clue as to what the answer is. But you could imagine that given enough power, resources, and complexity-a computer could be constructed that would behave as if conscious.


It seems obvious that such a machine would outperform humans at every turn.

Computers can obviously process information a lot faster than the human brain. But is that all it takes? Todays computers still do not much besides rote calculations. They are damn good at it, but does adding numbers quickly have anything to do with intelligence? I would say it does not.


Sure a computer can do a calculation much faster than your brain can, but that’s not the point. What makes human intelligence special is not rote calculation but understanding meaning. For instance, a computer can easily solve Schrodinger’s equation from quantum mechanics. A smart human can solve it too, but will have a much harder time than the computer.


But only the human can attach any meaning to Schrodinger’s equation. A computer can spit out numbers, and print out graphs and charts of solutions to Schrodinger’s equation, but it can’t learn anything about the role knowledge or conscious observers may play in the universe-something that is contained in quantum theory on a subtle level.


So it seems that something quite different is going on in a human brain that isn’t going on in computers as they’ve been constructed so far. Some people have attacked the problem head on-this is the program of “Artificial Intelligence” or AI for example. But while a lot has been learned and progress has been made, AI has failed to deliver the way it was expected to. Here in 2009 AI is no closer to delivering any kind of “singularity” than it was 20 years ago.

An interesting question that is probably unanswerable is the following: does conscious experience depend on the medium used to express it? One fact we know in this debate is that brains (human or otherwise) give rise to conscious experience. Nobody really knows how, but we do know brains are involved and have mapped out what parts are doing what (such as the visual cortex for example).


The question of the hour: Is there something unique to brains that does this? If we construct a really “complex” computer out of silicon or superconductors or whatever, will it attain conscious experience too? Scientific materialists would no doubt say yes, proclaiming that the vague concept of “complexity” leads to consciousness. So make a silicon wafer with enough transistors arranged in the right way, that is “complex” enough, and you could construct a conscious computer.


The spiritual among us might be inclined to answer differently. “Complexity” is really science-speak for we have no fucking idea. Its a meaningless concept that doesn’t explain anything, it is simply a restatement of an observed fact that complex brains appear to be conscious. But is complexity really necessary? How do you know a spider isn’t conscious? You may be shaking your head in disbelief at this “silly” proposition, but what empirical evidence is there on the question?


If we simply observe the behavior of a spider, it seems to behave in ways that have given computer scientists fits. If the scientists could construct a computer that behaved exactly as a spider-a spider android that an expert (say a biologist specializing in spiders) could not differentiate from a real spider-an arachnid Turing test if you will-they would have made fantastic progress. Honestly, even this seems unlikely.


Making the leap to a human or something far surpassing the human is quite a jump above this. So it would seem that the “singularity” is as far away as ever-a fantasy in the minds of geeks. It may be that there is something about consciousness we simply don’t understand. Perhaps it is not possible to make a computer conscious at all. After all there is something different about a spider, a mouse, a dog, a chimpanzee and a human as compared to any computer.


We know this intuitively even if it can’t be quantified scientifically.

If the singularity is a real phenomenon, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Kurzweil often says that people will trade real experience for “virtual” experience. People will be “enhanced”. So instead of learning Spanish, a chip is connected to your brain that lets you speak it without having gone through the trouble to learn it. Instead of going rock climbing, you can do a computer simulation of rock climbing. Instead of meeting your friends for “real”, you will meet in a virtual bar for virtual drinks. All of this being directed by superintelligent machines, who may of course have their own motives that might not include entertaining humans.


The kind of world envisioned by the technophiles of the Kurzweil variety isn’t necessarily a good world. Part of being human isn’t just being able to speak two languages, in fact the learning process is a large part of it. Allowing people to just pick up Spanish by putting a chip in their head takes away this aspect of humanity.


Part of being human is also having real experience. A rock climbing simulation in a computer might be safer, but the value of such a thing is dubious compared to really rock climbing. And I would rather meet friends in person than in a virtual night club.


Only time will tell whether or not computers become conscious. Let’s hope that if they do, they don’t decide to dispense with humanity. Biological life might just get in their way.


Image from Stockxpert

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