10 October 2019

Can machines be conscious?

Can machines be conscious?

I sincerely hope that my PC is conscious otherwise it would be a dead machine and I won’t be able to write this essay. So, yes, machines can be conscious and indeed are conscious otherwise they would be a useless pile of junk.

What is, therefore, so important and so fascinating with consciousness? The British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle*, in his book, The concept of Mind, was right in arguing that our idea of consciousness is something that we inherited from the Mind-Body duality of Cartesian philosophy. By introducing the idea of consciousness as pertaining to the mind we can hold ourselves higher and above all other creatures and organisms. Incidentally, in modern times Descartes has been accused of causing a lot of harm to animals by suggesting that animals are basically automata and do not feel pain, but that’s another issue.

Basically, Ryle argued that the idea of consciousness is an illusion and that there is nothing more than just the brain. Ryle also gave us the “ghost in the machine” idea that there is no ghost (soul) apart from the component part of the machine. The machine might be us or the modern meaning of machine today. So if there is no ghost in the machine how can we accept that we are at the same level of existence as my PC?

Well, there is no difference as far as us and the structure of machines are concerned. We just happen to belong to those types of machines we call biological creatures. My PC is a machine that is equally as complex as a biological creature except made of different materials. As far as the idea of machines being conscious is concerned we know that machines are conscious because our idea of conscious is clear.

Take the opening sentence from the Wikipedia entry on Consciousness: Consciousness is the state or quality of sentience or awareness of internal or external existence. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consciousness). If we take this definition at face value, we certainly don’t qualify as being conscious on the grounds that we are not aware of most of the “existence” of our own body. We just don’t know firsthand what is going on in our body; sometimes we just get signals that do not originate from “out there” in the world but from inside us. There are many functions in our body that we cannot be aware of what is going on. And we also think we know what is going on around us, but hardly. We do not, for example, know what people are really thinking about us to begin with. Indeed there are more things around us we are not aware of, let alone know about, than what we do.

However, machines are at the same state of existence as us: a lot of things are going on inside the machine and around the machine that it needs to be aware of to function as a machine. But a machine, as humans and dogs, do one thing in an excellent manner. A machine is very good at being the machine. We are very good as being human, dogs are very good at being dogs, and PCs, when they work, are very good at being PCs.

The fallacy when we argue about consciousness in other things is to project human functions and to anthropomorphize them to other non human creatures. Or maybe, as Cartesian philosophy did, exclude certain qualities in other creatures, such as dogs, simply because we enjoy those qualities such as humans being conscious. We basically try to identify “human like qualities” such as human consciousness in other creatures or machines and when we don’t find them we conclude that these creatures and machines are not conscious and therefore not human. But the issue is not whether the machines are human or not, but whether machines are aware of their surrounds; and I mean their surrounding and not human surroundings.

In his influential paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” Thomas Nagel* argued that while other organisms might be conscious we cannot know what that consciousness is like unless we are, for example a bat in the case of bat consciousness. Yes, only a bat can know what it is like to be a bat, but this does not exclude us from knowing what bats do, and how they function as Daniel Dennett* argued. Basically, a bat does what bats do and they have to be sufficiently conscious to be able to meet these functions. But the question “what is it like to be a bat?” is not the same as whether bats are conscious.

Thus machines or organisms that have to interact with their environment and react in a specific way have to be aware of themselves and their environment. My PC needs to “know” whether it is overheating, and needs to know what signals it is receiving from the keyboard. But my PC is “conscious” only to the extent of what the function of the PC is. I argue that the question of consciousness is not really complicated, fuzzy or uncertain, in and of itself, the question is boring. However, what is of interest for us is the function of consciousness in human beings? Or the function of consciousness in other organisms.

In other words, what we should be interested in is, what it is like to be a human being? And indeed we do treat ourselves like machines. When something goes wrong with us, we try to fix it by going to our doctor. When something goes wrong with our PC we try to fix it by taking it to an engineer to try and fix it. And if a machine violates it function by breaking down we tend to scarp it or put away in the attic. When human fail in being human we take them to court and in some cases we exclude from society by putting them in jail.

The question of consciousness, whether creature or machine, is simply one of whether the organism receives the vital information from the environment and from internal organs to help it function as the organ. There is no issue of morality involved, or special status of existence, or even mechanism of the consciousness. These questions are interesting and important to know about as Dennett suggested but they cannot be used to give us some exclusive status which consciousness does not have.

Best Lawrence

*see Wikipedia on Consciousness https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consciousness and the respective entries of the authors mentioned in the essay. There are more complex texts in the internet on consciousness but Wikipedia is a good start.

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