Tag Archives: Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Consciousness: Consciousness is a Matter of Degree

This is the second post in a series on artificial consciousness. For an introduction and a road map, see Artificial Consciousness: Introduction.

Let’s consider whatever informal definition of consciousness you happen to have.  Chances are, it centers on the concept of awareness of environment and of self. Is awareness a yes/no proposition, or is it a matter of degree?

Nap Time

Nap Time

If you have ever awakened from a nap, or ever had too much to drink, you know that awareness of one’s environment is a matter of degree. Case closed.

Awareness of self is trickier. At first blush, it seems that either one is aware of oneself or one isn’t. But consider the tragic situation of dementia. I knew someone (now deceased) who was sliding deeper into Alzheimer’s Disease. He was largely unaware of his condition. In one of his lucid moments, though, his wife said it was time for him to move out of their home so he could have better full-time care. “Am I as bad as that?” he said, quite upset. He had had only a vague awareness of his condition.


Human Blastocyst

Consider a developing human, from the moment of conception onward. Surely he or she is not self-aware when he or she is a single cell. That is not to say that a single cell is unresponsive to its environment, but we’re talking about self-awareness.  Does self-awareness suddenly pop in at x weeks after conception? Isn’t it more likely that it develops gradually, just as the brain itself does?

In short, it seems obvious that awareness of self and awareness of environment can scale gradually down to zero.  I’ll venture that the same is true of the other aspects of your own definition of consciousness. If you disagree, please leave a comment on this post, and let’s talk.

Next time, we will think about which attributes of consciousness are the essential ones.

Artificial Consciousness: Introduction

The one Halloween costume I can remember from my childhood was a robot. My mother made it for me out of ordinary houshold materials such as a large box painted silver for the body and a large tin can for the head.  No, my head was not so small that it could fit in a tin can!  Get that image out of your mind right now! There was a screen in the body through which I looked out. In fact, that was one of the costume’s best features: in it, I was at least a foot taller than my normal, shrimpy self. My teacher was so impressed with the costume that she paraded me down the hall and showed me to the principal. One of my proudest moments was when I was a robot.

Although the costume was pretty lame by today’s standards, in the late 1960’s it was quite a hit.

Robot from Lost in Space

Robot from Lost in Space

The same could be said of real robots. The ones on TV shows in that era were a hit, but they were just as lame by today’s standards as my costume. They weren’t good for much beyond saying, “Warning! Warning!” and “That does not compute.” In fact, the full name of the robot who uttered those words (pictured at left) was General Utility Non-theorizing Environmental Control Robot.  Non-theorizing: it did not think.

The question for us, almost 2 generations later, is whether our robots will ever get a fundamental upgrade. Will they ever learn to think?

Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence (VIKI)

Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence (VIKI), from I, Robot

Actually, I’d like to recast that question. They can certainly think: robots (or computers — same difference) now hold world championships in chess and Jeopardy. What we really mean when we ask whether robots can think is whether they could ever gain consciousness, even in principle.  Could an artificial intelligence like VIKI in I, Robot ever be built?  And if it were, would it be truly conscious?

That is what I’ll explore in this series of posts: is artificial consciousness possible?

As usual, it all comes down to definitions.  The next several posts will consider what it means to be conscious. Then, I will conclude that artificial consciousness is indeed possible.

This will be a largely stream-of-consciousness effort, but as I think about the topic today I can foresee this broad outline. (July 10: Edited to reflect how the series turned out.)

  1. Consciousness is a matter of degree.
  2. Awareness is thinking about thinking.
  3. Thinking is symbol-manipulation.
  4. The substrate for the symbols does not matter.
  5. Neuroprosthetics already exist.
  6. If we accept a modest definition of consciousness (small degree, minimal attributes, specialized), it is already possible to create artificial consciousness.
  7. From that modest beginning, there is no reason in principle that artificial consciousness could not expand until it rivals our own in size, although the scope may differ.

If my arguments are successful, consciousness may become less of a mystery, but more of a wonder.