Saturday, September 17, 2005

Consciousness --- Machine Consciousness

Conference: Toward a Science of Consciousness 2004
"Tucson VI"
April 7-11, 2004

Abstract accepted for poster session.

Author: Anthony Sebastian *

A Gedankenexperiment that Establishes In Principle the Ability of Humans To Construct Consciously Experiencing Machines.


In his JCS article on machine consciousness, "The Borg or Borges?" [Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 10, No. 4-5, April-May 2003], William Thompson writes humorously and allusively, yet makes some claims clear enough for response. He writes, for example: "An engineer can be clever and construct a machine that says 'Ouch!' instead of flashing a red light, but this gnostic demiurge is mimicking consciousness to trick humans. The machine is not a sentient being capable of suffering, and….experiencing compassion for the suffering of other sentient beings."

Not clever enough, Thompson’s engineer, I say. Thompson’s and related views seem not to recognize that, first of all, all "sentient being[s]" own the essential requirements to qualify as machines. One may call them organic multi-cellular machines. One would find it difficult to argue convincingly that humans fail to qualify as machines. Merriam-Webster’s 3rd International Unabridged Dictionary states “MACHINE applies to a construction or organization whose parts are so connected and interrelated that it can be set in motion and perform work as a unit.” Sounds like my fifth-grader daughter.

One must recognize the mind-boggling level of complexity of the human machine, and realize that it acquires conscious cognitive functionality only in a socio-cultural matrix comprising other consciously experiencing machines. If nature can engineer such machines, and license the appropriate socio-cultural matrix that enables conscious experiencing, then we, who have caught on to so many of nature's machinations, can conceivably do so too.

For one example, with a not unrealistically advanced and not too future-remote technology, and sufficient knowledge of the human genome and cell structure, conceivably we could build an entirely artificial human being, from raw materials, atom by atom, starting with a single manufactured cell, a zygote, implanted in a surrogate human for gestation. Such an artificial machine, flawlessly constructed, and nurtured in the human environment, predictably would learn to speak and to experience objects and events of reality consciously.

Thus, one way to construct consciously experiencing machines involves constructing proto-machines that self-develop to an enormous level of complexity that emulates the functionality of human beings, all the while nurturing those self-developing machines in the human environment, as fully fledged members of human society. Such machines would grow and develop as nascent humans do, emotionally and cognitively, learning the trick of experiencing consciously from the natural human machines who already know the trick, just as happens with natural children.

Accordingly, this gedankenexperiment establishes conclusively in principle that we can construct from raw materials consciously experiencing machines. Issac Asimov (“I, Robot”) and Robert Heinlein (“Friday”) understood the basic requirements decades ago. If possible in principle, its implementation just needs clever enough engineers, cleverer than the ones Thompson imagines.

* My first post on the subject of conscious experiencing.


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