As artificial intelligence systems take on more tasks and solve more problems, it’s hard to say which is rising faster: our interest in them or our fear of them. Futurist Ray Kurzweil famously predicted that “By 2029, computers will have emotional intelligence and be convincing as people.”
As the very word used to describe it has been “worn smooth by a million tongues”, consciousness is a fertile topic for confusion. We all know what it is to be conscious. It is, basically, being aware of and responding to the world. Similarly, we all possess a common sense notion of how consciousness works.
Why is my awareness here, while yours is over there? Why is the universe split in two for each of us, into a subject and an infinity of objects? How is each of us our own center of experience, receiving information about the rest of the world out there? Why are some things conscious and others apparently not? Is a rat conscious? A gnat? A bacterium?
Understanding the biology behind consciousness (or self-awareness) is considered by some to be the final frontier of science. And over the last decade, a fledgling community of “consciousness scientists” have gathered some interesting information about the differences between conscious and unconscious brain activity.
Forget about today’s modest incremental advances in artificial intelligence, such as the increasing abilities of cars to drive themselves. Waiting in the wings might be a groundbreaking development: a machine that is aware of itself and its surroundings, and that could take in and process massive amounts of data in real time. It could be sent on dangerous missions, into space or combat. In addition to driving people around, it might be able to cook, clean, do laundry – and even keep humans company when other people aren’t nearby
Do you think that the machine you are reading this story on, right now, has a feeling of “what it is like” to be in its state? What about a pet dog? Does it have a sense of what it’s like to be in its state? It may pine for attention, and appear to have a unique subjective experience, but what separates the two cases?