Can machines be conscious?

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Can machines be conscious?

Postby Lundse » 28 Oct 2009 17:12

This was raised in another thread: http://www.jacurutu.com/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=1495, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on it (and hope to move the discussion, so that the other thread in question does not get too muddled...

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Lundse » 28 Oct 2009 17:27

First of all, speculation based on Frank's terms in Dune will be guesswork. It is interesting guesswork, and leading us to do it is definitely part of what makes Dune great, but is cannot afford us any certain knowledge about the Dune universe.


Secondly, I just want to point to this book, and this passage:
Frank Herbert, in "Without Me You're Nothing" p. 33 wrote:What we have paused to discuss right now is probably the single most important barrier to the widespread useful development of individual computers. It involves a lot of people blathering about their "computer intelligence." According to this scare story, "computer intelligence will win out someday over human intelligence and then we're all going to be in deep trouble. That makes good science fiction drama, but it ain't gonna happen.


In other parts of the book (and, incidentally, through the BG and Leto II, he states clearly that he does not believe a computer can be conscious as we are. This is not surprising, giving his knowledge and use of Heidegger. He discusses, IIRC, how computers must think in discrete bits while we have a analog/continuum approach.
The discussion about what he means by good scifi drama will probably erupt soon - I hope in some other thread. :-)

-

I have studied the discussions on consciousness in philosophy, and I am not quite convinced one way or the other. Just more confused. But it is a better kind of confusion, I am told...
Anyway, I think the basic question is this: can consciousness and free wil arise from mechanistic principles? If yes, then machines can, in principle, be consciouss too. If no, then you have discarded the idea of a universe that is only matter and its interactions (physicalism).
Heidegger, me and, I think, Frank Herbert believes in the latter.

But that does not mean machines cannot be conscious in a universe that is not 'merely matter'. We could image this or the Dune universe to be one where both humans and machines were imbued with some kind of spirit, or maybe universes where there is really no matter existing in itself (Heidegger and me are still, grossly speaking, onboard for such a universe - I am not going to guess on Frank here...)
Personally, I would not exclude the possibility that machines could be conscious, in such a "there exists only mental states/experiences"-universe. I think Heidegger would, but I am no expert.

Analytical philosophy (not Heidegger!) typically looks at "with what right can we say that X is conscious" and would say that if X behaved as something else we call conscious, then we should ascribe it the same consciousness. So if a machine could act as a human (maybe passing a Turing test would be enough?), we should call it as conscious as we do each other.
Herbert speaks against this possibility both in Dune, and in "Without Me..." I don't know his philosophical leanings, but he strikes me as a Continental guy (siding with Heidegger, a lot of long dead Germans and a bunch of French dudes, basically). But if you are of an analytical bent, then it makes sense that machines in his universe are not conscious - because he does not believe they can act with the same free will and out-of-the-box thinking and existing as we can; so there is no reason to think they are conscious...


As I said, I don't think we can gather anything certain about his choice - he was a lay philosopher and many of the words used are pseudonyms in common use. But if I were to guess, I'd say "sentient" and "conscious" means something like us functionally - that they can think "from scratch", get new ideas, etc. The terminology uses this term about machines, I know - but I don't think he was being precise, especially not when describing anything in a history book, dictionary or encyclopedia.
'Thinking' means analytical - being able to manipulate symbols and draw conclusions. Machines obviously did this, and do this today.

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby A Thing of Eternity » 28 Oct 2009 17:42

Lundse wrote:Anyway, I think the basic question is this: can consciousness and free wil arise from mechanistic principles? If yes, then machines can, in principle, be consciouss too. If no, then you have discarded the idea of a universe that is only matter and its interactions (physicalism).
Heidegger, me and, I think, Frank Herbert believes in the latter.


So, just so I'm clear, you believe in some form of supernatural spirit, which lends consciousness to human?

I, so far, have never seen anything that even remotely suggests that humans are more than the sum of our working parts, and I see no technical reason why a machine could not be conscious. I see no reason why organic matter would have the ability to rise to consciousness, but not a mechanical "life form".
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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Freakzilla » 28 Oct 2009 17:55

A Thing of Eternity wrote:
Lundse wrote:Anyway, I think the basic question is this: can consciousness and free wil arise from mechanistic principles? If yes, then machines can, in principle, be consciouss too. If no, then you have discarded the idea of a universe that is only matter and its interactions (physicalism).
Heidegger, me and, I think, Frank Herbert believes in the latter.


So, just so I'm clear, you believe in some form of supernatural spirit, which lends consciousness to human?

I, so far, have never seen anything that even remotely suggests that humans are more than the sum of our working parts, and I see no technical reason why a machine could not be conscious. I see no reason why organic matter would have the ability to rise to consciousness, but not a mechanical "life form".


This is a religious issue. If we can create machine life doesn't that make us gods? Then what of our gods? :think:
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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Lundse » 28 Oct 2009 18:02

A Thing of Eternity wrote:So, just so I'm clear, you believe in some form of supernatural spirit, which lends consciousness to human?

I, so far, have never seen anything that even remotely suggests that humans are more than the sum of our working parts, and I see no technical reason why a machine could not be conscious. I see no reason why organic matter would have the ability to rise to consciousness, but not a mechanical "life form".


No. I believe humans are "some form of supernatural spirit" - I am not a dualist, like Descartes :-)

I have seen nothing which points towards a materialistic universe, personally. I only have experiences, so I believe those are what exist. The "physical world", to me, is a working model which guides me through these experiences - which are obviously heavily structured and not just random.

The materialistic explanation that there is only matter, which then, through some mystical and unnecessary process, gives rise to experiences, seems selfdefeating to me.
A physicalist believes there is matter, and rules guiding matter, and rules guiding how matter gives rise to mental experiences (which are, BTW, epiphenomenal, ie. have no causal power themselves but are just "afterthoughts"). Someone like me believes there are experiences and rules guiding those. Seems more economic...

The selfdefeating part is this:
If all is merely matter, then your thoughts are there only because certain atoms, quarks, or whatever, are doing a particular dance. But that means that your thoughts cannot be "true" or "false" in any sense of the word - they are merely there. They may reflect the world around them, but not in any meaningful way where the world "looks like" those thoughts - because the thoughts are really just small patterns in grey matter and nothing like the world without. So, in a materialistic view, the world could really look like anything. Pink elephants all over the shop, only sounds, a series of 1s and 0s, a thousand elves dancing - anything.
We have absolutely no way of knowing how the rules guiding what pattern of whatever matter is there gives rise to this and this belief. Because we only "see" the beliefs! So, as I said, the "real world" could look like anything. So you have no reason to believe it even consists of... matter. Better stick with the experiences we know are there (we have them) and the rules (there is some structure to our experiences, they must be there), and not guess to much about the rest.

PS: I don't know what your exact term for someone like me is. Maybe an idealist, but with serious leanings towards phenomenology... I certainly find Berkeley an underrated philosopher!

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Lundse » 28 Oct 2009 18:04

Freakzilla wrote:This is a religious issue. If we can create machine life doesn't that make us gods? Then what of our gods? :think:


I don't think it does. Depends on your definition of gods, I guess. Mine is either: some being having created, or taking part in, everything (or maybe just all we experience). Or a mythical creature.

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby A Thing of Eternity » 28 Oct 2009 18:16

Sorry Lundse, I'm going to have to bow out of this one. I've done the argument too many times, and to be honest, the argument that comes from your side of the camp just doesn't make any sense to me, and goes in circles in my personal opinion.

It gets too heated too quickly, and as a fullblown atheist I long ago learned that there is no point at all to having the debate when both people involved have done it before and learned what there is to learn from the other side's arguments.
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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Talos Aquinas » 28 Oct 2009 19:09

Can machines be conscious?

Interesting question... ;)
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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Lundse » 28 Oct 2009 19:27

A Thing of Eternity wrote:Sorry Lundse, I'm going to have to bow out of this one. I've done the argument too many times, and to be honest, the argument that comes from your side of the camp just doesn't make any sense to me, and goes in circles in my personal opinion.

It gets too heated too quickly, and as a fullblown atheist I long ago learned that there is no point at all to having the debate when both people involved have done it before and learned what there is to learn from the other side's arguments.


That's OK. But just to be clear, my argumentation is in no way religious - I'm an atheist too... And of course I don't believe my arguments are circular either... But these things do get, if not heated, then dizzying - I've done my share of messing around these subjects (but I was in a train and bored and my downloads were going too slow).

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Freakzilla » 29 Oct 2009 09:24

Lundse wrote:
Freakzilla wrote:This is a religious issue. If we can create machine life doesn't that make us gods? Then what of our gods? :think:


I don't think it does. Depends on your definition of gods, I guess. Mine is either: some being having created, or taking part in, everything (or maybe just all we experience). Or a mythical creature.



I meant god as a creator. My point being, if we can create mechanical intelligence, who's to say that our intelligence was not created and our universe is just a particle in a lab an order of magnitude larger.

I think that bothers a lot of religious people. That God might be a mad scientist on an alien world or parallel universe.

That doesn't really lessen his godhood to us, but what about HIS god?

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Lundse » 29 Oct 2009 10:41

Freakzilla wrote:It's an infinite stack of turtles.


Yup. "God did it" as answer to the universe always was.

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Slugger » 29 Oct 2009 17:28

I suppose you'd have to determine if there is something fundamentally different between a human brain and a mechanical device that simulates the brain. Is the mind greater than the sum of the brains parts? The analogy that the brain is nothing more than a machine is frowned upon by contemporary psychologists.

Will it be a spontaneous genesis? Will it happen within my lifetime? I doubt it. People have been claiming creations of artificial life since the dawn of written history.

Scientists are still not entirely sure how the brain works. We understand how it functions (eg, the interactions of neurons) but there is a lack of understanding as to why certain identifiable chemicals produce certain emotions.

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby A Thing of Eternity » 29 Oct 2009 17:44

Slugger wrote:I suppose you'd have to determine if there is something fundamentally different between a human brain and a mechanical device that simulates the brain. Is the mind greater than the sum of the brains parts? The analogy that the brain is nothing more than a machine is frowned upon by contemporary psychologists.

Will it be a spontaneous genesis? Will it happen within my lifetime? I doubt it. People have been claiming creations of artificial life since the dawn of written history.

Scientists are still not entirely sure how the brain works. We understand how it functions (eg, the interactions of neurons) but there is a lack of understanding as to why certain identifiable chemicals produce certain emotions.



Comments like this make me wonder about what people think consciousness is. For a comment like this to make sense, consciousness has to be something "outside" the physical brain, because you're saying certain chemicals and processes in the brain "produce" an emoition.

This to me is like talking about windows xp as if it were something outside the physical computer, which it is not. It is the result of the computer doing something. In the same way consciousness is not effected by chemicals in your brain, or neurons firing, it IS those things. Those chemicals produce an emotion because an emotion is the natural result of what happens when the chemicals flow and neurons fire.

No, we don't understand much of the exact processes yet, but there's nothing I've ever seen to suggest that something "extra" is happening beyond what should naturally happen when our brain opperates.

This whole issues isn't going to be resolved for a while, but once we figure out exactly what every structure in the brain does, what every combination of impulses means, I feel very confident that all will be accounted for, and there will not be any part of the sum of our conscious left unexplained.

EDIT: Just thought I should qualify my statements, and say that I am not a professional in either neurology or phsychology, and as such my opinions on this subject are just that, opinions, and are based on having listed to people like Dan Dennett talk about consciousness, and my own logic.
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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Idahopotato » 29 Oct 2009 18:04

I have problems thinking that our brain/mind is merely the sum of our parts, especially when we still don't fully understand what those parts are and exactly what they do. It is quite possible that our brain is merely a computer, but it must be a super crazy awesome computer and a long way off from anything that exists today. The most intelligent computers that exists at the moment can't even tell the difference visually between a cat and a dog; something that pretty much every 2 year old can do.

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Freakzilla » 29 Oct 2009 18:11

I think we'll figure out DNA before we make an artificial brain.
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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby SadisticCynic » 29 Oct 2009 18:39

A Thing of Eternity wrote:
Slugger wrote:I suppose you'd have to determine if there is something fundamentally different between a human brain and a mechanical device that simulates the brain. Is the mind greater than the sum of the brains parts? The analogy that the brain is nothing more than a machine is frowned upon by contemporary psychologists.

Will it be a spontaneous genesis? Will it happen within my lifetime? I doubt it. People have been claiming creations of artificial life since the dawn of written history.

Scientists are still not entirely sure how the brain works. We understand how it functions (eg, the interactions of neurons) but there is a lack of understanding as to why certain identifiable chemicals produce certain emotions.



Comments like this make me wonder about what people think consciousness is. For a comment like this to make sense, consciousness has to be something "outside" the physical brain, because you're saying certain chemicals and processes in the brain "produce" an emoition.

This to me is like talking about windows xp as if it were something outside the physical computer, which it is not. It is the result of the computer doing something. In the same way consciousness is not effected by chemicals in your brain, or neurons firing, it IS those things. Those chemicals produce an emotion because an emotion is the natural result of what happens when the chemicals flow and neurons fire.

No, we don't understand much of the exact processes yet, but there's nothing I've ever seen to suggest that something "extra" is happening beyond what should naturally happen when our brain opperates.

This whole issues isn't going to be resolved for a while, but once we figure out exactly what every structure in the brain does, what every combination of impulses means, I feel very confident that all will be accounted for, and there will not be any part of the sum of our conscious left unexplained.

EDIT: Just thought I should qualify my statements, and say that I am not a professional in either neurology or phsychology, and as such my opinions on this subject are just that, opinions, and are based on having listed to people like Dan Dennett talk about consciousness, and my own logic.


I would perhaps argue that windows XP is not necessarily the parts moving. From one point of view for software to work requires information, which is not a physical property. That is what convinced me not to bother with physicalism. How can matter have rules if the rules do not exist -are not made of matter?

(By the way thanks for the unintentional reminder about Dennet. Might have a look in the library tomorrow, see if they have any of his stuff.)

Generally speaking though, I'm not so sure about what to think of about consciousness and so I don't make any claims about what it is, just what it probably isn't i.e. it is not some sort of immortal soul.

We may have to wait until someone has some sort of brilliant idea, as in a modern physics style reshuffle. Something that comes to me as I say that though, is that if the brain is computational, perhaps it is not computational in the traditional sense, but makes use of quantum superpositions i.e. quantum computation.

Fun stuff to think about anyway.
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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby SandChigger » 29 Oct 2009 18:54

You know, this thread is a perfect example of why we don't chuck all our current forms of government and clamor, "Bring on the Philosopher Kings!" :lol:

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby SadisticCynic » 29 Oct 2009 18:57

SandChigger wrote:You know, this thread is a perfect example of why we don't chuck all our current forms of government and clamor, "Bring on the Philosopher Kings!" :lol:


Hey, at least we debate about interesting things! :)
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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby SandChigger » 29 Oct 2009 20:52

Well, to be completely honest, I've never found the "Ooh, watch me spin in my qualia stew! Is the world anything like what it seems, or just a dance of elves and sky-blue-pink oilyphants?!" line of thought particularly enlightening or even all that interesting.

And just because we don't (yet) understand completely how the sum of the parts creates the epiphenomenon (the ole St. Elmo's Fire in the masts), I see no evidence that it continues after the parts decay or are divided. ;)

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Slugger » 29 Oct 2009 21:11

A Thing of Eternity wrote:
Slugger wrote:I suppose you'd have to determine if there is something fundamentally different between a human brain and a mechanical device that simulates the brain. Is the mind greater than the sum of the brains parts? The analogy that the brain is nothing more than a machine is frowned upon by contemporary psychologists.

Will it be a spontaneous genesis? Will it happen within my lifetime? I doubt it. People have been claiming creations of artificial life since the dawn of written history.

Scientists are still not entirely sure how the brain works. We understand how it functions (eg, the interactions of neurons) but there is a lack of understanding as to why certain identifiable chemicals produce certain emotions.


Comments like this make me wonder about what people think consciousness is. For a comment like this to make sense, consciousness has to be something "outside" the physical brain, because you're saying certain chemicals and processes in the brain "produce" an emoition.


Yes, I am saying that chemicals produce emotions. Yes, that is a scientific fact. Why does, in order for my comment "to make sense", this imply that there is something outside the physical brain? No where did I advocate a little man inside throwing all the levers. We know what's going on inside the brain, but not why a chemical produces a result (e.g. increased production of serotonin reduces anxiety).

This to me is like talking about windows xp as if it were something outside the physical computer, which it is not. It is the result of the computer doing something. In the same way consciousness is not effected by chemicals in your brain, or neurons firing, it IS those things. Those chemicals produce an emotion because an emotion is the natural result of what happens when the chemicals flow and neurons fire.

To follow your analogy, the Limbic Systhem (the so-called "Emotional Brain") is the hardware and the chemicals it uses to communicate are the software.

No, we don't understand much of the exact processes yet, but there's nothing I've ever seen to suggest that something "extra" is happening beyond what should naturally happen when our brain opperates.

I didn't say that something extra is happening just because we're not sure why chemicals induce responses.

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby SandChigger » 29 Oct 2009 22:04

The variants on that which always amused me were

Am I experiencing this emotion because there are chemicals coursing through my brain? (And the external context is pretty much irrelevant.)

or

Are there chemicals coursing through my brain because I'm having an emotional reaction? (To some external event or situation, or to something internal/mental, like I was remembering something that happened or imagining happening that might or is yet to occur.)

;)

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Slugger » 29 Oct 2009 22:38

SandChigger wrote:The variants on that which always amused me were


You should've sat in on some of our discussions in pysch 204. :roll: At least the ones in biochem were better grounded.

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby SandChigger » 29 Oct 2009 22:53

:D Well, it is the REAL SCIENCE one, right? ;)

(I sometimes stress-test my students by declaring "Phonetics is the only true scientific branch of Linguistics!" and watch their reaction. The slightly contaminated ones look uncomfortable, the damaged goods protest. The ones ready for the incinerator invoke Chomsky. :lol: )

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby Lundse » 30 Oct 2009 04:16

A Thing of Eternity wrote:This whole issues isn't going to be resolved for a while, but once we figure out exactly what every structure in the brain does, what every combination of impulses means, I feel very confident that all will be accounted for, and there will not be any part of the sum of our conscious left unexplained.


SandChigger wrote:Well, to be completely honest, I've never found the "Ooh, watch me spin in my qualia stew! Is the world anything like what it seems, or just a dance of elves and sky-blue-pink oilyphants?!" line of thought particularly enlightening or even all that interesting.



Well, the "qualia stew" is the whole point actually, if you want to talk consciousness. It is both:
1) The only thing which we have access to! (So it cannot be uninteresting or irrelevant to any discussion).
2) Inexplicable from a scientific viewpoint.

1 is selfexplanatory, noone has bothered trying to come up with an example of anything which was not an experience/qualia. Except some idiot who answered Berkeley by kicking a stone, and thus failed to see the point at all.
Regarding 2, then no matter how much we explain about the brain, that will never explain how the actual feeling of having eg. en emotion, pain or seeing a colour "pops up". We can explain the functionality, perhaps, of them all - but a scientific explanation will always be about "given this brain state, this behaviour occurs", but the question of how they give rise to an actual feeling cannot by linked to some physicalistic principle. The qualia, or feeling-of-being-in-this-state, will always be unnecessary for such explanations, and hence cannot be included (same as with free will, really; if a brainstate leads to the next brainstate-and-action, you cannot have free will).

In short, I am not on Dennett's team for this one, more along the lines of Chalmer... But, as my initial post alluded to, the whole area of analytical philosophy might have a blind spot here.

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Re: Can machines be conscious?

Postby The_Kat » 22 Nov 2009 17:01

I am by no means qualified to even join this discussion.

I am a scientist at heart, so put great weight in empirical evidence but i'm not daft enough to believe that we have all the answers. To quote Dune (this being a Dune Board) "Think you of the fact that a deaf person cannot hear. Then, what deafness may we not all possess? What senses do we lack that we cannot see and cannot hear another world all around us?"

So is the Brain simply a complex computer? yes. Does consciousness derive entirely from the brain? Possibly not. Might we not be influenced by events/agencies in higher dimensions. Might not the complexity of the brain create harmonics in the quantum structures of the matter that comprises it. Observation has quantum mechanical effects and doesn't the conscious brain observe itself. However surely a suitably complex computer designed subtly in the correct way might be similarly influenced or influencing. The idea that we could never build a machine that would be fully conscious implies an outside agency activly deciding what to make conscious and what not. So is necessarily religious in nature.
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