Yesterday I was listening to a conversation between the two young superstars of British science, Brian Cox, Professor of Theoretical Physics at Manchester University, and Alice Roberts, Professor of Engagement with Science at Birmingham University. Brian Cox is also a researcher at the Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and Alice Roberts is a comparative Anatomist and Anthropologist. Both have become famous through presenting successful television programmes.
They discussed the nature of consciousness, and what they were talking about, insofar as I followed it, was so relevant to my book, The Casual Comedy, that I wanted to blog about it. They were talking about things that really interest me.
I’m not even going to attempt to summarise or, worse still, explain what they said. If you’re interested, their discussion can be found on the intelligence squared website. What I want to do is muse on the subject, from a position of almost total ignorance but equally total curiosity.
They talked about Stephen Hawkins’s anxiety that we will soon be able to produce machines with such complex ‘brains’ that they will achieve some form of consciousness and be able to replicate themselves. Their ability to replicate quickly and improve their designs would soon result in them supplanting human beings as top thing on the planet. It sounds incredible, but they were talking about it as a serious possibility, and they know far more about it than I or the likes of Jeremy Clarkson do.
It all depends on what you call consciousness. For some of us, I know, it means not being asleep or being sober enough to have a headache, but is it more than just simple awareness? A fish is aware of its environment, but does it have consciousness? Probably it does not in the sense that we are conscious.
Some people believe that consciousness implies self-consciousness, or the ability to think about what it is like to be conscious, an awareness that there is a thing that is thinking.
Yet others will claim that account needs to be taken of the spiritual and emotional side of existence, and that to be fully conscious requires emotional responses to stimuli and possibly the existence of a non-material component of an organism called a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’.
In many ways, it seems to me that this notion we have of consciousness has been mixed up with something else that we call ‘individuality’. We feel that we are all separate things that mooch around for a bit, experiencing the world through our bodies. Whoever, or whatever, I am is the most important thing about me and must be protected at all costs.
I’m not sure my dog experiences the world like this, even though she is obviously different from all other dogs.
Buddhists believe that the self is an illusion, a construct, and one, furthermore, that makes it impossible for us to connect with the world or even to be genuinely happy. I tend to this view myself, and feel that what I am is a string of sensory and emotional experiences, laid down in the form of memories, that seem to connect with each other in a kind of story, that becomes the narrative of my life. Because no-one else will have the same memories, my story is unique, and so I have come to experience myself as a separate thing. I don’t mean my body, which is obviously a separate thing; I mean me, the entity that appears to own my body.
If this is so, I don’t see any reason why a machine with a memory could not form a sense of self.
This is really scary, and scientists are walking through a minefield if they work on artificial intelligence. Once something achieves consciousness, even of the most rudimentary kind, we can’t just switch it off. That would be like switching off a child, or a disabled person.
When the astronaut in the film 2001:A Space Odyssey turns off the evil computer, Hal, is he just turning off a computer, or is he mistreating a conscious and self-aware being, or is he, indeed, committing murder?
I don’t want to go through an ethical dilemma every time I turn off the television!