Saturday, February 28, 2015

Can Robots Become Conscious?

It's a three-part question. What is consciousness? Can you put it in a machine? And if you did, how could you ever know for sure?

Unlike any other scientific topics, consciousness -- the first-person awareness of the world around -- is truly in the eye of the beholder. I know I am conscious. But how do I know that you are?
Could it be that my colleagues, my friends, my editors, my wife, my child, all the people I see on the streets of New York are actually just mindless automatons who merely act as if they were conscious human beings?
That would make this question moot.
Through logical analogy -- I am a conscious human being, and therefore you as a human being are also likely to be conscious -- I conclude I am probably not the only conscious being in a world of biological puppets. Extend the question of consciousness to other creatures, and uncertainty grows. Is a dog conscious? A turtle? A fly? An elm? A rock?
''We don't have the mythical consciousness meter,'' said Dr. David J. Chalmers, a professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona. ''All we have directly to go on is behavior.''
So without even a rudimentary understanding of what consciousness is, the idea of instilling it into a machine -- or understanding how a machine might evolve consciousness -- becomes almost unfathomable.
The field of artificial intelligence started out with dreams of making thinking -- and possibly conscious -- machines, but to date, its achievements have been modest. No one has yet produced a computer program that can pass the Turing test.
In 1950, Alan Turing, a pioneer in computer science, imagined that a computer could be considered intelligent when its responses were indistinguishable from those of a person. The field has evolved to focus more on solving practical problems like complex scheduling tasks than on emulating human behavior.
But with the continuing gains in computing power, many believe that the original goals of artificial intelligence will be attainable within a few decades.
Some people, like Dr. Hans Moravec, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, believe a human being is nothing more than a fancy machine, and that as technology advances, it will be possible to build a machine with the same features, that there is nothing magical about the brain and biological flesh.
''I'm confident we can build robots with behavior that is just as rich as human being behavior,'' he said. ''You could quiz it as much as you like about its internal mental life, and it would answer as any human being.''
To Dr. Moravec, if it acts conscious, it is. To ask more is pointless.
Dr. Chalmers regards consciousness as an ineffable trait, and it may be useless to try to pin it down. ''We've got to admit something here is irreducible,'' he said. ''Some primitive precursor consciousness could go all the way down'' to the smallest, most primitive organisms, even bacteria, he said.
Dr. Chalmers too sees nothing fundamentally different between a creature of flesh and blood and one of metal, plastics and electronic circuits. ''I'm quite open to the idea that machines might eventually become conscious,'' he said, adding that it would be ''equally weird.''
And if a person gets into involved conversations with a robot about everything from Kant to baseball, ''we'll be as practically certain they are conscious as other people,'' Dr. Chalmers said.
''Of course, that doesn't resolve the theoretical question,'' he said.
But others say machines, regardless of how complex, will never match people.
The arguments can become arcane. In his book ''Shadows of the Mind,'' Dr. Roger Penrose, a mathematician at Oxford University in England, enlisted the incompleteness theorem in mathematics. He uses the theorem, which states that any system of theorems will invariably include statements that cannot be proven, to argue that any machine that uses computation -- and hence all robots -- will invariably fall short of the accomplishments of human mathematicians.
Instead, he argues that consciousness is an effect of quantum mechanics in tiny structures in the brain that exceeds the abilities of any computer.

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