Julie Arliss 2, Could a Computer Become Conscious

Thoughts on Julie Arliss’ talk

Quite a conundrum and one which faces us with the challenge of trying to decide what is the essence of our own humanity as much as speculating about the future of machines.  It also raises the whole issue of where we stand in relation to other sentient life.

Julie came to speak to us formidably well prepared with a  Power Point presentation and an unforgettable video showing a young chimpanzee dancing in front of a mirror until he worked out that what he was looking at was not another chimp, but himself – so showing his human observers that he like them is self-aware.

The most powerful image though of her presentation and the one she chose to leave on the screen when she had finished speaking was the coil of a snail’s shell which is also to be seen in every hurricane and in images of the galaxies.  A mathematical observation called the Fibonacci sequence this formula repeats itself in many different contexts and powerfully demonstrates the mathematical consistency which permeates everything.

Julie explored for us three options.  The first being that consciousness or mind  (she used the terms interchangeably) is inherent and emergent in matter.  When life reaches a sufficiently complex level it shows itself in self-awareness, but it is implicit in all matter in the universe from the start.

The second is that mind and matter are essentially separate, each able to exist on its own and the third view is that for matter to emerge and appear real and consistent it needs be the expression of a pre-existing, ordering mind.  Well that is how I grasped what she said.

Looking at the mind or consciousness of animals she cast doubt on those who would say that animals cannot think unless they are self-aware, instead suggesting that they can think and feel in many different ways.  When it came to computers however following the readings she had given us she cast doubt on the idea that even the most formidable of chess playing computers could be seen as in any way conscious.

Prior to a lively discussion we all chose to sound off on how we saw the issue – which showed despite our efforts most of us remain pretty divided and confused.  One theme that did come across strongly in the general discussion that followed was that computer science remains at an early stage and already the binary computers we are used to dealing with are being seen by the high flyers as rather slow and clunky  as they develop in trimary (did I get that right) or even more powerful computers based on quantum mechanics. These appear to be developing far quicker than was predicted only months ago.  This left us – I think – feeling that it would be a bold person who could be that certain computers can never become self-conscious though we have little idea what such computers might be like.

All agreed that Julie had given a fascinating talk and had ended our first year on a high note of challenge.  How can we possibly keep this up.  JB

After reading my attempt to summarise Julie sent this:

Thanks John – I’m just writing this to clarify.

The first view was the materialist reductionist view – that consciousness can be reduced to matter. Matter is primary in the universe and whenever it achieves sufficient complexity consciousness just arises, naturally, out of matter. This would see a computer possibly capable of achieving consciousness if it were to become sufficiently complex. The second view was the idealist view, that consciousness must have been in the mix at the beginning – matter must always have had the potential for consciousness for us to have arisen out of it. This would suggest that all living things with any degree of mind are conscious to a degree. In some animals this is more obvious than in others. A computer is not a living thing and unless living cells, or parts of them are used to create a hybrid creature/computer there doesn’t seem any way that a computer could be conscious. The third view is that consciousness is a compound. Matter by itself cannot give rise to consciousness without an injection of mind…in the same way that a guitar cannot by itself produce music; in the same way that the elements oxygen and hydrogen are not water. It is in the compound of mind and matter that conscious awareness arises. This would mean, again, that a computer could not become conscious unless it too could be a compound of mind and matter. At present computers are just matter and give only the impression of being ‘clever’ when in fact they only have symbols and no understanding. However all animals would be a compound – some would play more exciting music than others but all have a level of consciousness.

I always find it odd when people use the very thing which is most obvious to us – our conscious minds – to suggest that this topic is somehow irrelevant. It feels as if there is an inherent contradiction in using mind to dismiss the importance of mind…as if you could have that very thought, without it! It seems to me that this particular intractable philosophical question can make some people uncomfortable because any serious reflection will inevitably challenge the paradigms previously held about the nature of reality.
Anyhow…thank you so much for inviting me.
If you have comment, please send them in. JB