Conscious Machines?

One of the most compelling forces behind much of my writing also happens to be one of the most important reasons why we should question the current wisdom of the modern study of human consciousness. Aside from acknowledging the central role that consciousness plays in our existence and the nearly complete lack of comprehension of its nature generally, the repeated encounter with individuals who feel confident that the subjective experience of consciousness is a product of brain function only, virtually screams for a dissenting voice in the world.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the completely reasonable disparity in the thinking which surrounds the controversial nature of the subject matter. Throughout human history, many of the most important issues of the day usually find a variety of human beings landing on opposite ends (and in every variation in between) of the whole spectrum of human thought regarding everything from what constitutes reality to morality and ethics. Diversity of thought in the realm of public discourse on most any subject will eventually result in some sort of consensus in the long run, and while I would not discourage discussion on any genuine attempt to describe the nature of our very human existence, to describe neurobiologists as “interested in how brains give rise to subjective experience,” as an article in the June issue of Scientific American did, immediately raised every hair on the back of my neck.

According to the article, “A Test for Consciousness,” by Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi, in the June 2011 issue, “The unified nature of consciousness stems from a multitude of interactions among relevant parts of your brain.” The writers go to elaborate lengths to justify this premise, none of which, in my view, even come close to convincing the reader that consciousness can be so easily explained away.

Part of the problem with judging as to whether or not a machine can be “conscious” lies in the difficulty we currently encounter when we attempt to confirm this same condition in other sentient beings. We experience conscious states vividly in our own day-to-day existence, but can only “infer” conscious states in others through observations and interactions with them. We cannot know with absolute certainty what others are experiencing, precisely because of the nature of conscious awareness. Even when conscious awareness was finally possible for the early humans, they did not immediately spring into functional consciousness. Even with the advantage of being able to “load” information into a machine, which is still a fairly lengthy process for humans needing years of learning, there are very few shortcuts available for accumulating experience, which is the real game changer.

In the postings to come, I will attempt to elaborate on this theme from a variety of viewpoints, and encourage anyone reading who is genuinely interested in the subject, (is anyone reading?) to ask questions or comment as I cover this ground.

10 thoughts on “Conscious Machines?

  1. As a neuroscientist the description “interested in how brains give rise to subjective experience” seems like a reasonable statement of the aims of what I do – although not the only one of course.

    “We experience conscious states vividly in our own day-to-day existence, but can only “infer” conscious states in others through observations and interactions with them. We cannot know with absolute certainty what others are experiencing, precisely because of the nature of conscious awareness.”

    I have to disagree – the first sentence above flirts dangerously with solipsism, which, while attractive to some of a more nihilistic persuasion, is a philosophical dead-end which stifles further investigation. The second sentence above was true 20 years ago, but massive strides have been made in examining the nature of conscious awareness using brain-scanning technology. We’re still some way off from a persuasive operational definition of consciousness, but there’s no reason to think we won’t eventually get there, as the technology continues to mature and develop.

    1. Matt,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to a posting which touches on a subject that is clearly of great interest to us both. It seems I may have been unclear in my posting and am grateful for an opportunity to clarify a bit.

      I do not support the “philosophical dead-end” of solipsism, and prefer absolutely to investigate the subjective experience of consciousness as an experience shared by all sentient beings who are fortunate enough to have a functional cognitive apparatus. My point was more precisely to say that only we can actually experience our own personal consciousness and, in that way, confirm it for ourselves with absolute certainty.

      While our technology may provide clinical evidence of another person’s brain displaying activity which we associate with conscious states, resembling in every way the activity of similar states in us, those indications are objective in nature, and are not nearly as satisfying as a testimony of sentience in others, nor as absolutely certain as our own subjective experience is to us as individual sentient beings.

      I also have only the greatest admiration for scientists who investigate the workings of the brain, and strive to unravel the neural underpinnings of the subjective experience of consciousness. However, even Harvard scientist, Steven Pinker, agrees that “Sentience is not a combination of brain events or computational states: how a red-sensitive neuron gives rise to the subjective feel of redness is not a whit less mysterious than how the whole brain gives rise to the entire stream of consciousness.”

      I am enthusiastically reviewing your website (in spite of your suggestion that it may not be interesting to do so) and hope you might wish to review several of the other neuro-scientific postings here, and perhaps share your thoughts with me as the opportunity presents itself.

      I am most grateful for your thoughtful response here………John H.

  2. Hi John,
    I think we can both agree that consciousness is a highly mysterious thing – however it’s defined or approached! That’s what makes it so fascinating of course. Lovely quote from Pinker, but as someone who tries in my own tiny way to understand the brain, I have to believe that one day we’ll gain a full and complete understanding of its mysteries – even of consciousness. It may be that all our current ideas are wrong and the true ‘explanation’ of things like consciousness are so far beyond our current understanding of neural networks etc. it requires an entirely different paradigm and methods – who knows? Exciting stuff though.

    Anyway, will definitely check out the rest of your site when I get a chance, and look forward to a future dialogue. My blog is boringly technical in comparison, so don’t feel obliged to spend too much time there if it’s not what you’re interested in!

  3. Interesting discussion gentlemen. It reminds me of a frustration that I have had my entire career as a nurse. The experience of pain is a source of great controversy. My feelings are that no one can know with certainty the pain another person experiences. When a patient tells me he is in pain, I believe him and do what I can to help relieve it. I do not sit in judgment that “he is a drug seeker” or “it shouldn’t hurt that much”. I cannot possibly know his pain nor can he know mine. Even when no physical reason can be found for someone’s pain, it is not any less real or distressing.

    1. Anne,

      You’ve brought up an interesting point which demonstrates just how difficult it is for us to appreciate fully what another person is experiencing. In a clinical setting like a hospital, where there are many different kinds of pain and suffering, you observe a wide range of circumstances. Having recently endured a surgery myself, I can tell you with absolute certainty that it caused a fair amount of real pain at the site of the surgery. The surgeon warned me in advance to EXPECT a fair amount of pain and prescribed medicine to mitigate it. Tolerance for pain varies widely and when I complained that it didn’t seem to be working, he advised a higher dose of the medicine which solved the problem. Another person who had the very same surgery might have a higher tolerance for pain, and the lower dose might work just fine. Each case is different.

      When no clinical evidence can be found for why a person would be experiencing pain, and yet they report having it anyway, it becomes less clear how to proceed, but it still CAN be a real and distressing PERCEPTION of pain, and that points to the difficulty I am speaking of in being certain about just what another person experiences in ANY circumstance.

      You tell me it hurts and you appear to have pain, but I can’t know with certainty if you do or not. You can behave as if you are conscious, and I can observe your behavior as a conscious person, but I can’t know the experience of your conscious state with the same certainty I know my own!

      1. You’ve brought up a subject of great interest to me, since I’m currently working on a research project investigating pain mechanisms. Pain is indeed a very mysterious and ephemeral thing, and we are still a long way from having a full understanding of it. Chronic pain syndromes where people apparently suffer for a long period, often with no obvious physical cause are particularly hard to characterise and deal with. As you say, these days, there is a recognition that their pain is ‘real’, but a lack of clear treatment options – although psychological therapy can have some effect. Working on pain, I’m constantly reminded of how much we don’t know about how such an apparently simple and basic function works!

  4. It is strangely reassuring to hear someone who is researching pain mechanisms speaking honestly about “how much we don’t know” about pain. Anne’s experience seems to indicate that persons who report pain which falls into the area of “what we don’t know” are often met with incredulity or suspicion, and while we all know that pretending to be in pain does occur for a variety of hidden agendas, it seems like we ought to start, in a clinical setting anyway, to be compassionate enough to administer to the pain until such time as we can confirm the hidden agenda.

    Let’s hear more about your research!……..John H.

  5. I too am interested in your research. It seems i have been reading a lot lately about chronic pain syndromes and how patients seem to labor through doctor after doctor before anyone is able to help them.
    There are SO many applications of this thought that no one can ever fully understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, consciousness. It almost makes me feel like we are each actually alone in this world of billions of people. Even something as “simple” as hearing/understanding and interpreting words is a unique experience for each of us.

    1. In some ways, it’s not so much a matter of “understanding,” what others are experiencing as it is fully “appreciating” with the same fullness that we enjoy during our own experiences, what is transpiring within the subjective experience of another’s thoughts and feelings and consciousness. The sense of being “alone” in a world of billions is partly true and partly an illusion. In the purely temporal sense, we seem to inhabit our bodies in a completely separate manner from others, and our sense of having an individual “self” is, in part, a result of our “cognitive perspective”,

      It would be most difficult to survive as a species or to function well as a social creature if we could not distinguish between ourselves and other human beings. In order for us to extend our comprehension to what is transpiring for OTHERS, we must begin to see more clearly where we SHARE aspects and commonalities with others. Depending on an individual’s gifts and their willingness to accept others into their social circle and to open themselves to what others may be experiencing, there may be virtually no limit to how far the process can go.

      “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” — Albert Einstein

      John H.

  6. I wrote the following in response to a blog entry on how artificial intelligence research may eventually produce a conscious machine:

    Clearly, while there are some similarities between the processing which takes place in Artificial Intelligence applications and the general understanding that we have of how the brain processes the input from the various support systems in the human body, to suggest even “in theory” that the “mind” might be just software is so far from being credible that it casts the entire discussion into the category of speculation with a vengeance.

    I cannot understand how any reasonable person engaged in research of artificial intelligence could ignore the profound implications of their own subjective experience of their own consciousness…as a “conscious entity” without concluding that no matter what else humans may invent that “mimics” the activity of neurons and memory storage and retrieval in the human brain, could even entertain the idea that such enormously complex and richly textured experiences which result in a fully functional cognitive human person could somehow be translated or recreated in silicon or any other medium.

    Whatever degree of sophistication in computing power and capability may result from such research, a synthetic or otherwise manufactured inanimate object composed of whatever artificial substance might be produced in the future, however cleverly designed to imitate the activity of neurons and brain functions, at best, might only be astonishing in the ability to give us the sense of its being “conscious,” while failing completely in actually “being” conscious.

    Being human consists of a great deal more than “parallel processing,” and frankly, I find it sadly disappointing that some of our finest achievements and profound qualities as living beings can be reduced to “parallel processing,” by clearly intelligent and conscious humans.

    I am absolutely in favor of research that increases our knowledge and benefits humanity with results that enhance our “human” experience of being conscious, but even entertaining the notion that something manufactured in silicon might somehow be equivalent to a human being simply flies in the face of our own experience of our humanity.

    John H.

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