If a robot is made that behaves like us in every way, including thought, does it have a conscience or is it just a clever machine? Asks Professor Barry C, Smith, director of the Philosophy Institute.
Human beings are made of flesh and blood, a mass wrapped in an intricate arrangement of nervous tissue. They belong to the physical world of matter and causation, and yet they have a remarkable property: from time to time they are conscious.
Consciousness provides creatures like us with an inner life: a mental realm in which we think and feel, perceive sights and sounds, taste and smell, by which we have come to know the world around us.
How can mere matter cause conscious experiences?
The seventeenth-century French philosopher Rene Descartes thought it couldn’t. He supposed that in addition to our physical makeup, creatures like us had a non-material mind, or soul, in which thought occurred.
Descartes also said that if we were able to create an intelligent mechanical doll that would replicate all our movements and reactions, it would not be able to think because it would not have the power of speech.
But we can no longer depend on their criteria to determine which beings can think. Today, computers use the word and synthesized language improves all the time. It was the potential of computers to use language and respond appropriately to questions that led Alan Turing, the mathematician and wartime message decoder, to propose an experiment to measure the intelligence of machines.
Turing envisioned a person sitting in a room, communicating via a computer screen with two others in different rooms. The person would write questions and receive answers, and if he couldn’t guess which was the machine and which was the human, he would have no reason not to treat them the same.
The last mystery:
Those who study machine consciousness are trying to develop self-organizing systems that initiate actions and learn from their surroundings. The hope is that if we can create or reproduce consciousness in a machine, we can learn what makes it possible to exist.
The researchers are far from making that dream come true and a huge obstacle stands in their way… they need an answer to the following question: will a silicon-based machine ever be able to produce consciousness, or are they just creatures made of carbon? with our material configuration which can produce the glowing Technicolor moments of conscious experience?
Thanks to neuroscience and neurobiology, we are increasingly understanding that much of what we do is the result of unconscious processes and mechanisms.
And that adds a twist to the story: if we could produce a robot that behaves like one of us in all respects, that could lead to testing not so much that the robot has consciousness, but how much we can do without it.