THE PROBLEM OF AI CONSCIOUSNESS
Schneider is an American philosopher. She is a professor of philosophy
and cognitive science at The University of Connecticut, a fellow
at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, a fellow at
the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and a faculty
member in the Ethics and Technology Group at the Yale Interdisciplinary
Center for Bioethics, Yale University.
things in life cannot be offset by a mere net gain in intelligence.
few years have seen the widespread recognition that sophisticated
AI is under development. Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and others
warn of the rise of ‘superintelligent’ machines: AIs
that outthink the smartest humans in every domain, including common
sense reasoning and social skills. Superintelligence could destroy
us, they caution. In contrast, Ray Kurzweil, a Google director
of engineering, depicts a technological utopia bringing about
the end of disease, poverty and resource scarcity.
sophisticated AI turns out to be friend or foe, we must come to
grips with the possibility that as we move further into the 21st
century, the greatest intelligence on the planet (along with the
best breasts) may be silicon-based.
time to ask: could these vastly smarter beings have conscious
experiences — could it feel a certain way to be them? When
we experience the warm hues of a sunrise, or hear the scream of
an espresso machine, there is a felt quality to our mental lives.
We are conscious.
AI could solve problems that even the brightest humans are unable
to solve, but being made of a different substrate, would it have
conscious experience? Could it feel the burning of curiosity,
or the pangs of grief? Let us call this ‘the problem of
silicon cannot be the basis for consciousness, then superintelligent
machines — machines that may outmode us or even supplant
us — may exhibit superior intelligence, but they will lack
inner experience. Further, just as the breathtaking android in
Ex Machina convinced Caleb that she was in love with
him, so too, a clever AI may behave as if it is conscious.
extreme, horrifying case, humans upload their brains, or slowly
replace the parts of their brains underlying consciousness with
silicon chips, and in the end, only non-human animals remain to
experience the world. This would be an unfathomable loss. Even
the slightest chance that this could happen should give us reason
to think carefully about AI consciousness.
David Chalmers has posed “the hard problem of consciousness,”
asking: why does all this information processing need to feel
a certain way to us, from the inside? The problem of AI consciousness
is not just Chalmers’ hard problem applied to the case of
AI, though. For the hard problem of consciousness assumes that
we are conscious. After all, each of us can tell from introspection
that we are now conscious. It asks: why we are we conscious? Why
does all our information processing feel a certain way from the
the problem of AI consciousness asks whether AI, being silicon-based,
is even capable of consciousness. It does not presuppose that
AI is conscious — that is the question. These are different
problems, but they are both problems that science alone cannot
to view the problem of AI consciousness as having an easy solution.
Cognitive science holds that the brain is an information-processing
system and that all mental functions are computations. Given this,
it would seem that AIs can be conscious, for AIs have the same
kind of minds as we do: computational ones. Just as a text message
and a voice message can convey the same information, so too, both
brains and sophisticated AIs can be conscious.
suspect the issue is more complex, however. It is an open question
whether consciousness simply goes hand-in-hand with sophisticated
computation for two reasons.
a superintelligent AI may bypass consciousness altogether. In
humans, consciousness is correlated with novel learning tasks
that require concentration, and when a thought is under the spotlight
of our attention, it is processed in a slow, sequential manner.
Only a very small percentage of our mental processing is conscious
at any given time. A superintelligence would surpass expert-level
knowledge in every domain, with rapid-fire computations ranging
over vast databases that could encompass the entire Internet.
It may not need the very mental faculties that are associated
with conscious experience in humans. Consciousness could be outmoded.
consciousness may be limited to carbon substrates only. Carbon
molecules form stronger, more stable chemical bonds than silicon,
which allows carbon to form an extraordinary number of compounds,
and unlike silicon, carbon has the capacity to more easily form
double bonds. This difference has important implications in the
field of astrobiology, because it is for this reason that carbon,
and not silicon, is said to be well-suited for the development
of life throughout the universe.
chemical differences between carbon and silicon impact life itself,
we should not rule out the possibility that these chemical differences
also impact whether silicon gives rise to consciousness, even
if they do not hinder silicon’s ability to process information
in a superior manner.
two considerations suggest that we should regard the problem of
AI consciousness as an open question. Of course, from an ethical
standpoint, it is best to assume that a sophisticated AI may be
conscious. For any mistake could wrongly influence the debate
over whether they might be worthy of special ethical consideration
as sentient beings. As the films Ex Machina and I,
Robot illustrate, any failure to be charitable to AI may
come back to haunt us, as they may treat us as we treated them.
future AIs, should they ever wax philosophical, may pose a “problem
of carbon-based consciousness” about us, asking if biological,
carbon-based beings have the right substrate for experience. After
all, how could AI ever be certain that we are conscious?