Robot Consciousness

The question of the feasibility of robot consciousness plays a central role in Robot Dawn: The Mazzy Nova Chronicles. The question is: Is it possible for a human-made piece of machinery to develop consciousness, i.e., become self-aware? As Descartes said, “Cogito, ergo sum.” (I think, therefore I am.) Is the ability to think the essence of consciousness? To me the answer is no. One definition of the word “thinking” provided by the Oxford Diction of English is:

direct one’s mind towards someone or something; use one’s mind actively to form connected ideas

Both parts of this answer separate the mind from the control of it and also imply that something exists that controls the mind. This controlling function would seem to me to be consciousness. In other words, consciousness exists at a higher and more fundamental level than the mind and its thinking function. That I agree with totally. I would also add that the brain is a physical entity, and that consciousness is elsewhere. Where consciousness resides is the big question of our times and is at the heart of the question concerning the feasibility of robot consciousness and how it might be achieved, if at all.

In my opinion, intelligence is an entirely separate phenomenon from consciousness. The ODE defines intelligence this way:

the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills

This is certainly something that a robot can do. Those involved in creating Artificial Intelligence have invented “deep learning” wherein they have designed software so that it can teach itself. But the question remains: Does the robot know it is doing this? Or is the code simply working off of its own programming? Obviously, the only intelligence a robot has came from the intelligence shared by its creator. But according to the precepts of deep learning, the robot can teach itself new tricks without the help of a creator. Still, this seems an iffy proposition when it comes to consciousness.

How can we work our way through this dilemma?

The first test of  this nature came to us in 1950 by way of an English computer scientist named Alan Turing. During WWII he played a pivotal role in breaking the code to the German Enigma machine. The Turning Test is “a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.” But this test only determines whether a machine, in general conversation, can fool an evaluator into believing he/she is talking to a human being. As such, passing the Turning Test is not an indication of consciousness, but only an indication that a machine can mimic human conversation enough to fool an evaluator. The machine need not know what it is doing. This question of whether robots can ever attain consciousness is known as the Hard Problem of Consciousness. And I leave it to the reader to follow the discussion further on the Internet. Of particular interest is the work of Diegene Song, who believes consciousness can never be explained by mathematics and that it is not part of our physical being. He has an interesting video on YouTube titled “The Brain’s Role in Consciousness” that explains his position.

One of the more intriguing aspects of this question comes from quantum physics where human consciousness seems to play a role at the atomic and subatomic level. To get an idea of how this came be, take a look at the video titled What is reality — Quantum Gravity Research on YouTube. Consciousness is first mentioned at the 4:10 time mark.

If you really wish to rigorously interject yourself into the middle of the discussion, you need to understand a little quantum physics. And in particular you will want to come to terms with Schroedinger’s wave equation, the von Neumann–Wigner interpretation of such, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and entanglement, among many other subjects.

Schroedinger’s Wave Equation

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

I studied these subjects as an undergraduate at Arizona State University and then again at Stanford University while a graduate student in astronautical engineering. They are difficult subjects when approached mathematically, and that certainly won’t be attempted here. My narrator and characters in Robot Dawn superficially refer to these disciplines in passing, but at no time do they become engrossed in this advanced subject matter. As a matter of fact, understanding the novel as a whole requires no knowledge of these subjects.