Monday, March 28, 2016

Robot Consciousness (Pt. I)

After a classroom discussion on some specific characteristics of consciousness that materialism has a difficult time explaining a student forwarded me the link to this fascinating video:
The accompanying article quotes the developer of this amazing robot as saying that, "Our goal is that she will be as conscious, creative and capable as any human. We are designing these robots to serve in health care, therapy, education and customer service applications."

I'll believe that first sentence when I see it. Consider just one attribute of consciousness - understanding. A robot, a computer housed in a very artfully and intelligently designed mannequin, does not understand what it's doing. It's like a sophisticated version of philosopher John Searle's Chinese Room. Searle invites us to imagine a small room inside of which sits a man who understands not a word of Mandarin or of English. Slips of paper are passed to him through a slot. The paper has on it words written in Chinese characters which are completely unintelligible to him, but he has a book in which he can look up the characters and find their English equivalent. On another slip of paper he copies the English, which he also doesn't understand, and passes the paper out another slot. This is essentially what a computer does and what any robot will do. They won't understand what they're doing and will lack that essential aspect of human consciousness.

Not only do computers not understand the information they process, there's a host of other features of human consciousness which computerized robots will have a very difficult time achieving. Here are a few things that any human being does that machines, no matter how intelligently designed, cannot: Appreciate humor or beauty, feel gratitude or moral duty, experience disappointment, regret, guilt, boredom, resentment, or curiosity. Nor can machines doubt, hold a belief, desire, wish, worry, have ideas, assign meaning to what they do, or experience sensations like color, sound, fragrance, sweetness, etc. All of these are the hallmarks of consciousness and the difficulties involved in replicating them in a machine make the article's next paragraph seem extremely optimistic:
Hanson said that one day robots will be indistinguishable from humans. Robots walk, play, teach, help and form real relationships with people, he said. "The artificial intelligence will evolve to the point where they will truly be our friends," he said. "Not in ways that dehumanize us, but in ways that rehumanize us, that decrease the trend of the distance between people and instead connect us with people as well as with robots."
An interesting aside to the above is that should such robots ever be developed they would be the creations of highly intelligent engineers, a fact which should give us pause. If consciousness, in our experience, can only be created by highly intelligent software designers why do so many folks think that our consciousness is simply the product of random collisions of subatomic particles acting blindly over the span of a billion years or so with no goal in mind? To think that that's how our consciousness came to be requires a prodigious act of faith, indeed, blind faith, in the power of luck.