How to give A.I. a pinch of consciousness

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EXCERPTS: In 1998, an engineer in Sony’s computer science lab in Japan filmed a lost-looking robot moving trepidatiously around an enclosure. The robot was tasked with two objectives: avoid obstacles and find objects in the pen. It was able to do so because of its ability to learn the contours of the enclosure and the locations of the sought-after objects.

But whenever the robot encountered an obstacle it didn’t expect, something interesting happened: Its cognitive processes momentarily became chaotic. The robot was grappling with new, unexpected data that didn’t match its predictions about the enclosure. The researchers who set up the experiment argued that the robot’s “self-consciousness” arose in this moment of incoherence. Rather than carrying on as usual, it had to turn its attention inward, so to speak, to decide how to deal with the conflict.

This idea about self-consciousness — that it asserts itself in specific contexts, such as when we are confronted with information that forces us to reassess our environment and then make an executive decision about what to do next — is an old one, dating back to the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in the early 20th century. Now, A.I. researchers are increasingly influenced by neuroscience and are investigating whether neural networks can and should achieve the same higher levels of cognition that occur in the human brain.

[...] But giving machines the power to think like this also brings with it risks — and ethical uncertainties. “I don’t design consciousness,” says Jun Tani ... to describe what his robots experience as “consciousness” is to use a metaphor. That is, the bots aren’t actually cogitating in a way we would recognize, they’re just exhibiting behavior that is structurally similar...

[...] It’s in the search for a system that does possess these attributes, though, that a profound crossover between neuroscience and A.I. research might happen. ... By replicating such activity in a machine, we could perhaps enable it to experience conscious thought, suggests Camilo Miguel Signorelli... He mentions the liquid “wetware” brain of the robot in Ex Machina, a gel-based container of neural activity. “I had to get away from circuitry, I needed something that could arrange and rearrange on a molecular level,” explains Oscar Isaac’s character, who has created a conscious cyborg.

[...] This, it must be said, is highly speculative. And yet it raises the question of whether completely different hardware might be necessary for consciousness (as we experience it) to arise in a machine. Even if we do one day successfully confirm the presence of consciousness in a computer, Signorelli says that we will probably have no real power over it. “Probably we will get another animal, humanlike consciousness but we can’t control this consciousness,” Signorelli says.

As some have argued, that could make such an A.I. dangerous and unpredictable. But a conscious machine that proves to be harmless could still raise ethical quandaries. What if it felt pain, despair, or a terrible state of confusion? “The risk of mistakenly creating suffering in a conscious machine is something that we need to avoid,” says Andrea Luppi... It may be a long time before we really need to grapple with this sort of issue. But A.I. research is increasingly drawing on neuroscience and ideas about consciousness in the pursuit of more powerful systems... (MORE - details)

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