Will Machines Develop Consciousness?

It is easy to see that artificial intelligence has been improving consistently over the last several years. But will machines ever develop consciousness?

It might seem that society has been anticipating intelligent machines for a long time. Science fiction writers have been envisioning self-directed, thinking machines ever since the word “robot” was introduced in 1920 (and even before then, as well). From Asimov’s robots to Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, fictional thinking machines have been a part of our culture for a long time.

Our modern world has ever-advancing technology. On one hand, simple robots, ones that do a very limited series of tasks, are everywhere. They populate factory assembly lines, and zip around our homes, vacuuming up our spills and messes.

On the other hand, advances in artificial intelligence have led to breakthroughs like Deep Blue beating a human World Champion in chess, or Watson winning handily against past Jeopardy! champions. And Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are becoming increasingly able to understand human speech and respond appropriately to human interaction.

Listen to a podcast where Michael and Lee discuss the related question: ‘Is technology neutral?’ We also discuss a bonus question: ‘Freedom or security?’

And yet, true intelligence has proven harder to produce in machines than some have thought. Estimates for the arrival of truly intelligent machines seem to recede further and further into the future.

Of course, intelligence is not the same as consciousness. What we mean when we refer to a human being being conscious is not obvious. And if we cannot define what exactly it means to be conscious, we may not be able to recognize consciousness if or when it arrives, via another species on earth, and alien from another planet, or from an AI we have designed and built ourselves.

Is the era of conscious machines right around the corner? Or is it in some distant future, or will it never get here at all?

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6 thoughts on “Will Machines Develop Consciousness?”

  1. Let’s be clear. I have no expertise or immersion in science-fact or -fiction to answer this question with authority. That said, I have two opinions to offer.

    First, while there is serious debate about what consciousness is, I believe it to be self-awareness. If machines appeared to develop consciousness, I think it would be hard for us to settle on if it were the case definitively. Would the appearance of self-awareness simply be algorithm-based mimicry? Or would the circuitry and hard drive gradually become a central nervous system, with circuitry serving as nerves and a hard drive becoming self-aware mind or brain? I side on with mimicry rather than self-awareness.

    Second, and most regrettably, I think climate change will stand in the way of most human innovation. We are either headed for extinction as we are destroying the ecosystems we need to survive, or our technological attention will be devoted to our survival rather than developing machinery capable of self-awareness.

    1. Interesting points. My thoughts:

      1) Mimicry is an interesting idea. If a machine were able to mimic the behaviors associated with consciousness (or self-awareness) to a degree that we could not detect any difference, how would that be different from actual consciousness?

      2) How do we know that what we call our own consciousness doesn’t arise from (naturally evolved) algorithms in our own brain? Maybe that’s all consciousness is — sufficiently advanced algorithms in the brain.

      3) Even if climate change drastically alters the future from this point on (or some soon future point) I’m not convinced that will stop all research and development going on in all other areas, including AI and robotics. We manage to do many things at the same time now, and we always have. Even if climate change is an extinction-level threat, that actual extinction is, I’m assuming, pretty far off in the future. At least a couple hundred years — and look how much has happened in the last couple hundred years.

  2. Wow. This question has a lot to it, from understanding what consciousness even is, to being able to recognize it in others. I could talk about the Turing test, personal assistants like Siri or Alexa, self-driving automobiles, “the cloud” and more generally the Internet, and on and on.

    The short answer: I don’t know if machines will ever develop consciousness. Is it acceptable to say you don’t know something in today’s society?

  3. lol. You ask this while I’m in Season 2 of re-watching “The Sarah Connor Chronicles”.

    Yes, we just have some minor technological and major sociological issues that we should work out first.

  4. Some say we are only five years from major advancements in AI. Far from being our butlers, according to some experts, soe “robots” could be the masters and we their servants. And they could develop so they could not be turned off by people.

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