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?

Related questions: Will technology save us? What new technology do you want? What are you thinking about?

How Can We Measure Intelligence?

In our society, some people are considered more intelligent than others. But what exactly does this mean, and how can we measure intelligence in an individual?

There are many useful — and several not so useful — skills that individuals possess. For example, one person might be very good at thinking abstractly. Another might be good at reasoning. Yet another might make connections between seemingly disparate things.

All of these things might be considered intelligence. But what of other skills? Does athletic ability make someone intelligent? Artistic creativity? What about someone with social skills who can get along with anyone? If these skills, and others like them, aren’t a sign of mental acuity, then what are they? And if they are, then how might we manage to measure that in a concrete way?

Currently, intelligence is measured primarily through the IQ test, where IQ stands for “intelligence quotient”. However, other than scoring well on a test, what does a high IQ actually enable an individual to do? As the example illustrates, if you test a fish on it’s ability to climb a tree, it will fail every time.

An interesting wrinkle in this problem comes in the form of artificial intelligence, and various efforts to rate just what makes a machine intelligent. Would you consider Watson, the computer that won at the game show Jeopardy!, to be intelligent? How is it different from human winners?

How would you define what it means to be intelligent? Can we measure intelligence? Or is it one of those things we just know when we see it? Alternately, might it be present and we simply don’t recognize it?

Related questions: How important is intuition? How do you judge yourself? What is intelligence? How do you define success?