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Friday, September 3, 2021

What is consciousness, and could machines have it?

S. Dahaene, H. Lau, & S. Kouider
Science  27 Oct 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6362, pp. 486-492


The controversial question of whether machines may ever be conscious must be based on a careful consideration of how consciousness arises in the only physical system that undoubtedly possesses it: the human brain. We suggest that the word “consciousness” conflates two different types of information-processing computations in the brain: the selection of information for global broadcasting, thus making it flexibly available for computation and report (C1, consciousness in the first sense), and the self-monitoring of those computations, leading to a subjective sense of certainty or error (C2, consciousness in the second sense). We argue that despite their recent successes, current machines are still mostly implementing computations that reflect unconscious processing (C0) in the human brain. We review the psychological and neural science of unconscious (C0) and conscious computations (C1 and C2) and outline how they may inspire novel machine architectures.

From Concluding remarks

Our stance is based on a simple hypothesis: What we call “consciousness” results from specific types of information-processing computations, physically realized by the hardware of the brain. It differs from other theories in being resolutely computational; we surmise that mere information-theoretic quantities do not suffice to define consciousness unless one also considers the nature and depth of the information being processed.

We contend that a machine endowed with C1 and C2 would behave as though it were conscious; for instance, it would know that it is seeing something, would express confidence in it, would report it to others, could suffer hallucinations when its monitoring mechanisms break down, and may even experience the same perceptual illusions as humans. Still, such a purely functional definition of consciousness may leave some readers unsatisfied. Are we “over-intellectualizing” consciousness, by assuming that some high-level cognitive functions are necessarily tied to consciousness? Are we leaving aside the experiential component (“what it is like” to be conscious)? Does subjective experience escape a computational definition?

Although those philosophical questions lie beyond the scope of the present paper, we close by noting that empirically, in humans the loss of C1 and C2 computations covaries with a loss of subjective experience.