Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Could a Large Language Model Be Conscious?

David Chalmers
Boston Review
Originally posted 9 Aug 23

Here are two excerpts:

Consciousness also matters morally. Conscious systems have moral status. If fish are conscious, it matters how we treat them. They’re within the moral circle. If at some point AI systems become conscious, they’ll also be within the moral circle, and it will matter how we treat them. More generally, conscious AI will be a step on the path to human level artificial general intelligence. It will be a major step that we shouldn’t take unreflectively or unknowingly.

This gives rise to a second challenge: Should we create conscious AI? This is a major ethical challenge for the community. The question is important and the answer is far from obvious.

We already face many pressing ethical challenges about large language models. There are issues about fairness, about safety, about truthfulness, about justice, about accountability. If conscious AI is coming somewhere down the line, then that will raise a new group of difficult ethical challenges, with the potential for new forms of injustice added on top of the old ones. One issue is that conscious AI could well lead to new harms toward humans. Another is that it could lead to new harms toward AI systems themselves.

I’m not an ethicist, and I won’t go deeply into the ethical questions here, but I don’t take them lightly. I don’t want the roadmap to conscious AI that I’m laying out here to be seen as a path that we have to go down. The challenges I’m laying out in what follows could equally be seen as a set of red flags. Each challenge we overcome gets us closer to conscious AI, for better or for worse. We need to be aware of what we’re doing and think hard about whether we should do it.


Where does the overall case for or against LLM consciousness stand?

Where current LLMs such as the GPT systems are concerned: I think none of the reasons for denying consciousness in these systems is conclusive, but collectively they add up. We can assign some extremely rough numbers for illustrative purposes. On mainstream assumptions, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to hold that there’s at least a one-in-three chance—that is, to have a subjective probability or credence of at least one-third—that biology is required for consciousness. The same goes for the requirements of sensory grounding, self models, recurrent processing, global workspace, and unified agency. If these six factors were independent, it would follow that there’s less than a one-in-ten chance that a system lacking all six, like a current paradigmatic LLM, would be conscious. Of course the factors are not independent, which drives the figure somewhat higher. On the other hand, the figure may be driven lower by other potential requirements X that we have not considered.

Taking all that into account might leave us with confidence somewhere under 10 percent in current LLM consciousness. You shouldn’t take the numbers too seriously (that would be specious precision), but the general moral is that given mainstream assumptions about consciousness, it’s reasonable to have a low credence that current paradigmatic LLMs such as the GPT systems are conscious.

Here are some of the key points from the article:
  1. There is no consensus on what consciousness is, so it is difficult to say definitively whether or not LLMs are conscious.
  2. Some people believe that consciousness requires carbon-based biology, but Chalmers argues that this is a form of biological chauvinism.  I agree with this completely. We can have synthetic forms of consciousness.
  3. Other people believe that LLMs are not conscious because they lack sensory processing or bodily embodiment. Chalmers argues that these objections are not decisive, but they do raise important questions about the nature of consciousness.
  4. Chalmers concludes by suggesting that we should take the possibility of LLM consciousness seriously, but that we should also be cautious about making definitive claims about it.