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Monday, February 12, 2024

Will AI ever be conscious?

Tom McClelland
Clare College
Unknown date of post

Here is an excerpt:

Human consciousness really is a mysterious thing. Cognitive neuroscience can tell us a lot about what’s going on in your mind as you read this article - how you perceive the words on the page, how you understand the meaning of the sentences and how you evaluate the ideas expressed. But what it can’t tell us is how all this comes together to constitute your current conscious experience. We’re gradually homing in on the neural correlates of consciousness – the neural patterns that occur when we process information consciously. But nothing about these neural patterns explains what makes them conscious while other neural processes occur unconsciously. And if we don’t know what makes us conscious, we don’t know whether AI might have what it takes. Perhaps what makes us conscious is the way our brain integrates information to form a rich model of the world. If that’s the case, an AI might achieve consciousness by integrating information in the same way. Or perhaps we’re conscious because of the details of our neurobiology. If that’s the case, no amount of programming will make an AI conscious. The problem is that we don’t know which (if either!) of these possibilities is true.

Once we recognise the limits of our current understanding, it looks like we should be agnostic about the possibility of artificial consciousness. We don’t know whether AI could have conscious experiences and, unless we crack the problem of consciousness, we never will. But here’s the tricky part: when we start to consider the ethical ramifications of artificial consciousness, agnosticism no longer seems like a viable option. Do AIs deserve our moral consideration? Might we have a duty to promote the well-being of computer systems and to protect them from suffering? Should robots have rights? These questions are bound up with the issue of artificial consciousness. If an AI can experience things then it plausibly ought to be on our moral radar.

Conversely, if an AI lacks any subjective awareness then we probably ought to treat it like any other tool. But if we don’t know whether an AI is conscious, what should we do?

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