Every moment of your waking life and whenever you dream, you have the distinct inner feeling of being “you.” When you see the warm hues of a sunrise, smell the aroma of morning coffee or mull over a new idea, you are having conscious experience. But could an artificial intelligence (AI) ever have experience, like some of the androids depicted in Westworld or the synthetic beings in Blade Runner?.
The question is not so far-fetched. Robots are currently being developed to work inside nuclear reactors, fight wars and care for the elderly. As AIs grow more sophisticated, they are projected to take over many human jobs within the next few decades. So we must ponder the question: Could AIs develop conscious experience?
This issue is pressing for several reasons. First, ethicists worry that it would be wrong to force AIs to serve us if they can suffer and feel a range of emotions. Second, consciousness could make AIs volatile or unpredictable, raising safety concerns (or conversely, it could increase an AI’s empathy; based on its own subjective experiences, it might recognize consciousness in us and treat us with compassion).
Third, machine consciousness could impact the viability of brain-implant technologies, like those to be developed by Elon Musk’s new company, Neuralink. If AI cannot be conscious, then the parts of the brain responsible for consciousness could not be replaced with chips without causing a loss of consciousness. And, in a similar vein, a person couldn’t upload their brain to a computer to avoid death because that upload wouldn’t be a conscious being.
In addition, if AI eventually outthinks us yet lacks consciousness, there would still be an important sense in which we humans are superior to machines; it feels like something to be us. But the smartest beings on the planet wouldn’t be conscious or sentient.
A lot hangs on the issue of machine consciousness, then. Yet neuroscientists are far from understanding the basis of consciousness in the brain, and philosophers are at least equally far from a complete explanation of the nature of consciousness.
So what can be done? We believe that we do not need to define consciousness formally, understand its philosophical nature or know its neural basis to recognize indications of consciousness in AIs. Each of us can grasp something essential about consciousness, just by introspecting; we can all experience what it feels like, from the inside, to exist.
Based on this essential…