I just re-read Alan Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence“, for something like the 5th time. It’s worth reading every few months or so just to see how cogent, thorough, and prescient it is. I can’t punch a hole in it. And everything I’ve ever read where someone else tries to punch a hole in it seems to use crazy circular and overly-complex logic… or worse, relies on intangible, even mystical ideas of what consciousness is.
The most widely-accepted counterarguments appear to be of the “Argument from consciousness” and of the “Lovelace” variety (which Turing himself seemed to think was the counterargument most worthy of his attention): Machines can’t possibly think, it says, because machines cannot originate ideas. Original ideas are a by-product of consciousness, which a machine cannot have (how’s that for circular logic?).
What I really appreciated about Turing’s paper is his forthrightness about where he stands personally. He believes that computers will win his challenge, and that they will, in fact, think. He writes:
“The popular view that scientists proceed inexorably from well-established fact to well-established fact, never being influenced by any improved conjecture, is quite mistaken.”
What strikes me about his naysayers is this: I really can’t tell where they stand on the nature of consciousness. They don’t tell us where they fall on a core aspect of the definition of consciousness. It seems that you can only be in one of two camps:
- Consciousness is a real phenomonon, inexplicable by the laws of physics (and very likely unique to humans).
- Consciousness is not a real thing, but rather a perceived effect of an enormously complex mechanism. It is not necessarily restricted to human minds, or even to biological minds.
Camp #1 strikes me as a magical or spiritual belief. It’s fine if that’s how you see things, but you should at least say so so that people like me can know where you’re coming from. Me, I’m with #2.
I’m very interested in the concept of ZOMBIES: A “Zombie” (in the AI-naysayer argument) is a creature/being whose outward behavior has all the trappings of consciousness – it walks, it talks, etc. But it’s inner self is an empty place where it doesn’t even know what it is doing or why it is doing it. It has no understanding of its own actions. The ZOMBIE argument says, essentially:
“Okay, so you’ve made a robot that passes the Turing Test (or even what is called the “Total Turing Test”: a robot that is physically and behaviorally indistinguishable from a person but who is nonetheless artificial, engineered and built by humans.). But it does not have any awareness of what it does, so it is not really conscious the way we humans are.”
My counterargument to this is twofold. First, as Turing himself notes, there is no way of knowing the answer to this even with regards to other human beings – what goes on in someone else’s mind is a (forever?) unsolvable mystery. Second, who is to say that real live humans even have a consciousness where we know what we are doing and why we are doing it, or that such an inner experience is all that much different from that of an ape or a pig? My mind is constantly doing things that I didn’t necessarily ask it to do – I don’t ask to fall in love or get angry, I just become in love or angry.
We are only beginning to understand the enormous degree to which an individual human’s behavior is governed by often-volatile chemical activity and fragile psychological mechanisms – it seems inevitable that neurological research will eventually figure out the exact nature of friendship, decision making, contentedness, love, jealousy, thrills, fear, and all of the other things that humans think are somehow intangible aspects of human consciousness.
Perhaps what we think of as self-awareness is simply an illusion, and that in fact we are 100% driven by explainable electrochemical forces, i.e., we are a Turing state-machine.
Anyway, my real question is: Shouldn’t AI theorists be required to choose which of the above two definitions of consciousness they subscribe to? I think many AI-naysayers subscribe to #1 (Searle, for example) but refuse to admit it since it is, at its core, utterly unscientific.