Sunday, October 29, 2006

Consciousness is communication

Suppose you wanted to evaluate whether some alien creature, or artificial intelligence software, or big-brained sea mammal was a conscious, intelligent being, and not just a boring algorithmically-directed lump of cells or chips or data structures. How would you do it?

Alan Turing addressed this question with the Turing Test, where contestants try to guess whether the entity they're communicating with over a teletype, is a person or a computer. I've never found this very satisfying, because I can imagine a being I thought was intelligent, that couldn't convince people it was human, simply for lack of a lifetime experience of being human.

I think that sensing an intelligence or consciousness in a being's words or behavior, is an ineffable, subconscious process. You're going to get the impression from dealing with someone that: they know they exist, and they know you exist, and they know you're aware of them, etc. That impression is going to be something hard to pin down: it'll comes from subtleties you take in with all your senses and experiences, any one of which could be isolated and removed, and you'd still say "there's someone in there".

So, suppose Alice thinks Blob is a conscious being, but thinks Clump is just an automaton. I think the interesting thing to study is not what Blob does and what makes Clump tick, but what Alice is perceiving and what makes Alice assign personhood to Blob and not Clump. Maybe it will come down to Alice finding it more practical to deal with Blob using the social navigation parts of her brain, and to deal with Clump using the object manipulation parts of her brain.

So in the end, Artificial Intelligence is really the study of human personfication. All the stuff about neural networks, embodied intelligence, vision algorithms and self-referential data structures are just fascinating implementation issues.

...But, you may object, just because Blob can fool Alice into thinking "he's" a "person", doesn't mean he really is, inside! Maybe I'm distracted by appearances and missing all the metaphysical stuff about qualia and the fact that it feels like something to be conscious. Well, maybe. If I knew the answer to that for sure I'd be the best philosopher in the world, living in the fanciest ivory tower on the block. But my suspicion is that qualia are illusions, and that we're hard-wired to seriously misperceive certain (practically useless) philosophical truths, that only Buddhist monks and category theorists really get right.

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