Are Computers Conscious?

By Chris Fields

@Mark Ensign

One often hears it said, in no uncertain terms, that computers not only aren’t conscious, but that they’ll never be conscious, that the whole idea of a conscious computer is somewhere between silly and reprehensible, and that people who dream about computers someday being conscious are either delusional technophiles or some kind of anti-human sociopaths.

What is ironic is that one often hears this opinion from people who, in the very next breath, are talking about “universal consciousness” or “consciousness as the fundamental ground of existence” or saying that “consciousness pervades everything.” Now this is odd. Surely if consciousness is universal or if it is the fundamental ground of existence or pervades everything then everything has some consciousness, or is made out of it, or is pervaded by it. And if everything has or is consciousness, then computers have or are consciousness. Even computers that are turned off.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose your laptop is conscious. What is its world like? Just consider its world when it’s turned on. Part of its world is you, banging on the keys, playing with the touch-pad, doing whatever else you do. Part of its world is the endless chatter of the internet. Then there’s a table or lap or whatever, ambient air that has a temperature, pressure and humidity, light and heat from various sources, and of course – very salient to your computer – raw energy in the form of electricity. But the question is not about the parts or features of your computer’s world. The question is, what’s its world like? What is it like to be your computer? How does its world seem or feel to it?

This is the question Thomas Nagel raised in his famous paper about bats. His very plausible conclusion is that we have no idea what a bat’s world is like, and no way to find out. We can talk about our experience of a bat’s world, but we have no way to talk about the bat’s experience. We can be pretty sure that bats experience hunger or pain for example, but we have no idea what hunger or pain feels like for a bat. We know what they feel like for us, but we’re not bats.

It’s even harder to have any idea of what the world of something as unlike you as a computer is like. How does your computer feel when its battery is low? Is it hungry? We have no idea. We are very good at projecting our feelings onto entities that are nothing like us – “my computer hates me!” – but we are no good at all at imagining what totally different kinds of feelings might be like. So we have a default: they’re not like anything. It’s not like anything to be my computer. It doesn’t have feelings. It doesn’t have any experience at all. It’s not conscious.

Now this reasoning is not just odd, it’s vicious. Because we are demonstrably bad at empathy, we conclude that they have no feelings? Give your computer a break! For all you know, it enjoys your gentle massaging of its keyboard. It’s trying to fix your spelling, after all.

More information: Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?” The Philosophical Review 83, 435-450, 1974 (easy to find on the net)

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