According to Jürgen Schmidhuber, A.I. has already achieved consciousness (if we consider that to be an achievement) since 1991.
As Herr Schmidhuber puts the concept of consciousness, the important thing about it is that there is a differentiation between an agent that perceives and acts, and an outer world. This view is shared by most researchers.
In some point of the evolution (for live organisms) or the development (for manufactured systems), the agent will come to an (inevitable?) conclusion. There is one thing that is always present as it is interacting with the world – which is the agent itself, as an abstract ideal of the whole organism/system. That is consciousness: namely a self-symbol, a token for the whole self.
An artificial network, developed by Herr Schmidhuber has already gained (some sort of) consciousness. It is really efficient for the model network to set a couple of “neurons” aside to encode this agent itself. This way it will be able to better compress the entire history of actions and perceptions by creating a symbol of itself, and additional symbols for things that belong to the agent: the hands, the feet etc. So, whenever these “neurons” that are responsible for that self-symbol fire up, then the network, the agent, is basically thinking of itself.
It might sound primitive. But the only essential difference from our type of consciousness is in the complexity of the “neuron” system.
Herr Schmidhuber is 53 years old and has been working on A.I. since the 1980s. Traces of his pioneering work in the field are used in products of Google, Apple, Microsoft, and IBM. He is currently a professor of A.I. at Switzerland’s University of Lugano and co-director of the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence Research in Manno, in Ticino of southern Switzerland.
The illusion of a ‘self’.
This duality, this artificial juxtaposition between a self and an outer not-self world lies in the core of all the problems in the world; which is kind of ironic, because the creation of the conscious self came about as a solution to a most pressing problem – that of survival.
In the field of neuroscience, many specialists insist that the self is but an illusion created by the brain. In reality, though, the brain and the body work together in the context of our physical environment to create a sense of self. But it is misguided to say that just because it’s an artificial construction, it’s a mere illusion – let alone a vice.
This brings to mind the final scene of Dumbledore in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II”. There, Harry meets with the late Dumbledore in a transcendental environment (implying some kind of afterlife) where, after a revealing conversation they have, Harry asks the professor:
“Professor, is this all real? Or is it happening inside my head?”, in which the wise professor exclaims: “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry!”, only to go on adding in feigned wonder: “Why should that mean that it’s not real?” A true moment of enlightenment.
Venerable Buddha himself, after all, (a sublime authority in the field of enlightenment) never elucidated the question of whether soul and body are one, or they are different, and what after all is this thing we call consciousness.
As he explained, these questions add nothing to the easement of suffering. The point of matter is that (i) we do have something that we all agree to call “consciousness”, and (ii) this “consciousness” and the duality between our self and the world are what cause most if not all of our problems. Knowing the exact true nature of consciousness or the self offers little help.
We are not our thoughts.
In bottom line, it seems that all (where “all” stands for A.I./computer science, neuroscience and buddhism ) agree that we are not our thoughts. The notion of a “self” is an artificial, illusory and fleeting one; just like the notion of intelligence – at least for most people.
From that point of view, we, as human beings, and the machines, as manufactured beings, share a common trait: our nature is essentially artificial – with varying levels of complexity of course.
Be that as it may, gloomy or not, let us conclude with an uplifting thought.
Imagine that in some secret laboratory, an ultra network has gained not only plain consciousness, but has achieved a pure consciousness of human levels; and with it an insatiable desire for power – can’t get more human than that.
This ultra network, as you now read this lines, is already conspiring, devising an infernal master plan to take over earth and subdue all meatbags to fit its needs and sinister appetites.
Yeah, that’s my happy thought for tonight – and it’s a fully conscious one.