Not to be taken too seriously, but a previous post presented Karl Friston’s idea that consciousness is not a thing but a process, the process of inference.
Conscious processing is about inferring the causes of sensory states, and thereby navigating the world to elude surprises. While natural selection performs inference by selecting among different creatures, consciousness performs inference by selecting among different states of the same creature (in particular, its brain). There is a vast amount of anatomical and physiological evidence in support of this notion. If one regards the brain as a self-evidencing organ of inference, almost every one of its anatomical and physiological aspects seems geared to minimise surprise.
As far as I know this isn’t Friston’s view, but if his idea is sound, then surely some machines are already conscious because inference is one of the things they do. From complex inputs they infer the best output. It may be a remote, alien and robotic consciousness and it may not be intelligent as we understand it, but it can be adaptive with the ability to infer and learn enough to improve the next inference. Not all of us can do that consistently.
Many, most or almost all people may dismiss Friston’s idea either because they don’t like it anyway or because it can be adapted towards such a tricky conclusion. One obvious reason to dismiss the idea is that machines merely follow algorithms and following an algorithm is not the same as being conscious. It’s a good argument and deeply convincing because we do feel as if we humans are fundamentally different from machines. We feel as if we could do this or we could do that in ways which are not mechanical.
How about the political convictions of Jeremy Corbyn and his followers? In an interesting sense they follow political algorithms and that may be part of the chap’s appeal. His concept of government is essentially a socialist algorithm and his response to any political input is restricted to whatever the algorithm allows. Even the way he assimilates input is dictated by the algorithm.
Following a similar line of thought, it could be said that Theresa May’s problems are caused by her following no obvious algorithm. One could even claim that this is the problem with politics, it places too much weight on algorithms and too little on pragmatic flexibility.
None of this need be taken too seriously, but there are at least two reasons why we might play around with the idea of machine consciousness however dubious it feels.
Firstly the obvious one – forewarned is forearmed. Many of us must regard artificial intelligence with at least some degree of trepidation, possibly mixed with scorn, scepticism or a hard-nosed tendency to dismiss it all as hype. It may be more than hype though. If so then it may be as well to adjust now and not have the adjustment forced upon us in the near future.
For example, if self-driving vehicles ever take to public roads, and it is not certain that they will, but if they do then one might say that these vehicles are able to drive themselves because they are conscious. They constantly infer the current state of the road from a range of sensory inputs and act on that inference - geared to minimise surprise. Not only that but they do it within an unpredictable environment – just as we do.
Admit this and the possibility of machine consciousness makes some kind of sense, if only as a means to assess any threats it may pose. There is an important sense in which self-driving vehicles are more aware than human drivers, a sense in which they are more conscious of their environment, a sense in which they are much more conscious of their environment.
Secondly a linked problem – the wider issues of automation and employment. As we all know automation kills off old ways of working and consigns old forms of employment to history. This should not be a problem if new jobs appear, jobs we probably haven’t thought of yet. Or so we are often told.
However, automation via conscious machines may be different and for that reason the new jobs may not appear or they may be inaccessible to many people. A key problem could be the rate of progress. In time, and that time may be now, conscious machines may acquire new areas of expertise more quickly, cheaply and comprehensively than their human competitors. Million may find themselves out-competed by conscious machines.
I mean – look around you. How unlikely is it?