Are we Aware of Consciousness
by Richard Jones
(Up to General
Consciousness can be defined as being aware of oneself and surroundings. It is a subject that has been debated for many hundreds of years and has been dogged by argument and controversy. Questions such as: what makes an animal conscious? Can only animals be conscious? Are people conscious at all or is it just an illusion? have been discussed countless times with answers varying greatly depending on the ideas and scientific expertise and fashions of the time. Closely related to the subject of consciousness are questions about the mind. Questions such as what distinguishes the mind from the brain have also been debated extensively. The mind is considered by many to be the site of emotion and free will each of which need the subject to be aware of oneself and the environment. Hence the research on consciousness also covers research on the mind.
There has also been much debate as to what should be examined when looking for consciousness. Are all humans conscious? Or is it only the author who is aware of himself and the surroundings? Are the rest of you just zombies who have been programmed to react to stimuli such as pain and happiness but do not actually .feel. pain and happiness? How does the author know that all humans are conscious? Of course there is no way (as yet) of telling and so the behaviours and reactions are observed. This qualitative approach can yield some very interesting results if all prejudices are ignored.
Are animals aware of themselves and their surroundings? If so are all animals
from the blue whale to the amoeba? People often say that chimpanzees are
conscious. Perhaps this is because of their closeness to the human form both
physically and genetically. However it is the author.s belief that many animals
are conscious. There have been many stories of dogs saving the life of their
masters. by finding help when needed. The dog must be aware that its master is
in trouble and it must be aware that it should try and help. Hence it must be
aware of itself and its master.s place in the world and so must be conscious.
The elephant is another species that the author believes is conscious. It has
been well documented that elephants appear to mourn when they see the remains
of other elephants. For mourning the elephants must be aware of its
surroundings and of the loss of life of another of its species. Zoologists and
other conservationists who have worked with elephants also say that they appear
to have a sense of humour. Sense of humour is also a much debated topic with
questions such as what is funny and why. However for something to be funny then
its context must be rationalised against other non-funny situations. Therefore
to have a sense of humour, different situations and their consequences must be
able to be realised and hence consciousness must be present. Another well known
trait of many animals is that of the mothering. Most animals become very
protective of their young when they are exposed to some danger. Also many
animals help their young in the first few weeks of their lives by providing
protection and food. Many would argue that such behaviour is innate and
essential for a species survival. However animals are usually quite willing to
die for their young. In the author.s opinion, this commitment and sacrifice
cannot be innate. There must be a choice and hence the adults must be aware of
the situation they and their young are in and must want to help their young
survive. Hence the author believes the vast majority of animals must be
However, it is could be stated that there are different levels of consciousness. Some people feel that they are so insignificant in this world due to the vastness of the universe. They are aware of their place in it. Humans can be considered to be conscious about great many things. However is an elephant conscious of its place in the universe? It may not have any idea that the world is even spherical. Hence it is the author.s belief that all animals are conscious but to a level appropriate to their knowledge. Aliens visiting this planet may consider humans to be ignorant about many things but the human race would still consider itself conscious.
On the subject of aliens questions arise as to whether only animals can be
conscious (humans included) because of the carbon base to our bodies. People
have argued that it is an essential ingredient to consciousness and that
computers will never be conscious because of their silicon building blocks.
This argument the author thinks can be dismissed quite easily by the following
situation. Think of an alien that visits earth. It is friendly and can
communicate well with the relevant people on this planet. Everyone rejoices
because alien life has been discovered and is not hostile. If people are asked
if the alien is conscious a resounding .yes. is the reply. However on closer
inspection the alien appears not to be carbon based but silicon. This starts a
huge debate about whether the alien is conscious. On the one side are the
.carbon chauvinists. and on the other are those who do believe non-carbon based
animals can be conscious. This group argues that the alien must be aware of
itself and surroundings. It has flown to planet Earth and has communicated
intentionally. By the rules of consciousness that humans have placed
themselves, the alien must be conscious; even though it is silicon based. The
results of this argument have enormous implications. An artificial intelligence
program can be thought of as silicon based. Is such a program conscious? If a
robot walks like a duck, quacks like a duck is it a duck?
There has been much research and debate into questions of consciousness.
Computer scientists are interested in this debate as it has major implications
into the software agents that are produced. Many debates have surrounded the
representation of the world in our mind. For consciousness it is agreed that an
awareness of you and the world must be present. But how do humans represent
ourselves and the world around us? Have we got an internal map of the world? Do
we make a map according to our senses, which is continually updated? This is
the view of Dennet's "Multiple Drafts Hypothesis".
Until recently one of the major lines of thought about consciousness was
Dualism. This distinguishes the mind and the body. The mind accounts for the
mental experiences and rationality and the body deals with functions according
to biological and mechanical principles. The link between these is just
considered "there". There is no attempt to rationalise and discover what this
link is and how it works. This view has been tendered for hundreds of years.
However it does not help other disciplines with an active interest in
consciousness. Arguments rage as to whether a robot is conscious. However
dualism does not help these arguments as it dictates that consciousness is just
"there" and is linked to the real body in some mysterious way. Hence modern
philosophy has developed new theories that help answer these questions.
Very recent research has produced theories based upon sensorimotor activities.
This hypothesis uses the world around us as an external memory. Consider the
children's game of the harmonica in the bag. A child puts their hand into the
bag and can feel something which at first they have no idea what it is.
Suddenly the child will have an "aha" experience and realise what it is.
Instead of feeling bits of texture on the end of their fingers the child is
touching a whole object. It is ALL there at once even though the child is only
touching sections of it. The reason the child feels the whole harmonica is that
the child knows if their finger is moved in one direction they will feel a
particular feeling and if he moves it in another he will feel another. Hence
there has been a link between what the child thinks and the world it is
interacting with. Between the two the child is able to work out what it is
touching, that is the harmonica. This experience happens many times every day.
Humans often remember experiences after being prompted by sensory input from
the external environment. One of the most exciting aspects about this
hypothesis is that it is testable. If there is a link between the real world
and the mind then the brain must make vast assumptions about what we see. The
brain cannot take everything in, as this hypothesis does not have an internal
representation in the brain. It can be tested by the phenomena of inattention
and change blindness. This is where an image will change but humans sometimes
do not recognise any difference. It proves that our internal representations of
the world are very sparse. Even without testing change blindness it has been
shown that what we perceive to see is not always accurate. Consider the retinal
blindspot where there are no photoreceptors. Humans see no blindspot. The brain
makes up this area according to what the brain believes should be there.
Similarly colour vision is weak outside the fovea centralis. However we still
perceive rich colour in all the field of view. With these facts and the effect
of change blindness it has been proved that visual awareness at least has very
little internal representation. We are conscious of the world and ourselves
because of our senses and how we interpret them. This is a very important
hypothesis when dealing with AI. Conventional AI tried to represent the world
in the computer's "brain". Recently no internal representations have been
considered which have worked well. This has been shown by Rodney Brooks.
reactive architecture. However it is the author's opinion that humans use a
hybrid to become conscious. Hence for a robot to be conscious one of the
fundamental building blocks is the representation of the world and the
interactions and interpretation with the senses.
There have been many debates as to whether robots are conscious. The author
feels that robots are very important to the field of artificial intelligence.
They bring the program out of the grey box sitting on a desk and into the real
world. Interactions with robots can feel much more lifelike and easier than
those with a computer through your keyboard or mouse. It can also be more
convincing. If a simulation of an AI agent navigating around a room is shown
and then a robot showing the same behaviour, the effect the robot has is much
more. This more life like behaviour does bring problems to the debate about
consciousness. If a robot is controlled by an AI program then is it conscious?
If this program is changed to run a simulation is it still conscious? AI agents
can be made to be aware of their environments by their programming. In some
cases the programs can learn about their environment. In both cases though the
AI agent is still following algorithms designed by a human user. If someone
considers the robot conscious then the programmer has succeeded in programming
consciousness. If this is the case then all the debate about what is
consciousness and what is needed for conscious behaviour is trivial as some of
these AI agents are relatively simple to program. Another criticism of a robot
being conscious is its silicon base. This has been discussed earlier in this
essay and is a central topic in many debates.
Many people think that the current area of research within second order
cybernetic systems is very exciting. Cybernetics is the study of systems.
Second order cybernetics place humans within that system. A classic cybernetics
system (and in fact where the word cybernetics comes from) is that of the
"steersman" controlling a rudder on a boat. A conventional cybernetic approach
is the steersman moving the rudder until the position of the boat changes and
then the steersman moves the rudder and so on. It is a classic feedback system.
However 2nd order cybernetics takes a slightly different view. It asks the
question is the steersman controlling the boat or is the other way around. An
easier view is the thermostat controlling room temperature. As the room cools
the thermostat turns on the heating, the room warms and the heating is turned
off. The room then cools and the thermostat turns on the heating and so on. A
conventional approach is that the thermostat controls the room temperature.
However the room temperature could also be considered to be controlling the
This second order cybernetic view shows that everything is interacting.
Everything is part of a system. If you view that system then you are in some
way interacting with it and hence are part of it. The author believes that the
key to consciousness is by looking at these interactions as a conscious being
does interact with the environment he is aware of. However these interactions
occur from the subatomic level up which leads to problems stemming from
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. That is by observing particles has effect
on them and hence can change their natural behaviours. However the author does
not ever believe that a true answer will ever be reached. The primary reason
being that when studying consciousness a great deal of self analysis is
involved which bring many conscious and unconscious prejudices. These
prejudices it is believed will continually hinder in the search for answers to
questions such as "what is consciousness?" And what is needed for
consciousness? This self analysis coupled with Heisenberg's Observation Theory
makes consciousness impossible to find using conventional methods. This does
not mean research of consciousness is void. The author believes that
consciousness has a strong link with quantum mechanics. Roger Penrose at the
University of Oxford has done much work in this area and it is an area the
author believes is very interesting and could help further our understanding.
If this is the case then the argument of Artificial Consciousness is delayed
until quantum computing becomes main stream. This is a few years away but the
author feels there is still many debates about the topic in general to be done
before quantum computers complicate that matter even further.
Please note that the views expressed in this essay does not
necessarily reflect the views of AI Horizon, but only that of the author