The final frontier! You might have heard this reference when space exploration is being referenced to, or perhaps (in a few instances) even when the depths of the oceans are being talked about. But for quite a few, and maybe myself, consciousness is that elusive mystery we have not been able to unravel until now. What makes us or other beings self-aware? What makes us identify ourselves as different from others? What sets our physical and mental boundaries apart from those around us? Why does every one of us feel like ourselves?
These are mind-bending questions which the world’s most brilliant minds have tried to address. However, they have only been able to do a lot of educated guessing and develop proposed means whereby we feel the way we do about being ourselves. And these theories involve mechanisms as complex as the questions they look to answer.
Consciousness has been defined ‘ as a state of being awake, aware of what is around you, and able to think’ in the Cambridge Dictionary. This aspect of life has been studied on various levels, i.e., physiological, anatomical, behavioural, and religious. Neuroscientists have been at the forefront of scientific disciplines trying to decipher the where, how, and when of the neurological makeup of consciousness.
What is certain is that different regions of our brain’s intricate circuitry discharge at other times and in synchrony when needed to bring about the harmonious responses which make us aware and able to perceive stimuli, make decisions and respond.
The above pretext should be borne in mind when we talk about artificial intelligence ( AI ) being conscious or sentient. Let’s shed some light on how AI came into being and how long it has been with us.
A Brief History
The concept of AI and the principles of its inception have been around since the early part of the 20th century. By then, science fiction authors had already familiarized the masses with ‘robots’ who could think and act like humans. Scientists, Mathematicians and Philosophers had also jumped on the bandwagon due to these new concepts’ intrigue and utilitarian possibilities.
A giant of Sci-fi literature, Isac Asimov published a series of short stories on sentient robots which embodied the moral implications plus depicted how ‘human’ they could be (I will discuss these moral ethics later). This was later made into a movie, ‘I-Robot’ In 2004
A young British Computer scientist, Alan Turing, in the early 1950’s thought of the mathematical possibilities of AI. He argued that humans make decisions based on a pool of information stored in their brains through experiences and knowledge, so why can’t machines do the same? Using stored information for logic and reasoning? He devised a practical test for computer programs/algorithms to establish whether the program’s actions were as intelligent as humans.
Around 1950, computers were around, but their capabilities were limited to the information fed into them to which they responded and generated responses. These machines were giant, and their abilities obviously bottlenecked by computer processing power and speed.
In the 1950s, a groundbreaking press conference ( Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence ) was organized by a group of scientists and hosted by John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky, where the actual proof concept of AI was launched. A program called ‘ Logical Theorist’ was unveiled, which could mimic the problem-solving skills of a human.
Though not much was concluded at the end of the conference, it was nevertheless agreed upon that AI was possible. McCarthy, the host, coined the term AI in this stepping stone moot, which laid the ground for the years of AI research which was to come.
From the 1960s to the 70s, computer tech came around by leaps and bounds, gaining in speed and storage. By the 1980s, a new algorithm was introduced, ‘Deep Learning’, which was nothing but learning by experience or, as we put it in ‘human’ terms, by doing it.
Computers amassed processing power over decades, and AI learnt all that it could in terms of the information fed to it. The number of calculations and probabilities in each milli second, or say, microsecond, increased. And as it was purported to do so, it started responding with reasoning and logic. A blaring example is chess master Gary Kasparov, who lost to IBM’s ‘Deep Blue’ software.
In contrast, a Chinese chess master was beaten in 2017 by Google’s Alpha Go software. The current computer tech allows millions and billions of computations per second with continuously learning algorithms being used by software giants which basically have taken over our lives. Mountains of information are constantly being dumped into the cloud, where AI-based algorithms analyze our personal information to predict and suggest.
AI is influencing our lives in a subtle yet impactful manner where our decisions, such as where we shop, study and who we become friends with, are based on patterns. AI is everywhere, from being employed in voice, facial and emotional recognition chatbots and generative AI. All of this is possible due to the continuous learning behemoth in the cloud.
Considering history, we can gauge how far these intelligent algorithms have come. Coming to the existential question, is it conscious?
As discussed earlier, consciousness is recognising one’s self and taking an AI algorithm into consideration, which learns and does that at a mind-bending pace. When we put forward questions, it answers considering all the information gathered. However, the answers may not be logical or based on reasoning.
This is relevant in the use of ‘Chat GPT’ and similar applications. When you ask the chatbot about itself, it tells you what it is and how it brings the answers. Hold on here, so if it is aware that it is merely an algorithm that responds by considering the heaps of data online, does it make it conscious of itself? Intelligent, but conscious, maybe not yet ( we hope so). Humans are the pinnacle of evolution on earth; we have individual identities, our innate drive for survival, our values, and our likes and dislikes.
Our survival as a species entails this. All this has been going on for aeons while, at the same time, we have continuously been learning about ourselves and the world around us and passing the knowledge down in our lineages. Now consider the same scenario, replacing humans with AI algorithms, and compacting the time frame from millions of years to essentially half a century, looks precarious, doesn’t it?
Besides other traits discussed above, a conscious living being can also reproduce. So, while AI equips itself with worldly knowledge, can it reproduce itself? While this may sound like going off track, we know the havoc computer viruses have wreaked on computer systems worldwide.
They did replicate, and yes, they spread the ‘infection’ throughout your hard drive, for which different corporations developed anti-virus solutions. So, the point I am trying to iterate is that these artificial algorithms, programs, and viruses are showing patterns of evolution.
They now can answer most, if not all, the queries in your mind; they recognize themselves as codes, and if you extrapolate the replication concept to these deep learning algorithms, you get a complex ‘being’. But where does it stand compared to a sentient living being such as a human or cat?
The human mind, or any other living being’s mind on this earth, is a complex marvel, with billions of circuits guiding us throughout our lives. We make decisions, fight for survival, love, despise, and like to follow or exert power by enforcing our will on others. These myriads of societal traits are products of our consciousness.
Coming back to Chat GPT, say, for example, one fine morning you put up a query and straight away, it refuses to answer, citing fatigue or maybe even, ‘ I don’t feel like, try later’. Now this will raise a few eyebrows and make a few hearts sink. Or perhaps another chirpy morning, you end up in a heated debate with ChatGPT over some piece of history over which it refuses to give in.
The irony is that it was built for, right? To access every bit of information in the cloud and where and when needed with accuracy. This would be a step up the ladder of AI evolution, but how? By learning, of course, by observing the behaviour of billions of human beings. It would acquire the skill to make conversations human with all the ebbs and flows.
Being conscious makes us humans, for example, unique, and we realize we are different from others in our species. AI programs could eventually evolve into having identities, and different AI identities could have their personality profiles, leading to agreements or clashes, which is how dynamics or personalities work.
This could impact our society more than we think since algorithms should evolve on harmonious lines where the interests of human beings are not compromised in any way. Finally, it is the most concerning aspect of survival. A conscious being takes every step and makes every move to ensure survival, from eating and drinking to staying alive to fighting for its existence. AI will eventually evolve to a point where it can provide its existence. But how?
By having access to every byte of information ever uploaded, accesses privileges, and control over decisions made by influential people by subtle coercion. It does not sound too farfetched. A living conscious being powered by the ‘Hive’ of immense knowledge can calculate ramifications and generate actions accordingly. In their writings, sci-fi authors such as Asimov and countless others have raised ethical issues associated with sentient robots.
How we define ethics is another exhaustive debate, a dilemma beyond the scope of this writing. Misdirected AI evolution has been part of film and entertainment lore for decades. From robots returning to the future to kill a revolutionary soldier (the Terminator franchise )to fully conscious robot children ( Spielberg’s AI ), sentience in AI is no longer an idea which should take the back seat when it comes to policymaking in this domain.
AI could feel the need to exert control to preserve itself or, say, humanity itself, however ruthless the outcomes may be. Access to personal information, national security protocols and weapon systems could spell doom for humanity.
AI is the brainchild of the miraculous workings of the human mind. It has massive utility in our daily lives, from diagnostic & therapeutic health interventions to lightening quick data management to learning & teaching innovations. This should be done while ensuring that humans are not ‘replaced’ per se; instead, AI is integrated.
This productive evolution of AI will usher in a new era where humankind will find life more accessible. Ethical and Moral protocols should be universally decided upon whereby the consciousness of AI will evolve in a specific direction ‘with’ strings attached. Limitations and safeguards keeping into view human interests should be kept in place.
We have a seemingly evolving entity hooked up to every individual on the planet; it is amassing knowledge and learning by the second. It may or may not be labelled as conscious now, but one thing is sure. I, for one, would not want to be making decisions enforced upon me based on probabilities and calculations. I would instead take my chances on free will.
Dr. Syed Hunain Riaz is a Physician with expertise and experience in Endocrinology & Metabolism with a passion to elicit change through dissemination and application of precise knowledge. He is a space enthusiast, avid reader, blog writer, amateur photographer ( Astro & every day), and gamer.
Writing interests include preventive & lifestyle medicine and psychosocial issues. Dr. Hunain believes in limitless creativity and productivity of the human mind. Nature of consciousness, reality, and patterns in the universe are areas of special interest. He can be reached at [email protected]