Conscious Machines – What do they think?

By Paul Kieniewicz

So, we may one day all be replaced by intelligent machines. One day, given enough computational power, machines will become self-aware. According to some AI researchers, some machines already have a measure of self-awareness. Of consciousness. And then, there’s the fabled Singularity, when the machine surpasses the human being and becomes a truly super-human entity. Somewhere absent in those dreams is the question of what consciousness is in the first place, as if the nature of consciousness is self-evident. It is not self-evident. Anyone who has taken the trouble to study it — not by studying lab rats, or by taking a survey on a street corner, but by the more laborious task of studying oneself, will eventually find out that consciousness has many modalities. Its content is rich and varied. It behaves in ways that are surprising and unexpected. There is daily consciousness, altered states, creative consciousness. How can one design a conscious machine, when one has no idea what consciousness is? When one has not studied the contents of one’s own consciousness. It’s a little like designing a house from an exterior photograph, and knowing nothing about its contents.

To study consciousness, you don’t need magic mushrooms. Nor do you need as a subject someone who has been struck by lightning or has a severely damaged brain, the sort of people that Oliver Sacks wrote about.  This is not a task that requires a brain expert. We have every reason to believe that human consciousness, despite differences in our individual histories, does not vary greatly from person to person. Unless you regard yourself as a freak of nature, your consciousness is fairly typical and amenable to self-study. Many spiritual teachers such as Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff or Eckhart Tolle have suggested fruitful approaches to study consciousness, as well as indicating pitfalls.

To illustrate some of the complexities of consciousness, let’s start with the observer effect. In quantum mechanics, the act of observing an elementary particle changes that particle. So also with conscious self-observation. The moment that you are conscious of a thought, that thought changes. In an early talk (1932), Krishnamurti suggested writing down each thought that you are aware of, as the thought arises. Without trying to change it. Thoughts tend not to like the light of day. The moment you turn your attention to them they change. Often they disappear somewhere where you can’t find them. One can conclude that studying thoughts without changing them, cannot be done using an analytical approach, the way one studies nature.

What happens when all thoughts disappear? There’s a question for our conscious machine! Most people who meditate, experience a modality of consciousness where the narrative mind falls silent. When thoughts cease, and there is only awareness. It’s a condition very different from the absorption we experience when reading a book, or sleep. There’s often the sensation of connectedness, of being at one with a great power. However, there’s no flow of information, at least the way that we usually understand information. While experiencing it, that modality of consciousness feels normal and self-evident. Later, when trying to describe it, we often find that words are of little help.

Expansion of consciousness, altered states have been written about extensively and are well known. These also illustrate the complexity of the task when it comes to creating an artificial mind that may surpass the human mind.

Writers such as Gurdjieff and Colin Wilson emphasized that most of the time we behave as if we are programmed robots. We may not wish to admit it, but our consciousness is predictable, dependent on our programming. We experience robotic consciousness particularly when we are anxious, afraid, or excitable. Ouspensky’s, The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, relates how a man is given a chance to live his life over again, but ends up making the same choices as in the old life, and the same mistakes, despite trying not to. Like most people, he functions without self-awareness in a robotic condition where his choices are pre-programmed and where meaningful choices are not possible. Of all aspects of human consciousness, I suspect that this one is the most amenable to being replicated by AI, because it is programmable, and has been best studied by behaviourist psychologists.

This writer doubts that the artificial intelligence that emerges after years of research will in any way be capable of all the aspects of consciousness that we call human. Certainly not what we experience in meditation or in altered states. At best, AI will have a consciousness similar to the robotic consciousness where we operate in our daily life. The problem is that this is, in general, a rather nasty consciousness. If we take the time to observe our robotic nature, we will find that it is greedy, selfish, ambitious and petty. Such an artificial mind, Post-Singularity, is likely to resemble a malevolent devil than loving God. It’s no wonder that Stephen Hawking says that AI poses the greatest existential threat to humanity.

Can love, kindness or compassion be programmed into AI? Something resembling them certainly can. Just as our parents conditioned us to respect others, we can surely programme machines to do the same. However, such programming is often in conflict with our more basic nature. Also, whenever we see programmed, altruistic behaviour in others or in ourselves, we feel that it is not the real thing. Rather that we are dealing with a caricature of those qualities. We dismiss programmed love or compassion as phony. Unsurprisingly, evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins regard altruistic qualities as fundamentally self-serving.

Just what is love or compassion? Can it be programmed, or does it emerge only when our programmed nature is in abeyance? When mystics and spiritual teachers speak of God, they mean a mind that human thought, or human conditioning has not created. Saint Paul wrote extensively of it as the inner Christ. Of course, one can take those authorities at their word. But unless we engage in self-study, to understand the nature of our own consciousness, we will only have second-hand knowledge of what it is. Only when we undertake the exploration of ourselves are we likely to know the content, the nature of consciousness. We then arrive at a deep understanding that no scientific study or spiritual teaching can give.