Can Machines Be Conscious?

“I had a fascination with art, science fiction, and philosophy, dreaming of what robots could be. I imagined that if artificial intelligence ever did match human intelligence that it would re-design itself to be ever smarter, ever faster, you would have something like a Moore’s Law of super-intelligent machines.”
— David Hanson, Founder and CEO, Hanson Robotics

First, we need to be clear about our understanding of what being conscious is. Basically, it is taken as being able to understand and know what is happening in one’s particular spatio-temporal location and having the sensitivity and sensibility to respond to such a state of affairs as well. These are cognitive and affective properties that define the mental and emotional states of living organisms particularly the higher forms of animals including the human species but without dismissing the lower forms about which we do not have a thorough and substantial knowledge as yet.

As specific cases in point and without being exhaustive, it is a given that animals in the Class Mammalia (where the human species is included), Class Aves and Class Reptilia are conscious entities. They do not have to express themselves using a spoken language–as in the case of the human species–to prove that they understand, know and respond to what is happening in their surroundings. The truth is, we have observed them time and again and it is not inaccurate to say that they are endowed with consciousness the fact that they are perfectly able to cope with their existence in their respective habitats.

But the issue at hand in the present undertaking is to resolve the problem of “conscious machines”. The fundamental issue at this point is therefore hinged on the question, Can machines be conscious? Without delving too deeply into the technical nitty-gritty and getting too strict on the understanding of what consciousness is, it is hereby supposed that it will not totally sound ridiculous or outrageous to venture to theorize that yes, machines can be conscious.

Furthermore, without spreading too thinly the concentration of our present concern, we can cite certain dramatic developments in the field of robotics. In this connection, we may mention one actual modelling project of modern humanoid robots which was inaugurated in Japan’s Waseda University in 1967 called WABOT Project and finally resulted in the creation of “the world’s first full-scale humanoid intelligent robot” in 1973. [1] Prior to and after this, a robotics history timeline will introduce us to a series of significant events and likewise familiarize us on the basic details of how humanoid robotics projects have progressed through the years up to the present. [2]

Considering the issue of consciousness on the basis of the parameters established in terms of how we basically understand it, machines can therefore be conscious. Through a scientifically controlled observation, a fully developed humanoid robot with all the complex components that constitute its system has the sophisticated capability to understand and know what is going on in the spatio-temporal surroundings where it is located.

A further observation yielded more amazing findings that it even has the sensitivity and sensibility to respond accordingly, i.e., with human-like reaction, to what is going on around it. This is consciousness seen through the glasses of a new paradigm where consciousness is technically designed through the latest developments in electronic technology. In this sense, we cannot evaluate and make a judgment on this matter using the homo sapiens sapiens paradigm where consciousness has developed via the natural evolutionary process without any technological intervention.

The latest and most sophisticated human-like robot is a creation of a Hong Kong-based company called Hanson Robotics whose banner line says, “an AI and robotics company dedicated to creating socially intelligent machines that enrich the quality of our lives.” [3] The humanoid robot with a face modelled after the late American actress Audrey Hepburn has been given the name, Sophia.

“Hanson Robotics’ most advanced human-like robot, Sophia, personifies our dreams for the future of AI. As a unique combination of science, engineering, and artistry, Sophia is simultaneously a human-crafted science fiction character depicting the future of AI and robotics, and a platform for advanced robotics and AI research.” [4]

The most fundamental controversy that arises at this point centers on the issue of how the term consciousness has been wrongly thought to be manipulated to suit the claim that even machines–and in the present discussion, humanoid robots–can have consciousness. Handling the matter philosophically, it is important to point out certain areas of concern aimed to settle the issue.

In the first place, the spur-of-the-moment reaction that there is a pernicious manipulation of semantic signification is not very accurate. In the present context, the meaning of consciousness is not adversely manipulated but rather practically redefined and hence, conveniently reinterpreted. There is actually nothing wrong with redefinition, much less with reinterpretation as long as the paradigm wherein a concept is introduced is clear and its parameters well established. In other words, consciousness is used in the present context outside of the traditional human-based paradigm with all the components and processes involved to understand the concept of consciousness as a uniquely distinct human event.

In the second place, we have to reasonably realize that isolating the human-based aspects of the concept of consciousness and concentrating more on the linguistic formulation that has no necessary connection (but only a constant conjunction on the basis of habit) with such aspects to define consciousness in a new way is the essence of the technology-based paradigm aimed by no means at all to contradict, disparage and dismiss the human-based paradigm.

The evolving socio-cultural landscape, particularly in the context of the post-modern western society, has re-defined and re-interpreted myriad traditional concepts well-established in the old paradigm to understand the most recent developments obtaining in the third-wave or post-industrial civilization. Simply put, these traditional concepts appropriated in the new paradigm gain a wider scope of meanings which include the descriptions of cyberworld tools, devices and applications among others that are better understood and utilized in the context of virtual reality. The word “notebook” is no longer an exclusive term we use for a stitched or spiraled blank book for recording notes. It is also a compact portable computer more or less with the same usefulness as the former. Even the terms “personal presence” and “face-to-face encounter” have gained third-wave significations as they are appropriated in online audio-visual communication in real-time. Though the element of actual “warm-body presence” is in absentia, so to speak, the circumstance in this kind of contact is perfectly face-to-face and never construed as less personal.

In this light, the term “consciousness” which has gained a brand new meaning as it is appropriated in the context of the post-modern robotic technology should not really shock us. The creative purpose in all of these undertakings is reflective of human ingenuity that calls for celebration and not condemnation. Echoing the words of David Hanson, the founder and CEO of Hanson Robotics, he says:

“Our robots will serve as AI platforms for research, education, medical and healthcare, sales and service, and entertainment applications, and will evolve to become benevolent, super-intelligent living machines who advance civilization and achieve ever-greater good for all.” [5]

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 9 October 2019
______________________
[1] Robotics and Mechatronics: Proceedings of the 4th IFToMM International, edited by Saïd Zeghloul, Med Amine Laribi, Jean-Pierre Gazeau, Published by Springer International Publishing (Switzerland, 2016).
[2] History of Robotics: Timeline, https://www.robotshop.com/media/files/PDF/timeline.pdf
[3] Hanson Robotics, https://www.hansonrobotics.com/about/
[4] Hanson Robotics, https://www.hansonrobotics.com/sophia/
[5] Hanson Robotics, https://www.hansonrobotics.com/about/

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