Monday, April 25, 2005


Toward conscious machinery

Martin Butz had an interesting comment on my post about machine consciousness (it deserved post status), so I'm quoting from it here:

Certainly I agree that also consciousness is an emergent property composed out of many modules, many (local) interactions through connections that are biased in one way or the other. What might be the most important ingredients of consciousness?
He goes on to cite Deacon's The Symbolic Species and the European project MindRACES: From Reactive to Anticipatory Cognitive Embodied Systems. There is lots to like in the discussion:

To sum up, it seems to me that in order to proceed towards machine consciousness it is necessary to have at least (1) a body that can manipulate a world and (2) sensors that can perceive (a) the own body (to be able to become self-aware), (b) own manipulations in the world (to connect to a world in which consciousness resides) as well as (c) manipulations by others (to realize that there are others).

So far, maybe so good, but I am a bit troubled by the subsequent inclusion of explicit symbols and language in the decomposition. If we mean the term "symbol" as being the ability to aggregate and generalize states in the world, then I think I may be for it, but I fear that Butz joins a host of language chauvinists by requiring language in the minimal decomposition of conscious thought:

Language and the tendency to develop a grammar structure might help to shape the representation (leading to further abstractions and yet more general interdependencies in the world such asgeneral cause and effect, somewhat like subject and verb). Finally, it might be the story telling capability, that is, the continuous anticipation working and predicting and guiding future behavior based onthese abstract (sub-)structures in time and space that might lead
to conscious experiences.

Although I've never been able to get a good linguistic answer from the dogs we owned when I was growing up whether they were conscious, their behavior convinced me they were. Moreover, I think consciousness in the Searlean sense (pp. 40-41) of "those states of sentience or awareness that typically begins when we wake up from a dreamless sleep" is available to a whole host of critters beyond those that manipulate or exchange symbols with one another (a growing, but still small class of species).

What is the minimal machinery that gets us to a state of awareness or sentience? Indeed I can't talk about being aware without language, but I don't think I need language to be aware. It is the minimal machinery that we should be concerned with, and I think we need to suspend the need for language to make progress, but include some reflective, reverberating, or awareness elements that interchange external and internal states in some vibrant manner if we are to create systems that are aware. I can't program such an element or elements in Matlab yet, but these subsystems may be more important to awareness than even the capability to aggregate and generalize states.

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