Can a computer ever have a conscious mind?

Imagine that it is the year 3037. All of Earth's environmental and social problems have been solved, space travel is commonplace, disease is a thing of the past, everyone lives very comfortably, and governments have so much extra cash that they can afford to fund incredibly expensive scientific projects. Imagine that you are visiting one such project, Project Turing, which is housed in a massive space station hanging in on of Earth's Lagrange points. Project Turing is an inconcevably large structured array of very powerful supercomputers. For comparison, imagine the most powerful supercomputer of the 21st century, and imagine a supercomputer about a million times more powerful than that. Then imagine several thousand billion of these super-supercomputers hooked together in a structured array many, many times larger than the 21st century internet. Project Turing is something like that, only larger, more powerful, and much, much more structured. (Computers can be made much, much smaller than they were in the 21st century, but even so, project Turing is clearly visible as a disk from the surface of the Earth.)

After a brief tour of the enormous space station, you are taken into the control room for a brief speech from the project director. She tells you that the computer array is structured in exactly the same way as a human brain, with the level of complexity found in the brain of the average human brain. The array contains around 86 billion artificial neurones, each one connected by artificial synapses to several thousand specific other neurones, and by artifical hormones to the appropriate variety of artificial glands. Each artificial neurone behaves in exactly the same way as some human neurone, and each one functions in a way appropriate for it's position in the array. Every structure in the human brain has a precise analog in the Project Turing brain, and sensory centers, such as the auditory and visual centers, are hooked up in just the right way to take advantage of microphones and cameras in the control room. When it is turned on, the artificial brain, with its artificial senses, will function in exactly the same way as a typical human brain. There will be nothing a human brain has that it doesn't have, and there will be nothing a human brain does that it doesn't do.

When this artificial brain is turned on, will it make a conscious mind?

The basic question here is whether computers can have minds. "Consciousness," is the faculty of being aware of yourself, your feelings, your thoughts, and your surropundings. Most of your mental processes occur without you being conscious of them, which means that your mind is different from, and much bigger than your consciousness.

Most people seem to think that consciousness is the whole mind. This is a serious mistake. Your consciousness does not do any of your thinking. "Conscious thought" is just you being aware of what you are thinking. You also do a lot of thinking that you are not aware of, and this "unconscious" thought is just as much a part of your mind as the conscious stuff.

The proper way to understand the term "conscious mind" is as referring to a set of mental processes that include can and do include consciousness. There is no seperate "unconscious mind." You have only one mind, and that mind is aware of some of it's processes at some times, and unaware of most processes most of the time. We call this mental awareness "consciousness."

When an organism only has mental processes that cannot include consciousness, free will or self-awareness, it is hard to think of that organism as having a mind. Insects, for instance, may have brains that are so simple that they cannot be conscious, free-willed or self-aware. If that is indeed the case, I would personally say that they do not have minds, even though at times they might be thought to be thinking.

Present-day computers do not have minds. This is very clear from their behavior and internal architecture. Even "chatbots" and other programs that _simulate_ conversations clearly do not have minds because the way they come up with things to say is a randomized phrase-choosing system, and not a system that takes in information, interpretes it, considers it and formulates responses on the basis of a developed personality, which is what human brains do.

The question for this topic could therefore be formulated as either: "Can computers ever have minds?" or "Can computers ever be conscious?" or both. It doesn't really matter how you formulate the question as long as you remember the difference between mind and consciousness.

For this paper, you can see yourself as asking the question "can a computer ever have a conscious mind?

Your task is to explain the basic argument for computer consciousness, explain one argument agains computer consciousness, critically analyze both arguments, say which one didn't fail under analysis, and explain why the othert one failed.

A few semesters ago, I read a bunch of student papers on computer consciousness, and was surprised to note that almost all of them completely ignored the basic argument for computer consciousness. Instead of discussing the argument for computer consciousness, these papers assumed that computers could not be programmed to do what brains do, and asserted things like "computers only simulate consciousness" or "computers are just programmed," without giving any reason to think that either of these things are true.

So I've rewritten this assignment to make it clear that 1. there is a basic argument for computer consciousness and that 2. you are not allowed to ignore that argument.

If you ignore the basic argument for computer consciousness, you can get exactly zero points for this assignment.

Basic Argument For Computer Consciousness

Before the advent of neuroscience, people imagined that consciousness was a form of magic power that had no connection to physical events. After neuroscience came along, it became apparent that:

1. consciousness was something made by the brain, and that
2. magic powers could not even begin to explain anything about the mind.

Neuroscience showed that the brain makes the mind by processing information (by means of neurones, hormones and so on) in a way that's very similar to the way computers process information. In fact, anything the the brain can do in terms of information processing can eventually also be done by a computer, providing that computer has sufficient processing power. The obvious implication of this is that, eventually, Inshallah an' th' creek don't rise, computers will make consciousness.

The basic argument for computer consciousness can be summarized as follows:

1. The human brain is made entirely of neurons in complicated arrangements.
2. The human brain makes consciousness by processing information with these arrangements of neurons.
3. Computers can process information exactly the same way that neurons do.
4. Given powerful enough computers, we could make a computer that does exactly everything that the brain does.
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C. Such a computer would make consciousness exactly the same way that the brain makes consciousness.

Do not ignore this argument in your response to this prompt. (In fact, if you ignore this argument, you could easily get zero for the assignment.)

Some people vigorously oppose this conclusion, saying that no non-biological system can ever achieve consciousness. They make various arguments purporting to prove that computers cannot ever achieve consciousness. Your task is to review at least one anti-computer argument from among the following pages, find or create an opposing argument, and then critically evaluate both arguments. The specific question I want you to answer is, based on the arguments you choose to examine, does anyone prove that computers cannot produce consciousness?

Your assignment, if you pick this topic, is to:

First, state the argument for computer consciousness in your own words. (This is the argument in the pink box above.)
Second, come to a conlusion about whether we have any rational reason to doubt this conclusion.


If you decide to claim that computers can't be conscious, and your "argument" is "computers can't be conscious because consciousness includes X, and computers can't do X," but you don't explain how humans do X, and you don't prove that computers can't do X, then you haven't proved that computers can't be conscious, and that should be your thesis. (Do not ignore this requirement in your response.)

If you decide to claim that computers can't be conscious because computers only simulate consciousness, you will have to deal with the fact that your argument basically proves that humans only simulate consciousness since the hypothetical computer that you are saying would only simulates consciousness would be doing exactly what your brain does now to make consciousness, so if the computer only simulates consciousness, your brain right now only simulates consciousnness, and so you're really not conscious.

If you decide to claim that computers can't be conscious because computers are just programmed, you will have to deal with the fact that your argument basically proves that humans are just programmed since the hypothetical computer that you are saying would be just programmed would be following exactly the program that your brain follows now to make consciousness, so if the computer is just programmed, your brain right now is just programmed, and so you're really not conscious.

Don't forget that if you ignore the basic argument for computer consciousness, you could get zero for the assignment.

It should go without saying that if your only "argument" is "computers can't be conscious because some guy says they can't be conscious," then you haven't proved that computers can't be conscious, and your thesis should be that they can.

It should also go without saying that if your only "argument" is some poorly explained quotation from someone else, then you haven't proved that computers can't be conscious, and your thesis should be that they can.

If you cannot come up with a clearly understood, clearly explainable reason why computers cannot ever be conscious, then your thesis should be that, as far as you can tell, it is perfectly possible for computers to someday be conscious.

To give you some background, here's Stephen Pinker Could a Computer Ever be Conscious

To get started, here is a farly elementary debate. Are computers conscious? Text - Physics Forums Library You can limit the scope of you discussion to this debate, if you like. If you want to include more arguments, you can skim the following links.

Again, if you ignore the basic argument for computer consciousness, you will not get a good grade for this paper.

Here are arguments against computer consciousness. (At least, I think these pages have such arguments.)
The Problem of Animal Consciousness
6-05 Computers can never have a conscious experience.
Are Computer Games Really Conscious? | Hare Krishna Community

Here are some more arguments for computer consciousness. (At least, I think these pages have such arguments.)
Scott H Young » Consciousness Explained
Consciousness Is Finite (But I Don't Mind)
The Cambridge handbook of consciousness - Google Books

More on animal consciousness or http://members.multimania.nl/dierbewust/culture.html

An interesting essay that might be taken either way:
The Creation of I's—Consciousness, Identity, Subjectivity, Solipsism, Brain

If you're interested in Roger Penrose's argument against computer consciousness, see computerpenrose.htm

And remember, if you ignore the argument for computer consciousness, you will get zero for the assignment.

Here's two possible followups:

Computers and Consciousness - this is the basic question.

Computers and Quantum Consciousness - this deals with Roger Penrose's objection to computer consciousness.

Copyright © 2011 by Martin C. Young


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