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Can Machines Be Conscious? June 28, 2008

Posted by Ana Bird in philoshophy, science, tech.
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By Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi

Image: Bryan Christie Design

Would you sell your soul on eBay? Right now, of course, you can’t. But in some quarters it is taken for granted that within a generation, human beings—including you, if you can hang on for another 30 years or so—will have an alternative to death: being a ghost in a machine. You’ll be able to upload your mind—your thoughts, memories, and personality—to a computer. And once you’ve reduced your consciousness to patterns of electrons, others will be able to copy it, edit it, sell it, or pirate it. It might be bundled with other electronic minds. And, of course, it could be deleted.

That’s quite a scenario, considering that at the moment, nobody really knows exactly what consciousness is. Pressed for a pithy definition, we might call it the ineffable and enigmatic inner life of the mind. But that hardly captures the whirl of thought and sensation that blossoms when you see a loved one after a long absence, hear an exquisite violin solo, or relish an incredible meal. Some of the most brilliant minds in human history have pondered consciousness, and after a few thousand years we still can’t say for sure if it is an intangible phenomenon or maybe even a kind of substance different from matter. We know it arises in the brain, but we don’t know how or where in the brain. We don’t even know if it requires specialized brain cells (or neurons) or some sort of special circuit arrangement of them.

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