What Is It Like to Be a Robot?

In “Metazoa“, Peter Godfrey-Smith explores the rise of consciousness in animals – from simple multicellular organisms to invertebrates like us.

Consciousness is concept that’s not so easy to capture. It’s about a sense of self, about a perception of the environment and oneself, about a subjective experience of the world. When does an animal qualify as conscious? Godfrey-Smith postulates that consciousness is a spectrum, not something one has or doesn’t. The analogy he uses for this is sleeping, or the state right after waking up. We are conscious, but with a different level of consciousness as when fully awake.

The nature of consciousness can be explored by taking extreme positions:

  • can you be conscious without any perception of the environment (a “pure mind”)?
  • does reacting to what happens around you without any emotion qualify a conscious?
  • do you need to have a nervous system and feel pain to be conscious, or is having a mood enough?
  • could you be conscious, but act indistinguishably from as an unconscious animal?

I would have described consciousness as being aware of one’s own existence, something related to mortality, and rather binary. Godfrey-Smith equates consciousness more to having a sense of self and feelings, which makes it something less demarcated. He’s using consciousness more like “awareness“, whereas I would use it more like “self-awareness“. (That said, even self-awareness isn’t maybe so binary. Between being aware of deadly dangers and being aware of your own existence, it’s hard to say when we transition from instinct to consciousness.)

The book focuses on the relationship between senses and consciousness. Godfrey explains in the book how various animals sense the world and which kind of consciousness they might have. Some animals have antennas (Shrimps), some have tentacles (Octopus), some feel water pressure (fish). Many animals have vision, but the eye structure can differ. Some animals feel pain (mammals, fishes, molluscs) , but some don’t (insects) – it’s however not so clear to define when pain is felt or not. Not feeling pain doesn’t mean the animal is unaware of body damage, just like you don’t feel pain for you car but notice very well when something is broken when driving.

The book reminded me of “What it’s like to be robot?” from Rodney Brooks. This article, unsurprisingly, references the previous book from Godfrey-Smith “Other Minds”. The article from Rodney makes parallels between the perception of octopus and artificial intelligence systems. Many of the questions raised by Godfrey-Smith about the animal world can indeed be translated directly to the digital world. Computer systems have sensors, too. The have rules to react to inputs and produce outputs. They can learn and remember things, and develop an individual “subjective” perception of the world. They don’t “feel” pain, but can be aware of malfunctions in their own system. Does this qualify as a very limited form of consciousness?

The book touches at the end on the question of artificial intelligence, but very superficially. Rather than wondering whether an artificial intelligence could be conscious, he focuses on refuting the possibility of human-like artificial intelligence. His argument is basically that neural networks do model only a subset of the brain’s physical and chemical processes and can’t thus match human intelligence (there are other physical and chemical processes at play in the brain besides synapse firing). He also argues that an emulation of these processes still wouldn’t cut it, since it wouldn’t be the real stuff.

Artificial intelligence will not have a human-like intelligence, though. Each system (biological or digital) has its own form of intelligence. Because of his anthropomorphism of artificial intelligence, Godfrey-Smith doesn’t explore the alley of consciousness in AI systems much deeper. This is unfortunate, because with his consciousness-as-spectrum approach, it would have been an interesting discussion.

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