Summary: Theories of consciousness do not present significant technical hurdles to building conscious AI systems. Recent advances in AI relate to capacities that aren't obviously relevant to consciousness. Satisfying major theories with current technology has been and will remain quite possible. The potentially short time lines to plausible digital consciousness mean that issues relating to digital minds are more pressing than they might at first seem. Key ideas are bolded. You can get the main points just by skimming these.

Viability

Claim 1: Google could build a conscious AI in as little as three months if it wanted to.

Claim 2: Microsoft[1] could have done the same in 1990.

I'm skeptical of both of these claims, but I think something in the ballpark is true. Google could assemble a small team of engineers to quickly prototype a system that existing theories, straightforwardly applied, would predict is conscious. The same is true for just about any tech company, today or in 1990.[2]

Philosophers and neuroscientists have little to say about why a digital system that implemented fairly simple patterns of information processing would not be conscious. Even if individual theorists might have a story to tell about what was missing, they would probably not agree on what that story was.

The most prominent theories of consciousness lay out relatively vague requirements for mental states to be conscious. The requirements for consciousness (at least for the more plausible theories[3]) generally have to do with patterns of information storage, access, and processing. Theorists typically want to accommodate our uncertainty about the low-level functioning of the human brain and also allow for consciousness in species with brains rather different from ours. This means that their theories involve big picture brain architectures, not specific cellular structures.

Take the Global Workspace Theory: roughly put, conscious experiences result from stored representations in a centralized cognitive workspace. That workspace is characterized by its ability to broadcast its contents to a variety of (partially) modularized subsystems, which can in turn submit future contents to the workspace. According to the theory, any system that uses such an architecture to route information is conscious.

A software system that included a global workspace would be easy to build. All you have to do is set up some modules with the right rules for access to a global repository. To be convincing, these modules should resemble the modules of human cognition, but it isn't obvious which kinds of faculties matter. Perhaps some modules for memory, perception, motor control, introspection, etc. You need these modules to be able to feed information into the global workspace and receive information from it in turn. These modules need to be able to make use of the information they receive, which requires some contents usable by the different systems.

Critically for my point, complexity and competence aren't desiderata for consciousness. The modules with access to the workspace don't need to perform their assigned duties particularly well. Given no significant requirements on complexity or competence, a global workspace architecture could be achieved in a crude way quite quickly by a small team of programmers. It doesn't rely on any genius, or any of the technological advances of the past 30 years.

More generally:

1.) Consciousness does not depend on general intelligence, mental flexibility, organic unpredictability, or creativity.

These traits distinguish humans from current computer programs. There are no programs that can produce creative insights outside of very constrained contexts. Perhaps because of this, we may use these traits as a heuristic guide to consciousness when in doubt. In science fiction, for instance, we often implicitly assess the status of alien and artificial creatures without knowing anything about their internal structures. We naturally regard the artificial systems that exhibit the same sorts of creativity and flexibility as having conscious minds. However, these heuristics are not grounded in theory.

There are no obvious reasons why these traits should have to be correlated with consciousness in artificial systems. Nothing about consciousness obviously requires intelligence or mental flexibility. In contrast, there might be good reasons why you'd expect systems that evolved by natural selection to be conscious if and only if they were intelligent, flexible, and creative. For instance, it might be that the architectures that allow for consciousness are most useful with intelligent systems, or help to generate creativity. But even if this is so, it doesn't show that such traits have to travel together in structures that we design and build ourselves. Compare: since legs are generally used to get around, we should expect most animals with legs to be pretty good at using them to walk or run. But we could easily build robots that had legs but who would fall over whenever they tried to go anywhere. The fact that they are clumsy doesn't mean they lack legs.

2.) Consciousness does not require and is not made easier with neural networks.

Neural networks are exciting because they resemble human brains and because they allow for artificial cognition that resembles human cognition in being flexible and creative. However, most theorists accept that consciousness is multiply realizable, meaning that consciousness can be produced in many different kinds of systems, including systems that don't use neurons or anything like neurons.

There is no obvious reason why neural networks should be better able to produce the kinds of information architectures that are thought to be characteristic of consciousness. Most plausible major theories of consciousness have nothing to say about neurons or what they might contribute. It is unclear why neural networks should be more likely to lead to consciousness.

Reception

Even though I think a tech company could build a system that checked all the boxes of current theories, I doubt it would convince people that their AI was really conscious (though not for particularly good reasons). If true, this provides reasons to think no company will try any time soon. Plausibly, a company would only set out to make a conscious system if they could convince their audience that they may have succeeded.

We can divide the question of reception into two parts: How would the public respond and how would experts respond?

Tech companies may soon be able to satisfy the letter of most of the current major non-biological theories of consciousness, but any AI developed soon would probably still remind us more of a computer than an animal. It might make simple mistakes suggestive of imperfect computer algorithms. It might be limited to a very specific domain of behaviors. If it controlled a robot body, the movements might be jerky or might sound mechanical. Consider the biases people feel about animals like fish that don't have human physiologies. It seems likely that people would be even more biased against crude AIs.

The AI wouldn't necessarily have language skills capable of expressing its feelings. If it did, it might talk about its consciousness in a way which mimics us rather than as the result of organic introspection[4]. This might lead to the same sorts of mistakes that make LaMDA so implausibly conscious. (E.g. by talking about how delicious ice cream is despite never having tried it.) The fact that a system is just mimicking us when talking about its conscious experiences doesn't mean it lacks them -- human actors (e.g. in movies) still have feelings, even if you can't trust their reports -- but it seems to me that it would make claims about their consciousness to be a tough sell to the general public.

The Public

The candidate system I'm imagining would probably not convince the general public that artificial consciousness had arrived by itself. People have ways of thinking about minds and machines and use various simple and potentially misleading heuristics for differentiating them. On these heuristics, crude systems that passed consciousness hurdles would still, I expect, be grouped with the machines, because of their computer-like behavioral quirks and because people aren't used to thinking about computers as conscious.

On the other hand, systems that presented the right behavioral profile may be regarded by the public as conscious regardless of theoretical support. If a system does manage to hook into the right heuristics, or if it reminds us more of an animal than a computer, people might be generally inclined to regard it as conscious, particularly if they can interact with it and if experts aren't generally dismissive. People are primed to anthropomorphize. We do it with our pets, with the weather, even with dots moving on a screen.

The Experts

I suspect that most experts who have endorsed theories of consciousness wouldn't be inclined to attribute consciousness to a crude system that satisfied the letter of their theories. It is reputationally safer (in terms of both public perceptions and academic credibility) to not endorse consciousness in systems that give off a computer vibe. There is a large kooky side to consciousness research that the more conservative mainstream likes to distinguish itself from. So many theorists will likely want some grounds on which to deny or at least suspend judgement about consciousness in crude implementations of their favored architectures. On the other hand, the threat of kookiness may lose its bite if the public is receptive to an AI being conscious.

Current theories are missing important criteria that might be relevant to artificial consciousness because they're defined primarily with the goal of distinguishing conscious from unconscious states of human brains (or possibly conscious human brains from unconscious animals, or household objects). They aren't built to distinguish humans from crude representations of human architectures. It is open to most theorists to expand their theories to exclude digital minds. Alternatively, they may simply profess not to know what to make of apparent digital minds (e.g. level-headed mysterianism). This is perhaps safer and more honest, but if widely adopted, means the public would be on its own in assessing consciousness.

Implications

The possibility that a tech company could soon develop a system that was plausibly conscious according to popular theories should be somewhat unsettling. The main barriers to this happening seem to have more to do with the desires of companies to build conscious systems rather than with technical limitations. The skeptical reception such systems are likely to receive is good -- it provides an averse incentive that buys us more time. However, these thoughts are very tentative. There might be ways of taking advantage of our imperfect heuristics to encourage people to accept AI systems as conscious.

The overall point is that timelines for apparent digital consciousness may be very short. While there are presently no large groups interested in producing digital consciousness, the situation could quickly change if consciousness becomes a selling point and companies think harder about how to market their products as conscious, such as for chatbot friends or artificial pets. There is no clear technological hurdle to creating digital consciousness. Whether we think we have succeeded may have more to do with imperfect heuristics.

We're not ready, legally or socially, for potentially sentient artificial creatures to be created and destroyed at will for commercial purposes. Given the current lack of attention to digital consciousness, we're not in a good position to even agree about which systems might need our protection or what protections are appropriate. This is a problem.

In the short run, worries about sentient artificial systems are dwarfed by the problems faced by humans and animals. However, there are longtermist considerations that suggest we should care more about digital minds now than we currently do. How we decide to incorporate artificial systems into our society may have a major impact on the shape of the future. That decision is likely to be highly sensitive to the initial paths we take.

Because of the longterm importance of digital minds, the people who propose and evaluate theories of consciousness need to think harder about applications to artificial systems. Three months (or three years) will not be nearly enough time to develop better theories about consciousness or to work out what policies we should put in place given our lack of certainty.


  1. Brian Tomasik makes the case that Microsoft may have done so unintentionally. ↩︎

  2. Theories of consciousness have come along further since 1990 than the technology relevant to implementing them. Developers in 1990 would have had a much less clear idea about what to try to build. ↩︎

  3. I include among more plausible theories the Global Workspace Theory, the various mid-level representationalist theories (E.g. Prinz's AIR, Tye's PANIC), first-order representationalist theories higher-order theories that require metarepresentation (attention tracking theories, HOT theory, dual content theory, etc.). I don't find IIT plausible, despite it's popularity, and am not sure what effect it's inclusion would have on the present arguments. Error theories and indeterminacy theories are plausible, but introduce a range of complications beyond the scope of this post. Some philosophers have maintained that biological aspects of the brain are necessary for consciousness, but this view generally doesn't include a specific story about exactly what critical element exactly is missing. ↩︎

  4. Human beings aren't inclined to talk about our conscious experiences in the customary way unprompted. We acquire ways of framing consciousness and mental states from our culture as children, so much of what we do is mimicking. Nevertheless, the frames we have acquired have been developed by people with brains like ours, so the fact that we're mimicking others (to whatever extent we are) isn't problematic in the way that it is for an AI. ↩︎

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18 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:54 PM

Does this summarize as "nobody has given a credible operational definition of consciousness, so whatever we do is unlikely to be accepted as conscious for quite some time"?

We're not ready, legally or socially, for potentially sentient artificial creatures to be created and destroyed at will for commercial purposes.

Can you specify what "ready" means?  We've been struggling with natural consciousnesses, both human and animal, for a long long time, and it's not obvious to me that artificial consciousness can avoid any of that pain.

We've been struggling with natural consciousnesses, both human and animal, for a long long time, and it's not obvious to me that artificial consciousness can avoid any of that pain.

You're right, but there are a couple of important differences:

  • There is widespread agreement on the status of many animals. People believe most tetrapods are conscious. The terrible stuff we do to them is done in spite of this.
  • We have a special opportunity at the start of our interactions with AI systems to decide how we're going to relate to them. It is better to get things right off the bat then to try to catch up (and shift public opinion) decades later.
  • We have a lot more potential control over artificial systems than we do over natural creatures. It is possible that very simple changes and low-cost changes could make a huge difference to their welfare (or whether they have any.)

There is widespread agreement on the status of many animals.

Only to the extent that “conscious” doesn’t carry any weight or expectation of good treatment. There is very little agreement on what an animal’s level of consciousness means in terms of life or happiness priority compared to any human.

We have a special opportunity at the start of our interactions with AI systems to decide how we're going to relate to them

I don’t follow. How is it easier (or more special as an opportunity) to decide how to relate to an AI system than to a chicken or a distant human?

We have a lot more potential control over artificial systems than we do over natural creatures

Really? Given the amount of change we’ve caused in natural creatures, the amount of effort we spend in controlling/guiding fellow humans, and the difficulty in defining and measuring this aspect of ANY creature, I can’t agree (I can’t strongly disagree either, though, because I don’t really understand what this means)

I don’t follow. How is it easier (or more special as an opportunity) to decide how to relate to an AI system than to a chicken or a distant human?

I think that our treatment of animals is a historical problem. If there were no animals, if everyone was accustomed to eating vegetarian meals, and then you introduced chickens into the world, I believe people wouldn't be inclined to stuff them into factory farms and eat their flesh. People do care about animals where they are not complicit in harming them (whaling, dog fighting), but it is hard for most people to leave the moral herd and it is hard to break with tradition. The advantage of thinking about digital minds is that traditions haven't been established yet and the moral herd doesn't know what to think. There is no precedence or complicity in ill treatment. That is why it is easier for us to decide how to relate with them.

Really? Given the amount of change we’ve caused in natural creatures, the amount of effort we spend in controlling/guiding fellow humans, and the difficulty in defining and measuring this aspect of ANY creature, I can’t agree.

In order to make a natural creature happy and healthy, you need to work with its basic evolution-produced physiology and psychology. You've got to feed it, educate it, socialize it, accommodate its arbitrary needs and neurotic tendencies. We would likely be able to design the psychology and physiology of artificial systems to our specifications. That is what I mean by having a lot more potential control.

Ah, I think we have a fundamental disagreement about how the majority of humans think about animals and each other.  If the world were vegetarian, and someone created chickens, I think it would NOT lead to many chickens leading happy chicken lives.  It would either be an amusing one-time lab experiment (followed by death and extinction) or the discovery that they're darned tasty and very concentrated and portable nutrition elements, which leads to creating them for the primary purpose of food.

I'm not sure wireheading an AI (so it's happy no matter what) is any more (or less) acceptable than doing so to chickens (by evolving smaller brains and larger breasts).

Of note: we have already written computer programs which current theories say are conscious.

https://www.aaai.org/Papers/Symposia/Fall/2007/FS-07-01/FS07-01-008.pdf

Thanks a lot! Would you mind pointing me to a direction that allows me to stay up to date on this niche? Also, do you have any contextual information to share about the paper you linked? Was it controversial for example?

Thanks!

It wasn’t controversial. People have theories about consciousness and neural architectures, and they use simulations to verify their theories produce predictions consistent with the real world.

For more, you can probably follow the authors of this paper on twitter or something, or look through their backlogs, and do the same for Stanislas Dehaene.

It’s also not the first time someone has made such a program.

Unless the conscious algorithm in question will experience states that are not valence-neutral, I see no issue with creating or destroying instances of it. The same applies to any other type of consciousness. It seems implausible to me that any of our known AI architectures could instantiate such non-neutral valences, even if they do seem plausibly able to instantiate other kinds of experiences (e.g. geometric impressions).

I'm not particularly worried that we may harm AIs that do not have valenced states, at least in the near term. The issue is more over precedent and expectations going forward. I would worry about a future in which we create and destroy conscious systems willy-nilly because of how it might affect our understanding of our relationship to them, and ultimately to how we act toward AIs that do have morally relevant states. These worries are nebulous, and I very well might be wrong to be so concerned, but it feels risky to rush into things.

One of philosophical insights showing the inside of the system doesn't matter to conscious states would be to consider that we can describe our conscious states to an outside observer, so what-we-call-consciousness has no parts unconnected to the output of the entire system.

Believing that an artificial consciousness has to conform to the computational architecture of the human brain (on a specific level of abstraction), would be unjustified anthropocentrism, no different from believing that a system can't be conscious without neural tissue.

What about a large look-up table that mapped conversation so far -> what to say next and was able to pass the Turing test? This program would have all the external signs of consciousness, but would you really describe it as a conscious being in the same way that you are?

That wouldn't fit into our universe (by about 2 metaorders of magnitude). But yes, that simple software would indeed have an equivalent consciousness, with the complexity almost completely moved from the algorithm to the data. There is no other option.

What would it be conscious of, though? Could it feel a headache when you gave it a difficult riddle? I don't think a look-up table can be conscious of anything except for matching bytes to bytes. Perhaps that corresponds to our experience of recognizing that two geometric forms are identical.

We're not conscious of internal computational processes at that level of abstraction (like matching bits). We're conscious of outside inputs, and of the transformations of the state-machine-which-is-us from one state to the next.

Recognizing two geometric forms are identical would correspond to giving whatever output we'd give in reaction to that.

If it's impossible in principle to know whether any AI really has qualia, then what's wrong with simply using the Turing test as an ultimate ethical safeguard? We don't know how consciousness works, and possibly we won't ever (e.g., mysterianism might obtain). But certainly we will soon create an AI that passes the Turing test. So seemingly we have good ethical reasons just to assume that any agent that passes the Turing test is sentient — this blanket assumption, even if often unwarranted from the aspect of eternity, will check our egos and thereby help prevent ethical catastrophe. And I don't see that any more sophisticated ethical reasoning around AI sentience is or ever will be needed. Then the resolution of what's really happening inside the AI will simply continually increase over time; and, without worry, we'll be able to look back and perhaps see where we were right and wrong. Meanwhile, we can focus less on ethics and more on alignment.

Turing test is sentient

I'm not sure why we should think that the Turing test provides any evidence regarding consciousness. Dogs can't pass the test, but that is little reason to think that they're not conscious. Large language models might be able to pass the test before long, but it looks like they're doing something very different inside, and so the fact that they are able to hold conversations is little reason to think they're anything like us. There is a danger with being too conservative. Sure, assuming sentience may avoid causing unnecessary harms, but if we mistakenly believe some systems are sentient when they are not, we may waste time or resources for the sake of their (non-existent) welfare.

Your suggestion may simply be that we have nothing better to go on, and we've got to draw the line somewhere. If there is no right place to draw the line, then we might as well pick something. But I think there are better and worse place to draw the line. And I don't think our epistemic situation is quite so bad. We may not ever be completely sure which precise theory is right, but we can get a sense of which theories are contenders by continuing to explore the human brain and develop existing theories, and we can adopt policies that respect the diversity of opinion.

Meanwhile, we can focus less on ethics and more on alignment.

This strikes me as somewhat odd, as alignment and ethics are clearly related. On the one hand, there is the technical question of how to align an AI to specific values. But there is also the important question of which values to align. How we think about digital consciousness may come be extremely important to that.