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Paradox25's avatar

Is self-awareness merely an information process?

Asked by Paradox25 (10196points) May 9th, 2012

This has been a topic that I’ve been reading up on for a long time now. I know this type of question has been asked on here before several times, but it has been a while since I’ve seen any quality discussions about this.

I want to narrow the question down to whether self-awareness is merely an information process or not. Some engineers believe that when computing speeds reach a high enough level, like ten to the sixteenth power operations per second, machines will become self-aware. The only catch here is to create an algorithm for the ‘mind’ to go along with that processing speed.

Others have pointed out that what constitutes consciousness is more sophisticated than just information processing. It has been pointed out that the Turing test, which potentially would be used to detect self-awareness in a machine, would fail too. It is argued that the Turing test is only good for measuring information processing and the ability to imitate humanlike dialog, not self-awareness in itself. Here is a five page link that goes into more detail about what I’m asking here.

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13 Answers

nikipedia's avatar

I’ve had a couple glasses of wine and I see @SavoirFaire down there composing a much better answer than I’ll be able to, but let me ask you this: merely an information process as opposed to what? That is, what else would it be?

I mean that not to be difficult nor as purely a matter of semantics. There are a lot more things that self-awareness is: a biological process, a physical process, a chemical process, and a phenomenological experience (for starters, there are probably many other ways to frame it). So if you are asking if it is “merely” one thing, it seems to me that you are asking it as “merely” that in exclusion to something else. Can you elaborate?

SavoirFaire's avatar

First, a note about the Turing test: it is not meant as a direct test for consciousness (which I take it is what you mean by the term “self-awareness,” though serious philosophers would distinguish the two). Daniel Dennett has discussed this at length in various places and formats. One of the thought experiments he uses is called the “great cities test.”

This test picks out a set of criteria that are indicative—but not determinative—of a great city. Such a test may be fooled if one is stupid and rich enough to waste resources securing the indicators while failing to secure those things that typically accompany them, but it is simply not worth doing so. Should we know that a city passes the great city test, then, we have no grounds for doubting whether or not that city is great.

Similarly, the Turing test focuses on something that is indicative—but not determinative—of consciousness. If a machine can behave in a certain way (in this case, if it can imitate unrestricted human conversation) as convincingly as a human being, then we have no grounds for doubting that it is conscious. This is, after all, one of the key ways in which we come to believe that one another is a conscious being.

Note, then, that the Turing test is not meant to define consciousness or characterize it in any way. All it does is give us a method for detecting conscious entities. The claim made by Turing is exceedingly modest. After all, he is not even saying that the Turing test separates conscious beings from non-conscious beings. For all he has said, there may be conscious beings who cannot pass the Turing test. What he restricts himself to is the claim that any entity that does pass the test must be presumed to be conscious.

Second, it seems to me that the linked article sets up a straw man by taking the functionalist paradigm of conscious to stand or fall with Ray Kurzweil’s specific views. The broader project of artificial intelligence research can survive every single one of the points made therein, even if Kurzweil cannot win his bet with Mitch Kapor if they are true. That is, the so-called “singulatarians” are not coextensive with the functionalists, meaning that consciousness could still be an information process—though I don’t know anyone who would say there is anything “mere” about it—should Kurzweil’s particular model prove to be flawed.

LostInParadise's avatar

Firstly, regarding the Turing test. The basic point is that if the behavior of a machine is indistinguishable from that of a human then we declare that the machine has consciousness. The objection that the machine has no “feelings” is invalid. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it is a duck. The Turing test only focuses on a small subset of human behavior, but I think it is sufficient to capture the range of human thought processes.

As to the nature of consciousness, my feeling is that it is not a matter of throwing together a sufficient amount of information processing. We can’t exactly define consciousness, but there are certain components that I think are necessary. A conscious being must understand cause and effect. Not just a particular instance of it, but the understanding that in general events have causes.

In his work, Being And Nothingness, Sartre talks about our ability to negate statements, the “nothingness” of the title. We are able to respond to things that don’t happen, the friend that does not show up or the item that is missing from the room. There is a subtle but important difference between not reacting to something because it is not there and reacting to its absence. Sartre believed that this ability lies at the heart of consciousness. I believe that he was on to something. The ability to create an abstract symbol requires understanding that the symbol relates to an object but it is not an actual instance of the object.

ragingloli's avatar

Right now, there is no indication that self awareness is anything but information processing/neural patterns and I consider objections like ”what constitutes consciousness is more sophisticated than just information processing” nothing more than attempts to preserve the human centric delusion of being “special”.
As for the Turing Test: Prove to me, that you yourself are sentient.

gambitking's avatar

Self awareness happens the first time you use a mind altering substance recreationally, like the first time smoking pot or drinking alcohol.

At that point, you’ve made a big jump. Previously, you left your brain alone and changed your environment for stimulation (played with toys, played sports, video games, etc). Once you use a drug, you’re leaving your environment alone and changing your brain for stimulation.

Yes, that means that people who don’t ever use drugs or alcohol never really become self aware, shame isn’t it.

Why is this question so perplexing to everyone?

cazzie's avatar

No, I don’t think it is just about information. Nor do I think it is about taking drugs. If you found out that you had a mental condition that you were born with, suddenly, what would you do? Would you doubt everything you’d ever done in your life? All your decisions? Start second guessing yourself before you speak or decide anything? Drown your thoughts in drugs and alcohol so you could avoid facing the information? Or would you take that information, and say… ‘Hey, that explains a lot and now that I know that, I can learn more about it and how it affects me and learn to make better decisions and overcome the weaknesses I know I have always had, but didn’t know why.’ So, it isn’t just about information. It is very much what you do with the information. And drugs and alcohol are ok, to a point, but it doesn’t make you a more interesting person or a better person, it just muddles your brain so that you think you are.

Paradox25's avatar

@nikipedia I’m not sure how to answer whether consciousness is just an information process or not, and if it isn’t then compared to what. I was hoping that some evidence could be provided as to whether self-awareness/consciousness is just an information process. I’m aware that our bodies/brains are sophisticated biomechanical machines, and that everything you’ve mentioned relating to consciousness is dependent upon multiple functions to manifest itself. In the end though all of these reactions/interactions seem to come down to information processing.

I’ve always assumed that if our own awareness is the result of any type of physical process such as biological, chemical, et, then any physical manmade machine could eventually be made to be self-aware of itself as well. These manmade conscious entities should be able to experience emotions and feelings too such as boredom, anger, happiness, joy, lust, sorrow, etc. I’m actually open to this possibility, but I have doubts.

@SavoirFaire That was the wrong link, here was the link I wanted to post. I’m not a philosopher, and even though words such as consciousness and self-awareness may have different meanings most bloggers, researchers and even scientists seem to use these terms to frequently describe the same thing.

I agree with you that if a machine/program can have unrestricted human conversation, then we fully well should assume that it is a conscious entity such as ourselves. One of the contentions here is that we (apparently, according to some researchers) have no way of knowing whether another entity is even conscious or not, that we can only know if we’re conscious, as the individual experiencing it. Many engineers, nevertheless, are optimistic that machines will be what we would call ‘conscious’ entities before 2040, but figures seem to vary here with that prediction.

LostInParadise's avatar

For something a bit different, consider the theory of the quantum mind Before you shrug these guys off as crackpots, you should know that Hameroff’s collaborator, Roger Penrose is a highly respected mathematical physicist.

Paradox25's avatar

@LostInParadise I’m open to almost anything, though I’m still a sceptical person. I feel that many people fall into a circular reasoning trap, where nothing new is ever acquired because people can’t think outside of a limited mindset. We should avoid the confirmation bias trap at all times. I’ve read about other similar theories such as by Josephson, Pearson, Lodge, Wolfe, Crookes, etc whom were all respected scientists, but yet are all open to the possibility that the mind may be more than a brain function. Looks like a good link if it’s by Penrose.

wundayatta's avatar

It seems to me that the likelihood consciousness is purely an information process is near zero. It takes more than computing power to mimic a brain.

One thing I think is important that I have not heard people talk about is the ability to, in computational terms, reprogram yourself. We can learn and we can change the way we think. We can even change the chemical processes in our brains via thought, if we work hard enough. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

But I think that a model of consciousness must include an internal model of itself. It has to be somewhat recursive. Artificial intelligence must also have a model of itself and it must be able to intervene in it’s own programming. It must be able to develop new algorithms on the fly, implement those algorithms, and continue to evolve itself based on the projections it makes based on its own models of itself.

I suspect that if we figure out how to do that, we will have gotten a lot closer to AI than we had been.

LostInParadise's avatar

@Paradox25 , One of the criticisms that I have seen of quantum consciousness is that quantum effects are supposedly too small to affect something the size of a neuron. This seemed kind of silly to me, because the same could be said of computers, but the principles of electronics are ultimately explainable in quantum terms. An even better refutation comes from discoveries of quantum biological effects. If photosynthesis relies in part on quantum effects, then why not neurons?

Paradox25's avatar

@LostInParadise Interesting link, but I have to read more material from Penrose to better understand his contentions. My mind isn’t made up yet, but I’m more on the side of this explaination of what consciousness may be. I still don’t believe that consciosness, thought, etc has anything to do with quantum mechanics despite the entanglement phenomenon. Mind would collapse the wave function at the quantum level, so this suggests to me that the mind is likely a different kind of phenomena.

LostInParadise's avatar

Thanks for your link. I am myself skeptical of the quantum mind theory. I am also skeptical of the idea that if you make enough neural connections, consciousness will be spontaneously created. My feeling is that there is some key aspect of consciousness waiting to be discovered and that when we make the discovery it is going to be highly non-intuitive.

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