Monday, November 6, 2006

Dumbo has become self-aware

As scientists ascribe more & more conscious traits to animals, when will machines receive similar considerations?

Bronx Zoo researchers recently announced they observed that elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror. Thanks to this evidence, we can now attribute a level of self-awareness formerly reserved for dolphins and primates (including humans). Other behaviors, including the use of tools, communication, social interaction and even apparently emotional responses lead experts to credit these animals with a relatively high order of consciousness.

But if machines were to exhibit the same behaviors, would people be willing to assign the same characteristics to? The likely answer is no. Consciousness and self-awareness are highly emotive topics that play a central role in the identity of the human race. The resistance to extend such labels to artificial intelligence is akin to the resistance to accept the implications of macroevolution with respect to the origin of our species. People often resort to a sort-of “mystery of the gaps” argument, claiming that since we can fully understand the internal processes of a “white box” artificial intelligence, it cannot possibly contain the same “stuff” as human minds. But as we increase our understanding of human consciousness, eliminating the gaps and turning the “black box” gray, the mystery disappears. This entire line of reasoning strikes me as being analogous to the argument which contends that we cannot possibly be descended from apes, because human beings possess a soul while chimpanzees do not.

Perhaps one day our society will accept that our own consciousness is merely the product of highly complex systems and processes of the physical mind, and therefore grant the same definitions and descriptions to artificial entities that mimic the same processes and behaviors.