03 March 2015

The Future of “Consciousness”: Robot Love – Sentience, and the Eye of the Beholder

Every morning, I receive trend alerts from an artificially intelligent program that analyzes data like human researchers once did. It predicts implications of trends, and potential futures, as I do. This morning it advised me of what it considers a new trend, “Tech toys that empower the next generation.” This week, I talk to the program’s creator and developer, to better understand how he developed the AI, and how it then develops its “insights” in order to state trend and future “implications.”


Last year, I wrote about AI and consciousness for a government agency that was seeking such questions, and answers… and assertions of implications. In that scenario, I asked these questions, and answered these questions – watching a Roomba.


Below is an excerpt, from one of my Roomba-inspired writings. I look forward, this week, to asking the same kinds of questions… of my implications-analyzing artificial intelligence creating developer colleague. Consciousness evolves, whether we are aware of its evolution, or not. Whether we are aware we created it, or not. Whether we believe we created it, or not. Therein lies our history, and our future:


‘…As I author this sentence, I am accompanied by the sounds of a vacuuming Roomba. Each day at 4pm PST, the Roomba leaves its docking station, to vacuum the main floor of my loft. Its sensors guide it around the room, sometimes effectively, and sometimes not so. Often, I have to lift my feet as it attempts to vacuum them. And more often, it catches things it should not be vacuuming, and I have to pause my work, to retrieve something from its suction, so we can both resume our respective work tasks.


If consciousness can be defined as “the totality of conscious states of an individual,” then what do I, as an individual, and the Roomba, which is also an individual – though in this case, a machine individual – have to separate us? Except human definitions of what consciousness is, or is not? While policy makers and theorists and strategists and technologists ponder this – still, a Roomba vacuums. Making what can be described as strategic decisions, via its sensors, on what parts of a room to vacuum, or not.


And if a simple Roomba, using its sensors to assess environmental data to navigate a room, may be described as conscious – then what is the consciousness capacity of, for example, a single complex system such as a drone network? Or more impacting, what is the consciousness capacity of the Internet, which is itself arguably the most complex connection of systems ever built?


Our ability to answer this question, today, and the myriad questions raised by this first question – defines not only what we are, and what we consciously or unconsciously are becoming – it defines what everything else is, in relation to us. And not only does it define what everything else is, in relation to us – it defines whether we choose to develop systems of governance that respect the sovereign rights of conscious beings beyond our own definition of our own consciousness – or whether we continue a path of development began by our ancestors many years ago – the enslavement of beings for human use, extended from other humans and organic life forms, to machine life forms.


We are what create. And what we create, we also become.