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The thin, fuzzy, line between awareness and consciousness

A web of neurones. Out of immensely complex networks of neurones awareness of self, consciousness, emerges. Will webs of transistors, memristors and software (AI) follow a similar path? Credit: EPFL Blue Brain Project

Philosophers have been debating about awareness, consciousness and for long time have asserted that only us, humans, are conscious (whilst all living things need to have some sort of awareness to keep living…). Today we know that it is not just us, many, actually most, animal species have some degree of consciousness. According to Hugh Howey humans have an hyper consciousness, a term used to mark that consciousness comes in different degrees. Monkeys are probably more self – conscious than a cat and so on. Awareness is a precondition for consciousness, one has to be aware of the context and of its relation with the context to identify and recognise the specificity of the “self”.

Interestingly, consciousness is not something we are born with. When we open the eyes for the first time we are not aware of any context (the one we grew in, the uterus, was quite different) and it is likely that we have seen the world upside down the first time we looked at it. With time our brain did the magic of flipping the images coming from our eyes (that are upside down because our eye is a photo camera with the lens flipping the image) and started to learn about the environment and about ourselves, it discovered that those appendages we much later learnt to be called hands are actually “our hands” and that “our” applied to many parts of us eventually created a consciousness of the self.

If you buy into this (very rough) reasoning then you can buy onto the fact that an animal need sensors to become aware, it needs the capability to make sense out of the data harvested from those sensors and furthermore it will have to create a sense of self and of its relation with the world.  All of this, in different degrees that depends on the sophistication of the building of the self and of the emergence, conceptualisation of the self, comes over time.

Now an interesting question is: given that an animal needs all of that for consciousness to be generated, does consciousness need and animal to appear? Would a machine be a replacement for an animal? In other words: can a machine be conscious?

The debate has been going on for several years now (at least since the idea of artificial intelligence came up). What is now happening is that the question is being rephrased in ways that make answering it no longer a philosophical debate but an engineering effort. And this is quite a change.

We can surely have machines that are becoming aware of their environment (think of a self driving car, where being aware is a pre-condition). Sensors and processing are making this a reality. Of course there are different degrees of awareness -you can be aware that a person is about to cross the street, and that is enough to take action, or you can be aware that a person is feeling blue to the point of becoming suicidal. The latter may require an empathy that is surely not part of self driving cars (the ones we are designing today anyhow).

We also have artificial intelligence that is making possible to learn from experience and from observing others, even from observing a virtual copy of a computer “mind” like it happens with Google DeepMind. And I just stated that we, human beings, are developing our consciousness by learning through awareness. There is not reason, from an engineering point of view, for a machine not to reach the point of being conscious, at least at a very basic level. But once we are there we are on a slippery slope. Moving from a basic consciousness to more complex for of consciousness is probably not are hard as it is to move from a passive machine to one that is aware, self aware, conscious, self conscious…

We are considering these issues within the IEEE FDC Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative under the topic of Machine Awareness.

Is this the definitive answer to the old riddle of consciousness and to the more recent question on the possibility of creating conscious machines? Of course not. More of this in the next post.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.