Artificial Intelligence week on the BBC – some thoughts!


As it is AI week on the BBC I thought I would write something about my own thoughts on this matter, and introduce some ideas on consciousness from the mystical traditions.

Whenever this topic is discussed there seems to be a deep conceptual confusion between two conceptions of AI:

  1. The idea of machines that are programmed to carry out simple, repetitive tasks that replace humans in domestic and industrial jobs. Recently these machines can ‘learn’ to optimise these tasks by ‘intelligently’ reconfiguring their strategies based on a kind of electronic memory.
  2. The idea that the existence of the above somehow implies that we are getting closer to human like, conscious or sentient machines.

The existence, possibilities and potential challenges and dangers of 1 are admitted and conceptually unproblematic, the concept of 2 is rather foolish and betrays a ridiculously naïve idea of what ‘consciousness’ is.

So, what is it to be conscious or sentient?

Consider the statements:
  • I am a human
  • I am a man
  • I am a doctor
  • I am happy
  • I am sad
  • I am reading this Blog
  • I am a green eyed monster from the planet zog.
What do all these statements have in common? Obviously they all start with the words ‘I am’. It is this basic sense of ‘amness’ or ‘beingness’ that is the mark of consciousness.

It is the subject in the subject/object duality, it is the experiencer in every experience, it is the observer in every observation. Every sentence any sentient being anywhere in the universe utters, explicitly or implicitly, starts with the words ‘I am’. Every experience has to ‘belong’ to someone. ie: There is no such thing as an experience without an experiencer. It is that primal feeling that you have right now of being ‘in here’ in contrast to the world ‘out there’.

To say the words ‘I am’ is to be conscious and it indicates that ‘I am and I know that  I am’.
Every entity (from amoeba to primates) subjectively ‘are’ but only conscious entities (on planet earth probably only humans)  know that they are.
 Now that primal sense of ‘I amness’ is the same for all of us. It is the universal consciousness that we all share. This universal consciousness identifies itself as this or that. I am Jack, I am Jill etc. and hence we get personal consciousness. We can think of the universal consciousness as the gold and the personal consciousness as the jewellery. The same gold can be made into any item of jewellery much as the primal sense of being can identify itself as any person.

All the great mystical traditions maintain that it is our deep confusion about what we, as subjects, identify ourselves as that leads to all the suffering in the world, and freeing the universal consciousness from all its mistaken identities and attachments is the route to liberation. They recommend deep and profound investigation into this sense of a separate ‘I’. Indeed the most profound spiritual questions have always been things like:

  • who am I?
  • where am I?
  • when am I?
  • How do I know I am?
  • Am I having these feeling or thoughts or am I simply witnessing them?
  • What’s it like to BE me?

(Not sure many machines would pass the Turing Test with questions like these!).

To quote the great sage Nisargadatta:

Go deep into the sense ‘I am’ and you will find. The sense of being, of ‘I am’ is the first to emerge. Ask yourself whence it comes, or just watch it quietly. When the mind stays in the ‘I am, without moving, you enter a state which cannot be verbalised but which can be experienced. All you need is to try and try again. After all the sense of ‘I am’ is always with you, only you have attached all kinds of things to it – body, feelings, thoughts, ideas, possessions and so on. All these self-identifications are misleading. Because of them you take yourself to be what you are not. (Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That)
Now from what I can gather cognitive science has absolutely no idea at all what consciousness is or how it comes about – Period. All the verbiage on the matter basically boils down to variations on the idea that at some level of the complexity of living systems it just sort of kinda somehow pops up as some sort of epi-phenomenon or by product!  (this is the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness in western philosophy).

 It seems to me that as cognitive science has absolutely no non-reductive conceptual framework to understand consciousness, as consciousness, it is the height of hubris to imagine that it is possible to ‘make’ it artificially and it just seems an article of faith in the field that it will just pop up at some point as machines get more and more complex. As if one day a computer will just up and say ‘hey, I am a computer who are you?’

 To illustrate the mind-bending nature of true enquiry into consciousness I will leave you to ponder this:

In response to the bewildered question from a visitor  “Then what am I?” Nisargadatta responded:

It is enough to know what you are not. You need not know what you are. For as long as knowledge means description in terms of what is already known, perceptual, or conceptual, there can be no such thing as self-knowledge, for what you are cannot be described, except as total negation. All you can say is: ‘I am not this, I am not that’. You cannot meaningfully say ‘this is what I am’. It just makes no sense. What you can point out as ‘this’ or ‘that’ cannot be yourself. Surely you cannot be something else. You are nothing perceivable, or imaginable. Yet without you there cannot be neither perception or imagination. You observe the heart feeling, the mind thinking, the body acting; the very act of perceiving shows that you cannot be what you perceive. Can there be perception, experience without you? An experience must ‘belong’. Somebody must come and declare it as his own. Without an experiencer the experience is not real. It is the experiencer that imparts reality to experience. (Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That)

If a machine could make sense of that then I would be impressed!!

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