Can Artificial Intelligence dream of electric sheep?

Electronic Angel


I have been captivated for many years by the thoughts of David Deutsch and was relieved to hear he is still a believer in the power of science.

Physics has created the human mind; physics aided by the human mind can certainly create general artificial intelligence.

Robot Being
Robot Being – can we recreate our creation?

Deutsch’s intuition is that general AI will only emerge when we have a shift, a giant leap forward, in philosophy. We need to think about the question differently.

The Deep Mind program that won at Go, however magnificent the achievement, worked within a closed system, a “game” bounded by rules.  Is the universe merely a game bounded by rules? Perhaps so. And if so, then perhaps however complex and all encompassing, those rules may one day be codified and understood in their entirety.

Intricacy – a reverse Russian Doll

If Deep Mind were to teach itself the rules of the universe, would it become a person? Would it have consciousness? Would it qualify as general artificial intelligence?

Intuitively we know what consciousness is, even if we don’t know how it works. And it would be difficult to argue against the sentience of a program which knew and could apply the entirety of the universe’s ruleset.

But within the physical, mechanical rule set of the universe, what is it that gives consciousness emotion? Pleasure and pain (in the mental as well as physical sense)?

Creation – does it need a “god”?

It seems to me you can not (or perhaps should not) have general artificial intelligence before ascertaining exactly what it is that makes us human. Or understanding consciousness fully.

Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University has fascinating views on the biological origins of animal behaviour and yet there is so much further to go.

A hot water bottle on a cold night gives me pleasure. That is perhaps explainable easily enough in physical, chemical terms.  Animals need a certain temperature to survive.  Warmth and comfort is good for them…and so makes them feel good.  Fine, but how exactly does this good feeling come about?


Well, the scientists will tell us that it comes about through chemical reactions and electrical signalling.  Fine, that I can accept.  But it is till somehow unsatisfying as an answer.  Am I a mere robot? Perhaps I am.

The questions become infinitely more complex when we try to understand our attraction to less physical comforts and pleasures.

How about art?  And music?  What gives us that feeling of transcendence, that feeling of partly physical bliss at the sight of a Van Eck painting? Or on listening to Palestrina  or Allegri’s Miserere?

Well, yes, it is chemical. It is electronic activity in the brain. It is dopamine or whatever the latest theory is.

Angel of Wrath
Angel of Wrath – we may create horror as well as beauty

But what does that mean exactly?

Scientists seem pretty sure that we are NOT more than the sum of our parts and so “qualia” must be solely explicable in physical terms.

Well if that is the case (and I do not doubt it is) then we will need to ensure that robots “get” qualia as well.  And qualia are surely missing from Deep Mind.

For Deep Mind to become a person, it must feel qualia. It must be capable of pleasure and pain. It must feel altruism, pride, fear, joy, sadness. It must know emotion.

Or must it? If it does not, then we do indeed face The Terminator.  But perhaps The Terminator is the way the universe mostly is?  A purposeless place with no up, no down. No right, no wrong?  A place of rock and gasses and quarks and photons…

Perhaps that is the way we found it.  But something HAS come out of nothing. Consciousness has somehow arisen from gas clouds and super novae. There is a very real sense in which we humans ARE more than the sum of our physical parts.

So what I would add to David Deutsch’s essay is that we must track down these elusive qualia.  We must understand awe and joy and suffering at all levels.  And we must learn to gift that awe and wonder to our “artificial” people.


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