Consciousness and AI

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Dear all,

I am back. So far so good, we did not get invaded by AI systems trying to overcome the human race, so all is fine! However, I was invaded by academic workloads which required quite some investment. Now, as it has settled a bit, I am back. And I would like to continue my series of post about consciousness.

Recently, consciousness has regained attention in the field of Neurosciences, with a nonprofit charity foundation who got the idea to elucidate the topic with an “outlandish” competition consisting in well-designed experiments in human participants meant to directly confront leading theories of consciousness against each other. Indeed, around half a dozen theories have been proposed by experts in the field about how consciousness arises in our human brains.

My turn now to feed this post with some aspects of consciousness related to AI.

First of all, what is consciousness? Well, the answer is not easy but mostly what is admitted in the field is two criteria (dimensions).

1. Global availability.  The fact that conscious information becomes globally available in our brain. You can report this information verbally (with language) or non-verbally (e.g., writing), you are aware of it, you can recall it, act accordingly, etc. thus activate all your process systems in the brain.

2. Introspection. The fact that we are aware of our body, of our location, of the fact that we know something, with a certain level of confidence, or not, perceive something or sense that we have made an error, for example. It is the sense of “knowing” (knowing that we know or do not know).

Those two dimensions are kept separate as they can exist separate from each other.

Then, brain computations involving neither dimension 1 nor dimension 2 are called “unconscious”.

You may ask. How could consciousness be implemented in a machine to render it conscious, and if so, what would be its advantage?

  • Conscious machines

First, a small intro. It is good to remind here that as Alan Turing thought, complex information processing can be achieved by an unconscious machine. Indeed, face recognition, speech recognition, chess-game type of play, are performed nowadays by deep-learning algorithms, as I described in my previous posts, thus do not require a conscious mind. The dimensions 1 and 2 are indeed not required.

So, how to implement consciousness in a machine?

Most of the machines/AI do not have global availability neither introspection. If you take the example of a car, if for instance something indicates you are running low on gas, the car is warning you with a light that you will soon run out of gas but does not stop at the next gas station available near your location, despite being equipped with a GPS device. This means that all the different devices the car is equipped with do not communicate with each other. Dimension 1 would make the connections between all those devices.

Regarding introspection, a machine is not aware of its own knowledge (the “know that I know”). Except when machines use probability distribution for their computations, in this case,  they monitor the chances they have to win (i.e., to be correct). Machines are neither aware that someone may disagree with their vision.

Nevertheless, we can program machines that can keep track of their learning progress and develop a “sense of curiosity” by managing resources according to the best gain they can benefit from, in terms of information gained (learned).

Basically, if we combined dimension 1 and dimension 2 into a machine, the machine can be “equipped” with something close to human consciousness. According to a recent paper published in the Journal Science (Dehaene et al., 2019) :

“We contend that a machine endowed with C1 [dimension 1] and C2 [dimension 2] would behave as though it were conscious; for instance, it would know that it is seeing something, would express confidence in it, would report it to others, could suffer hallucinations [as in some human psychiatric diseases] when its monitoring mechanisms break down, and may even experience the same perceptual illusions as humans.”


Thus, the advantage of a conscious machine lies in the fact that more autonomy would be acquired, as well as efficiency; indeed, from an input signal, a whole chains of events will be activated and handled till the desired output will be reached, for example a solution to a problem. In our previous example, refill the car with gas at the next gas station, preventing you –  if you missed the light signal, from being stuck in a highway with no gas, awaiting a tow truck to come pick you up and fix your problem.


This is it for now. I let you think about a possible future with conscious AI !

Till the next post.




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