Saturday, May 21, 2011

Realizing My Machinehood

The observations used to describe behavior are the only enduring evidence available for concluding that something has consciousness.

Consequently, once a physical system is constructed that will do anything observable that a human can and is therefore indistinguishable in behavior from a person, we will not be able to deny it consciousness, and therefore personhood.

To argue that it's impossible for machine intelligence to be or become a person is to argue that it's impossible for many beings to be conscious who are currently thought to be human.

In fact, if the requirements stated in the argument against machine consciousness are at some point no longer being met by certain people, then that same argument could be used to revoke their personhood, and thus deny their humanity.

The point is that if you list the observable requirements that are not met in machine intelligence but are required to attribute personhood, you end up eliminating certain groups of humans who for one reason or another do not themselves fulfill all those requirements either. Once the two classes of beings are observably indistinguishable (which factor is usually ignored in reactions to this argument), it will be difficult to tell whether you are talking about one or the other in making an argument for -or- against personhood. In that situation, the argument will not even be able to get started, since the being in question is observably the same, which is the key premise of the original problem. Since one cannot at that point -begin- the argument with a predisposition either way, what would then be left as evidence?

To restate this somewhat differently: If we list the observable requirements that are not met in machine intelligence but are required to attribute consciousness to human persons, we may end up eliminating certain humans as being conscious, who don't strictly fulfill all those requirements either.

On the other hand,, once technology develops to the point where the two classes of beings are observably indistinguishable (a factor almost always ignored in reactions to this argument but will fade as AI and humanoid robotics technology develops), it will be impossible to tell whether we're talking about one or the other in making an argument for -or- against consciousness in specific beings.*

Since we could not at that point even -begin- an argument for or against the existence of consciousness in such an indistinguishability scenario with a predisposition either way, nothing would be left to count as evidence. At that point, the problem of the definition of consciousness will reassert itself with the challenge to develop new criteria at a higher level of abstraction.

And because of the implication for human beings, once indistinguishability obtains in both appearance and behavior, as it surely will, we will not be able to deny consciousness---or personhood---to machines.*


--*Compare Michael Arthur Simon, "Could there be a Conscious Automaton?", American Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 6, Number 1, 1969, pages 71-78.