Many traditional philosophical questions take new twists in the context of intelligent machines. For example: What is a mind? What is consciousness? Where do we draw the line on responsibility for actions when dealing with robots, computers, programming? Do human beings occupy a privileged place in the universe?
When Lee Sedol, champion of Chinese game'Go' was defeated by DeepMind (powered AI AlphaGo), the most common quote on social media was: "You lost and you cried, the computer won but it did not smile" What can be the holy grail of artificial intelligence (AI)? It is not the memory -- today supercomputers can store more information than an average human brain with 100 billion neurons. It is also not computing power, which has long been exceeded by AI machines with petaflops (a unit of computing speed equal to one thousand million million floating-point operations per second). So far, we believed that computers could never learn, they needed to be hard-wired for certain goals. With neural networks and machine learning that citadel is increasingly getting invaded.
The question about the emergence of consciousness is perhaps the most important question humanity should attempt to answer. Consciousness and its contents are at the root of everything. Consciousness is what is responsible for all of the greatest artifacts of culture that humanity has created: art, music, science, philosophy, technology. Every child, adolescent, and adult ought to ask themselves: what is consciousness? What is it like to be human?
This month, the cover of New Scientist ran the headline, "Is the Universe Conscious?" Mathematician and physicist Johannes Kleiner, at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Germany, told author Michael Brooks that a mathematically precise definition of consciousness could mean that the cosmos is suffused with subjective experience. "This could be the beginning of a scientific revolution," Kleiner said, referring to research he and others have been conducting. Kleiner and his colleagues are focused on the Integrated Information Theory of consciousness, one of the more prominent theories of consciousness today. As Kleiner notes, IIT (as the theory is known) is thoroughly panpsychist because all integrated information has at least one bit of consciousness.
Consciousness continues to be of one of the most important, interesting and complex question to focus upon. While the study of consciousness has a long and rich history in the field of philosophy, the scientific study of consciousness has become less taboo recently, and made tremendous progress in the field over the last couple of decades, due to significant contributions from disciplines like neuroscience, cognitive science and computer science. Though research interests have continued to grow, fueled by the recent artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) revolution (reigniting questions around artificial consciousness), the topic of consciousness itself has generally been ignored or dismissed by a majority of those who work in mainstream AI as either an unimportant factor for their research goals or accusing work in (artificial) consciousness as distracting flights of fantasy. It seems as this trend might change in the near future as leaders in the field of AI recognize the importance of mechanisms of higher level cognition for making progress in AI, their relationship to the'easy problems' of consciousness and the important work that has been conducted in the field of cognitive science to understand these better (Yoshua Bengio's keynote address at NEURIPS 2019 being an important example of this ). While this might not satisfy those who are interested in the phenomenal aspects of our conscious experience, it represents a step forward in the right direction by the larger AI community. In keeping with the (beginnings of a) trend, the author will look to make the case for a non-equilibrium thermodynamic framework of consciousness, it's relationship to the field of AI and the crucial role that computer hardware engineers might have to play in the scientific study of consciousness. The author would like to take a brief moment (to digress) and explain the journey towards these ideas, hoping that it would elucidate their motivations as an engineer to study and understand the field of consciousness from a more physics based approach. The author's primary research interests lie in the field of artificial intelligence and was lucky
According to the Brookings Institute, AI is generally thought to refer to "machines that respond to stimulation consistent with traditional responses from humans, given the human capacity for contemplation, judgment and intention." More simply put, AI uses algorithms to make decisions using real-time data. But unlike more traditional machines that can only respond in predetermined ways, AI can act on data – it can analyze it and respond to it. The concept has been evolving and the technology has become more sophisticated, but it's still a little nebulous – particularly for folks working in local government. It seems everyone kind of knows what AI is, but no one is exactly sure how they can apply it in their communities.
Artificial intelligence is a bit of a buzz term these days – but what do people really mean when they say AI? And why should local governments care? First of all, AI is extremely misunderstood. We aren't talking about HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey," necessarily; we're talking about what Alan Turing speculated about "thinking machines" back in the 1950s. According to the Brookings Institute, AI is generally thought to refer to "machines that respond to stimulation consistent with traditional responses from humans, given the human capacity for contemplation, judgment and intention."
Philip Pullman is once again having a moment, thanks to the new blockbuster adaptation of His Dark Materials by the BBC and HBO. His fantasy classic--filled with witches, talking bears and "daemons" (people's alter-egos that take animal form)--is rendered in glorious steampunk detail. Pullman has also returned to the fictional world of his heroine, Lyra Belacqua, with a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, which probes more deeply into the central question of his earlier books: What is the nature of consciousness? Pullman loves to write about big ideas, and recent scientific discoveries about dark matter and the Higgs boson have inspired certain plot elements in his novels. The biggest mystery in these books--an enigmatic substance called Dust--comes right out of current debates among scientists and philosophers about the origins of consciousness and the provocative theory of panpsychism.