What would it be like to be a conscious AI? We might never know

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Humans are active listeners; we create meaning where there is none, or none intended. It is not that the octopus’s utterances make sense, but rather that the islander can make sense of them, Bender says.

For all their sophistication, today’s AIs are intelligent in the same way a calculator might be said to be intelligent: they are both machines designed to convert input into output in ways that humans—who have minds—choose to interpret as meaningful. While neural networks may be loosely modeled on brains, the very best of them are vastly less complex than a mouse’s brain. 

And yet, we know that brains can produce what we understand to be consciousness. If we can eventually figure out how brains do it, and reproduce that mechanism in an artificial device, then surely a conscious machine might be possible?


When I was trying to imagine Robert’s world in the opening to this essay, I found myself drawn to the question of what consciousness means to me. My conception of a conscious machine was undeniably—perhaps unavoidably—human-like. It is the only form of consciousness I can imagine, as it is the only one I have experienced. But is that really what it would be like to be a conscious AI?

It’s probably hubristic to think so. The project of building intelligent machines is biased toward human intelligence. But the animal world is filled with a vast range of possible alternatives, from birds to bees to cephalopods. 

A few hundred years ago the accepted view, pushed by René Descartes, was that only humans were conscious. Animals, lacking souls, were seen as mindless robots. Few think that today: if we are conscious, then there is little reason not to believe that mammals, with their similar brains, are conscious too. And why draw the line around mammals? Birds appear to reflect when they solve puzzles. Most animals, even invertebrates like shrimp and lobsters, show signs of feeling pain, which would suggest they have some degree of subjective consciousness. 

But how can we truly picture what that must feel like? As the philosopher Thomas Nagel noted, it must “be like” something to be a bat, but what that is we cannot even imagine—because we cannot imagine what it would be like to observe the world through a kind of sonar. We can imagine what it might be like for us to do this (perhaps by closing our eyes and picturing a sort of echolocation point cloud of our surroundings), but that’s still not what it must be like for a bat, with its bat mind.