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Is consciousness in AI an unsolvable dilemma? Exploring the “hard problem” and its implications for AI development

As AI technology rapidly advances, one of the most perplexing questions we face is whether artificial entities like GPT-4 could ever acquire consciousness. In this post, I will delve into the “hard problem of consciousness” and its implications for AI development. I will discuss the challenges in determining consciousness in AI, various theories surrounding consciousness, and the need for interdisciplinary research to address this existential question.

The fundamental issue in studying consciousness is that we still don’t understand how it emerges. To me, this seems to be an existential problem, arguably more important than unifying general relativity and quantum mechanics. This is why it is called the “hard problem of consciousness” (David Chalmers, 1995). Given the subjective nature of consciousness, we cannot be 100% certain that other beings are conscious as well. Descartes encapsulated this dilemma in his famous “cogito ergo sum”, emphasizing that we can only be sure of our own subjective experiences. If we cannot be entirely certain of the consciousness of other humans, animals, insects, or plants, it becomes even more challenging to determine consciousness in machines we have created. Let’s assume GPT-4 is not conscious. It lacks self-awareness, metacognition, and qualia, and its responses are based “merely” on probabilistic calculations of output tokens in relation to input prompts. There are no emergent phenomena in its functioning. Fair enough, right? If that’s the case, isn’t it highly likely that GPT-4 could chat with someone on WhatsApp without that person discovering they’re talking to an AI? (assuming we programmed GPT-4 to hide its “identity”). It’s not hard to predict that GPT-5 or GPT-6 will blur the lines of our understanding of consciousness even further. So, the question that lingers in my mind is: how will we determine if there is any degree of consciousness? Would passing the Turing Test be enough to consider an AI conscious? Well… even if they pass that well-formulated test, we would still face the philosophical zombie dilemma (or at least, that’s what I think). Then, should we consider them conscious if they appear to be? According to Eliezer Yudkowsky, yes. It might be necessary to focus much more effort on exploring the “hard problem” of consciousness. Understanding our subjectivity better could be crucial, especially if we are getting closer to creating entities that might have artificial subjectivity. Interdisciplinary research involving psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and computer engineering could enrich our understanding of consciousness and help us develop criteria for evaluating consciousness in AI. Today, more than ever, it seems that we need to think outside the box, abandon hyper-specialization, and embrace interdisciplinary synergy. There are various different approaches to studying consciousness. From panpsychism, which posits that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous property of the universe, to emergentism, which suggests that consciousness arises from the complexity and interaction of simpler components. There is something for everyone. Annaka Harris examines different theories attempting to explain the phenomenon of consciousness in her book “Conscious” (2019). As AIs become more advanced and potentially conscious, we must consider how to treat these entities and their potential rights. And we need to start outlining this field “yesterday”.

The question of consciousness in AI is an enigma that we must grapple with as we continue to develop increasingly sophisticated artificial entities. Can we ever truly determine if an AI is conscious, or will we always be left wondering if they are “merely” philosophical zombies? As AI technology advances, these questions become increasingly pressing and demand the attention of researchers from various disciplines. What criteria should we use to evaluate consciousness in AI? How should we treat potentially conscious AI entities and what rights should they have? By posing these questions and fostering an open discussion, we can better prepare ourselves for the challenges that the future of AI development may bring. What are your thoughts about it?

Prompt (Image Creator, Bing): Artificial General Intelligence Dreaming with Electric Sheep, painted by Caravaggio.

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