Why Machines Will Never be Conscious

Below is the text of my bet on Long Bets. Go there to vote.

“By 2050 no synthetic computer nor machine intelligence will have become truly self-aware (ie. will become conscious).”

Spivack’s Argument:

(This summary includes my argument, a method for judging the outcomeof this bet and some other thoughts on how to measure awareness…)

A. MY PERSPECTIVE…

Even if a computer passes the Turing Test it will not really beaware that it has passed the Turing Test. Even if a computer seems tobe intelligent and can answer most questions as well as an intelligent,self-aware, human being, it will not really have a continuum ofawareness, it will not really be aware of what it seems to “think” or”know,” it will not have any experience of it’s own reality or being.It will be nothing more than a fancy inanimate object, a clevermachine, it will not be a truly sentient being.

Self-awareness is not the same thing as merely answering questionsintelligently. Therefore even if you ask a computer if it is self-awareand it answers that it is self-aware and that it has passed the TuringTest, it will not really be self-aware or really know that it haspassed the Turing Test.

AsJohn Searle and others have pointed out, the Turing Test does notactually measure awareness, it just measures informationprocessing—particularly the ability to follow rules or at leastimitate a particular style of communication. In particular it measuresthe ability of a computer program to imitate humanlike dialogue, whichis different than measuring awareness itself. Thus even if we succeedin creating good AI, we won’t necessarily succeed in creating AA(“Artificial Awareness”).

But why does this matter? Becauseultimately, real awareness may be necessary to making an AI that is asintelligent as a human sentient being. However, since AA istheoretically impossible in my opinion, truly self-aware AI will neverbe created and thus no AI will ever be as intelligent as a humansentient being even if it manages to fool someone into thinking it is(and thus passing the Turing Test).

In my opinion, awareness isnot an information process at all and will never be simulated orsynthesized by any information process. Awareness cannot be measured byan information processing system, it can only be measured by awarenessitself—something no formal information processing system can eversimulate or synthesize.

One might ask how it is that a humanhas awareness then? My answer is that awareness does not arise from thebody or the brain, nor does it arise from any physical cause. Awarenessis not in the body or the brain, but rather the body and the brain arein awareness. The situation is analagous to a dream, a simulation orvirtual reality, such as that portrayed in the popular film “TheMatrix.”

We exist in the ultimate virtual reality. The mediumof this virtual reality is awareness. That is to say that whateverappears to be happening “out there” or “within the mind” is happeningwithin a unified, nondualistic field of awareness: both the “subject”and the “object” exist equally within this field and neither is thesource of awareness.

This is similar to the case where weproject ourselves as dream protagonists in our own dreams—even thoughour dream bodies appear to be different than other dream-images theyare really equally dream appearances, they are no more fundamental thandream-objects. We identify with our dream-bodies out of habit andbecause it’s practical because the stories that take place appear fromthe perspective of particular bodies. But just because this virtualreality is structured as if awareness is coming from within our heads,it does not mean that is actually the case. In fact, quite the oppositeis taking place.

Awareness is not actually “in” the VR, the VR is”in” awareness. Things are exactly the opposite of how they appear. Ofcourse this is just an analogy—for example, unlike the Matrix, thevirtual reality we live in is not running on some giant computersomewhere and there is no other hidden force controlling it from behindthe scenes. Awareness is the fabric of reality and there is nothingdeeper, nothing creating it, it is not running on some cosmic computer,it comes out of of nowhere yet everything else comes out of it.

Ifwe look for awareness we can’t find anything to grasp, it is empty yetnot a mere nothingness, it is an emptiness that is awake, creative,alert, radiant, self-realizing.

Awareness is empty andfundamental like space, but it goes beyond space for it is also lucid.If we look for space we don’t find anything there. Nobody has evertouched or grasped space directly! But unlike space, awareness can atleast be measured directly–it can measure itself, it knows its ownnature.

Awareness is simply fundamental, a given, theunderlying meta-reality in which everything appears. How did it come tobe? That is unanswerable. What is it? That is unanswerable as well. Butthere is no doubt that awareness is taking place. Each sentient beinghas a direct and intimate experience of their own self-awareness.

Each of us experiences a virtual reality in which we and our world areprojections. That which both projects these projections and experiencesthem is awareness. This is like saying that the VR inherently knows itsown content. But in my opinion this knowing comes from outside thesystem, not from some construct that we can create inside it. So anyawareness that arises comes from the transcendental nature of realityitself, not from our bodies, minds, or any physical system within aparticular reality.

So is there one cosmic awareness out therethat we are all a part of? Not exactly, there is not one awareness norare there many awarenesses because awareness is not a physical thingand cannot be limited by such logical materialist extremes. After allif it is not graspable how can we say it is one or many or any otherlogical combination of one or many? All we can say is that we are it,whatever it is, and that we cannot explain it further. In beingawareness, we are all equal, but we are clearly not the same. We aredifferent projections and on a relative level we are each unique, eventhough on an ultimate level perhaps we are also unified by beingprojections within the same underlying continuum. Yet this continuum isfundamentally empty, impossible to locate or limit, and infinitelybeyond the confines of any formal system or universe, so it cannotreally be called a “thing” and thus we are not “many” or “one” inactuality, what we really are is totally beyond such dualisticdistinctions.

Awareness is like space or reality, something sofundamental, so axiomatic, that it is impossible to prove, grasp ordescribe from “inside” the system using the formal logical tools of thesystem. Since nothing is beyond awareness, there is no outside, no wayto ever gain a perspective on awareness that is not mediated byawareness itself.

Therefore there is no way to reduce awarenessto anything deeper; there is no way to find anything more fundamentalthan awareness. But despite this awareness can be directly experienced,at least by itself.

That which is aware is self-aware.Self-awareness is the very nature of awareness. The self-awareness ofawareness does not come from something else, it is inherent toawareness itself. Only awareness is capable of awareness. Nothing thatis not aware can ever become aware.

This means awareness istruly fundamental, it has always been present everywhere. Awareness isinherent in the universe as the very basis of everything, it is notsomething anyone can synthesize and we cannot build a machine that cansuddenly experience awareness.

Only beings who are awarealready can ever experience awareness. The fact that we are aware nowmeans that we were always aware, even before we were born! Otherwise wenever could have become aware in the first place!

Each of us “is”awareness. The experience of being aware is unique and undeniable. Ithas its own particular nature, but this cannot be expressed it can onlybe known directly. There is no sentient being that is not aware.Furthermore, it would be a logical contradiction to claim that “I amnot aware that I am aware” or “that I am aware that I am not aware” andthus if anyone claims they are not aware or have ever experienced, orcan even imagine, there not being awareness they are lying. There isnobody who does not experience their own awareness, even if they don’trecognize or admit that they experience it.

The experience ofbeing self-aware is the unique experience of “being” — an experienceso basic that it is indescribable in terms of anything else —something that no synthetic computer will ever have.

Eventually, it will be proved that no formal information processingsystem is capable of self-awareness and that thus formal computerscannot be self-aware in principle. This proof will use the abstractself-referential structure of self-awareness to establish that noformal computer can ever be self-aware.

Simplyput, computers and computer programs cannot be truly self-referential:they always must refer to something else—there must at least be a setof fixed meta-rules that are not self-referential for a computer orprogram to work. Awareness is not like this however, awareness isperfectly self-referential without referring to anything else.

Thequestion will then arise as to what self-awareness is and how it ispossible. We will eventually conclude that systems that are self-awareare not formal systems and that awareness must be at least asfundamental as, or more fundamental than, space, time and energy.

Currentlymost scientists and non-scientists consider the physical world to beoutside of awareness and independent of it. But considering that nobodyhas or will ever experience anything without awareness it is illogicalto assume that anything is really outside of awareness. It is actuallyfar more rational to assume that whatever arises or is experienced isinside awareness, and that nothing is outside of awareness. Thisassumption of everything being within awareness would actually be amore scientific, observation-based conclusion than the oppositeassumption which is entirely unfounded on anything we have ever or willever be able to observe. After all, we have never observed anythingapart from awareness have we? Thus contrary to current beliefs, theonus is on scientists to prove that anything is outside of awareness,not the other way around!

Awareness is quite simply theultimate primordial basic nature of reality itself—without awarenessthere could be no “objective reality” at all and no “subjective beings”to experience it. Awareness is completely transcendental, beyond alllimitations and boundaries, outside of all possible systems. Whathubris to think we can simply manufacture, or evolve, awareness with apile of electrified silicon hardware and some software rules.

Nomatter how powerful the computer, no matter what it is made of, and nomatter how sophisticated or emergent the software is, it will stillnever be aware or evolve awareness. No computer or machine intelligencewill ever be aware. Even a quantum computer—if it is equivalent to afinite non-quantum computer at least—will not be capable ofawareness, and even if it is a transinfinite computer I still have mydoubts that it could ever be aware. Awareness is simply not aninformation process.

B. METHOD OF JUDGING THIS BET…

So the question ultimately is, how do we measureawareness or at least determine whether a computer is or is not aware?How can we judge the outcome of this bet?

I propose a method here: we let the bettors mutually agree on a judge.If the judge is a computer, fine. If the judge is a human, fine. Butboth bettors must agree on the judge. If both bettors accept that partyas the judge then the result will be deemed final and reliable. If acomputer is chosen by both parties to judge this, then I will concededefeat—but it would take a lot for any computer to convince me thatit is aware and thus qualified to judge this competition. On the otherhand, my opponent in this debate may accept a human judge—butobviously since they believe that computers can be aware if they accepta human judge they would be contradicting their own assertion—if acomputer is really intelligent and aware why would they choose a humanjudge over a computer judge?

This “recursive” judge-selection judging approach appeals to ourinherent direct human experience of awareness and the fact that wetrust another aware sentient being more than an inaminate machine tojudge whether or not something is aware. This may be the only practicalsolution to this problem: If both parties agree that a computer canjudge and the computer says the other computer is aware, then so be it!If both parties agree that a human can judge and the human says thatthe computer is not aware, so be it! May the best judge win!

Now, as long as we’re on the subject, how do we know that otherhumans, such as our potential human judge(s), are actually aware? Iactually believe that self-awareness is detectable by other beings thatare also aware, but not detectable by computers that are not aware.

C. A REVERSE TURING TEST FOR DETECTING AWARENESS IN A COMPUTER…

Ipropose a reversal of the Turing test for determining whether acomputer is aware (and forgive me in advance if anyone else has alreadyproposed this somewhere, I would be happy to give them credit).

Here is the test: Something is aware if whenever it is presented with acase where a human being and a synthetic machine intelligence areequally intelligent and capable of expression and interaction BUT notequally aware (the human is aware and the machine is not actuallyaware), then it can reliably and accurately figure out that the humanbeing is really aware and the machine is not really aware.

Ibelieve that only systems that are actually aware can correctlydifferentiate between two equally intelligent entities where one issentient and the other just a simulation of sentience, given enoughtime and experience with those systems.

How can such a differentiation be made? Assuming the human andcomputer candidates are equally intelligent and interactive, what isthe signature of awareness or lack of awareness? What difference isthere that can be measured? In my opinion there is a particular, yetindescribable mutual recognition that takes place when I encounteranother sentient being. I recognize their self-awareness with my ownself-awareness. Think of it as the equivalent of a “network handshake”that occurs at a fundamental level between entities that are actuallyaware.

How is this recognition possible? Perhaps it is due tothe fact that awareness, being inherently self-aware, is alsoinherently capable of recognizing awareness when it encounters it.

Onanother front, I actually have my doubts that any AI will ever beequally intelligent and interactive as a human sentient being. Inparticular I think this is not merely a matter of the difficulty ofbuilding such a complex computer, but rather it is a fundamentaldifference between machine cognition and the congition of a sentientbeing.

A human sentient being’s mind transcends computation.Sentient cognition transcends the limits of formal computation, it isnot equivalent to Turing Machine, it is much more powerful than that.We humans are not formal systems, we are not Turing Machines. Humanscan think in a way that no computer will ever be able to match letalone imitate convincingly. We are able to transcend our own logics,our own belief systems, our own programs, we are able to enter andbreak out of loops at will, we are able to know inifinities, to docompletely irrational, spontaneous and creative things. We are muchcloser to infinity than any finite state automaton can ever be. We aresimply not computers, although we can sometimes think like them theycannot really think like us.

In any case, this may be “faith”but for now at least I am quite certain that I am aware and that otherhumans and animals are also aware but that machines, plants and otherinanimate objects are not aware. I am certain that my awareness vastlytranscends any machine intelligence that exists or ever will exist. Iam certain that your awareness is just as transcendent as mine.Although I cannot prove that I am aware or that you are aware to you Iam willing to state such on the basis of my own direct experience and Iknow that if you take a moment to meditate on your own self-awarenessyou will agree.

After all, we cannot prove the existence of spaceor time either—these are just ideas and even physics has notexplained their origins nor can anyone even detect them directly, yetwe both believe they exist, don’t we?

Now if I claimed that asuitably complex computer simulation would someday suddenly containreal physical space and time that was indistinguishable in any way fromthe physical space and time outside the simulation—you would probablydisagree. You would say that the only “real” space-time is actually notin the computer but containing the computer, and any space-time thatappears within the computer simulation is but a mere lower-orderimitation and nothing like the real space-time that contains thecomputer.

No simulation can ever be exactly the same as what itsimulates, even if it is functionally similar or equivalent, forseveral reasons. On a purely information basis, it should be obviousthat if simulation B is within something else called A, then for B tobe exactly the same as A it must contain A and B and so on infinitely.At least if there is a finite amount of space and time to work with wesimply cannot build anything like this, we cannot build a simulationthat contains an exact simulation of itself without getting into aninfinite regression. Beyond this, there is a difference in medium: Inthe case of machine intelligence the medium is physical space, time andenergy—that is what machine intelligence is made of. In the case ofhuman awareness the medium is awareness itself, something at least asfundamental as space-time-energy if not more fundamental. Althoughhuman sentience can perform intelligent cognition, using a brain forexample, it is not a computer and it is not made of space-time-energy.Human sentience goes beyond the limits of space-time-energy andtherefore beyond computers.

If someone builds a Turing Machine that simulates a Turing Machinesimulating a Turing Machine, the simulation will never even start, letalone be useable! As the saying goes, it’s Turtles All The Way Down! Ifyou have a finite space and time, but an infinite initial condition, ittakes forever to simply set up the simulation let alone to compute it.

Thisis the case with self-awareness as well: It is truly self-referential.No finite formal system can complete an infinitely self-referentialprocess in finite time. We sentient beings can do this however.Whenever we realize our own awareness direclty—that is whenever weARE aware (as opposed to just representing this fact as a thought) weare being infinitely self-referential in finite time. That must mean weare either able to do an infinite amount of computing in a finiteamount of time, or we are not computing at all. Perhaps self-awarenessjust happens instantly and inherently rather than iteratively.

On a practical level as well we can see that there is adiffernece between a simulated experience within a simulation and theactual reality it attempts to simulate that exists outside thesimulation. For example, suppose I make a computer simulation ofchocolate and a simulated person who can eat the chocolate. Even thoughthat simulated person tastes the simulated chocolate, they do notreally taste chocolate at all—they have no actual experience of whatchocolate really tastes like to beings in reality (beings outside thesimulation).

Even if there are an infinite number of levels ofsimulation above the virtual reality we are in now, awareness is alwaysultimately beyond them all—it is the ultimate highest-level ofreality, there is nothing beyond it.

Thus even an infinitelyhigh-end computer simulation of awareness will be nothing like actualawareness and will not convince a truly aware being that it is actuallyaware.

8 thoughts on “Why Machines Will Never be Conscious”

  1. Yes I can clarify that. My definitions of the difference between these terms comes largely from Tibetan Buddhist phenomenology. From that perspective, “consciousness” is a dualistic, conceptual frame of mind in which there is a division of experience into experience that is designated as “self” and experience that is desiganted as “other.” Awareness on the other hand is the non-conceptual, non-dualistic presence of phenomena when not imputed as self or other. Another way to think of this is that awareness is the raw capacity for an phenomenal appearance of any kind (visual, mental, auditory, etc.) to take place. The appearance of that phenomena and the knowing of it are not two distinct things in awareness, but rather an inseperable state. For example, in a dream the appearance of a dream-rabbit is not separate from that which knows the dream-rabbit, it is rather a projection of that underlying awareness, inseperably “made of” or “dependent upon” it. Consciousness on the other hand is a dualistic frame of mind in which this inherently undifferentiated space of phenomena is conceived of in various ways, creating the illusion that knowing has a particular location, identity and entity within the space, rather than it being the space itself. Hopefully that clarifies it. Basically “consciousness” is a non-fundamental conceptual overlay on awareness, whereas awareness like space is fundamental and undivided.
    Another interesting side-effect of my above article on why machines cannot be aware is the fact that by the same reasoning a person cannot really be aware either. What I mean by this is that awareness does not “come from” or “reside within” the body or the brain, but rather it could be said that the body and brain come from and reside in awareness. In other words, although people appear to be aware and/or the agents of awareness, this is really an illusion. We are nothing more than dream-characters in a dream-reality — the analogy to a dream holds quite well. The source of awareness is not within the dream, nor within anything that appears in the dream — rather it comes from beyond it. What that is … who can say? That is the domain of religion and spirituality. The logical and phenomenological necessity for an Unknown that is forever beyond whatever is known and is not a mere nothingness is revealed by looking at awareness, or by looking at space or time. For example, given the entire universe of all space and time, what is THAT in? Where does that come from? Again, whatever scope we want to posit, there must be something beyond it. The same is true for what we think of as the mind — ordinary conceptual consciousness. It is also true for anything we might conceive of as “pure awareness” as well. If we can conceive of it, it is not the final truth.
    Here we bridge the gap from physics to metaphysics — where by metaphysics I mean the meta-level beyond physics (I do NOT mean metaphysics in the new-age sense of the word). Metaphysics is the study of what physics is “in.” It’s not the study of physics.

  2. In this article, Awareness and consciousness are used synonymously, however I sometimes make a subtle distinction between them in other writings. The distinction is that consciousness is a dualistic interpretation of awareness into a subject and an object, whereas awareness itself is non-dualistic and contains no actual subject-object distinctions. Consciousness is a conceptual construct — a frame of mind that is learned and perpetuated by habit, but is actually a mistaken interpretation of what is actually taking place. The nature of consciousness is “knowing” or “being” — this is what distinguishes something that is consciousness from something that is not — and this nature is actually undivided and selfless — it has no subject or object distinctions within it. The confused conceptual mind projects a subject-object framework onto awareness, because it seems to make sense, yet no such framework actually exists in fact.

  3. I am not confident that I fully understand what you mean by “awareness” in this entry. I have always thought of it in a different way. To me, awareness IS an information system, I have no “specisl recognition” of other’s awareness (I assume it only as a matter of pragmatism), and I have at times been aware that I was not aware that I was aware.
    Clearly, we are not thinking about the same thing. I suspect also that the AI people are thinking of this in a different way also.

  4. What is a computer for you?
    And how do you explain that the transition between non-awareness (inanimate objects, plants, bacteria, viuses etc.) and awareness (animals) did take place and yet is not repeatable? If Awareness is of itself, independently of the body and brain, how is it that we only observe it in beings that have a brain?
    Descartes believed that he “pituitary gland” (not sure it’s how you call it in English) was the junction between body and soul…
    As a materialist at heart with a deep attraction to spirituality, the question you address is as close as it gets to the core of the paradox which has been bugging me for years… What happens to a Buddah when he he catches Alzheimer’s disease?
    (Tell me if I was not clear enough, i’ll try to clarify mmy points)

  5. Nova,

    I admire you sticking your neck out and drawing a line in the sand on this AI question. But I disagree with this statement:

    “Simply put, computers and computer programs cannot be truly self-referential: they always must refer to something else—there must at least be a set of fixed meta-rules that are not self-referential for a computer or program to work.”

    I highly recommend reading Douglas Hofstrader's book “I am a Strange Loop” if you haven't already. In it he talks about how self-referential systems are likely the key to consciousness, and that (contrary to your claim) it IS possible to represent them in mathematical (and therefore, computational) systems.

    We haven't figured out a way to create such representational systems in our machines yet, but it will someday be possible, and when we do those machine will attain (self-)consciousness.

    –Dean

    @deanpomerleau
    http://www.thoughtfulcog.com

  6. Nova,

    I admire you sticking your neck out and drawing a line in the sand on this AI question. But I disagree with this statement:

    “Simply put, computers and computer programs cannot be truly self-referential: they always must refer to something else—there must at least be a set of fixed meta-rules that are not self-referential for a computer or program to work.”

    I highly recommend reading Douglas Hofstrader's book “I am a Strange Loop” if you haven't already. In it he talks about how self-referential systems are likely the key to consciousness, and that (contrary to your claim) it IS possible to represent them in mathematical (and therefore, computational) systems.

    We haven't figured out a way to create such representational systems in our machines yet, but it will someday be possible, and when we do those machine will attain (self-)consciousness.

    –Dean

    @deanpomerleau
    http://www.thoughtfulcog.com

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