Posts tagged ‘robots’

dagstuhl-ceIs there an intermediate ethical domain, suitable for machines?

The thought is prompted by this summary of an interesting seminar on Engineering Moral Agents, one of the ongoing series hosted at Schloss Dagstuhl. It seems to have been an exceptionally good session which got into some of the issues in a really useful way – practically oriented but not philosophical naive. It noted the growing need to make autonomous robots – self-driving cars, drones, and so on – able to deal with ethical issues. On the one hand it looked at how ethical theories could be formalised in a way that would lend itself to machine implementation, and on the other how such a formalisation could in fact be implemented. It identified two broad approaches: top-down, where in essence you hard-wire suitable rules into the machine, and bottom-up, where the machine learns for itself from suitable examples. The approaches are not necessarily exclusive, of course.

The seminar thought that utilitarian or Kantian theories of morality were both prima facie candidates for formalisation. Utilitarian or more broadly, consequentialist theories look particularly promising because calculating the optimal value (such as the greatest happiness of the greatest number) achievable from the range of alternatives on offer looks like something that can be reduced to arithmetic fairly straightforwardly. There are problems in that consequentialist theories usually yield at least some results that look questionable in common sense terms (finding the initial values to slot into your sums is also a non-trivial challenge – how do you put a clear numerical value on people’s probable future happiness?)

A learning system eases several of these problems. You don’t need a fully formalised system (so long as you can agree on a database of examples). But you face the same problems that arise for learning systems in other contexts; you can’t have the assurance of knowing why the machine behaves as it does, and if your database had unnoticed gaps or bias you may suffer from sudden catastrophic mistakes.  The seminar summary rightly notes that a machine that learned its ethics will not be able to explain its behaviour; but I don’t know that that means it lacks agency; many humans would struggle to explain their moral decisions in a way that would pass muster philosophically. Most of us could do no more than point to harms avoided or social rules observed at best.

The seminar looked at some interesting approaches, mentioned here with tantalising brevity: Horty’s default logic, Sergot’s STIT (See To It That) logic; and the possibility of drawing on the decision theory already developed in the context of micro-economics. This is consequentialist in character and there was an examination of whether in fact all ethical theories can be restated in consequentialist terms (yes, apparently, but only if you’re prepared to stretch the idea of a consequence to a point where the idea becomes vacuous). ‘Reason-based’ formalisations presented by List and Dietrich interestingly get away from narrow consequentialisms and their problems using a rightness function which can accommodate various factors.

The seminar noted that society will demand high, perhaps precautionary standards of safety from machines, and floated the idea of an ethical ‘black box’ recorder. It noted the problem of cultural neutrality and the risk of malicious hacking. It made the important point that human beings do not enjoy complete ethical agreement anyway, but argue vigorously about real issues.

The thing that struck me was how far it was possible to go in discussing morality when it is pretty clear that the self-driving cars and so on under discussion actually have no moral agency whatever. Some words of caution are in order here. Some people think moral agency is a delusion anyway; some maintain that on the contrary, relatively simple machines can have it. But I think for the sake of argument we can assume that humans are moral beings, and that none of the machines we’re currently discussing is even a candidate for moral agency – though future machines with human-style general understanding may be.

The thing is that successful robots currently deal with limited domains. A self-driving car can cope with an array of entities like road, speed, obstacle, and so on; it does not and could not have the unfettered real-world understanding of all the concepts it would need to make general ethical decisions about, for example, what risks and sacrifices might be right when it comes to actual human lives. Even Asimov’s apparently simple Laws of Robotics required robots to understand and recognise correctly and appropriately the difficult concept of ‘harm’ to a human being.

One way of squaring this circle might be to say that, yes, actually, any robot which is expected to operate with any degree of autonomy must be given a human-level understanding of the world. As I’ve noted before, this might actually be one of the stronger arguments for developing human-style artificial general intelligence in the first place.

But it seems wasteful to bestow consciousness on a roomba, both in terms of pure expense and in terms of the chronic boredom the poor thing would endure (is it theoretically possible to have consciousness without the capacity for boredom?). So really the problem that faces us is one of making simple robots, that operate on restricted domains, able to deal adequately with occasional issues from the unrestricted domain of reality. Now clearly ‘adequate’ is an important word there. I believe that in order to make robots that operate acceptably in domains they cannot understand, we’re going to need systems that are conservative and tend towards inaction. We would not, I think, accept a long trail of offensive and dangerous behaviour in exchange for a rare life-saving intervention. This suggests rules rather than learning; a set of rules that allow a moron to behave acceptably without understanding what is going on.

Do these rules constitute a separate ethical realm, a ‘sub-ethics’ that substitute for morality when dealing with entities that have autonomy but no agency? I rather think they might.

The robots are (still) coming. Thanks to Jesus Olmo for this TED video of Sam Harris presenting what we could loosely say is a more sensible version of some Singularity arguments. He doesn’t require Moore’s Law to go on working, and he doesn’t need us to accept the idea of an exponential acceleration in AI self-development. He just thinks AI is bound to go on getting better; if it goes on getting better, at some stage it overtakes us; and eventually perhaps it gets to the point where we figure in its mighty projects about the way ants on some real estate feature in ours.

Getting better, overtaking us; better at what? One weakness of Harris’ case is that he talks just about intelligence, as though that single quality were an unproblematic universal yardstick for both AI and human achievement. Really though, I think we’re talking about three quite radically different things.

First, there’s computation; the capacity, roughly speaking, to move numbers around according to rules. There can be no doubt that computers keep getting faster at doing this; the question is whether it matters. One of Harris’ arguments is that computers go millions of times faster than the brain so that a thinking AI will have the equivalent of thousands of years of thinking time while the humans are still getting comfy in their chairs. No-one who has used a word processor and a spreadsheet for the last twenty years will find this at all plausible: the machines we’re using now are so much more powerful than the ones we started with that the comparison defeats metaphor, but we still sit around waiting for them to finish. OK, it’s true that for many tasks that are computationally straightforward – balancing an inherently unstable plane with minute control adjustments, perhaps – computers are so fast they can do things far beyond our range. But to assume that thinking about problems in a human sort of way is a task that scales with speed of computation just begs the question. How fast are neurons? We don’t really understand them well enough to say. It’s quite possible they are in some sense fast enough to get close to a natural optimum. Maybe we should make a robot that runs a million times faster than a cheetah first and then come back to the brain.

The second quality we’re dealing with is inventiveness; whatever capacity it is that allows us to keep on designing better machines. I doubt this is really a single capacity; in some ways I’m not sure it’s a capacity at all. For one thing, to devise the next great idea you have to be on the right page. Darwin and Wallace both came up with the survival of the fittest because both had been exposed to theories of evolution, both had studied the profusion of species in tropical environments, and both had read Malthus. You cannot devise a brilliant new chip design if you have no idea how the old chips worked. Second, the technology has to be available. Hero of Alexandria could design a steam engine, but without the metallurgy to make strong boilers, he couldn’t have gone anywhere with the idea. The basic concept of television was around since films and telegraph came together in someone’s mind, but it took a series of distinct advances in technology to make it feasible. In short, there is a certain order in these things; you do need a certain quality of originality, but again it’s plausible that humans already have enough for something like maximum progress, given the right conditions. Of course so far as AI is concerned, there are few signs of any genuinely original thought being achieved to date, and every possibility that mere computation is not enough.

Third is the quality of agency. If AIs are going to take over, they need desires, plans, and intentions. My perception is that we’re still at zero on this; we have no idea how it works and existing AIs do nothing better than an imitation of agency (often still a poor one). Even supposing eventual success, this is not a field in which AI can overtake us; you either are or are not an agent; there’s no such thing as hyper-agency or being a million times more responsible for your actions.

So the progress of AI with computationally tractable tasks gives no particular reason to think humans are being overtaken generally, or are ever likely to be in certain important respects. But that’s only part of the argument. A point that may be more important is simply that the the three capacities are detachable. So there is no reason to think that an AI with agency automatically has blistering computational speed, or original imagination beyond human capacity. If those things can be achieved by slave machines that lack agency, then they are just as readily available to human beings as to the malevolent AIs, so the rebel bots have no natural advantage over any of us.

I might be biased over this because I’ve been impatient with the corny ‘robots take over’ plot line since I was an Asimov-loving teenager. I think in some minds (not Harris’s) these concerns are literal proxies for a deeper and more metaphorical worry that admiring machines might lead us to think of ourselves as mechanical in ways that affect our treatment of human beings. So the robots might sort of take over our thinking even if they don’t literally march around zapping us with ray guns.

Concerns like this are not altogether unjustified, but they rest on the idea that our personhood and agency will eventually be reduced to computation. Perhaps when we eventually come to understand them better, that understanding will actually tell us something quite different?

jailbotIs there a retribution gap? In an interesting and carefully argued paper John Danaher argues that in respect of robots, there is.

For human beings in normal life he argues that a fairly broad conception of responsibility works OK. Often enough we don’t even need to distinguish between causal and moral responsibility, let alone worrying about the six or more different types identified by hair-splitting philosophers.

However, in the case of autonomous robots the sharing out of responsibility gets more difficult. Is the manufacturer, the programmer, or the user of the bot responsible for everything it does, or does the bot properly shoulder the blame for its own decisions? Danaher thinks that gaps may arise, cases in which we can blame neither the humans involved nor the bot. In these instances we need to draw some finer distinctions than usual, and in particular we need to separate the idea of liability into compensation liability on one hand and and retributive liability on the other. The distinction is essentially that between who pays for the damage and who goes to jail; typically the difference between matters dealt with in civil and criminal courts. The gap arises because for liability we normally require that the harm must have been reasonably foreseeable. However, the behaviour of autonomous robots may not be predictable either by their designers or users on the one hand, or by the bots themselves on the other.

In the case of compensation liability Danaher thinks things can be patched up fairly readily through the use of strict and vicarious liability. These forms of liability, already well established in legal practice, give up some of the usual requirements and make people responsible for things they could not have been expected to foresee or guard against. I don’t think the principles of strict liability are philosophically uncontroversial, but they are legally established and it is at least clear that applying them to robot cases does not introduce any new issues. Danaher sees a worse problem in the case of retribution, where there is no corresponding looser concept of responsibility, and hence, no-one who can be punished.

Do we, in fact, need to punish anyone? Danaher rightly says that retribution is one of the fundamental principles behind punishment in most if not all human societies, and is upheld by many philosophers. Many, perhaps, but my impression is that the majority of moral philosophers and lay opinion actually see some difficulty in justifying retribution. Its psychological and sociological roots are strong, but the philosophical case is much more debatable. For myself I think a principle of retribution can be upheld , but it is by no means as clear or as well supported as the principle of deterrence, for example. So many people might be perfectly comfortable with a retributive gap in this area.

What about scapegoating – punishing someone who wasn’t really responsible for the crime? Couldn’t we use that to patch up the gap?  Danaher mentions it in passing, but treats it as something whose unacceptability is too obvious to need examination. I think, though, that in many ways it is the natural counterpart to the strict and vicarious liability he endorses for the purposes of compensation. Why don’t we just blame the manufacturer anyway – or the bot (Danaher describes Basil Fawlty’s memorable thrashing of his unco-operative car)?

How can you punish a bot though? It probably feels no pain or disappointment, it doesn’t mind being locked up or even switched off and destroyed. There does seem to be a strange gap if we have an entity which is capable of making complex autonomous decisions, but doesn’t really care about anything. Some might argue that in order to make truly autonomous decisions the bot must be engaged to a degree that makes the crushing of its hopes and projects a genuine punishment, but I doubt it. Even as a caring human being it seems quite easy to imagine working for an organisation on whose behalf you make complex decisions, but without ultimately caring whether things go well or not (perhaps even enjoying a certain schadenfreude in the event of disaster). How much less is a bot going to be bothered?

In that respect I think there might really be a punitive gap that we ought to learn to live with; but I expect the more likely outcome in practice is that the human most closely linked to disaster will carry the case regardless of strict culpability.

drugbotOver the years many variants and improvements to the Turing Test have been proposed, but surely none more unexpected than the one put forward by Andrew Smart in this piece, anticipating his forthcoming book Beyond Zero and One. He proposes that in order to be considered truly conscious, a robot must be able to take an acid trip.

He starts out by noting that computers seem to be increasing in intelligence (whatever that means), and that many people see them attaining human levels of performance by 2100 (actually quite a late date compared to the optimism of recent decades; Turing talked about 2000, after all). Some people, indeed, think we need to be concerned about whether the powerful AIs of the future will like us or behave well towards us. In my view these worries tend to blur together two different things; improving processing speeds and sophistication of programming on the one hand, and transformation from a passive data machine into a spontaneous agent, quite a different matter. Be that as it may, Smart reasonably suggests we could give some thought to whether and how we should make machines conscious.
It seems to me – this may be clearer in the book – that Smart divides things up in a slightly unusual way. I’ve got used to the idea that the big division is between access and phenomenal consciousness, which I take to be the same distinction as the one defined by the terminology of Hard versus Easy Problems. In essence, we have the kind of consciousness that’s relevant to behaviour, and the kind that’s relevant to subjective experience.
Although Smart alludes to the Chalmersian zombies that demonstrate this distinction, I think he puts the line a bit lower; between the kind of AI that no-one really supposes is thinking in a human sense and the kind that has the reflective capacities that make up the Easy Problem. He seems to think that experience just goes with that (which is a perfectly viable point of view). He speaks of consciousness as being essential to creative thought, for example, which to me suggests we’re not talking about pure subjectivity.
Anyway, what about the drugs? Smart sedans to think that requiring robots to be capable of an acid trip is raising the bar, because it is in these psychedelic regions that the highest, most distinctive kind of consciousness is realised. He quotes Hofman as believing that LSD…

…allows us to become aware of the ontologically objective existence of consciousness and ourselves as part of the universe…

I think we need to be wary here of the distinction between becoming aware of the universal ontology and having the deluded feeling of awareness. We should always remember the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr:

…I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”…

A second problem is that Smart believes (with a few caveats) that any digital realisation of consciousness will necessarily have the capacity for the equivalent of acid trips. This seems doubtful. To start with, LSD is clearly a chemical matter and digital simulations of consciousness generally neglect the hugely complex chemistry of the brain in favour of the relatively tractable (but still unmanageably vast) network properties of the connectome. Of course it might be that a successful artificial consciousness would necessarily have to reproduce key aspects of the chemistry and hence necessarily offer scope for trips, but that seems far from certain. Think of headaches; I believe they generally arise from incidental properties of human beings – muscular tension, constriction of the sinuses, that sort of thing – I don’t believe they’re in any way essential to human cognition and I don’t see why a robot would need them. Might not acid trips be the same, a chance by-product of details of the human body that don’t have essential functional relevance?

The worst thing, though, is that Smart seems to have overlooked the main merit of the Turing Test; it’s objective. OK, we may disagree over the quality of some chat-bot’s conversational responses, but whether it fools a majority of people is something testable, at least in principle. How would we know whether a robot was really having an acid trip? Writing a chat-bot to sound as if were tripping seems far easier than the original test; but other than talking to it, how can we know what it’s experiencing? Yes, if we could tell it was having intense trippy experiences, we could conclude it was conscious… but alas, we can’t. That seems a fatal flaw.

Maybe we can ask tripbot whether it smells turpentine.

Interesting exchange about Eric Schwitzgebel’s view that we have special obligations to robots…

Pepper spiced upWe need to talk about sexbots.  It seems (according to the Daily Mail – via MLU) that buyers of the new Pepper robot pal are being asked to promise they will not sex it up the way some naughty people have been doing; putting a picture of breasts on its touch screen and making poor Pepper tremble erotically when the screen is touched.

Just in time, some academics have launched the Campaign against Sex Robots. We’ve talked once or twice about the ethics of killbots; from thanatos we move inevitably to eros and the ethics of sexbots. Details of some of the thinking behind the campaign are set out in this paper by Kathleen Richardson of De Montfort University.

In principle there are several reasons we might think that sex with robots was morally dubious. We can put aside, for now at least, any consideration of whether it harms the robots emotionally or in any other way, though we might need to return to that eventually.

It might be that sex with robots harms the human participant directly. It could be argued that the whole business is simply demeaning and undignified, for example – though dignified sex is pretty difficult to pull off at the best of times. It might be that the human partner’s emotional nature is coarsened and denied the chance to develop, or that their social life is impaired by their spending every evening with the machine. The key problem put forward seems to be that by engaging in an inherently human activity with a mere machine, the line is blurred and the human being imports into their human relationship behaviour only appropriate to robots: that in short, they are encouraged to treat human beings like machines. This hypothetical process resembles the way some young men these days are disparagingly described as “porn-educated” because their expectations of sex and a sexual relationship have been shaped and formed exclusively by what we used to call blue movies.

It might also be that the ease and apparent blamelessness of robot sex will act as a kind of gateway to worse behaviour. It’s suggested that there will be “child” sexbots; apparently harmless in themselves but smoothing the path to paedophilia. This kind of argument parallels the ones about apparently harmless child porn that consists entirely of drawings or computer graphics, and so arguably harms no children.

On the other side, it can be argued that sexbots might provide a harmless, risk-free outlet for urges that would otherwise inconveniently be pressed on human beings. Perhaps the line won’t really be blurred at all: people will readily continue to distinguish between robots and people, or perhaps the drift will all be the other way: no humans being treated as machines, but one or two machines being treated with a fondness and sentiment they don’t really merit? A lot of people personalise their cars or their computers and it’s hard to see that much harm comes of it.

Richardson draws a parallel with prostitution. That, she argues, is an asymmetrical relationship at odds with human equality, in which the prostitute is treated as an object: robot sex extends and worsens that relationship in all respects. Surely it’s bound to be a malign influence? There seem to be some problematic aspects to her case. A lot of human relationships are asymmetrical; so long as they are genuinely consensual most people don’t seem bothered by that. It’s not clear that prostitutes are always simply treated as objects: in fact they are notoriously required to fake the emotions of a normal sexual relationship, at least temporarily, in most cases (we could argue about whether that actually makes the relationship better or worse). Nor is prostitution simple or simply evil: it comes in many forms from many prostitutes who are atrociously trafficked, blackmailed and beaten, through those who regard it as basically another service job, through to some few idealistic practitioners who work in a genuine therapeutic environment. I’m far from being an advocate of the profession in any form, but there are some complexities and even if we accept the debatable analogy it doesn’t provide us with a simple, one-size-fits-all answer.

I do recognise the danger that the line between human and machine might possibly be blurred. It’s a legitimate concern, but my instinct says that people will actually be fairly good at drawing the distinction and if anything robot sex will tend not to be thought of either as like sex with humans or sex with machines: it’ll mainly be thought of as sex with robots, and in fact that’s where a large part of the appeal will lie.

It’s a bit odd in a way that the line-blurring argument should be brought forward particularly in a sexual context. You’d think that if confusion were to arise it would be far more likely and much more dangerous in the case of chat-bots or other machines whose typical interactions were relatively intellectual. No-one, I think, has asked for Siri to be banned.

My soggy conclusion is that things are far more complex than the campaign takes them to be, and a blanket ban is not really an appropriate response.





wise menThere were a number of reports recently that a robot had passed ‘one of the tests for self-awareness’. They seem to stem mainly from this New Scientist piece (free registration may be required to see the whole thing, but honestly I’m not sure it’s worth it). That in turn reported an experiment conducted by Selmer Bringsjord of Rensselaer, due to be presented at the Ro-Man conference in a month’s time. The programme for the conference looks very interesting and the experiment is due to feature in a session on ‘Real Robots That Pass Human Tests of Self Awareness’.

The claim is that Bringsjord’s bot passed a form of the Wise Man test. The story behind the Wise Man test has three WMs tested by the king; he makes them wear hats which are either blue or white: they cannot see their own hat but can see both of the others. They’re told that there is at least one blue hat, and that the test is fair; to be won by the first WM who correctly announces the colour of his own hat. There is a chain of logical reasoning which produces the right conclusion: we can cut to the chase by noticing that the test can’t be fair unless all the hats are the same colour, because all other arrangements give one WM an advantage. Since at least one hat is blue, they all are.

You’ll notice that this is essentially a test of logic, not self awareness. If solving the problem required being aware that you were one of the WMs then we who merely read about it wouldn’t be able to come up with the answer – because we’re not one of the WMs and couldn’t possibly have that awareness. But there’s sorta,  kinda something about working with other people’s point of view in there.

Bringsjord’s bots actually did something rather different. They were apparently told that two of the three had been given a ‘dumbing’ pill that stopped them from being able to speak (actually a switch had been turned off; were the robots really clever enough to understand that distinction and the difference between a pill and a switch?); then they were asked ‘did you get the dumbing pill?’  Only one, of course, could answer, and duly answered ‘I don’t know’: then, having heard its own voice, it was able to go on to say ‘Oh, wait, now I know…!”

This test is obviously different from the original in many ways; it doesn’t involve the same logic. Fairness, an essential factor in the original version, doesn’t matter here, and in fact the test is egregiously unfair; only one bot can possibly win. The bot version seems to rest mainly on the robot being able to distinguish its own voice from those of the others (of course the others couldn’t answer anyway; if they’d been really smart they would all have answered ‘I wasn’t dumbed’, knowing that if they had been dumbed the incorrect conclusion would never be uttered). It does perhaps have a broadly similar sorta, kinda relation to awareness of points of view.

I don’t propose to try to unpick the reasoning here any further: I doubt whether the experiment tells us much, but as presented in the New Scientist piece the logic is such a dog’s breakfast and the details are so scanty it’s impossible to get a proper idea of what is going on. I should say that I have no doubt Ringsjord’s actual presentation will be impeccably clear and well-justified in both its claims and its reasoning; foggy reports of clear research are more common than vice versa.

There’s a general problem here about the slipperiness of defining human qualities. Ever since Plato attempted to define a man as ‘a featherless biped’ and was gleefully refuted by Diogenes with a plucked chicken, every definition of the special quality that defines the human mind seems to be torpedoed by counter-examples. Part of the problem is a curious bind whereby the task of definition requires you to give a specific test task; but it is the very non-specific open-ended generality of human thought you’re trying to capture. This, I expect, is why so many specific tasks that once seemed definitively reserved for humans have eventually been performed by computers, which perhaps can do anything which is specified narrowly enough.

We don’t know exactly what Bringsjord’s bots did, and it matters. They could have been programmed explicitly just to do exactly what they did do, which is boring: they could have been given some general purpose module that does not terminate with the first answer and shows up well in these circumstances, which might well be of interest; or they could have been endowed with massive understanding of the real world significance of such matters as pills, switches, dumbness, wise men, and so on, which would be a miracle and raise the question of why Bringsjord was pissing about with such trivial experiments when he had such godlike machines to offer.

As I say, though, it’s a general problem. In my view, the absence of any details about how the Room works is one of the fatal flaws in John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment; arguably the same issue arises for the Turing Test. Would we award full personhood to a robot that could keep up a good conversation? I’m not sure I would unless I had a clear idea of how it worked.

I think there are two reasonable conclusions we can draw, both depressing. One is that we can’t devise a good test for human qualities because we simply don’t know what those qualities are, and we’ll have to solve that imponderable riddle before we can get anywhere. The other possibility is that the specialness of human thought is permanently indefinable. Something about that specialness involves genuine originality, breaking the system, transcending the existing rules; so just as the robots will eventually conquer any specific test we set up, the human mind will always leap out of whatever parameters we set up for it.

But who knows, maybe the Ro-Man conference will surprise us with new grounds for optimism.

BISASusan Schneider’s recent paper argues that when we hear from alien civilisations, it’s almost bound to be super intelligent robots getting in touch, rather than little green men. She builds on Nick Bostrom’s much-discussed argument that we’re all living in a simulation.

Actually, Bostrom’s argument is more cautious than that, and more carefully framed. His claim is that at least one of the following propositions is true:
(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;
(2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
(3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

So that if we disbelieve the first two, we must accept the third.

In fact there are plenty of reasons to argue that the first two propositions are true. The first evokes ideas of nuclear catastrophe or an unexpected comet wiping us out in our prime, but equally it could just be that no post human stage is ever reached. We only know about the cultures of our own planet, but two of the longest lived – the Egyptian and the Chinese – were very stable, showing few signs of moving on towards post humanism. They made the odd technological advance, but they also let things slip: no more pyramids after the Old Kingdom; ocean-going junks abandoned before being fully exploited. Really only our current Western culture, stemming from the European Renaissance, has displayed a long run of consistent innovation; it may well be a weird anomaly and its five-hundred year momentum may well be temporary. Maybe our descendants will never go much further than we already have; maybe, thinking of Schneider’s case, the stars are basically inhabited by Ancient Egyptians who have been living comfortably for millions of years without ever discovering electricity.

The second proposition requires some very debatable assumptions, notably that consciousness is computable. But the notion of “simulation” also needs examination. Bostrom takes it that a computer simulation of consciousness is likely to be conscious, but I don’t think we’d assume a digital simulation of digestion would do actual digesting. The thing about a simulation is that by definition it leaves out certain aspects of the real phenomenon (otherwise it’s the phenomenon itself, not a simulation). Computer simulations normally leave out material reality, which could be a problem if we want real consciousness. Maybe it doesn’t matter for consciousness; Schneider argues strongly against any kind of biological requirement and it may well be that functional relations will do in the case of consciousness. There’s another issue, though; consciousness may be uniquely immune from simulation because of its strange epistemological greediness. What do I mean? Well, for a simulation of digestion we can write a list of all the entities to be dealt with – the foods we expect to enter the gut and their main components. It’s not an unmanageable task, and if we like we can leave out some items or some classes of item without thereby invalidating the simulation. Can we write a list of the possible contents of consciousness? No. I can think about any damn thing I like, including fictional and logically impossible entities. Can we work with a reduced set of mental contents? No; this ability to think about anything is of the essence.

All this gets much worse when Bostrom floats the idea that future ancestor simulations might themselves go on to be post human and run their own nested simulations, and so on. We must remember that he is really talking about simulated worlds, because his simulated ancestors need to have all the right inputs fed to them consistently. A simulated world has to be significantly smaller in information terms than the world that contains it; there isn’t going to be room within it to simulate the same world again at the same level of detail. Something has to give.

Without the indefinite nesting, though, there’s no good reason to suppose the simulated ancestors will ever outnumber the real people who ever lived in the real world. I suppose Bostrom thinks of his simulated people as taking up negligible space and running at speeds far beyond real life; but when you’re simulating everything, that starts to be questionable. The human brain may be the smallest and most economic way of doing what the human brain does.

Schneider argues that, given the same Whiggish optimism about human progress we mentioned earlier, we must assume that in due course fleshy humans will be superseded by faster and more capable silicon beings, either because robots have taken over the reins or because humans have gradually cyborgised themselves to the point where they are essentially super intelligent robots. Since these post human beings will live on for billions of years, it’s almost certain that when we make contact with aliens, that will be the kind we meet.

She is, curiously, uncertain about whether these beings will be conscious. She really means that they might be zombies, without phenomenal consciousness. I don’t really see how super intelligent beings like that could be without what Ned Block called access consciousness, the kind that allows us to solve problems, make plans, and generally think about stuff; I think Schneider would agree, although she tends to speak as though phenomenal, experiential consciousness was the only kind.

She concludes, reasonably enough, that the alien robots most likely will have full conscious experience. Moreover, because reverse engineering biological brains is probably the quick way to consciousness, she thinks that a particular kind of super intelligent AI is likely to predominate: biologically inspired superintelligent alien (BISA). She argues that although BISAs might in the end be incomprehensible, we can draw some tentative conclusions about BISA minds:
(i). Learning about the computational structure of the brain of the species that created the BISA can provide insight into the BISAs thinking patterns.
(ii) BISAs may have viewpoint invariant representations. (Surely they wouldn’t be very bright if they didn’t?)
(iii) BISAs will have language-like mental representations that are recursive and combinatorial. (Ditto.)
(iv) BISAs may have one or more global workspaces. (If you believe in global workspace theory, certainly. Why more than one, though – doesn’t that defeat the object? Global workspaces are useful because they’re global.)
(v) A BISA’s mental processing can be understood via functional decomposition.

I’ll throw in a strange one; I doubt whether BISAs would have identity, at least not the way we do. They would be computational processes in silicon: they could split, duplicate, and merge without difficulty. They could be copied exactly, so that the question of whether BISA x was the same as BISA y could become meaningless. For them, in fact, communicating and merging would differ only in degree. Something to bear in mind for that first contact, perhaps.

This is interesting stuff, but to me it’s slightly surprising to see it going on in philosophy departments; does this represent an unexpected revival of the belief that armchair reasoning can tell us important truths about the world?

meetingPetros Gelepithis has A Novel View of Consciousness in the International Journal of Machine Consciousness (alas, I can’t find a freely accessible version). Computers, as such, can’t be conscious, he thinks, but robots can; however, proper robot consciousness will necessarily be very unlike human consciousness in a way that implies some barriers to understanding.

Gelepithis draws on the theory of mind he developed in earlier papers, his theory of noèmona species. (I believe he uses the word noèmona mainly to avoid the varied and potentially confusing implications that attach to mind-related vocabulary in English.) It’s not really possible to do justice to the theory here, but it is briefly described in the following set of definitions, an edited version of the ones Gelepithis gives in the paper.

Definition 1. For a human H, a neural formation N is a structure of interacting sub-cellular components (synapses, glial structures, etc) across nerve cells able to influence the survival or reproduction of H.

Definition 2. For a human, H, a neural formation is meaningful (symbol Nm), if and only if it is an N that influences the attention of that H.

Definition 3. The meaning of a novel stimulus in context (Sc), for the human H at time t, is whatever Nm is created by the interaction of Sc and H.

Definition 4. The meaning of a previously encountered Sc, for H is the prevailed Np of Np

Definition 5. H is conscious of an external Sc if and only if, there are Nm structures that correspond to Sc and these structures are activated by H’s attention at that time.

Definition 6. H is conscious of an internal Sc if and only if the Nm structures identified with the internal Sc are activated by H’s attention at that time.

Definition 7. H is reflectively conscious of an internal Sc if and only if the Nm structures identified with the internal Sc are activated by H’s attention and they have already been modified by H’s thinking processes activated by primary consciousness at least once.

For Gelepithis consciousness is not an abstraction, of the kind that can be handled satisfactorily by formal and computational systems. Instead it is rooted in biology in a way that very broadly recalls Ruth Millikan’s views. It’s about attention and how it is directed, but meaning comes out of the experience and recollection of events related to evolutionary survival.

For him this implies a strong distinction between four different kinds of consciousness; animal consciousness, human consciousness, machine consciousness and robot consciousness. For machines, running a formal system, the primitives and the meanings are simply inserted by the human designer; with robots it may be different. Through, as I take it, living a simple robot life they may, if suitably endowed, gradually develop their own primitives and meanings and so attain their own form of consciousness. But there’s a snag…

Robots may be able to develop their own robot primitives and subsequently develop robot understanding. But no robot can ever understand human meanings; they can only interact successfully with humans on the basis of processing whatever human-based primitives and other notions were given…

Different robot experience gives rise to a different form of consciousness. They may also develop free will. Human beings act freely when their Acquired Belief and Knowledge (ABK) over-rides environmental and inherited influences in determining their behaviour; robots can do the same if they acquire an Own Robot Cognitive Architecture, the relevant counterpart. However, again…

A future possible conscious robotic species will not be able to communicate, except on exclusively formal bases, with the then Homo species.

‘then Homo’ because Gelepithis thinks it’s possible that human predecessors to Homo Sapiens would also have had distinct forms of consciousness (and presumably would have suffered similar communication issues).

Now we all have slightly different experiences and heritage, so Gelepithis’ views might imply that each of our consciousnesses is different. I suppose he believes that intra-species commonality is sufficient to make those differences relatively unimportant, but there should still be some small variation, which is an intriguing thought.

As an empirical matter, we actually manage to communicate rather well with some other species. Dogs don’t have our special language abilities and they don’t share our lineage or experiences to any great degree; yet very good practical understandings are often in place. Perhaps it would be worse with robots, who would not be products of evolution, would not eat or reproduce, and so on. Yet it seems strange to think that as a result their actual consciousness would be radically different?

Gelepithis’ system is based on attention, and robots would surely have a version of that; robot bodies would no doubt be very different from human ones, but surely the basics of proprioception, locomotion, manipulation and motivation would have to have some commonality?

I’m inclined to think we need to draw a further distinction here between the form and content of consciousness. It’s likely that robot consciousness would function differently from ours in certain ways: it might run faster, it might have access to superior memory, it might, who knows, be multi-threaded. Those would all be significant differences which might well impede communication. The robot’s basic drives might be very different from ours: uninterested in food, sex, and possibly even in survival, it might speak lyrically of the joys of electricity which must remain ever hidden from human beings. However, the basic contents of its mind would surely be of the same kind as the contents of our consciousness (hallo, yes, no, gimme, come here, go away) and expressible in the same languages?