Intelligence and consciousness are two outstanding and intrinsic characteristics of human nature. Science has made remarkable progress in the field of artificial intelligence (the simulation of intelligence in computers), but it is unlikely that we will ever build artificial consciousness.
Intelligence is the ability to learn, understand and handle unexpected situations; there is little ambiguity in the meaning of such an important human characteristic. When the SETI acronym (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) was coined in the sixties and the project started, participants knew quite well what kind of quality they were trying to find elsewhere in the cosmos. Leaving aside its usefulness and accuracy, the existing approaches for estimating the intelligence of a person are another clear indication of the unambiguous sense of the word.
Not so with the term ‘consciousness’. Consciousness has more to do with sentience -the ability to feel, see, hear, smell or taste that we humans possess- than with the logic and math of the physical world. By the dimension of its mystery, definitions of consciousness fall back on what is being defined. “Consciousness is the condition of being conscious,” says the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Consciousness is the knowledge of the self”, writes the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy. It is not possible to measure the degree of consciousness of another person and, as the English psychologist Nicholas Humphrey points out, scientists would not know where to start if they wanted to undertake a SETC project to search for ‘extraterrestrial consciousness’.
Recent developments of artificial intelligence in the field of video games are contributing to the demarcation between intelligence and consciousness. We can build machines with intelligence but we cannot create, or at least not yet, objects with consciousness.
There already exist computerized algorithms that ‘learn’ to play video games by themselves, as those developed by DeepMind, a London company, now owned by Google. This software, which incorporates ‘routines’ or characteristics known to exist in the human brain, learned to play numerous classic games from Atari and after a few hours, half of them reached performance levels well above those of professional players.
The spectacular progresses, as those achieved with these self-learning programs, are of concern to more than one brilliant mind. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” physicist Stephen Hawking warns. “Perhaps these learning algorithms are the dark clouds on humanity’s horizon; perhaps they will be our final invention,” says neuroscientist Christof Koch. This columnist, on the other hand, considers that the distinction between intelligence and consciousness, despite sharing the same brain and billions neural connections, give us the assurance that no powerful set of computers will ever take over the Earth on their own initiative.
Consciousness is the greatest of mysteries in human existence. We know that consciousness occurs in the brain but, beyond feeling and perceiving it, and having the certainty that ‘we exist’, there is very little that we know for sure about how consciousness works. The understanding provided indirectly by machines that learn faster than intelligent people produces some peace: Being intelligent does not mean being conscious.
“I think therefore I am”, Descartes famous statement, now appears to be incomplete. The machines that science has developed can learn, understand and manage games unknown to them; there is no doubt, such machines can think but such computers do not know they exist today but are going to disappear tomorrow. Perhaps if the French mathematician and philosopher had been born four centuries later, besides being a computer geek and a child prodigy, surely would have written instead: “I think and feel, therefore I am.”
London, June 20, 2015