Further Reflections on Machine Consciousness

16 June 2009


Recently my attention was brought to a blog that is dedicated to the critical discussion of the Technological Singularity, Blogging Against ‘The Future’. The author of the blog read my posts about artificial intelligence, machine consciousness, and the Technological Singularity from earlier this year and quoted me in one of his posts. I have already received a half dozen referrals from his website, and several of my posts that hadn’t been accessed in some time have shown up as having been read again.

It took John Locke a long time to write a book, and for good reason.

Somewhere, some years ago, I read that John Locke said that he would write a manuscript and then stick it away until he forgot about. Some time later he would take it out again, and from this later perspective he was able to criticize his own work more effectively. I know what he meant by this, and I have experienced it myself. (However, I have also experienced coming back to something I wrote and not being able to pick up the thread of understanding again.) So it was when I went back and re-read some of my Singularity posts.

In my Blindsided by History (a post I had almost completely forgotten), I wrote, “if and when machine consciousness emerges in history, it will be incomprehensibly alien, perhaps unrecognizable for what it is, because it will have emerged from a different evolutionary process than that from which we emerged.” When I read again this I was reminded of a famous quote from Ortega y Gasset: “Man has not an essence but a history.” Over the years I have thought a lot about this line, and I think it is an exceptionally profound observation. Not only man, but much else in the world, probably most of the world, has not an essence but a history. This, if extrapolated to complete generality, becomes a philosophy that is the antithesis of Platonism, but neither is it constructivism or antirealism or any other familiar doctrine formulated in contradistinction to Platonism. We could, if we liked, call it historical constructivism, and this has a certain intuitive plausibility.

José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883 - October 18, 1955)

José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883 - October 18, 1955)

Machines, too, have not an essence but a history. Perhaps they have an essence too, in addition to a history, but it is the history that crucially demarcates organically emergent beings from mechanically emergent beings. Man and machine have different histories, and if Ortega y Gasset is correct, and if we may make a valid extrapolation from his observation, because they have different histories they are differentiated on a level that previous history would have mistaken for essence, i.e., an essential difference.

I might also add to what I wrote in Blindsided by History about unpredictability: “Present technologies will stall, and they will eventually be superseded by unpredicted and unpredictable technologies that will emerge to surpass them.” It is precisely because future technologies will be unpredicted and unpredictable that the future itself will be unpredicted and unpredictable. History emerges from the cumulative events of passing time; it is built upon the details of individual lives, specific technologies with their advantages and disadvantages, particular circumstances, and concrete facts. The unpredictable emergence of technologies contributes its measure of instability to the general instability of history.

History is always in tension between equilibrium and instability. Sometimes the slow and steady accumulation of the minutiae of time changes the world so gradually that we don’t notice that anything has changed; it is only in reflection, retrospectively, that we are able to realize that the world is a different world than it was. sometimes the accumulation of relentless change spills over in a sudden revolution, a punctuation in the equilibrium of history, but in either case the steady rate of background change continues apace.

Evolution is by its nature unpredictable in its outcome. We can predict that certain selection forces will come to bear, that certain selection events will occur, and that certain entities (say, men and machines) will be subject to these forces and events, but we cannot say what will come of it all. But we can say with confidence that the distinct histories of man and machine will issue in distinct and divergent futures.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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