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How to Build Self-Conscious Artificial Intelligence | WIRED

I know that sounds impossible, but more organisms live within our guts, on our skin, and elsewhere, than the total number of cells that are actually our bodies. These are not just hitchhikers, either. They affect our moods, our health, our thoughts, and our behaviors. As horrific as it would be, and it has been for too many unfortunate people, you can live without your arms, legs, and much of your torso.

There have been people who have lost half their brains and gone on to live somewhat normal lives. Consider this: By the age of 30, just about every cell that a person was born with has been replaced with a different cell. Almost none of the original cells remain. We still feel like the same person, however. It may feel like cheating for us to build a self-driving car, give it all kinds of sensors around a city, create a separate module for guessing vehicular intentions, turn that module back on the machine, and call this AI.

Denial of our natures is perhaps the most fundamental of our natures. Just like the body, the brain can exist without many of its internal modules. This is how the study of brain functions began, with test subjects who suffered head traumas like Phineas Gage , or were operated on like the numerous hemispherectomies, lobotomies, and tumor excisions.

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The razor-thin specialization of our brain modules never fails to amaze. There are vision modules that recognize movement and only movement. People who lack this module cannot see objects in motion, and so friends and family seem to materialize here and there out of thin air. There are others who cannot pronounce a written word if that word represents an animal. Words that stand for objects are seen and spoken clearly. The animal-recognition module—as fine a module as that may seem—is gone.

We very rightly treat these people as equally human, but at some point we have to be willing to define consciousness in order to have a target for artificial consciousness. As Kevin Kelly is fond of saying , we keep moving the goalposts when it comes to AI. Machines do things today that were considered impossible a mere decade ago. As the improvements are made, the mystery is gone, and so we push back the metrics.

But machines are already more capable than newborns in almost every measurable way. They are also more capable than bedridden humans on life support in almost every measurable way. As AI advances, it will squeeze in towards the middle of humanity, passing toddlers and those in the last decades of their lives, until its superiority meets in the middle and keeps expanding. This is happening every day. It can drive with very low failure rates, something almost no human at any age can do. With each layer added, each ability, and more squeezing in on humanity from both ends of the age spectrum, we light up that flickering, buzzing gymnasium.

Suddenly, the sun is overhead, but we never noticed it rising. I mentioned above that language is a key ingredient of consciousness. This is a very important concept to carry into work on AI.

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However many modules our brains consist of, they fight and jostle for our attentive states the thing our brain is fixated on at any one moment and our language processing centers which are so tightly wound with our attentive states as to be nearly one and the same. As a test of this, try listening to an audiobook or podcast while having a conversation with someone else. Is it even possible? Could years of practice unlock this ability?

The nearest thing I know of when it comes to concurrent communication streams are real-time human translators. But this is an illusion, because the concepts—the focus of their awareness—are the same. It only seems like magic to those of us who are barely literate in our native tongues, much less two or more. Tell me a story in English, and I can repeat it concurrently in English as well.

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Language and attention are narrow spouts on the inverted funnels of our brains. Thousands of disparate modules are tossing inputs into this funnel. Hormones are pouring in, features of our environment, visual and auditory cues, even hallucinations and incorrect assumptions. Piles and piles of data that can only be extracted in a single stream. This stream is made single—is limited and constrained—by our attentive systems and language. It is what the monitor provides for the desktop computer. All that parallel processing is made serial in the last moment. There are terrible consequences to this.

I left my laptop in an AirBnB once. Standing at the door, which would lock automatically and irrevocably once I closed it, I wracked my brain for what I felt I was forgetting. It was four in the morning, and I had an early flight to catch. There would be no one to call to let me back in.

I ran through the list of the things I might possibly leave behind chargers, printed tickets , and the things that always reside in my pockets patting for my wallet and cell phone.

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Part of me was screaming danger, but the single output stream was going through its paces and coming up empty. Despite this foreknowledge, I closed the door. Now I could clearly see my laptop on the bed where I was making a last-minute note in a manuscript. This is why damage to the language centers of our brains are as disastrous to normal living as damage to our memory modules. I should note here that language is not the spoken word. The deaf process through words as well, as do the blind and mute.

But imagine life for animals without words.

Drives are surely felt, for food and sex and company. For warmth and shelter and play. Without language, these drives come from parallel processes. They are narrowed by attentive focus, but not finely serialized into a stream of language. We know what this is like from study of the thankfully rare cases where humans reach adulthood free from contact with language. Children locked in rooms into their teens. Children that survive in the wild.

This final burst of output is what made Watson seem human. Google has read and remembers almost every book ever written. It can read those books back to you aloud. It makes mistakes like humans. It is prone to biases which it has absorbed from both its environment and its mostly male programmers. What it lacks are the two things our machine will have, which are the self-referential loop and the serial output stream. It will be able to relate those stories to others.

It will often be wrong. If you want to feel small in the universe, gaze up at the Milky Way from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. If this is not possible, consider that what makes us human is as ignoble as a puppet who has convinced himself he has no strings. Building a car with purposeful ignorance is a terrible idea.

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To give our machine self-consciousness akin to human consciousness, we would have to let it leave that laptop locked in that AirBnB. It would need to run out of juice occasionally.

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This could easily be programmed by assigning weights to the hundreds of input modules, and artificially limiting the time and processing power granted to the final arbiter of decisions and Theory of Mind stories.