The issue that lurks right over the horizon of possibility is whether increasing complexification in generatively encoded “intelligent machines” could instantiate some form of consciousness. I argue that the most probable answer is “yes”. The system would become auto-referential, and in this way, acquire a “sense of self”. Leaving aside more deeply philosophical discussions on the topic, at the most basic level this means that the system would develop an awareness of its internal state and of external conditions and be able to discriminate between itself and things that are not itself. This is an important step, as it would lead to relationality – a set of functions that provide resonance or dissonance with particular types of (internal and/or external) environmental conditions, reinforcement and reward for achieving certain goals or states, and in this way a sense of what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has called “a feeling of what happens“; in other words, a form of consciousness (and self-consciousness).
Could robotic systems create environments and bodies for themselves? To answer these questions, let’s start with something simple (and most probable), and then open our discussion to include a somewhat more sublime, and more futuristic vision. Let’s also lay down some basic presumptions about how a paradigm for such physically intelligent robots would be initiated and sustained. The establishment of a neurally-modeled, physically intelligent system capable of generative encoding would need to enable the acquisition of data, information, and therefore some type of “knowledge” about both the system itself (i.e.- interoceptive understanding), and the environments in which the system would be embedded and engaged (i.e.- exteroceptive understanding).
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Lakshmi Sandhana as she was preparing her article, “Darwin’s Robots” that appeared in last week’s New Scientist. Lakshmi specifically addresses the work of Jeffrey Clune, of the HyperNEAT Project of Cornell University’s Creative Machine Laboratory. Clune’s work is cutting edge and provocative in its focus upon the possibility and implications of “creative”, and “intelligent,” if not “conscious” machines. But it’s this last point about consciousness in a machine that really opens up a proverbial “can of worms”. As a neuroscientist I believe that it’s not a question of if this will happen, but when…and perhaps, more appropriately, how soon, and will be ready for it when it does, and as a neuroethicist I can guarantee that the idea – and reality – of conscious machines stirs up a brew of moral, ethical, legal and social contentiousness. But let’s put these ethical issues and questions aside for the moment, and look into some of the possibilities spawned by neuro-robotic engineering.