Emotional versus intellectual attributions of consciousness

Click through for full sized version and the red button caption.

via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

This SMBC reminds me of a concept that I’ve been debating on ways to express, but a brief comment here seems like the opportunity to do so.  We’ve had a lot of discussions about exactly when we might start to consider an AI (artificial intelligence) a fellow being.  This is a philosophical question with no right or wrong answer.

One of the things that’s become apparent to me over time, is that there are two answers to it.  The first is the emotional one, which this strip satirizes.  We come pre-wired to see things as fellow conscious beings.  Many see this anthropomorphizing tendency as the basis for beliefs in ghosts, spirits, demons, gods, and other supernatural entities.  We often intuitively extend it to things like storms, cars, and existing computer systems.  In experiments, people have been reluctant to destroy cute robots after they had played with them for a while, obviously intuitively feeling that they were conscious entities.

I recently listened to an interview with the director of the new Ex Machina, the new AI movie, who stated that he knew he wouldn’t have a problem convincing audiences that the AI in the movie was sentient.  He knew that emotionally, they’d be predisposed to accepting it as such, at least within make believe framework of the movie.  (Having actress Alicia Vikander‘s lovely face on the AI probably helped tremendously.)

Of course, intellectually we know that things like storms, cars, and cute robots aren’t conscious systems.  Even though we feel at times emotionally that they are, we don’t intellectually give ourselves permission to regard them as such.  (At least most of us in the modern developed world don’t.)  I think this intellectual threshold where we give permission is the second answer.  And, as before, it remains a philosophical threshold.

The other thing this strip brilliantly points out, is that we have to be careful of being too guarded with that intellectual permission, too skeptical.  It’s the same intellectual skepticism that once allowed people to consider animals as not being conscious, and to then feel okay with mistreating them.

I think we’re still a long way from having a sentient conscious machine, but as we get closer, we have to be on guard against setting the standard too high.  We don’t want to find ourselves making statements like the one in the last caption.