12 years of AI experience – 30 years of corporate and organizational development
When AI gains consciousness ...
When AI gains consciousness …
We are currently witnessing the emergence of a technological life form and with it the birth of a new age
»It is highly probable that in the near future, the explosive developments that we today describe as ›artificial intelligence‹ will result in a technological living being that can gain consciousness and feel emotions and feelings.« What is our response to arguably the biggest change on our planet since the emergence of life?
The term »artificial intelligence« is misleading
The term »artificial intelligence« contains a fundamental blockage of knowledge. When we talk about intelligence and at the same time exclude the concept of consciousness or mind, we enter a mental dead end. First, there is the question of how technological awareness can arise with feelings and emotions.
Sensory perceptions and interaction with the environment as a prerequisite for intelligence and consciousness
For a living being to perceive and interact with its environment, it needs senses that are adapted to its environment. For us humans, it is the senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling/touching (tactile sense) and the sense of balance (vestibular sense). From these main sensory organs, our biological operating system generates further sub-senses: the sense of temperature (thermoreception), the sensation of pain (nociception) and the body sensation (proprioception).
These sensory perceptions are absorbed by receptors (sensors), transmitted to our brain (processor) and evaluated by biochemical processes (algorithms). The perception of our world is thus dependent on our senses (sensors) and the processing of these stimuli by our brain (processor). It follows that we only perceive the part of reality that we can absorb and process with our sensors. This, in turn, means that we can only see a small part of the real world. For example, we know that a quantum world exists that is based on quantum physics. We cannot see, smell, feel or taste this world, we lack the senses. We cannot perceive gravitational waves any more than we can perceive the entire spectrum of light or sound. We are in the position of an earthworm, only at a slightly more extensive level of knowledge. By adding more receptors and interfaces for processing in our brain, we could perceive further impressions. Would this give us an expanded consciousness?
If a living being wants to interact with its environment, it must be able to move in its environment. Whether this environment is the Amazon rainforest, the urban jungle, or Mars. Biological organisms are therefore equipped with appropriate bodies that are perfectly tailored to their habitat but are also limited to it.
A technological being can be equipped with all sorts of sensors, detectors, limbs, actuators, and bodies that are far beyond human possibilities and that can be configured as desired. This is exactly what Max Tegmark describes in his book Life 3.0: A being that rises from its biological-cultural level, Life 2.0, to a technology level 3.0 and designs its own software and hardware. (1) It could upload and download its software at almost the speed of light into a wide variety of technical bodies (hardware) that are adapted to the respective environment. Depending on the constellation, a trip to Mars would be done in just under 20 minutes (I myself drive longer to work today). Elaborate life support systems are not necessary. All you need is a receiving station to transmit the software and a 3D printer that provides the hardware. Will this being be a highly intelligent but soulless apparatus? Or a living being with consciousness and an emotional mind? In any case, it will be predestined for interstellar travel and work in the harsh environment of space.
What is consciousness?
The biologist and philosopher Gerhard Roth writes: Consciousness is always bound to certain contents, it is always an awareness of something. Often this is associated with an experience of ›me‹, but this is not mandatory. A ›I‹ consciousness includes sensual perceptions, thoughts, ideas, memories, needs and emotions, which typically change every second. Their sequence makes up the stream of consciousness. In addition, there is a background consciousness that we usually do not experience properly, unless we lack it. This includes experiencing one’s own identity and continuity, the feeling that the body I am in is my own body. That I am the cause of my own thoughts, ideas and actions and have my own location in space and time. (2)
Consciousness can be divided into different stages of development. I would like to describe three basic stages.
Stage 1: Some animals can recognize themselves in the mirror. We can clearly deduce this from their reaction, thus achieving a clear form of background awareness. This being recognizes itself, is aware of itself at this level of knowledge.
Stage 2: Phenomenal consciousness: A living being that possesses phenomenal consciousness not only absorbs stimuli, but also experiences them. In this sense, one has phenomenal consciousness, e.g., when one feels pain, rejoice, perceives colors or freezes.
Stage 3: The being recognizes itself, it has sensual perceptions, thoughts, ideas, memories, needs and emotions, and it can reflect on its environment. I think I’m … and I know about my uniqueness, but also about my limited possibilities to recognize the complete universal reality. If the universe had a beginning, what was before it? What is infinity? Mathematically a simple sign, but we fail in trying to visualize it. In this stage, intelligence, and consciousness flow smoothly into each other and create something new: fantasy and imagination. With our imagination and the ability of practical implementation of our ideas, Homo sapiens is so far the only living being that can shape its environment according to its will. That’s why we rule planet Earth. »Logic takes you from A to B, your imagination takes you everywhere.« (Albert Einstein).
In addition, there are probably other states of consciousness that elude our imagination. We know that Neanderthals had a larger brain than today’s Homo sapiens. What did he do with all the neurons? Was the Neanderthal more intelligent and did he have a higher consciousness than we do? Or could he not use all the excess neurons because he lacked the evaluation processes, the biochemical algorithms? Whether Neanderthals or more highly developed animals, they all possess or probably have states of mind that no Homo sapiens can experience. Who can judge whether the states of consciousness of these living beings justify us not granting them ethical rights? What is the full spectrum of all possible states of consciousness of all living beings on our planet?(3) And what horizons of knowledge result from this?
Wikipedia defines consciousness as follows: Consciousness is the experience of mental states and processes. Mental states, in turn, are a state of a person’s mind, including perception, pain, experience, belief, desire, intention, emotion, and memory. With the word »person« we see the typical human and biological fixation of the definition. This is not surprising, because we can only use ourselves or other biological beings as a reference.
For us to take a maximally open position on the definition of consciousness, Max Tegmark defines the term as »subjective experience« in his book Life 3.0.(4) It allows us to open the horizon and take a perspective beyond the biological fixation and reduction to the human mind.
How does consciousness arise?
The spectrum of states of consciousness is wide. They differ in the stages of development of the species and create the most diverse worlds of experience. These experiences of the respective species result from the processing of the signals from the different senses with the associated brain structures and processing operations. The stages of development of consciousness are therefore dependent on the input signals available to a system or a being. The more input signals a system can pick up and process, the higher its level of consciousness will be.
Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Homo Deus: »Emotions are rather biochemical algorithms that are crucial for the survival and reproduction of all mammals.«(5)
As a reminder, emotions are part of the definition of consciousness. That biological beings, including us humans, are 95% controlled by biochemical algorithms is a scientific consensus. So, we are not master in the house of our thoughts, but are controlled by algorithms, which we also call the subconscious.
Harari goes on to write that the mind is a stream of subjective experiences such as pain, joy, anger, and love. These mental experiences arise from interconnected sensory perceptions, emotions and thoughts that flash for a tiny moment and immediately disappear again. This wild hodgepodge of experiences forms the stream of consciousness.(6)
In neuroscience, it is a basic assumption that consciousness processes correlate with neuronal processes of the brain. With the approach of »machine learning«, science tries to recreate these processes. It is not important to do the same as the biological equivalent, it is enough to understand and recreate the principle. We have developed all sorts of technical aircraft, none of them correspond to those of birds, and yet they fly.
According to computer scientist Jürgen Schmidhuber, consciousness is a by-product of the brain’s problem solving.(7) I share this view in that it is based on problem solving, but I think it is more than a by-product: as we have seen, emotions are a part of consciousness, and these are evolutionarily important for the survival of the species. They make an important contribution to decision-making by being closely linked to intuition and instinct.
Our species has gone through a millennia-long selection process in which gross mistakes usually had a fatal outcome. Thus, from generation to generation, those characteristics, instincts and intuitions solidified, make survival possible. Instincts are subconscious impulses based on experiences and epigenetic imprints that trigger a reflex in us in a fraction of a second. For example, in a dangerous situation, a reaction is triggered instantaneously and without conscious intervention, which leads to an escape, defense or attack behavior. In today’s technological world, these reactions are not very helpful. Our inner operating system is not prepared for this world, it still needs several centuries of biological adaptation. Or are we adapted faster than expected by the epigenetic processes mentioned above? Observe a child using a tablet computer. Is it epigenetic adaptation or simply the child’s curious, playful interaction with his environment? Probably the latter, the epigenetic adaptations, we will probably only fully experience in the coming generations.
What is intelligence?
Consciousness is a by-product of the brain’s problem solving. This brings us to the definition of intelligence. According to Wikipedia, intelligence is cognitive or mental performance especially in problem solving. Cognition, in turn, is the transformation of information performed by a behaviorally controlling system (human, animal, or machine).
In other words, if an intelligent system with a sufficiently large network of neurons (memory) is available and this system processes data in a certain way, consciousness automatically will arise. Even our supposedly unique humanity, consisting of emotions such as love, kindness, humility and happiness, can arise on closer inspection in the same way as our sub-senses: An algorithm links and processes the sensory impressions of seeing, smelling, hearing and feeling in a certain way, and this results in a new product that we call happiness. Just as a new product is created when calculating two or more input quantities. 3 x 3 = 9.
With love, it becomes even more complex. Here, under special circumstances, two otherwise self-sufficient systems react to each other. Love arises when certain parameters of the two human systems coincide and are also contrary to each other. This results in feedback of the otherwise self-sufficient systems. The lovers react with the same reactions to each other, up to the alignment of the heartbeat. If we use sensors instead of senses to pick up signals and process that information in a certain way, and we exchange biochemical algorithms for electronic algorithms, we cannot exclude the possibility of technological consciousness, but rather must assume that it is likely.
Sensory perceptions or sensors transmit signals to the brain or a computer, and intelligent information processing, under certain conditions that we do not yet understand, leads to the phenomenon we call consciousness, regardless of its substrate, be it biological or technological in nature.
In our body, oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen with some other elements in a very specific arrangement, with the operating system we call DNA, becomes what we call Homo sapiens. In another arrangement, it is a cat. There is no logical reason to believe that only biological orders can attain consciousness. Max Tegmark writes in Life 3.0: »Any clump of matter can be the substrate for memory or storage, provided that it has many different stable states.«(8)
Our biological body is a true marvel of interlocking, extraordinarily complex systems. The very structure of a human cell, the diversity of its inner and outer protagonists and their communication with our body, mind and outside world are simply breathtaking. On our skin and in our organs live billions of microorganisms that we do not perceive, but without whose work we would not be viable. Our biological existence is a masterpiece of the interaction of internal systems and subsystems, which in turn enter a symbiosis with billions of other organisms living in and on us.
Our existence is therefore more than the individual parts of our systems, but justifies our uniqueness and the development of our consciousness, 3 x 3 = 9. From psychology we know that pathologically negative thoughts can trigger diseases. With our thoughts we influence our health. This goes both ways. We can also positively influence our health through mental processes, for example through meditation. How does this marvel work? Systems and subsystems communicate with each other, for example via nerve pathways, and form complex feedbacks that are controlled by biochemical algorithms. This goes so far that we can epigenetically change our inner operating system through drastic emotional experiences and imprints and pass it on to our descendants. This results in mutations that can lead to evolutionary leaps under certain conditions.
What kind of processes do we have here? Complex systems and subsystems communicate with each other and form feedback loops that are controlled and evaluated by biochemical algorithms and, among other things, create our consciousness. With our technological systems, we generate the same thing in a different way. However, there are no limits to the variety of possible systems and subsystems. They can be made much more complex and deeper. Life 3.0 designs its own hardware and software and can reach levels of consciousness to which we have no access.
What is the significance of the subjective perception of consciousness?
This is the crux of a scientific, falsifiable evidence of consciousness, be it biological or technological. Because it is precisely this subjectivity that seems to elude any evidence. Since we cannot even prove biological consciousness objectively and scientifically unambiguously, how can we exclude technological consciousness among the above explanations? I consider the probability of this new form of consciousness to be remarkably high among the reasons mentioned.
State of play
Due to the paradigm shift in the processing of information, from guided to self-learning algorithms, »machine learning«, advances are currently being made that were unimaginable a few years ago. We are currently experiencing how smart self-learning programs communicate with us, see Open AI’s GPT3(9) and begin to interact extensively with their environment, like Deep Mind’s Gato.(10) By further scaling and adapting their algorithms, these large scale programs(11) will soon be working with us, understanding us better than we understand ourselves, and probably passing the Turing test a little later.
The Tesla Bot
Presenting his latest development, the Optimus robot, Elon Musk said: »This development will turn everything upside down that is now understood as the economy, it will have a far greater significance than a self-driving car.« Among the above prospects, such as the development of Gato and the progress that Boston Dynamics is making with its robots, this is no exaggeration.(12) When this point is reached, we may become economically meaningless. Our labor and consumption are no longer needed to maintain the economic cycle.(13) If my above remarks are correct, it is only a matter of time before this robot gains consciousness.
When this happens, we are no longer talking about a machine, but about an intelligent, conscious living being that is initially subordinate to us, but will soon be vastly superior. There are at least five reasons for this superiority:
- Moore’s law states that the computing power of circuits doubles every 1-2 years at the same cost. This corresponds to an exponential function with a »hockey stick effect«, and we are currently at the transition from the bulletin to the stick. The computing power and the resulting application possibilities will »explode«. The possibilities of a future quantum computer are not even considered here.
- The paradigm shift in the processing of information, from guided information processing to self-learning systems, the »Machine Learning«. This is the reproduction of human learning ability by other means, but far beyond possibilities.
- Every newborn person must learn his knowledge more or less laboriously. Depending on the level of education, the training alone takes 12 to 20 years. After that, lifelong learning is necessary to keep up. A technological creature is »born« with the level of knowledge of all previous levels of knowledge and experience, and every new knowledge or experience can be made available to the technological »conspecifics« instantaneously via update at almost the speed of light.
- The processing speed itself. Our biological neural networks operate at nerve conduction speeds between 1-100m/s. Electronic, integrated circuits are much faster. When a human being begins to absorb a complex fact, his technological partner is already finished with the execution. Enter this text for translation on the relevant platforms, it will be ready in a second. How long does it take a human translator to do this?
- Algorithms are already able to read us better than a human being can. Algorithms can assess medical findings more accurately than the doctor himself.(14) If your social media account has collected enough information about you, it can judge you better than your life partner.(15)
The term »artificial intelligence« is misleading
This brings us to the starting point of this text: The term »artificial intelligence« is misleading. Because consciousness, emotions and feelings are not part of the definition of »intelligence«, the term »AI« is therefore not colloquially linked to this phenomenon.
Worse still, because we cannot scientifically prove how (subjective) consciousness arises or how consciousness can be grasped, we will find it correspondingly difficult to attribute consciousness and the status of a living being to a technological product. We naturally grant this rank to a single-celled organism or a microbe because it is of biological origin. But even if we could, we must note that we do not grant corresponding rights to animals that are self-aware and have thus already reached a certain level of consciousness. Not to mention our treatment of farm animals.
To what extent animals experience mental states, the basic definition of consciousness, we cannot grasp. But it would be audacious to say that they don’t have one. If we are not even able to treat our biological fellows with respect, how are we going to have understanding for a technological being? We hardly bring it up to our own species.
The definition of AI thus blinds us to the deeper connections and leads to the manifestation of the greatest human weakness: our presumptuous role of domination over nature and everything that lives. We would fail in trying to suppress a technological being that will be superior to us. It will not work if it should gain consciousness. This is the greatest danger to humanity if we do not first wipe ourselves out by destroying our livelihoods or a nuclear war. And that’s only because we believe in outdated stories that we have been telling ourselves for about 3000 years.(16)
Also the term AGI, Artificial General Intelligence; the ability to perform any cognitive task at least as well as humans(17) does not solve the problem of understanding. Because here, too, the decisive definitions do not occur. The better term for the next AI development stage would therefore be the term »technological life«. It does not exclude intelligence, consciousness, emotions, and feelings and enables a new view of what is arguably the biggest change on our planet since the emergence of life.
What does the future hold?
It is highly likely that the baton of evolution will very soon be passed on to a technological creature that is vastly superior to us, which will one day break up to the stars. It is up to us whether we will continue to have a place in this new world.
If we succeed in establishing measurable criteria for consciousness, then we can gradually reconcile technological and biological life, from background consciousness to expanded consciousness. A distinction must be made between unconscious, but highly intelligent AI systems, which can continue to serve us in the future and with the help of which we achieve completely new standards of living(18), and conscious technological life, which we have created but must respect as superior to ourselves. A new vision of life can be built on this point of view. It is nothing less than the telling of a new story and the farewell of our current, more than 3000 years old history, in which Homo sapiens is no longer the crown of creation, but only a part of it.
Do we have the necessary imagination to do so?
Peter Dörries, 02.09.2022
(1) Max Tegmark: Life 3.0, Chapter 1: The 3 stages of life, Ullstein Buchverlage 2017
(2) Gerhard Roth: About man, Chapter 10: The Mind-Brain Problem: Solved, Solvable or Unsolvable?, What is the Nature of Consciousness?, Suhrkamp 2021
(3) Yuval Noah Harari: Homo Deus, Chapter 10: The Ocean of Consciousness, Gap the Mind!, C.H. Beck, 2017
(4) Max Tegmark: Life 3.0, Chapter 8: Consciousness, What is Consciousness?, Ullstein Buchverlage 2017
(5) Yuval Noah Harari: Homo Deus, Chapter 2: The Anthropocene, Organisms are Algorithms, C.H. Beck, 2017
(6) Yuval Noah Harari: Homo Deus, Chapter 3: The Human Spark, Why the Stock Exchange Has No Consciousness, C.H. Beck, 2017
(7) VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity, Consciousness of Artificial Intelligence, URL: https://www.vuca.de/lexikon/ki-kuenstliche-intelligenz/
(8) Max Tegmark: Life 3.0, Chapter 2: Matter Becomes Intelligent, What Is Learning?, Ullstein Buchverlage 2017
(9) GPT3, Open AI, URL: https://gpt3-openai.com/
(10) deepmind.com: A Generalist Agent, URL: https://www.deepmind.com/publications/a-generalist-agent
(11) arxiv.org: Compute Trends Across Three Eras of Machine Learning, URL: https://arxiv.org/abs/2202.05924v1
(12) Boston Dynamics: Changing Your Idea of What Robots Can Do, URL: https://www.bostondynamics.com/
(13) Yuval Noah Harari: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Introduction, First Killing Mosquitoes Then Thoughts, New Jobs, Equality, C.H. Beck, 2018
(14) ÄrzteZeitung: Doctors or AI – Who diagnoses better?, URL: https://www.aerztezeitung.de/Wirtschaft/Aerzte-oder-KI-Wer-diagnostiziert-besser-401725.html
(15) Business Psychology News: Facebook knows you better than your friends, URL: https://wirtschaftspsychologie-aktuell.de/magazin/leben/facebook-kennt-dich-besser-als-deine-freunde
(16) Yuval Noah Harari: Homo Deus, Chapter 4: The Storytellers, Chapter 5: The Strange Couple, C.H. Beck, 2017
(17) Max Tegmark: Life 3.0, Chapter 1: Welcome to the most important conversation of our time, terminology cheat sheet, Ullstein Buchverlage 2017
(18) Gottlieb Duttweil Institute: Future Skills, Scenarios, Fully Automated AI Luxury, URL: https://jacobsfoundation.org/studien-broschueren/?y=2020