04-27-19: ai

Will we know if an artificial intelligence ‘wakes up’?

A question in the back of my mind for some time now has been whether we humans will know, will we ourselves even be aware of other conscious beings in our midst. Will we know if an AI “wakes up?” That of course also suggests other questions, such as whether we can actually consider ourselves fully self-aware if we cannot (or will not) recognize the awareness of others (or at least its possibility); but more on that in another entry.

So, perhaps mechanical, electronic, or digital machines are already aware. Philosophy, science, religion, and speculative fiction has long explored what it means to be alive and to be conscious. All have researched, proposed possibilities, questions, or answers to what the meaning of life is to the origin or make-up of consciousness; and science fiction, for example, is full of improbably intelligent life-forms: murderous insects, monsters, revivified corpses, androids and crystalline beings, seemingly immaterial intelligences, life forms composed purely of energy. Nevertheless, it is one thing to posit on the logical limits of what the category of intelligent life may contain even in fiction, and quite another to investigate the possibility of an already self-aware automobile or an intelligent oven on whether they are in some way “alive.” It is doubtful that any serious scientist at MIT or Stanford would propose research into the possibility that our computer networks, much less your “smart tv” is already alive and conscious.

And if so, how would we know? Might there be a possibility that such artificial intelligence could be so unlikely and so unfamiliar that we would have a difficult time recognizing it at all? What if it were to take on unusual, unexpected, or unfathomable forms? To reiterate, could machines already be or have become self-aware without humans themselves even being cognizant of it? And assuming we would even investigate, on what criteria would we base our questions of the existence of such consciousnesses? Could it be that alien (non-human) consciousness might be so profoundly different that it is rendered practically invisible? Could an algorithm with its feedback loops develop or have already developed into something we did not previously understand was going to be conscious? For what is consciousness and sense of self, and how is it that that which is animate, that which is living, can come out of that which is inanimate and non-living, dead matter? “How,” as asked by Douglas Hofstadter in his book I Am a Strange Loop, “can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle?”

There is no guarantee that a self-conscious intelligence arising out of technologies that humans have developed would originate where we would expect it, where we would notice and see it. Furthermore, neither there is guarantee that any such intelligence would either see or recognize us at all. Might we be completely and mutually oblivious of the other’s existence? Killer robots and genocidal AIs which having decided that humans are the problem and thus need must be eradicated are everywhere in science fiction; but imagine if their understanding of their environment is so radically different from ours that it exists as a parallel reality in which our presence goes as undetected by them as theirs would be by us.

But before we go out and try to create some sort of machine or algorithm or test to determine what and where consciousnesses might arise or already exist, would it not be more prudent first to ask what we would think of such beings or where we might stand with regard to their existence? We might, perhaps, as if we have been here before faced with the possibility of unforeseen “others.”

We might also ask why they would go undetected or seem so alien, for there certainly have been historical and ideological factors which have obstructed the possibility for those who have inhabited the periphery of being heard in the past. Might we be better served by a probing interrogation of what it means first to have political subjectivity and thus to be able to access the state of ‘being’ at all? In her essay, “Can The Subaltern Speak?” Gyatri Spivak suggests that the the answer has been no, and furthermore, that no one has even been listening. Perhaps, that is a good place to begin.