I’ve talked with a bunch of friends recently about consciousness. I’ve been reading Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, and I found a quote to be very interesting:

Are computers thinking, or are they just calculating? Conversely, are human beings thinking, or are they just calculating? The human brain presumably follows the laws of physics, so it must be a machine, albeit a very complex one. Is there an inherent difference between human thinking and machine thinking? To pose the question another way, once computers are as complex as the human brain, and can match the human brain in subtlety and complexity of thought, are we to consider them conscious? (Kurzweil 5-6)

Every person I asked had a similar first reaction:

“No. Of course they’re not conscious. They’re a computer.”

Granted, this was my first reaction, too. A computer’s a giant calculator, and I’m a human. However, after a few beers and an hour’s conversation or so, my friends weren’t so sure. What really was the difference between a human and a computer with the cognitive complexity of a human?

I was the first to speak up in favor of computers being conscious.

“I mean, look at Vivi,” I said. “He’s got passions; he questions his existence; he makes friends; he has feelings, at least of a sort. How is he not conscious?”

Unfortunately, my FFIX fandom betrayed me. It was easy to see that my emotional connection with Vivi due to my love for the character was clouding my judgement concerning his consciousness. (Sorry, Vivi. Did my best.)

First, we had to decide what “conscious” meant, for the purposes of our discussion.

“I think that consciousness is the ability to tap into the consciousness of the collective – to perceive, to have an ‘antenna’ that connects you to the rest of the universe,” my roommate, Patrick, proposed. This sparked a discussion on which beings or things would have this “antenna”, and which would not. Are we, as humans, the only thing with this “antenna”? If so, why? Was it something that was given to us specifically? If so, since we presumably follow the laws of physics, why is it that we are the only beings with this “antenna”? Is it beyond science? Eventually, we came to the conclusion that while people do sometimes have an odd feeling of purpose that could approach a feeling of divinity, there was no evidence to support such claims.

I’m sure I’ll write more about this discussion at some point, because I found it fascinating. What do you guys think? What is consciousness? Is Vivi “conscious”? What do you think of Kurzweil’s quote?

For now, I’ll leave y’all with Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws of technology, as well as a great quote from Gregory Vlastos.

The Three Laws of Technology:

– When a scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

– The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

– Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

“A machine is as distinctively and brilliantly and expressively human as a violin sonata or a theorem in Euclid” – Gregory Vlastos