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Conscious machines? Not unless they are alive, says expert in “mind-scrambling” TED talk
Our conscious experiences of the world have more to do with being alive than being intelligent, argues a leading expert in a “mind-scrambling” TED talk made available to the public today (18 July).
Taking the stage at this year’s TED conference in Vancouver, Canada, Professor Anil Seth of the University of Sussex shares some key lessons he has learnt over nearly two decades trying to unravel the mystery of consciousness, with implications from new approaches to psychiatry to the possibility of conscious AI.
He says: “My research is telling me that consciousness has less to do with pure intelligence and more to do with our nature as living, breathing organisms. Intelligence and consciousness are very different things. You don’t have to be smart to suffer, but you probably do have to be alive.”
This has important consequences for the AI debate, Professor Seth suggests. If consciousness is tied to having and being a living body, then no robot or machine – at least as we currently conceive of such things - could ever be truly conscious.
Professor Seth explains: “What it means to be me cannot be reduced to – or uploaded to – a software program running on an advanced robot, however sophisticated or intelligent.
“We are flesh and blood animals whose conscious experiences are deeply shaped by a biological drive to stay alive.
“Just making computers smarter is not going to make them sentient.”
Science writer Davey Alba described the talk as “mind-scrambling” and the highlight of her TED experience this year, ahead of talks by fellow speakers the Pope, Al Gore and Serena Williams. Writing for WIRED magazine, Ms Alba said: “What he said spoke to me: despite recent claims to the contrary, consciousness is uniquely intertwined with being human.
“All this handwringing about AI becoming conscious? About uploading your brain to a robot? You probably shouldn’t worry.
“As a human, I found this very comforting.”
Our conscious experiences, Professor Seth says, are essentially “controlled hallucinations, designed by evolution to keep us alive in worlds full of danger and opportunity”.
He says: “We’re all hallucinating all the time. It’s just that whenever we agree about our hallucinations, we call it reality.
“Imagine being a brain. There you are, stuck inside a bony skull, trying to figure out what’s out there in the world. There’s no light inside the skull – and no sound either. All you have to go on are streams of electrical signals, which are only indirectly related to things in the world, whatever they may be.
“Perception therefore has to be a process of ‘informed guesswork’ … what we perceive is the brain’s ‘best guess’ of what’s out there.
“The world we experience comes as much from the inside-out, as from the outside-in. We don’t passively perceive our worlds. We actively generate them.”
Professor Seth goes onto show that this also applies to how we perceive our own bodies, and how the brain uses prediction to control and regulate the biological mechanisms that keep us alive.
And while robots and AI often grab the headlines (including this one), the underlying science of consciousness is also leading to real improvements to the lives of humans, helping us to better understand and treat neurological and psychiatric conditions, such as depression and schizophrenia.
Professor Seth says: “These are major shifts in how we understand ourselves and they should be celebrated.
“As so often happens in science, from Copernicus and Darwin to the present day, with greater understanding comes a greater sense of wonder, and a greater realisation that we are part of, and not apart from, the rest of nature.”