Are Humans Self-Aware?

November 3rd, 2011 | Brain, Robot

“Most people assume that computers can’t be conscious, or self-aware; at best they can only simulate the appearance of this. Of course, this assumes that we, as humans, are self-aware. But are we? I think not. I know that sounds ridiculous, so let me explain.

If by awareness we mean knowing what is in our minds, then, as every clinical psychologist knows, people are only very slightly self-aware, and most of what they think about themselves is guess-work. We seem to build up networks of theories about what is in our minds, and we mistake these apparent visions for what’s really going on. To put it bluntly, most of what our “consciousness” reveals to us is just “made up”. Now, I don’t mean that we’re not aware of sounds and sights, or even of some parts of thoughts. I’m only saying that we’re not aware of much of what goes on inside our minds.

When people talk, the physics is quite clear: our voices shake the air; this makes your ear-drums move — and then computers in your head convert those waves into constituents of words. These somehow then turn into strings of symbols representing words, so now there’s somewhere in your head that “represents” a sentence. What happens next?

When light excites your retinas, this causes events in your brain that correspond to texture, edges, color patches, and the like. Then these, in turn, are somehow fused to “represent” a shape or outline of a thing. What happens then?

We all comprehend these simple ideas. But there remains a hard problem, still. What entity or mechanism carries on from there? We’re used to saying simply, that’s the “self”. What’s wrong with that idea? Our standard concept of the self is that deep inside each mind resides a special, central “self” that does the real mental work for us, a little person deep down there to hear and see and understand what’s going on. Call this the “Single Agent” theory. It isn’t hard to see why every culture gets attached to this idea. No matter how ridiculous it may seem, scientifically, it underlies all principles of law, work, and morality. Without it, all our canons of responsibility would fall, of blame or virtue, right or wrong. What use would solving problems be, without that myth; how could we have societies at all?

The trouble is, we cannot build good theories of the mind that way. In every field, as Scientists we’re always forced to recognize that what we see as single things – like rocks or clouds, or even minds – must sometimes be described as made of other kinds of things. We’ll have to understand that Self, itself, is not a single thing.”

Marvin Minsky, MIT

First published in AI Magazine, vol. 3 no. 4, Fall 1982.


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