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Meet the Replicants

Manus Charleton

Time was when we were amazed that a calculator could do our mental arithmetic. In computer-speak the smartphone is now referred to as “a personal assistant” and its operating software as its “brain”. It can be programmed to do everyday tasks automatically, such as making coffee or switching on or off lights or heating, and voice-receptive smartphones can be asked to do this as required. Increasingly, smartphones will be able to know about us as individuals, about our interests, habits and customs. Their software systems are able to learn from how they function in our interaction with them and adjust their responses. This gives them a capacity to operate with a degree of autonomy. In the Financial Times of June 3rd/4th, 2017, Ben Bajarin, a Silicone Valley researcher, saw smartphones as becoming “proactively intelligent”.

Erica (see Guardian video of April 7th, 2017) is a woman-sized android that has a degree of body movement and is capable of engaging in basic conversation. Its design team aims to understand the structure of how people interact with each other and then reproduce it in an android to such an extent that we might, it seems, scarcely notice its difference from a person. This includes developing the android’s autonomy, not just so it can learn from experience but also have intentions and desires.

This of course is still at the far outer edge of what might be achievable, still science fiction. Hal was an early fictional example, the malfunctioning (disobedient? rogue?) computer with the cheerily informal name but eerily controlling voice that ran the spaceship’s operating system in Stanley Kubrick’s1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But in what as yet unknown direction might self-learning and proactively intelligent robots be developed, and what effect might they have on how we perceive and value our own intelligence and consciousness?

Research backed by large financial investment, such as Google’s DeepMind project, is forging ahead to turn the fiction into fact and reproduce human intelligence in androids that approximate to humans. From one point of view it might seem just a further technological development to add to those that have already impacted on our sense of what it means to be human and brought benefits as well as risks. A development no different in essence from others for which fears were expressed, but which we’ve learnt to live with while maintaining a sense of our distinctive self. The camera didn’t steal the souls of Native Americans when they had their photographs taken. Television, through mass entertainment programmes, hasn’t destroyed our minds. And if social media have led to the loss of some interpersonal sensitivity and consideration, they have also helped put the spotlight on the value of the individual self, as objections to the way some people misuse the media to demean and take advantage of others indicate. In 2010 Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made the controversial claim that privacy was no longer a social norm. Most of us are prepared, if reluctantly, to trade some access to some of our private interests and habits to corporations for their commercial purposes so we can benefit from the facility of their internet services in different ways: speed of communication, shopping, booking, information, news, research etc. But we still regard our interior life as distinctive and personal, and for this reason something that should be valued and protected as having special worth. However, developments in artificial intelligence put its value at increased risk.

Embodying intelligent capacity and some autonomy in devices has implications for how we view biologically intelligent human life. It shifts how we understand the mind from something inherently mysterious to something that functions more like a machine. This shift will be reinforced the more electronically intelligent devices capable of thinking and acting like us feature in our everyday lives. This is likely to erode the perception of the distinctive significance and worth of individual consciousness and interpersonal connections, in particular for those unable to do much for themselves because of disability or old age.

It’s easy to imagine how a person’s sense of his or her individual worth could be diminished in practice. Think of a humanlike robot that can provide home care services to an elderly person living alone, services that include discussing with the person how he or she feels, offering professional advice, reminding the person when to take medication, fetching it from a shelf and whatever else, before bidding the person goodnight. Such a figure would seem toy-like as well as having obvious practical benefits (see “How automations are infiltrating the family”, The Irish Times, May 11th, 2017), but constant interaction with it, regardless of its warm and cheery voice, would be likely to condition people to be treated – and to expect to be treated – in formulaic ways with a fake, machine-fashioned humanity rather than as individuals of worth. There is also a likelihood that an android’s unflagging intelligent capability will incline some people to devalue their own capability.

A big step towards undermining personal worth will occur if it’s ever proved scientifically that there is nothing intrinsically mysterious about the mind; that it’s no more than an electrochemical charge that developed over billions of years from physical systems and processes that came together and evolved into the organ of the brain, a brain that operates like a machine from which a measure of autonomy sprang.

Some scientists and philosophers believe in this account on current evidence. In a recent interview and profile published in The New Yorker, headed “The Science of the Soul”, philosopher Daniel Dennett described the relation between the brain and the mind in computer terms: the brain is the hardware which runs a series of layered software programmes through which we experience conscious life. Similarly, for Demis Hassibis, founder and CEO of the DeepMind project, it seems likely that all intelligent capacities, which would include those we associate closely with being uniquely human, such as imagination and creativity, will eventually prove programmable (Financial Times interview of January 31st/February 1st, 2015).

Outwardly the brain is a chunk of fatty matter. Inwardly, at a microscopic level, it’s structured in circuits of tiny, tightly-knit furrows or pathways along which run electrochemical currents. Scanners have produced high quality images of a working brain by way of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These can track neural activity in different parts of the brain while a person performs different mental tasks. For example, when the mind is involved in guiding the body through a confined space, or responding to a request, or even making an ethical response, different parts of the brain become active in characteristic neural patterns in contrast to other parts. This indicates at least a correlation, if not a causal relation, between the brain’s physiology and conscious activity.

So far there is no evidence of a physical area of the brain that produces the way consciousness is experienced as one immaterial whole pervading our interior life, no evidence of some inner configuration of neural circuitry that would explain how the activity along the pathways are experienced in an integrated way by one consciousness with a power to receive and direct experiences. Nor do we know at a deeper philosophical and evolutionary level how matter could give rise to immaterial thought, and it’s far from clear if we ever will. But under the scientific materialist view it is a mistake to think that consciousness exists as a specific entity in itself. There is no empirical support for this, no inner “pilot light” or “control centre” or “ghost in the machine”, as it has been variously described, that makes us aware of our functioning mental states and behaviour. To think that there might be one is an illusion. Instead, evolution has given us brain-produced mental states and activities that come lined with our awareness of them. They are evident to us privately and we communicate them publicly through our verbal and other behaviours.

If the materialists are correct that consciousness is adequately explained by the brain’s physical functioning, or if a physical source for consciousness as a whole is ever found, it makes it more likely that consciousness will one day be replicated in a manufactured device. Developments in cyber technology to produce intelligent androids proceed on this basis. And it suggests a need to refocus attention on how we view and value individual human consciousness to help ensure it continues to be respected as the core of each person.

In Western culture, the standard idea about its worth derives from the Judeo-Christian understanding. It holds that consciousness was given to us by God, who made us in his image and likeness. Consciousness is understood to be a manifestation of an immaterial essence or soul. It is also regarded as the location of conscience, through which we can discover and apply knowledge of the right way to behave in accordance with our God-given nature. This religious conception has been carried over into secular humanist understanding, where it has helped to provide cultural support for a belief in the foundational value of human life. Its influence continues to co-exist in culture along with acceptance of the scientific materialist view that consciousness has evolved, without need for divine creation or intervention, by way of material changes in the brain from non-conscious and minimally conscious forms of animal life. And its influence has contributed to acceptance of the belief that people are individuals and are equal in having the same worth simply by virtue of their being a human person. Its influence can be seen too in the recognition of democracy as the most morally justifiable system of political rule, and in the development and declaration of concepts of universal human rights. However, with the declining acceptance of the religious basis on which it rests, the status of the individual worth of consciousness has become more precarious.

Evolution has also provided us with moral instinct. Survival would hardly have been possible without the influence of moral instinct to care for ourselves, our partners and offspring as well as act with some measure of solidarity and cooperation with others for a collective benefit. A moral instinct understanding of ethics can seem simplistic in its efforts to account for all the complexity, conflict and nuance in the way we experience moral issues, demands and problems. But moral instinct is at least a founding element in our evolution, along with reason and imagination, one that functions in different ways but especially as a warning bell. Reason and imagination have given us the capacity to construct and outsource human intelligence in artificial form to androids, and at a morally instinctive level there is something bell-ringing about the effects this will have on how we value and protect our own consciousness. We have already seen how civil liberties of personal freedom and privacy can be exploited by corporations and state agencies gathering information about us when we haven’t given them our informed consent. How much more vulnerable will we be to having our consciousness demeaned and exploited as artificial intelligence develops and we interact with it in a range of everyday activities connected through the “internet of things”? Decisions about its powers and uses have implications for us generally. They won’t be catered for adequately by ethics committees in the corporations researching and developing products for their commercial gain.

Regulation is one thing but, more fundamentally, as differences in capability between human consciousness and artificial intelligence narrow – and some capability, for example speed of thought, can be performed artificially a lot faster – there is a need to identify and describe features of human consciousness that distinguish it as much as possible. The scientific materialist view is narrowly focused on the mechanics of how the brain works. But our lived experience of consciousness is much broader and richer. We experience it first and foremost at a pre-reflective level through our whole body and brain, sensory and affective immersion in the world. Also, it’s perhaps no accident that “soul” is still used in common speech in a non-religious sense to designate our experience of having a distinct conscious self or spirit, one that gives us an emotionally moving capacity to respond to each other as well as to art, music, the sublime in nature, subversive comedy, and to the mystery of what lies behind human evolution. Such a description would seem an essential part of any account of what it means to be uniquely human. A further dimension is the human capacity to act counter-intuitively and counter-culturally to prevailing norms in strangely appealing ways, as religious teachers such as Christ and Buddha have done.

It is highly unlikely that such features and dimensions could ever become programmable in the precise way humans experience them. Even if some features could be programmed to some extent, their biological roots and ancestral inheritance in specific individual people would seem irreplaceable by code. But a developed account of human consciousness containing these and other features and dimensions would enable us to maintain and value its distinctive difference from simulacra. It could also be promoted to have the imaginative influence in culture of a foundational story of individual worth comparable to those based on the idea of divine creation that have lasted for millennia.


Manus Charleton writes essays and fiction. His writing has also appeared in Irish Pages and in Studies. The 2nd. edition of his textbook, Ethics for Social Care in Ireland: Philosophy & Practice, was published by Gill & Macmillan in 2014.



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