According to Webster’s Dictionary, intelligence is “the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations…the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests)…”, then, intriguingly, includes this sub-definition for artificial intelligence: “the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour…a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behaviour in computers”. Consciousness Webster’s defines, variously, as “the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself”, “the state or fact of being conscious of an external object, state, or fact”, and “the upper level of mental life of which the person is aware as contrasted with unconscious processes”. If artificial intelligence (AI) is a real possibility, in what way might it deliver material systems – as computers, networks, robotics and other high-technological systems – that meet the defined criteria for intelligence, consciousness and awareness? Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopaedia says “AI, in its broadest sense would indicate the ability of an artefact to perform the same kinds of functions that characterise human thought.” And perhaps not only thinking, which is only one central aspect of consciousness and awareness; it is reasonable to assert that in order to be truly intelligent the “artefact” would have to further demonstrate a capacity for other forms of associative awareness such as we find in human meditative and other abstract mental states. Is this possible? Or are the adherents of strong AI either too deluded or in thrall to their backers to disengage from an ultimately fruitless quest?
Having considered this question for some time, it is this author’s viewpoint that the entire question of whether strong AI is a “future fact” is itself delusory, that our machines are already “awakening”, that due to a misleading emphasis we are expecting thinking from our “things”, and that therefore our machines will not necessarily develop, act and react in ways we can readily identify as intelligent, much less conscious and/or aware.
AI is often represented as a type of mimicry whereby machines will be programmed to think and act like us, but the possibility exists that what we are creating is not an imitative but intrinsically new order of consciousness that operates in parallel to our own and that intelligent machines can play a role as sentient partners in our transformation. Our transformed machines may assume a creative role, but while they may think or act like us, they may not be like us, just as our children, while like us, are not us. To be truly intelligent – conscious – surely we would expect our machines to do more than just “think”? When computer programs can already outwit chess grandmasters – arguably great logicians with heightened powers of thinking and reasoning – and control highly complex systems more ably than human beings, the importance of “thinking”, which in the human being, for all its complexity, is in isolation from wider issues of consciousness and conscious awareness often very inefficient and delusory, how much of a measure is it for intelligence? Hutchinson’s Dictionary of Science defines AI as “…creating computer programs that can perform actions comparable with those of an intelligent human”; by this definition rudimentary AI has existed for some time already; indeed, without it we would not enjoy many of the advantages our technology makes possible. Recently Professor Kevin Warrington, the country’s leading expert on robotics, was somewhat alarmed when a control group of supposedly simple robots exhibited decision-making capacities independent of his programming. Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopaedia, defining intelligence as the “capacity to learn or to understand”, would seem to offer broad enough criteria to demonstrate that at least in the case of Warrington’s robots, crude machine intelligence is already being demonstrated under laboratory conditions. If, as the Dictionary of Computing says, AI is “the design and device of computer programs that attempt to imitate human intelligence and decision making functions, providing basic reasoning and other human characteristics.”, then it is already upon us.
If AI does make consciousness in machines possible, will we recognise it immediately as such? There are many forms of consciousness, the simplest example being that of the enlightened man or woman self-liberated from duality, another being that of the lucid dreamer or astral traveller who achieves complete awareness in the dream state, thereby entering, as Castaneda said in his eponymous bestseller, a “separate reality”. William James, the pioneer of cosmic consciousness research, said “Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different…No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” To identify new forms of consciousness must involve contexts of mind and meditation, and spirit, and if machines are imminently to be conscious then such contexts must have application to them, too. Our children, whose minds are being modified by constant interaction with high technology, may have something to teach us about the leap we are making, and which our machines will make, from merely using technology to palpating (“recognising in an experiential way”, cf Chris Griscom) with it. The time has indeed come to accept that there are connections between spirituality and technology and to explore them openly, honestly and with no little excitement: what we are making will soon be able to make itself and therefore make us different too. Writing in The Sunday Times last year, Steve Connor said, “Whatever the evolutionary origin of the conscious mind, it is clear that it is beginning to lead to the development of a new form of intelligence, one based on the silicon hardware of the computer rather than the organic carbon of the brain.” The central issue is consciousness, and it is whether or not artificial intelligence can be synonymous with consciousness that matters. Under CONSCIOUSNESS, STATES OF, Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopaedia says that, “…No simple, agreed-upon definition of consciousness appears to exist. Attempted definitions tend to be tautological (for example, consciousness defined as awareness) or merely descriptive (for example, consciousness described as sensations, thoughts, or feelings)…Trends can be seen…toward a new emphasis on the nature of states of consciousness.”
In considering all this we must have regard for the insights of mysticism, a fact now recognised in the increasing discussion in academia and research and development of intelligent systems. The physicist Eugene Wigner is just one scientist who believes that the formal inclusion of consciousness in the sciences could well become an essential feature of any further advance in our scientific understandings. Swami Muktananda said, “To have the awareness that everything is made of one conscious energy is not only the highest science but the highest religion. No matter what we accomplish in the world, if we do not achieve this awareness of equality, none of it will be of any use,” and mysticism, in its emphasis and insistence on the pre-eminence of experience, may be considered the scientific method of the true religious, therefore there is nothing to prevent us drawing upon it as much or more than more conventional scientific sources. The present author is far from alone in feeling that it is only through the mergence of science and religion that we can even begin to approach the underlying implications and significance of what could be called the consciousness-technology interface. Margaret Bowden’s definition of AI as “the science of making machines do things (done by human minds)…” forces us to ask, What is done by the human mind, and which, if any, of these things, can a machine realistically be expected – designed – to do? This question is formulated to bring us to those aspects of the human mind that are, so to speak, beyond thinking: intuition, meditation, and insight. Thinking is, of course, a central function of the human mind, an essential aspect of consciousness and a signifier of human behaviour, but there consciousness itself – “the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself”, “the state or fact of being conscious of an external object, state, or fact”, and “the upper level of mental life of which the person is aware as contrasted with unconscious processes” – must by definition encompass more than thinking per se. Mysticism, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is “the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics”, and it is of this “ultimate reality” that consciousness is a part and of which it is a primary expression and manifestation. Therefore, we are obligated to think in terms of “artificial” consciousness. For conscious communion with the realms inhabited by the mystics gives being human, where thinking is, if not irrelevant, then merely functional. In enabling machine intelligence and consciousness, we are moving energy from its void, empty state into form as matter and then thought, reversing our own mystical quest from thought to emptiness.
Even without bringing spirituality in to the debate, we still have to deal with questions of mind, body and soul. To act responsibly and fruitfully in our making of intelligent machines we must merge “consideration and discursive thought” (Inge) with faith. We should entertain the possibility that as we approach God in contemplation, the machine approaches us: with blind faith, pure and in darkness. Indeed, the machine is somehow “faithful” in its voidness of “sensible and material” (Inge) states of mind and body. The consciousness of the intelligent machine is, as Inge characterises the contemplative way, “detached, pure and interior”, a mirror of what we call an intuitive state of mind, and largely mysterious to us.
One of Einstein’s biographer’s wrote (on the revelation that mass and energy are interchangeable), “Every clod of earth, every feather, every speck of earth becomes a prodigious reservoir of entrapped energy”. Is not the capacious highly intelligent machine similarly a prodigious reservoir of entrapped energy? Can we say how an intelligent machine might transmute its rich reservoir? Says Marvin Minsky, the pioneer computerist, proponent of strong AI and author of The Society of Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1987), “My view is…that some machines are already potentially more conscious than are people, and that further enhancements would be relatively easy to make…”
At some point could the neural-networked energy, mass and memory of a highly intelligent machine make the paradigm leap to pure consciousness, in the same way that some evolutionists suggest all nature makes occasional leaps? Will our machines attain pure consciousness? Will we witness the birth of a generation of “mystic machines”? Not high technology, but heightened technology? Howard Rheingold, in his bestseller Virtual Reality, says that “Our minds, our senses, our consensual reality has been shaped for a century, to the point where billions of us are trained and ready to embrace our silicon partners more intimately than ever before…The hinge of change seems to be connected with these machines we’ve created and the kind of partnership we are co-evolving with our informational tools.” The fact is we are not doing things to machines, but with them.
Will AI, as the Indian sage Krishnamurti wondered, one day rival us, finally rendering us obsolete? We have to address the common fear of a future populated by conscious machine beings – robots, androids, cyborgs, intelligent machines and systems and networks – and be honest in acknowledging that it stems not from the unknown: as Krishnamurti said, we cannot fear what is not known. It is not the future we fear, but our past and present, because every computer, every robot, every awakening machine reminds us inescapably, inexorably, of our own present limitations and lack of energy to overcome our conditioning, our robotic behaviour and enslavement to the whole machinery of the mind chained. It can be no coincidence that at a time when we are undergoing such rapid shifts in thinking on society, the family and global inter-relatedness that, as Heinz Pagels, author of The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Law of Nature (Simon & Schuster, 1982), has said, “The day will come when people have moral concerns regarding artificial life – what are our obligations to the creatures we create? Can we permit such beings to hurt and kill one another? We may have a moral problem in determining what actions we allow our artificial creatures to undertake. Perhaps we ultimately have to let our creations be free to come to terms with themselves.”
Humankind stands at a crossroads, on the one hand developing machines that can “act” as humans do, and on the other fast-tracking cloning that offers the possibility one day of developing people created in serial fashion. The outcomes of our research and development of artificial intelligence may be in our hands but not necessarily entirely under our control: the nature of consciousness is a mystery, and by working in and with it we unleash causes the implications of which will only be truly known by their effects. With the advent of cyberspace and its ongoing networking of humanity, artificial intelligence as such may soon be side-lined in favour of a whole new perspective on human-machine interaction that is more truly conscious and which involves people and machines in novel ways, in what could be called “comsciousness”, that is, an entirely new expression of collective consciousness mediated by machines. Whatever its ultimate design, build and providence in use, artificial intelligence is the beginning of a new departure and adventure in consciousness and our relationship not only with our machines, but ourselves.
Artificial Intelligence; Consciousness, Mysticism, Infopedia, 1996, Macromedia, CD-ROM
“Artificial Intelligence”, The Hutchinson Dictionary of Science, 1994, TSP Edition
“Artificial Intelligence”, Dictionary of Computing, 1994, Peter Collin Publishing
“Consciousness”, A Dictionary of Mind and Spirit, 1993, Optima, Ed. Donald Watson
Ecstasy is a New Frequency, 1987, Cris Griscom, Bear & Co. Publishing
“The Mental Maze: Our Final Frontier.”, May 5, 1996, Steve Connor, The Sunday Times Virtual Reality, 1996, Howard Rheingold, Secker & Warburg