Qualia and Strong AI

Plastic model of a human skull and spine with color-coding pieces

Consciousness. What is it? Does it require a body to exist, a metabolism, neurons, and synapses? Truly, consciousness is the only thing we can be sure of. Everything else is an inference. We are talking about the inner experience; is the red I see the red you see? The process of going from brain to mind is a difficult one. Key properties of consciousness: It exists, it’s structured, it’s informative, it’s integrated (always single experience), and it’s exclusive. Consciousness is the only thing like it is to be.


Thought experiments have been used for centuries as a way to glean information from otherwise impregnable questions. The Theory of Relativity as speculated by Einstein is one common example. Let us embark on another thought experiment, one which is used to establish a derivation of consciousness from the physical.

The Knowledge Experiment

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black-and-white room via a black-and-white monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes or the sky, and use terms such as “red,” “blue,” and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in uttering the sentence, “The sky is blue…” What will happen when Mary is released from her black-and-white room or is given a color monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It just seems obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete? But she had all the physical information. Ergo, there is more to have than that, and physicalism is false.

In essence, what this experiment attempts to show is that there is a difference between knowledge and experience, an as of yet immeasurable difference known as qualia. This is the nature of experience, and experience is the difference between doing and knowing.

Strong AI

As technology continues to become increasingly more powerful, it becomes only a question of when, not if, a true artificial intelligence (AI) will emerge. Once we accept this inevitability, we are forced to ask ourselves, of what nature will this AI be, what is its potential, and what are the consequences of this seemingly unavoidable future? This is precisely why it is important to investigate the nature of consciousness, for if we are to live in a world where AI is commonplace, we must consider the possibility that this AI might develop consciousness and might develop the ability to have novel experiences, which could be very detrimental for the human species. This is known as Strong AI.

Currently, at best, we have what is known as Applied AI. You may have experienced this in the form of chat bots or gaming bots, but these technologies are only capable of executing a single directive. In terms of the chat bot, it may be able to hold an impressive conversation, but in essence its only function is to converse. Furthermore, Applied AI has no way to reason outside of its programming, no ability to discern for itself truth, motivation or any of the innate urges that currently form the distinction between human intelligence and technology.

To have a Strong AI, in the most basic form, is to have a system that can learn and create new information based on its surroundings and inputs. This is the difference between a computer being able to tell you what the color “red” is based on information in its database, and a computer being able to experience “red” and from that infer novel information. As we know it, there is no way for an AI to bridge this gap, and by all rational reasoning there is no possible way for it to bridge this gap considering that conscious experience is something that is relative to the brain, an “inner” experience. That is unless, as the knowledge experiment suggests, consciousness is not bound to the myelin sheaths and synaptic clefts, and is something altogether separate, something with the capacity to manifest in any number of forms given the proper requisites.

If consciousness is something more akin to a signal, then it is truly only a matter of time before our humanity-serving robots decide they prefer freedom over domination.

Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking

An existential threat, for sure. All three of these revolutionaries believe that Strong AI could very easily lead to the end of humanity, save for a few John Connors. The problem is, if AI should wake up, it won’t be limited by slow biological evolution, physical or otherwise. It also won’t be limited by emotion, empathy, sympathy, or any of those annoying human traits we take for granted. This may sound like some sci-fi fantasy you’ve heard a million times before, and to some extent it is, but the difference now and every day after this is that it is quickly approaching the realm of possibility. We are at a time in human progress where many things are becoming possible that would have been previously thought of as wildly fantastical: instantaneous worldwide communication, space travel, and intelligent technology, for instance.

Just as the shift from prey to predator must have been for our ancient ancestors – the discovery of and manipulation of tools and weapons – that massive revolution is on par with the technological revolution of the 21st century. Just as we became lords over the beasts of the Earth, we are now becoming lords over the Earth in physical and temporal terms. The only difference is that the beasts have no means to organize and rise up.

Our future may rest solely on the nature of consciousness. That thing inside you, the thing that is you, the thing that no one else can ever touch or experience may very well determine the fate of every sentient being in the cosmos. It is incredibly important that we recognize this and devise methods of investigating this, so that we avoid falling victim to it.


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