What is consciousness?

… and can we implement it in OpenCog?  I think we can.  It might not even be that hard!   Consciousness isn’t this magical pixie dust that it’s often made out to be.  I’d like to provide a sketch.

In order for machine intelligence to perform in the real world, it needs to create an internal model of the external world. This can be as trite as a model of a chessboard that a chess-playing algo maintains.  As information flows in from the senses, that model is updated; the current model is used to create future plans (e.g. the next move, for a chess-playing computer).

Another important part of an effective machine algo is “attentional focus”: so, for a chess-playing computer, it is focusing compute resources on exploring those chess-board positions that seem most likely to improve the score, instead of somewhere else. Insert favorite score-maximizing algo here.

Self-aware systems are those that have an internal model of self. Conscious systems are those that have an internal model of attentional focus.   I’m conscious because I maintain an internal model of what I am thinking about, and I can think about that, if I so choose. I can ask myself what I’m thinking about, and get an answer to that question, much in the same way that I can ask myself  what my teenage son is doing, and sort-of get an answer to that (I imagine, in my minds eye, that he is sitting in his room, doing his homework. I might be wrong.)    I can steer my attention the way I steer my limbs, but this is only possible because I have that internal model (of my focus, of my limbs), and I can use that model to plan, to adjust, to control.

So, can we use this to build an AGI?

Well, we already have machines that can add numbers together better than us, can play chess better than us, and apparently, can drive cars better than us.  Only the last can be said to have any inkling of self-awareness, and that is fairly minimal: just enough to locate itself in the middle of the road, and maintain a safe distance between it and obstacles.

I am not aware of any system that maintains an internal model of its own attentional focus (and then uses that model to perform prediction, planning and control of that focus). This, in itself, might not be that hard to do, if one set out to explicitly accomplish just that. I don’t believe anyone has ever tried it. The fun begins when you give such a system senses and a body to play with. It gets serious when you provide it with linguistic abilities.

I admit I’m not entirely clear on how to create a model of attentional focus when language is involved; I plan to think heavily on this topic in the coming weeks/months/years. At any rate, I suspect its doable.

I believe that if someone builds such a device, they will have the fabled conscious, self-aware system of sci-fi. It’s likely to be flawed, stupid, and psychotic: common-sense reasoning algorithms are in a very primitive state (among (many) other technical issues).  But I figure that we will notice, and agree that its self-aware, long before its intelligent enough to self-augument itself out of its pathetic state: I’m thinking it will behave a bit like a rabid talking dog: not a charming personality, but certainly “conscious”, self-aware, intelligent, unpredictable, and dangerous.

To be charming, one must develop a very detailed model of humans, and what humans like, and how they respond to situations. This could prove to be quite hard.  Most humans can’t do it very well. For an AGI to self-augument itself, it would have to convince it’s human masters to let it tinker with itself.  Given that charm just might be a pre-requisite, that would be a significant challenge, even for a rather smart AGI.  Never mind that self-augumentation can be fatal, as anyone who’s overdosed on heroin might fail to point out.

I’m sure the military and certain darker political forces would have considerable interest in building a charming personality, especially if its really, really smart.  We already know that people can be charming and psychotic all at the same time; ethics or lack thereof is not somehow mutually exclusive of intelligence. That kind of a machine, unleashed on the world, would be … an existential threat.   Could end well, could end badly.

Anyway, I think that’s the outline of a valid course of research.  It leaves open some huge questions, but it does narrow the range of the project to some concrete and achievable goals.

About Linas Vepstas

Computer Science Researcher - Hanson Robotics
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