|Deutsch: Phrenologie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
By Raymond TallisContinue Reading ...
We have no reason to think computers will be anything other than complex devices that channel unconscious electrical impulses.
The notion that computers can think, or that one day they will do so, is rooted in one of two complementary misunderstandings. The first relates to the nature of computers and the second to the nature of thought. That these misunderstandings have had such a powerful hold on the minds of many otherwise intelligent people is due to a tendency to take useful metaphors – describing what computers do and how they do it – as literal truth.
Consider, first, misunderstanding about the nature of computers. Most people would agree that the computers we have at present are not conscious: the latest Super-Cray with gigabytes of memory is no less zomboid than a pocket calculator. But there is the feeling that at some stage, as a result of increasing computational power and in something called "complexity", the artefact that possesses this power and this complexity will wake up to its own existence, or at the very least, experience the transactions which take place in, through, and around it.
We should treat this claim with extreme scepticism because those who say that conscious computers are around the corner are not able to specify what features conscious computers will have in addition to those possessed by our current unconscious ones. There was a fashion in the 1980s and 1990s for invoking alternative architectures – in particular parallel rather than serial processing – as the basis for computers that would be aware of themselves. This fashion has now passed and the conceptual cupboard of the conscious-computers-round-the-corner brigade is now empty. We therefore have no reason for expecting that computers will be anything other than extremely complex devices in which unconscious electrical impulses pass into and out of unconscious electrical circuits and interact with any number of devices connected directly or indirectly to them.
Consciousness Awakening on Vimeo by Ralph Buckley (Photo credit: Ralph Buckley)
As for thought, this has been even more profoundly misunderstood. Some have argued that thought does not require consciousness, so that computers can think, or will one day think, even though they will never be conscious. Thoughts, like other so-called conscious activities, are merely causal way-stations between inputs such as sense experience and outputs such as behaviour. They do not have to be conscious; indeed, consciousness contributes nothing to their causal efficacy. It requires no equipment or subtle argument to demonstrate that this is nonsense. All you need is to focus on the thoughts you are having now. To deny that thought is conscious is self-refuting: you cannot deny the consciousness of your thoughts without being conscious of doing so. And to claim that conscious thought, or indeed consciousness, has a central role in our lives belongs to an extreme behaviourism that is not able to explain even ordinary human behaviour.
Conscious computers are a delusion | Raymond Tallis | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk