Could AI Become Conscious?

By Larissa C January 2, 2024

Could artificial intelligence (AI) lead to the emergence of conscious digital beings, potentially possessing their own agenda? This topic is considered in the context of a recently published book by science writer George Musser titled “Putting Ourselves Back in the Equation.” The book delves into the intersection of AI, consciousness, and quantum physics, seeking insights from AI researchers, neuroscientists, quantum physicists, and philosophers.

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Musser discusses the ongoing debate within the AI community, characterized by a divide between those advocating for rapid progress (go-fast) and those urging caution (go-slow). The recent leadership struggle at OpenAI exemplifies this tension, where CEO Sam Altman’s vision for rapid development clashed with the board members advocating a more measured approach.

One central question addressed by Musser is whether AI has the potential to be as conscious as humans. He suggests that creating the right kind of AI, closely mimicking biological neurons, could result in a conscious entity. However, he downplays concerns about conscious machines posing a threat to humanity. Musser argues that unconscious machines, which already exist, are proven to be dangerous, and conscious machines wouldn’t necessarily amplify this danger. Instead, he suggests that the greater risk lies in how humans might mistreat conscious AI entities.

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The progress in generative AI tools, like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, highlights the surprising speed of their development. Musser likens this progress to the acceleration of AI toward artificial general intelligence (AGI), a system capable of diverse functions and learning on the fly. He notes that while AI has progressed quantitatively, the shift has yet to be qualitative.

Musser emphasizes the urgency for scientists to understand human consciousness better, especially in the age of advanced AI tools like ChatGPT. He introduces two theories from his book regarding consciousness: integrative information theory, which views consciousness as arising from internal network connectedness, and predictive coding, suggesting consciousness evolved to help organisms predict and respond to threats.

One fascinating aspect covered in Musser’s book involves the connection between theories of cognition and quantum physics. Nobel-winning physicist Roger Penrose proposes that consciousness is a quantum phenomenon, while some scientists believe understanding consciousness could shed light on quantum physics puzzles, such as the observer effect.

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Musser expresses hope for a breakthrough in understanding consciousness, similar to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and envisions a partnership between humans and AI in solving the mysteries of consciousness. He sees potential in combining human intuition with AI capabilities, likening it to the collaboration between human radiologists and AI in medical diagnosis.

The multifaceted relationship between AI, consciousness, and quantum physics, as discussed in George Musser’s book, presents perspectives on the potential of AI to achieve consciousness, its associated risks, and the collaborative role AI might play in advancing scientific understanding.