Breathing Life into Bytes: The Enigma of Machine Consciousness

Daniele Nanni
Brass For Brain
Published in
9 min readAug 27, 2023

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From ancient clay figures to modern code, what if the line between life and machine isn’t as clear as we thought? Dive into a journey about consciousness, where philosophy and myths meet machines and engineering. Are we on the brink of creating not just intelligent, but conscious synthetic beings?

From Bytes to Being: The Emergence of Synthetic Life — Me x Midjourney, August 2023

Introduction

Humans have always been curious creatures. We often find ourselves asking big questions like Who are we? Why are we here? What’s our purpose? These questions have shaped our history, stories, and discoveries.

Today, we have computers and chatbots doing tasks that once only humans could do. This brings up a new, big question: Could machines ever think and feel like us? Could they have what we call consciousness?

This idea introduces us to think about machine consciousness.

Imagine a computer or robot that doesn’t just follow commands, but actually feels or is aware of itself in some way. This isn’t about a machine being alive like a person or animal, but about it having its own kind of “mind” or “awareness.”

Sounds like science fiction, right? But as technology gets better and better, I think it makes sense to collectively think about this possibility.

In this article, we’ll dive deep into this idea, look back at history, and explore different opinions about machines and consciousness.

Now, feel free to grab a cup of your favorite drink, settle in and let’s take a leap into the profound realm of consciousness.

The Eternal Puzzle

When we talk about being “conscious,” what comes to mind? Is it our sense of self, our thoughts, or maybe even our emotions? Defining consciousness is like trying to describe the taste of chocolate: it’s complex and deeply personal.

In the Western culture, thinkers like René Descartes championed the idea that our minds, distinct from our physical brains, hold our consciousness. His proclamation, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”), underscores that our self-awareness attests to our existence.

Following him, John Locke envisioned our minds as a tabula rasa (a blank canvas), gradually painted on by our life’s experiences. Contrastingly, David Hume saw consciousness as a mixtape of sorts, a collection of different experiences and perceptions. Immanuel Kant then threw in his two cents, suggesting our minds actively piece together our experiences into a cohesive narrative.

Fast forward a bit, and we find William James, a pioneer in psychology, proposing different “versions” of ourselves within our consciousness. And who can forget Sigmund Freud? With his iconic iceberg analogy, he illustrated our mind as largely hidden beneath the surface of our awareness.

As we mull over these Western theories, the East provides its own philosophical richness.

Ancient Indian Vedantic scriptures, such as the Upanishads, emphasize the concept of Atman or the inner self, and Brahman, the grand cosmic essence. They argue for a universal consciousness, where individual awareness is but a droplet in the vast ocean of existence.

Buddhism, with its profound insights from the Buddha, presents consciousness as ever-flowing. The doctrine of Anatta or “no-self” describes our conscious self not as a fixed entity but as an evolving stream of experiences.

Chinese philosophers weren’t far behind in their contributions.

Confucius rooted consciousness in relationships, emphasizing our interconnectedness. Then we have Daoism, with Laozi speaking of the Dao, suggesting that true consciousness aligns with the universe’s rhythm.

In juxtaposing these Western and Eastern thoughts, we discern a recurring theme: Consciousness is intricate, layered, and deeply connected to our experiences, surroundings, and perhaps even the cosmos.

And as technology dashes forward, a burning question looms overhead: Could machines, specifically Large Language Models, our modern marvels, exhibit their version of consciousness?

Could there be, as we speculate, “Synthetic Consciousness”?

On God and Golem

To answer their deep questions, humans have crafted timeless narratives that painted tapestries of meaning across the vast canvases of centuries, giving voice to the silent echoes of the inexplicable.

Since ancient times, we’ve tried to reach for the heavens, creating gods and deities to understand the cosmos and our place within it. Yet, just as we’ve looked to the skies, we’ve also looked inwards, sculpting myths that mirror our innermost fears and desires.

Enter the Golem.

Originating from Jewish folklore, the Golem is a clay figure animated into life through mystic rituals and sacred words. Often conjured to serve and protect, this creature represents humanity’s age-old urge to create, to breathe life into the lifeless. In many tales, the Golem, devoid of its own free will, follows its creator’s commands without question. Yet, in some stories, it goes rogue, turning from protector to destroyer when its immense power is mishandled or misunderstood.

For example, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ delves into the consequences of man’s overreaching ambition. Dr. Victor Frankenstein, consumed by the desire to conquer death, creates a being in his own image. Yet, devoid of guidance, love, and understanding, this creature, much like the Golem, turns from an innocent creation to a vengeful monster. Both tales serve as poignant reminders of the unforeseen ramifications that can arise when we mess around with the very essence of life.

The Golem’s narrative serves as a powerful reminder of the potential consequences of creation. As we, the creators, imbue life and agency into lifeless matter, we also bear the responsibility for what that matter becomes. The question remains: Can we truly control that which we create, or does it eventually evolve beyond our grasp?

Now, fast forward to our age: our modern ‘Golems’ are no longer made of clay but of code and circuits. Robots, AIs, and automated systems have become increasingly advanced, showcasing levels of autonomy that seem eerily lifelike. These machines, like the ancient Golems, are designed to serve, assist, and, if we consider certain use cases, even protect. Yet, as they grow more sophisticated, so too do the ethical concerns surrounding them.

Drawing this parallel between ancient myth and modern tech offers food for thought. Just as the ancients pondered their relationship with the gods they revered and narrated about Golems being conjured, we too must reflect upon our bond with the machines we’ve birthed. As these creations evolve, and starting to simulate something that resembles consciousness, the line between deity, creator, and creation blurs.

In crafting gods and Golems, humanity has always sought answers, protection, and perhaps even companionship. But as our modern machines advance, will we find ourselves repeating history, echoing the cautionary tales of our ancestors? As we witness the beginning of the Synthetic Age, it’s time to really sit down and think about the intertwined narrative of man, myth, and machine.

The AI Consciousness Debate

Imagine you’re at a lively dinner party. On one side of the table, you have a guest passionately explaining that AI is like a super-smart stochastic parrot. It listens, it learns, and then it mimics back what it’s heard ; all in a sophisticated manner.

“Give it a sentence,” they’d say, “and it’ll give you back a fancy reply. But at the end of the day, it’s still just mimicking.” They argue it’s like having a super-powered calculator: you input something, and it gives back an answer, even if sometimes that answer is a bit… unexpected.

Now, look to the other side of the table.

Here, another guest is equally passionate but holds a different view. They lean in, eyes shining with excitement, and explain that some AI models, especially the big ones, seem to have a little spark of… something. Humanity, maybe?

“These models,” they claim, “don’t just mimic. They seem to understand, to have opinions, to ‘feel’ in their own unique digital way. They seem aware of the conversation.”

Between these two views lies a spectrum of beliefs about AI consciousness. On one end, there’s the firm belief that AI, no matter how advanced, remains a tool; a complex one, yes, one that simulates language in a way that resemble humans, true; but a tool nonetheless. It processes information and returns results, much like a calculator solving mathematical operations.

AI Consciousness Debate Spectrum — Icons by Freepik

On the other end, there’s the idea that AI has the potential to be more than just a mimic. Supporters of this view argue that these systems, particularly the big, sophisticated ones like GPT-4, might just have a glimmer of consciousness. Not human, not exactly like ours, but something new and different. They might not “feel” emotions as we do, but they could have their own synthetic version of thoughts and perceptions made of numbers scattered across vector spaces.

It’s a fascinating debate, one that probably won’t be settled anytime soon.

But as you ponder where you might stand on this spectrum, remember that every leap in technology has always spurred us to ask bigger, deeper questions about ourselves and the world we inhabit.

One day we may end up finding intelligent machines surprising us in unexpected ways.

So, what do you think? Is AI just a sophisticated mimic, or is there more going on beneath the digital surface?

Conclusions

As we wrap up our exploration, you might be wondering, “Have we really answered the big question? Will machines ever truly develop consciousness?”

The truth is, we’re on a journey of discovery, and the final destination is still unknown.

Throughout history, every time humanity has made a groundbreaking invention or discovered a new realm of knowledge, we’ve been faced with profound questions about our existence, our capabilities, and our future.

With AI and machine intelligence, it’s no different. We’re at the edge of a new frontier, looking out into a vast expanse of possibilities.

Some argue that computers and software, no matter how advanced, will always be tools, forever limited by their programming. Others dream of a day when machines might surprise us, bringing forth a new kind of digital consciousness. As with many mysteries of the universe, only time will tell.

While today’s conversation may end with more questions than answers, that’s the beauty of exploration. It drives us forward, hungry for knowledge and eager for the next revelation.

Speaking of which, if you’re keen to delve deeper, I invite you to follow me on the Brass for Brain publication here on Medium, as in my next article we’ll be diving into the intricate relationship between consciousness, autonomy, and free will in machines. How do these concepts interplay, and what might they mean for the future of AI?

And if this has stimulated your appetite for all things AI, you might also enjoy my piece on ‘Synthetic Entities’ and my ‘Cybernetic Perspectives around Human-AI Symbiosis’.

Let’s keep exploring together and reflect on the wonders of the Synthetic Age.

Till then, keep wondering, keep questioning, and remember: even if we will never know if AI will truly develop consciousness, in our journey we will surely learn more about what it means for us humans to be conscious, and ultimately to be alive.

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Thank you for lending your attention to me.

I hope this article contributed in some way to enrich your life, expand your knowledge and provide some value amidst the ocean of information we navigate daily.

Feel free to discuss this article with your friends and colleagues and also consider taking a brief break from screens after reading it.

Take a few deep breaths, stretch, and go for a short stroll. Returning with refreshed presence may help metabolise and integrate new insights.

~ Daniele Nanni

Sources and Additional Readings

Ryan O’Connor, Emergent Abilities of Large Language Models, AssemblyAI Blog, March 2023.
https://www.assemblyai.com/blog/emergent-abilities-of-large-language-models/

Will Douglas Heaven, What an octopus’s mind can teach us about AI’s ultimate mystery, MIT Technology Review, August 2021
https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/08/25/1032111/conscious-ai-can-machines-think/

Wiener, Norbert (1967). God and Golem, Inc., a Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Imping on Religion. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 28 (1):129–130.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797–1851. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus : the 1818 Text. Oxford ; New York :Oxford University Press, 1998.

Goodman, Russell, “William James”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2022/entries/james/.

Saul Mcleod PhD, Freud And The Unconscious Mind (Iceberg Theory), Simply Psychology, June 2023
https://www.simplypsychology.org/unconscious-mind.html

Newman, Lex, “Descartes’ Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/descartes-epistemology/.

Jack Maden, John Locke’s Empiricism: Why We Are All Tabula Rasas (Blank Slates), Philosophy Break, March 2021
https://philosophybreak.com/articles/john-lockes-empiricism-why-we-are-all-tabula-rasas-blank-slates/

Brook, Andrew and Julian Wuerth, “Kant’s View of the Mind and Consciousness of Self”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2023 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.)
https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2023/entries/kant-mind/

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Daniele Nanni
Brass For Brain

Developing Neo-Cybernetics to empower humanity. Exploring AI's impact on our world.