Understanding consciousness — Are robots the way to go?

Chappie — a film about a robot who is programmed with consciousness — was number one in the box office for its debut last week. This sci-fi action flick was more than pretty explosions (in my eyes anyway). It made me reflect on how close cognitive neuroscientists are coming to making computer consciousness a reality. It is not a matter of if, but when.

There are many future implications of understanding consciousness so well that we are able to replicate it, especially in the world of testing.

This could potentially be a way to test certain psychological phenomenon that would be unethical to test in humans. We can’t ethically assign human beings to live in abusive conditions, for example. But perhaps we could run more rigorous studies focused on say, child abuse, in robots who would presumably act in similar ways to their human counterparts. Of course we would eventually get into the murky waters of deciding whether robotic consciousness is equal to human consciousness, but that is an entirely different matter.

The knowledge behind programming consciousness may also have interesting implications for testing human subjects directly. If we understand how to program consciousness, it may imply that we are close to reading consciousness in the human brain. We may one day be able to take some sort of brain scan to literally read someone’s thoughts. This could have interesting implications for lie detection or for learning more about the thought process of people with psychological disorders (for example, being able to fully understand what someone with severe intellectual disabilities is thinking more reliably than other intelligence scales or simply by self-report). And again, we would find ourselves debating the ethics behind using this “mind-reading” technology. Should we even develop it in the first place? Does this technology infringe on our right to privacy?

In any case, the field that crosses computer and cognitive neuroscience is certainly a fascinating one.The technology in Chappie is just another example of science-fiction that will predict reality.