Nautilus

We Need Conscious Robots

People often ask me whether human-level artificial intelligence will eventually become conscious. My response is: Do you want it to be conscious? I think it is largely up to us whether our machines will wake up.

That may sound presumptuous. The mechanisms of consciousness—the reasons we have a vivid and direct experience of the world and of the self—are an unsolved mystery in neuroscience, and some people think they always will be; it seems impossible to explain subjective experience using the objective methods of science. But in the 25 or so years that we’ve taken consciousness seriously as a target of scientific scrutiny, we have made significant progress. We have discovered neural activity that correlates with consciousness, and we have a better idea of what behavioral tasks require conscious awareness. Our brains perform many high-level cognitive tasks subconsciously.

Consciousness, we can tentatively conclude, is not a necessary byproduct of our cognition. The same is presumably true of AIs. In many science-fiction stories, machines develop an inner mental life automatically, simply by virtue of their sophistication, but it is likelier that consciousness will have to be expressly designed into them.

H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty Images

And we have solid scientific and engineering reasons to try to do that. Our very

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