November 13, 2010
What is my Fridge Thinking?
Consciousness is notoriously difficult to define, because we are defining something that we only experience first-hand.
There is no way to measure whether someone else's experience of consciousness is truly the same as ours.
We assume that other people are conscious, because they act like we do, and because we have language which helps us to describe consciousness to each other.
While there have been some fascinating attempts to design tests for consciousness, they can give only circumstantial evidence of consciousness. A sufficiently advanced automaton could pass any test we could design (think The Matrix).
I think that it is probably safe to assume that there are varying levels of consciousness, from a complete unawareness of your own existence or the world around you up to our own awareness not only of ourselves, but awareness that we are aware of ourselves.
While it is easy to put rocks, dirt, etc. on one end of the spectrum and ourselves at the other end, it is very difficult to discern where other things should be placed.
Most people would agree that monkeys are conscious, in most senses of the word, but how about rats? Snakes? Fish? Ants? Trees? Algae? Bacteria? Viruses? We have an intuition about just "how conscious" each organism is, but that guess is really just based on how different from humans they are. We haven't experienced life as an ant, or life as a bacteria - there is a chance that it is much richer with awareness than we expect.
We are also inherently hesitant to grant the possibility of consciousness outside of the realm of life. However, it seems more and more likely that our creations have some sort of consciousness. The Internet has eyes (cameras), ears (microphones), and a brain of billions of interconnected computers. Is it possible that the Internet is, in some sense or other, aware of the world?
And if the Internet, what about individual computers? What about dishwashers and refrigerators? When we designed refrigerators to keep food cold, did we also give them some sort of desire or drive to get rid of heat? In the video above of the "Big Dog" robot, it is very hard to shake the feeling that the robot "wants" to stay upright.
It is possible that all complex systems with interconnected, communicating nodes (brains, networks, etc.) have some level of consciousness. If that is the case, then isn't it also theoretically possible that our economies are conscious? Our cities? Our corporations?