Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Chappie: Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness! A Missing Link?

I had the misfortune to see the movie "Chappie." I might as well admit it now for the fact will haunt me as, indeed, does the movie. (Well, not really, but it is beneath my "pay grade!"). However, I will NOT disclose the name of my companions for the sake of their prestigious reputations (ha, ha).

My spiritual teacher and friend, Swami Kriyananda (1926-2013: founder of Ananda) spoke and wrote a great deal on the subject of consciousness. Just a few of his books which discuss this include "Out of the Labyrinth," "Hope for a Better World," and "Awaken to Superconsciousness." The current scientific belief, if I may dare attempt to articulate it, is that consciousness is the product of the evolution of various species of life. It has no innate properties of its own, being dependent entirely on matter as its source and reason for being,

On the subject of the possibility that AI (Artificial Intelligence) would become so sophisticated as to become self-aware, Kriyananda simply scoffed. "Chappie," while just a dumb movie, trades on the public's gullibility (or, desire for "entertainment"), to posit a "what if" the robot became human: alternating among various feelings and behavior such as being childlike, violent, hurt, loyal and self-sacrificing!

Over dinner with a friend, we discussed, "Well, what IS the difference between we, humans, and a (very sophisticated) robot? Later, in the theatre, we saw at least one movie preview which also intends to explore the world of humans and robots. In the preview, the robots evidently intend to become human partners: emotionally, and, yes, even sexually! Egad!

Organic life forms are created by the transmission of life-giving biological material. Simply put, the fertilization of a human egg by human sperm. Science and medicine are of course exploring that process and will continue to push the limits of the bare essentials of fertilization, seeing how far conception can be removed from natural biological processes. This isn't my subject today, but however removed the process becomes, there's presumably the essence of organic life being dealt with.

In the yogic teachings, we say (Paramhansa Yogananda, at least, taught) that at the time of conception, the soul enters the embryo. Well, no matter re the details. What matters here is the assertion of an invisible and non-material substance called the soul. Even if future scientists can clone or grow human beings, metaphysicians will presumably still insist that at some critical moment, a soul enters into the process!

But a robot is not made in this manner: at least not yet. It's built from parts and programming, including programming that is (said to be able to be) adaptive and can learn from experience. There is no biological transmission of biological material, what to mention soul-force. In "Chappie" the protagonist devised a way to transfer "consciousness" (see the file: consciousness.dat) from a human to a robot. This essentially made the human (who was, of course, on his or her deathbed) immortal, for he/she awoke inside a robot body. It was assumed that "consciousness" was a substance or energy force that resided in the brain and could therefore be "sucked out" and moved elsewhere. To another human brain might have been one thing, but in this case to the "brain" of a robot.

Does the brain create consciousness, or, does the brain allow for consciousness to manifest? The difference isn't important to us day-to-day but it becomes what appears more than a curiosity when we encounter individuals who can function either without significant parts of the brain or show functionality that has nothing to do with the brain (telepathy, bi-location, and other para-normal phenomenon). These so-called anomalies, including near-death experiences, challenge some deeply held beliefs about the dependence of consciousness on the brain.

If one had such a "perfect" robot that you could not tell the difference between the robot and a human, would the robot be self-aware? This is the funny-bone part of this whole thing. Consciousness cannot be seen directly by the senses; its presence is evidenced by movement, emotions, words, and so on. A brain scan or other such machine can detect the presence of brain waves and various movements of thought, but if a machine can detect brain waves, a machine can create them, too. One can presumably mimic all the signs of life and consciousness but none of that would be proof of self-awareness. A person in a coma or asleep is generally not self-aware.

The robot may exhibit emotions but are they "real" emotions or contrived (programmed) ones? In some ways, it might be said there are no differences since our "real" emotions are as fleeting (and usually off-base) as the robot's are without feeling! Where the average movie goer or sci-fi writer may cross the line or be confused is between the appearance of emotions and the reality of self-awareness.

A sleep walker (or, hey, a zombie!) is presumably NOT self-aware! Walking down the street, however, you might not be able to tell that the sleep walker is, in fact, unaware.

Thus it is that future robots might well and easily replace human companions and co-workers rather comfortably (for us). We might chat with them and find it stimulating and helpful to us. Our only interest may be what the robot can do for us: emotionally, practically, and intellectually. But that doesn't necessarily make them "human." Only, functional! And, let's face it, isn't that how most people relate to one another? Functionally, that is?

The robot could easily mimic human love: after all, it can say "I love you" with the best of 'em. Sounds weird, I admit, but some futurists may find that completely satisfying (although at this point even I am doubtful). Nonetheless, how many real humans say "I love you" and don't mean it or stick to it very long?

Ok, you think I'm nuts. Well, that's YOUR opinion. To paraphrase Forest, Forest Gump, "Love is what love does!" Now, mind you, I don't really buy it. But I don't need to (as it is not a reality yet).

My point, rather, is that "self-awareness, "me-ness," is something only "me" can perceive and attest to you. I can't prove it to anyone else. Assuming robots someday become human-like, we will encounter the appearance of me-ness and we may not be able to know which one is "human" and which one is not. And, most of the time, we won't care, provided they do their job! (Not unlike how real people are treated.)

The difficulty in knowing the difference does not, however, erase the difference. That's what I am trying to say. Just because scientists can't isolate God in a test-tube doesn't mean God doesn't exist. If God is the essence and source of self-awareness (consciousness), it makes sense that only consciousness can know that God exists and does so through direct, intuitive perception. Like recognizes like.

No machine can detect consciousness except by its manifestations (brain waves, speech, movement etc.). But that does not necessarily mean that consciousness is always and all times detectable. Just as energy can be latent or potential, why can't consciousness be present but undetected. You can gaze out the window or meditate deeply and not be having any internal thoughts or verbalization. You can be "processing" ideas even as you focus on the conversation or task at hand, Consciousness can lay hidden.

The debate in re artificial intelligence will, I believe, rage on for a very long time: perhaps centuries. After all, as A.I. gets more sophisticated, the line will become finer and finer! Swami Kriyananda asked "Can a computer write a scripture?" (Or art, music, etc.?) Well, in fact, I suppose I could imagine a computer so powerful and with access to the world's art or scripture, that, yeah, maybe it could put something together. But that won't mean the machine is a genius or saint. Nothing you can say to me can convince me otherwise. Write me off to junk heap of history, if you will..............the difference may someday be slight in appearance but there will still be, I aver, an unbridgeable chasm of consciousness for which the "missing link" will never be found.

The link between consciousness (as "God") and the material world has always been and will probably always remain a mystery to the intellect but one revealed to the soul's intuition if it has refined and internalized its powers. Whether hidden behind the creation of the cosmos or inserted into the conception of a child, or fleeing upon the death of a body, I believe that only "God, indwelling, can perceive God, omnipresent."

Joy to you,

Swami Hrimananda!