Some Old Sawyer Riffs on Kurzweil

While looking for critical appraisals of Asimov's "three laws", I stumbled across an old (c. 1999) article on Robert Sawyer's website, a reprint of an Ottawa Citizen article from 1999.04.04. It's in the form of a News Hour-style dialog between Sawyer and A. K. Dewdney on the subject of Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, and it gets off to a rip-roaring start as Dewdney righteously dismisses Kurzweil's extropian transhumanist vision:

A. K. Dewdney: In the virtual reality of Kurzweil's own imagination, his book has already had its closest encounter with reality. His vast compendium of bits and pieces of mostly imaginary technology, nurtured by a media that prefers to ignore the real work in artificial intelligence [AI], cobbled into a masturbatory engine of adolescent adventurism, is destined for a place in history beside the helicopter-in-every-garage and the paperless society. Kurzweil's book, which may also be read as a brilliant (if unconscious) satire on the spiritual vacuum of late Twentieth Century western society, also makes an attractive paperweight.

[On Ray Kurzweil's The Age Of Spiritual Machines]

The exchange ends up touching on a lot of my hot-buttons for AI and robotics. (Why don't American newspapers print this kind of stuff, by the way? I might be meeting Sawyer next weekend at a book signing, so I'll try to remember to ask him that.)

Dewdney on making a personal connection with a Turing Test-compliant machine:

…. The point is that there's a semantic difficulty here. "Intelligence" per se, is not the same thing as "consciousness." You can think unconsciously, for example. You can be unconsciously aware. But moods, feelings and perceptions are quite another thing. If such experiencings, called "qualia," are beyond computers by their very nature, it may well be the case that "intelligent" computers might pass the Turing test, but not for very long. Sooner or later, Kurzweil's computer (or human simulacrum) would seem, well, not quite all "there." As for uploading his mind, Kurzweil will probably not enjoy having eternal life as an unconscious entity. By the way, have you noticed there's a quasi-religious air about all this?

Indeed you can think unconsciously. I adhere pretty strenuously to the school of thought that conscious thought is not nearly as important as we perceive it to be, and it seems clear to me that there are lots of obvious examples of this in our everyday lives. Try to be very conscious of everything you do and think, and, if you're honest in the effort, you'll realize how much you do and think without really thinking.

It follows for me that "intelligent" machines can't be presumed to be conscious. Consciousness, in fact, isn't even a very interesting measure of machine intelligence -- at least, not consciousness as we normally understand it. What's much more interesting is the degree of competency at self-directed action.

Sawyer counters:

…Kurzweil is an evangelist for us transcending into another plane of existence — the virtual world inside the computer. Still, I don't believe there is anything divinely endowed about consciousness. If it exists as a real-world phenomenon, then it can be duplicated artificially. Yes, we won't be able to reproduce it until we fully understand the process, quantum mechanical or otherwise, that makes us conscious, but once we do, artificial consciousness will be possible, and Kurzweil's uploading-the-mind-and-soul concept will become feasible (although, granted, it may require a completely different sort of computer than the linear, digital ones we use today). Whether uploading one's existence is desirable is anther question, though. An uploaded mind would experience a false, computer-generated reality that, although it might seem absolutely real, would in fact be bogus. To me, virtual reality is just air guitar writ large; it's not how I want to spend eternity.

More to the point: Is there anything about the nature of human experience that's fundamentally different from machine experience? In fact, there are lots of things. I'll name just a few that seem to me clearly to have very basic consequences for human experience of ourselves:

  1. Sensory perception as a complex pseudo-analog process.
  2. Generally, the experience of pain.
  3. Specifically, the experience of physical want (hunger, cold, fatigue) as pain.

There are lots of other ways to spin this, but the thought experiment treatment that I always end up pulling first out of the hat is Catherine Moore's "No Woman Born". Moore's 'Deirdre' has been forcibly inserted into an extropian scenario, her fragile human body replaced by a powerful metal exoskeleton. Her experience of her reality is sufficiently different from that of other humans that she must maintain a careful, conscious apprehension of her own affect in order to seem human. In fact, she'll likely cease to be really human at some point, despite her best efforts.

In fact, though, it's not clear that the "reality" an "uploaded" mind would experience is in any serious way more "unreal" than the reality we experience, ourselves. It's not as though we get our reality un-edited, after all. Our visual data is massaged and restructured several times before it ever gets the attention of our conscious mind, and significant things (like the blind spot we all share) are edited out. And that's just the "raw" data -- that's not even beginning to account for the effect of our assumptions, conscious or otherwise. The point is that machine perception could in fact be superior to meat-perception: It could be closer to "real" than what we experience with our own eyes.

That is, if by "real", we mean "corresponding to the physical world."

In practice, 'real' means something subtly different: Correspondence to our evolved model of the physical world.

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