Philosophical Zombies: The Quest to Decipher Consciousness

The movie “Night of the Living Dead” now ranks among the classics in the horror film genre. Zombies, humans without apparent consciousness, loomed large in its plot, and in the terror the movie instilled.

But the concept of a zombie raises serious questions. Consciousness is decidedly a first person experience. If I know anything, it is my own conscious palette of sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts and desires. But though I can see others physically, and observe their outward behavior, I can not experience their inner life. So as sure as I know my own consciousness Understanding Rapport, I can not access that of others.

Are Other Humans Conscious?

We thus have a question of whether other humans are conscious. Are others just zombies?

On this question, I will cut right to answer. Others are almost certainly conscious. Though we can conceive worlds where “things” exist that look, act, talk, reason, eat, function, etc. just like humans, but don’t have consciousness, we don’t at all think that is the case on real Earth.

Why? Our fellow humans resemble us, and each other, too closely. All humans develop in the same way, we look and act the same, we share the same evolutionary ascendancy, we communicate with similar concepts, we grieve, we anger, we have brains organized in the same intricate manner, and on and on. Thus, even absent my ability to access your consciousness, our similarities are so great I would bet money that you are conscious.

Are Other Things Conscious?

Though I have no doubt you are conscious, the situation with a robot is not so clear. I can conceive, and in my lifetime could likely encounter, a robot-like computer that mimics human behavior so well its computer nature would be almost undetectable. It would converse with me, expresses emotion, declares preferences in music, and even, conceivably, has sufficient programming to paint (though maybe digitally, let’s not get hung up on its mechanical capabilities).

Is the robot conscious?

We would think, in this version available in my lifetime – we will call it the first version – that the robot is not conscious.

Why do we judge that this first version robot lacks consciousness? We do so based on its internal architecture. For all their advances, the Intel chips (or any other mainstream chips) most likely at the core of our version one robot would not operate like humans. The chips would operate serially, mechanically, input-to-output, using speed rather than functional or architectural resemblance to mimic humans.

That is why we didn’t for a second believe Deep Blue played chess the way Kasparov did. And that is why we don’t believe computers of today’s architecture have consciousness. Though they might mimic us externally, internally the architecture and configurations of current computers differ from humans like night and day.

What About in the Farther Future?

But let us consider a robot version two. We will dispense with traditional processing components. Gone will be registers, instruction stacks, memory caches, serial and parallel buses, data buffers, arithmetic logic units, and so on.

The second version robotic processing architecture will mimic the brain. We will have a neural network type architecture. Individual, simple units will connect in a brain-like mesh with thousands of other simple units, with long and short range connections, sub-communities of highly connected units, and dynamic weighting of connections as this second version learns. The entire collection will number billions of these units. In short, we will construct a brain in silicon.

Can we do this? Not now. Today, we have not reached a sufficient understanding of the brain and its networks, nor have we advanced non-traditional computer architectures enough, to accomplish this. But if we look a century from now, or maybe a millennium from now, we can conceive a world with a robot with a silicon brain.

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