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Making machines into conscious beings

Monday, February 9, 2015
Science and Society

The debate about the danger that Artificial Intelligence (AI) could pose to the future of mankind has been reignited by none other than Bill Gates of Microsoft fame. He also, is of the view that it may grow too strong for people to control and thus, in the future, could threaten the existence of mankind. This projection is convergent with the views of the world famous physicist Professor Steven Hawkins but diverges with that of the Research Chief of Microsoft, Eric Horwitz.

Horwitz thinks that intelligent systems may be able to achieve consciousness but has played down the threat to human existence. He is also of the view that mankind can derive great benefits from the applications of artificial intelligence in all spheres of endeavour, including daily life.

One example of this is the intelligent digital assistants available in smart phones. Siri, Cortana and Google Now are examples of personal digital assistants that both receive and understand verbal requests and perform searches over vast databases to give intelligent verbal answers.

They are becoming increasingly popular as it liberates one from the clutches of the keyboard. Predictive AI technology is used in voice recognition and the algorithms are quite complex. Initial voice-recognition software required significant calibration by the speaker in order to train the system. The understanding of human speech can be quite a difficult task, even to fellow men, due to accents, voice types and idiosyncrasies of ethnic and national dialects. 

The following illustrates the point. Persons from T&T have the tendency to elongate the “a” sound. The word “effort,” many a time, would be pronounced as “air fort.” So the sentence “He made a good effort on the field” in the Trini style would sound like “He made a good air fort on the field.” 

So the computer will have to determine whether he made good try or he built a fort. This difficulty in interpretation can be reduced if the computer is capable of placing sentences in a context. This presents a huge challenge, however, but significant advances are being made as topical contexts can be used for very specific applications. The personal digital assistants are illustrative of the advances made in this area.

The zenith of artificial intelligence is the endowing of machines with consciousness. Consciousness can be defined as the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings. Intelligent robots can sense specific characteristics of their environment and respond to them. Examples of this type of technology are on display in the autonomous driverless vehicles being tested by Google and the various planetary robots exploring the surface of Mars. 

Driverless vehicles can sense objects and respond by adjusting their trajectory to avoid collisions. So they are aware in the sense that they can detect, measure distance and react. 

But can we say that they possess awareness? Not really. The state of sentience or awareness includes an ability to experience, which includes detection of external stimuli and the interpretation and integration of them into our memory, which in turn impacts on our state of selfhood. Central to this is our ability to fuse the various stimuli from our vast array of sensory organs/sensors located within the body. 

For instance, by feeling an object only, we can create a visual image as the visually impaired do. Human are able to fuse/integrate data or inputs from their various sense organs to create a picture of the object. Data fusion, so fundamental to human intelligence, poses herculean challenges to engineers as they strive to endow robots with intelligence. A common software platform that can integrate the inputs from a variety of sensors is still not available. 

This is a prerequisite for endowing machines with consciousness. Horwitz is of the view that this is possible in the future. 


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