In pop culture, artificial intelligence is often represented negatively: killer robots, AI programs gone rogue, and all manner of apocalyptic box office fodder. While this makes for great movie plots, it’s not necessarily realistic — there are possible dangerous scenarios emerging from runaway technology, but the likelihood of those outcomes is less than the likelihood of incredibly positive outcomes.
How can you create synthetic systems that understand human values? How can you make something go beyond merely thinking and begin to actually feel? Enter artificial consciousness.
Where artificial intelligence in largely concerned with optimizing something — a near-perfect game of chess, the best route for a fleet of delivery trucks, the best cocktail of compounds for cancer drug delivery — artificial consciousness would be capable of those things but with the focus instead on understanding itself and its environment. It would be about knowing where it (the system) ends and the environment begins, and understanding some of the other entities in its environment: animals, plants, and most especially, humans. A system that could be called an artificial consciousness would have all of the properties of an artificial intelligence, with the additional capability of self-awareness and awareness of its environment and others in it. This distinction will be increasingly important further into the 21st century, as we’ll see these types of systems begin to take shape and become active in many facets of our lives.
The true power of artificial intelligence lies in the machine’s ability to do things that would be difficult to impossible for humans. These advantages fall into one of two categories: scale and complexity. The advantages of scale are obvious: AI programs can sift through more data in a few minutes than a human could in a lifetime. The advantages of complexity are also considerable — consider the complexity of finding optimal routes for delivery vehicles, or finding broad correlations in investment markets — but they are also in their infancy. AI will be truly unleashed in the coming twenty years or so, when AIs will be able to reach deep levels of understanding not before possible, due to increasingly sophisticated models and available computing hardware.
That’s all well documented and very interesting, but what does it mean for us?
In the answer to this question I am optimistic. I don’t see a robot apocalypse anything close. On the other hand, I also don’t see the creation of a techno-utopia. I see a world in which we have opportunities to use these incredibly powerful new technologies to help solve long-standing problems and transform our societies for the better.
When the first machine “wakes up” and can be called an artificial consciousness, a new era will have begun. It’s up to leaders in technology and government to apply the skills of these new entities wisely. Instead of weaponizing them, we could use them to aid in the search for cures to devastating diseases; to help with brain research; to work with those who have suffered traumas as part of therapeutic exercises; to help find the best ways of curing mental illnesses; to root out corruption in governments; to help manage the complexities of the global economy. With the magic-like capabilities these systems will have, the applications are endless. We’ll be able to reason about more complex and difficult things than ever before, assisted by sentient tools.
I envision a world in which we take care of our own, solve problems diplomatically, and learn new ways of living responsibly on our little pale blue dot. Technology itself can’t cause wars to stop, or heal people’s illnesses, or create new technologies to improve our health, happiness, and sustainability, but individuals empowered with the tools that technology provides can absolutely succeed in those endeavors. My personal mission to help create artificial consciousness is aimed toward those ends: to improve our lives, not just in circumstance, but in ourselves. Applied wisely, it can change our minds, our economies, our political systems, and the way we approach our health and our survival as a species. Applied poorly, it could end the world like you see in the movies. I’m out to make sure we make the most of the most powerful technology we’ll have created to date, to secure a bright, beautiful future.