The National Trial Lawyers
Expertise 2020
Expertise 2016
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Can a Computer Ever Be Conscious?

Can a Computer Ever Be Conscious?FYI: This post has nothing to do with criminal defense.

But, you see, I really really like science. And so, I’m going to share with you some thoughts about a great book from Roger Penrose called “The Emperor’s New Mind”. The question the book poses is simple: can computers ever emulate conscious human thinking? Will machines ever be able “think” in a “conscious” way?

Penrose says no. The current state of physics only allows artificial intelligence to mimic everything the human mind can ‘do’ (computers play great chess, right?), but never be conscious of what it’s actually doing. The best thought experiment on this issue is called the “Chinese Room”.

Imagine that you and I are placed in a room with Chinese symbols all over the walls. Neither you, nor I, have any idea what these symbols mean. Now, a person from outside the room slips a piece of paper into a slot containing more Chinese symbols. Again, we have no idea what is written on this slip of paper, but we are instructed to match these symbols to the symbols on the walls, then write those symbols down and push the piece of paper back out the slot. Got it? Once again, we have NO IDEA what any of this means–but we’re good little matching game players–and we write down the matched symbols and slip the piece of paper right back out the slot. Of course, the Chinese person on the outside thinks that we have both understood his question and answered it correctly. Sure, we answered his question correctly, but we did not ‘consciously’ “know” what we were doing.

Same goes for computers. No matter how complex these machines get, they are merely spitting out symbols that they don’t truly comprehend.

And there you have it. 640 pages of Penrose boiled down to a few words.

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