Will a conscious artificial intelligence soon see the light of day?

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The purpose of artificial intelligence is to imitate the cognitive abilities of a human being, to the point of perhaps including one day a notion considered as specific to humans or at least to the most evolved animal species: awareness. Still difficult to define, consciousness divides the scientific community as to the possibility of integrating it into machines. Indeed, “artificial” and “consciousness” constitute a strong paradox, impossible to reconcile for some. Where are we on the technological advances in this area?

From the outset, the problem posed is accompanied by the fundamental question of the definition of consciousness. She literally means “to know (scientia) with (cum)”, which suggests the idea of ​​an accompaniment, a knowledge which is with oneself and which would therefore be specific to Man. Consciousness would be the ability to separate from oneself to “represent” oneself, and would be accompanied by a body and a morality, which tends to exclude robots and other artificial intelligences from its possible acquisition.

The famous ” I think so I am by Descartes seems to follow this same anthropocentric principle. In reality, the definition of consciousness remains imprecise and it is, according to André Comte-Sponville, ” one of the hardest words to define “. A conscience that tries to define itself thus poses a problem for certain experts.

Alan Turing and John von Neumann (the founders of modern computational science) envisioned the possibility that machines would eventually mimic all of the brain’s abilities, including consciousness. Daniel Dennett, of Tufts University (Massachusetts), considers that the Turing test is enough to prove this possibility, if it is carried out “with the appropriate vigor, aggressiveness and intelligence”. As a reminder, in the Turing test, a machine must convince a human interrogator that it is conscious.

Current machines still mostly implement calculations that reflect unconscious processing in the human brain »

To know if machines can one day be endowed with consciousness, it is first necessary to examine the way in which it appears in the human brain. Last year, three neuroscientists looked into the subject by suggesting that the word “consciousness” brings together two different types of information-processing computations in the brain: the selection of information for global dissemination, thus making it flexibly available for computation and reporting (C1 , consciousness in the first sense), and the self-control of these calculations, which leads to a subjective feeling of certainty or error (C2, consciousness in the second sense).

C1 corresponds to the transitive sense of consciousness and refers to the relationship between a cognitive system and a specific object of thought, for example a mental representation of “light”. Conscious information is always present, available for later. The C2 level of consciousness goes even further, since it is a question of self-control, a reflexive consciousness specific to humans. ” The cognitive system is able to monitor its own processes and obtain information about itself “, write the authors. ” Human beings know a great deal about themselves, including information as diverse as the disposition and position of their bodies, whether they know or perceive something, or whether they have just made a mistake. This feeling of awareness corresponds to what is commonly called introspection, or what psychologists call ‘metacognition’, i.e. the ability to conceive and use internal representations of one’s own knowledge. and abilities “.

Cognitive neuroscientists then developed various ways to present images or sounds without inducing conscious experience, then used behavioral and brain imaging to probe the depth of their processing. Neuroimaging methods reveal that the vast majority of brain areas can be activated unconsciously, for example during invariant face recognition. Thus, the processing of a person’s face is facilitated when preceded by the subliminal presentation of a totally different view of the same person, which indicates unconscious invariant recognition (level C0).

Examples of paradigms probing unconscious processing (C0). Top: subliminal recognition of invariant faces (Kouider et al. 2009). On each trial, a primary face is briefly presented (50 ms), surrounded by masks that make it invisible, followed by a visible target face (500 ms). Although the subjective perception is identical in all conditions, processing is facilitated when the two faces represent the same person, in the same or different view. At the behavioral level, this invariable unconscious priming according to sight translates into a reduction in reaction time to recognize the target face. At the neural level, it results in a reduced cortical response to the target face (i.e., repetition suppression) in the fusiform facial area of ​​the human inferotemporal cortex. Bottom: subliminal accumulation of evidence during interocular suppression (Vlassova et al. 2014). The presentation of prominent moving dots in one eye prevents conscious perception of fainter moving dots in the opposite eye. Despite their invisibility, gray dots aid performance when moving in the same direction as another dot display, an effect proportional to their degree of motion consistency. This facilitation only affects a first-order task (judging the direction of movement), not a second-order metacognitive judgment (assessing confidence in the first response). © Dehaene et al. 2021

In fact, the conscious system (C1+C2) would be necessary to constitute a “strong” artificial intelligence: self-learning, capable of processing any intellectual work and self-assessing. On the contrary, according to neuroscientists, most current machine learning systems lack self-control: they calculate without taking into account the extent and limits of their knowledge, or the fact that others may have a point of view different from theirs. ” We argue that despite their recent successes, current machines still primarily implement computations that mirror unconscious processing (C0) in the human brain. “, conclude the three researchers.

To date, the majority of scientists agree that there is a “weak” artificial intelligence and that answering the problem in the affirmative simply implies another form of consciousness.

Advances in artificial intelligence: a different form of consciousness

However, even if there is still a gap between the functioning of our brain and that of an algorithm, it is clear that the refinements of machine learning (inspired by neurobiology) have led to artificial neural networks that surpass sometimes human. Advances in computer hardware and learning algorithms now allow these networks to handle complex problems (eg, machine translation) with very good success rates. Would they be at the dawn of consciousness?

Artificial consciousness can advance by studying the architectures that allow the human brain to generate consciousness, then transferring that knowledge into computer algorithms », continue the three researchers. Thus, certain aspects of cognition and the neuroscience of consciousness may simply be relevant to machines, without necessarily evoking “consciousness”.

There is no shortage of examples of advances in the field of artificial intelligence. Thereby, recent architecture, PathNet, uses a genetic algorithm to learn which path, through its many specialized neural networks, is best suited for a given task. This architecture exhibits robust and flexible performance, as well as generalization across tasks, and could be a first step towards primate-like flexibility of consciousness.

At the end of 2021, Chinese scientists developed an artificial intelligence that can perform certain tasks usually performed by a prosecutor. 97% reliable (insufficient for some experts), it would recognize and lay charges for eight of the most common crimes committed in Shanghai.

Even more recently, OpenAI co-founder and chief scientific officer Ilya Sutskever said today’s large neural networks could be “lightly self-aware.” One year ago, he affirmed : “ You’re going to see much smarter systems in 10 or 15 years, and I think it’s very likely that these systems will have a completely astronomical impact on society. “.

Therefore, beware of the catastrophic slippages that could result from a massive development of artificial intelligence. Indeed, any powerful tool can be used for good or bad reasons. In the worst case, it could “take over” the human — much like the human did with the animal — which would make us almost obsolete.

Even if scientific and technological advances could envisage it, artificial intelligence is not close to possessing a consciousness in the sense that we understand it: an entity capable of reflecting on itself, of including our emotions in the rational decision-making, etc. 7 million years of human brain evolution could hardly be replaced by algorithms, no matter how elaborate. However, another form of “consciousness”, more and more evolved, could well see the light of day.

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Will a conscious artificial intelligence soon see the light of day?

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