Most of the atheists, most of the tranhumanists, extropians and neuroscientists would agree that no, there is nothing special about it.But I think it is time to take a carefull look at what do these people mean exactly with this no.
First of all, we must consider what does the word “special” mean in this sentence. Certainly among the “special” things would be souls, spirits, and all the metaphisical friends some people beleive they still carry inside them. And it is obvious that these inventions are not what I’m writing about here. My problem with the “there is nothing special about consciousness” phrase is not what the special includes, but what it does not.
None of us has a spirit. And whatever is responsible for consciousness and all its processes is necessarily in our material brains, not in an invented world. Yet there is still no final conclusion about what exactly in the matter that composes our brain is responsible for being conscious. Certainly the neurons and their electrical structure are involved on it. But there is no one who has said “ our consciousness is the calcium passing”, “our consciousness is the eletrons that move between the neurons” or “our consciousness is the electrical activity within the axon” and comproved it in a irrefutable sense.
Although this has not been done, it is fair to say that we know that consciousness is a property of matter. What we call consciousness is necessarily a property of a specific agregation of matter that happens in our brain. Just like flexibility or capacity to conduce electricity, consciousness depends on how matter is rearranged, and therefore may be called a property of matter.
We know with much certainty what are many of the properties of matter due to. Being solid, or being flexible are properties that we know from what they come from, and therefore we are able, at least theoretically to reproduce this property in another set amount of matter. We can make thousands of flexible pencils, because we have knowledge enough to change matter in a way that it adquires the property “flexibility”.
We could, for instance, build flexible pencils with many kinds of material, since we know that it is possible to adquire flexibility not only with a specific material. Also we could achieve flexibility with different stuctures and the same material, since we know that it is not just one specific structure that has flexibility, but there are several structural rearranges that do so.
But the same does not happen to consciousness, we are not exactly sure what in matter has the property consciousness, and this is of extreme importance to the future development of Artificial Intelligence.
Now onwards, I will make suppositions, I do not claim any of this suppositions to be true, neither am I trying to defend one specifically, my only purpose with them is to show what are the consequences of these suppositions to the posthuman world if they were true.
Suppose, for instance, that consciousness is all about information, in this case, anything that processes information in the same way that conscious thins do would also have the property consciousness, and would therefore be conscious. In this case, we could build aritificial digital computers that are extremely powerfull, powerfull enough to do all the computations that our minds do, and these computers, even being extremely different from our brains, would still be consciouss, since the particular thing about matter that produces consciousness would be in them. That has been the supposition that part of the enthusiasts of transhumanism I’ve talked to have. But it seems to me a very dangerous supposition. To show in what sense is this supposition very dangerous I will begin showing a different supposition.
Suppose now that consciousness only emerges from higly parallel, analogic, information. Then any sistem ( biological or not) that can make massive parallel connections to transport information would also have the property of being conscious. So if we created computers with these given properties, they would be conscious, and there would be no problem, for instance, to upload yourself to one of these. But what if this suppositions is right, and we only build the computers that I have mentioned in the first supposition. The binary ones. Then we would have computers who can behave exactly as our minds do, but they are not conscious, they are only zombies. Suppose then that everyone on earth uploads himself to this binary computers, then we would have a fantastic posthuman society, with no one to see it. It would be simply a zombies society, none of the computers would be concious, and all our effort for a great posthuman world would have been wasted. Note that these machines, if were asked, would behave exactly like a human, so they would answer that they are conscious, they would act as if they have feelings. From “outside” they would be indistinguishable from us. And they certainly would pass the Turing test.
Now, we are most likely to only be able to achieve the behavior of a mind doing massive parallel analogic computers, so the dystopic scenario of this second supposition is quite improbable to happen. But I have only given these two first suppositions because they represent what most of the transhumanists already suppose, now I will show how there are other suppositions that, if proved to be true, will generate a dystopic scenario that as far as I’m concerned, no one has yet predicted or worried about.
The third supposition is that consiousness is a property of the Biological matter trat composes neurons, or of the electical activity in the neurons. In this case, none of our both computers in the above scenarios would have the property of being concious. And therefore we would have two possible dystopic scenarios, one of posthumanity with binary and other of posthumanity with analogical unconcious computers. But then, there is still a chance that the computers we develop have or the same sort of electrical patterns or are made of neurons, and in this case, we would have a pleasant conscious posthuman world.
The point I’m trying to make here is that no matter what of the suppositions (these or any of the millions of other) is right, there are some scenarios in which we have conscious posthumanity and scenarios were we have unconscious posthumanity.
We are producing posthumanity the wrong way. When we choose to produce flexible pencils, first we learn what assures flexibility to matter, then we reproduce matter in order to achieve flexible pencils. But with consciousness, we are going the wrong way. First we are trying to reproduce Intelligence ( which is a different property of matter than consciousness) and we are faithfully beleiving that as soon as we learn how to produce intelligent matter, we will also be producing concious matter. Intelligence, as most tranhumanists and computer analists think, is a behavior. Things may behave intelligently, in the sense that they make the complex associations that we call intelligent associations. But this does not mean they make this associations conciously, they may simply compute this associations, and they would not feel anything while doing it.
Intelligence and consciousness are two different properties of matter, and we should take extreme care with ourselves if we do not want to become a society that has no conscious beings on it. Producing intelligence is very important, including to understand consciousness, but being able to produce intelligent matter does not mean we are able do produce concious matter, and I beleive that the most important thing for the transhumanist thinkers and developers should be to run away from the easy two suppositions (that say that consciousness is only about information), and admit that, as long as we are not exactly sure of what in matter generates conciousness, it is very risky and even undesirable to transport your “self” to a different agregation of matter that the one we already know that is conscious, the neural networks, composed of biological neurons.
I am not saying that we should stay like we are today, I’m just saying that we should first understand what is exactly, without a doubt, what is responsible for consciousness in matter, and then reproduce it in order to create or upload sentients. I’m just trying to prevent what I beleive that would be one of the catastrophes we usually call “human extinction scenarios”.
It is, of course, possible that consciousness is indeed only a structural property, and therefore anything with the same structure as the brain would necessarily be concious, even if the electricity travelled faster, even if made by nanotubes or silicon. But we should not blindly and faithfully expent all our efforts in a supposition. We have already ultrapassed 4 Singularities, and I do not feel like we should waste all this time and probability by simply assuming a supposition is right. Bertrand Russell said that “religion is what we invent, Science is what we know, and phlosophy is what we don’t know” The problem of consciousness has been for hundreds of years a matter of philosophy and religion, finally it has started to make its way through science, but as long as we don’t have a very good theory about it, it is not worth it to waste billions of years of hard effort in our egoistic necessity of saying “I was one of the producers of the singularity”.
It is rather improbable, but the problem of consciousness may still take a while to be completely solved, and I beleive that it is worth the effort to lose some posthuman time in not becoming posthuman sooner than that.
The science of AC, Artificial consciousness will probably run much faster than AI, since the evolutive processes are growing exponencially. If we have waited for AI, It won’t be that bad to also wait for AC in order to finally achieve the condition we have been seeking for so long, the posthuman condition.
In a conversation with Bill Gates, Ray Kurzweil has said that we now need a new faith, and in this new faith, from the sciences and arts, we should inherit the respect for knowledge, and from the tradition of religions, we should inherit the respect for conciousness, it was in order to acomplish this second task that I have written this text, and I hope it achieves the eye-opening objective that I have developed for it.