Mysterious reason why artificial intelligence will never be able to match human consciousness

(ORDO NEWS) — The creation of humanoid artificial intelligence often begins with the deconstruction of a person. Take fingerprints: When we hold a soap dish, we intuitively adjust the grip based on the structure of the fingerprints.

It just doesn’t cross our minds because we think of it as a reflex – and that’s what scientists thought for a long time. No one had any equations to figure out how it worked, because it didn’t matter much. But the development of robotics has complicated the situation.

For a robot to be able to do this, it needs to understand exactly what is going on and even turn that knowledge into writeable code. Now deciphering fingerprints matters, and researchers are finally trying to find a new law of physics to explain it.

In a sense, physical knowledge and the ability to encode human traits are prerequisites for programming robots… which opens up an important question for the future of lifelike AI. Are there aspects of human consciousness that will never meet these criteria? According to some philosophers, perhaps.

And after reading two absolutely mind-blowing thought experiments, you might agree. Or maybe not.

What Mary Didn’t Know

A woman named Mary lives in a small house. She never left the house. When she looks around her dwelling and from its windows, everything seems black, white, or some kind of gray. Mary doesn’t see color, but she often wonders, “What do those people on my black and white TV mean when they talk about red roses?”

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Suppose Mary’s room contains a magical library. In this hypothetical location are books containing all the pieces of information about the color red. And I mean everything. To satisfy her thirst for knowledge, Mary reads them all.

She learns about the electromagnetic wavelengths of red, how crimson makes people feel, the clearest descriptions of scarlet, cherry analogies, and everything else you can think of. And even more. No one knows more about red than Mary. Then she finishes reading… and decides to leave the house.


To Mary’s surprise, she sees the color. She has never been colorblind. It’s just that her house, furniture and electronics were built in black and white, and the windows reflected the outside world in monochrome.

Then something important happens. Mary sees a red apple – the color of her expertise. Her jaw drops. She learns something new about the color red. But… it’s weird. Why wasn’t this knowledge somewhere in her library? After all, there was everything there was to know about the color red, right?

This story is a continuation of Philosopher Frank Jackson’s famous 1986 thought experiment “What Mary Didn’t Know” and the intangible knowledge about the color red that Mary has just gathered is called qualia.

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What is qualia?

Simply put, qualia defines knowledge that is only attainable through conscious experience.

It’s like the subjective information you got when you first heard your favorite song. Perhaps you felt a tremble in your spine and said to your friends: “To understand, you need to listen.” Magically exploding their brains into the depths of music theory and acoustic science probably won’t help. Until they hear it, they won’t know the song the way you know it.

Perhaps that is why even the best neurologists, psychologists and poets cannot explain the pain of a broken heart well enough for someone who has never experienced it to truly understand it.

And, going back to Mary, all the physical information about the color red in the world was not enough to understand what this shade really looks like.

“When she is released from a black and white room or given a color TV, she will know what it is like to see, say, something red,” writes Jackson. “You could call it training – she won’t say ‘ho, hum’.”

Despite the fact that this theory has been thrown out for many years, it still remains a fairly popular argument that some knowledge cannot be described by language and is unique to human consciousness.

This means that if qualia is a real force, then its inner workings will be incredibly difficult to write down, and thus programmable. This may well become a barrier between humans and AI.

On the other hand, maybe not. Maybe we can somehow decipher it as we gradually learn about the dynamics of fingerprint capture.

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Could we?

Short answer: We don’t know. Experts argue in both directions, and some offer new points of view. But most are stuck behind hypothetical walls, and the fact is that qualia has no scientific explanation.

Building a qualia robot
So from what I’ve told you about Mary, you’ve probably come up with a few objections to qualia. And you’re not alone: ​​Thought experiments are often riddled with loopholes, and Mary’s room is no exception.

Some put forward counterarguments that the shadows in the room could carry color pigments. Others argue that a “magic library” would give Mary knowledge in a way we can’t imagine. As for the latter, a fascinating rebuttal – and one that has a striking bearing on our big question about AI – comes from the philosopher Daniel Dennett.

In a nutshell, Dennett suggests that if Mary really had all the information about the color red, wouldn’t she be omniscient in some way? She wouldn’t just know about color like a normal person would.

Theoretically, she would have learned about the red qualia, if there is one, as part of her red literature, right? And based on this, we could conclude that qualia is indeed capable of raising the level of AI, but we just haven’t figured out how to use it yet.

Well, maybe, but it looks like a dead end. We cannot know for sure if Mary has such abilities. We are not omniscient, so we don’t even know what these abilities will look like. So, says Dennett, let’s forget that Mary is the person to remove these restrictions.

Enter RoboMary.

“Thinking in terms of robots is a useful exercise because it gets rid of the excuse that we don’t yet know enough about the brain to say exactly what’s going on that might matter, allowing a kind of woolly romanticism about the brain’s mysterious abilities to cloud our judgment.” writes Dennett.

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What RoboMary Knows

Welcome to experiment number two.

RoboMary is an iteration of a class of bots called Mark 19, but unfortunately she was created without color vision and is awaiting an update. Until then, the “eyes”, or video cameras, of RoboMary transmit information only in black and white.

“RoboMary’s black-and-white cameras are great for isolating the human Mary, and we can let her roam at will through psychophysics and neuroscience journals, reading through black-and-white camera eyes,” Dennett writes.

Basically, she’s browsing her own version of the magical library.” But RoboMary takes it one step further.

She learns how the Mark 19’s color inputs work, then “using her extensive knowledge, she writes code that allows her to color input from her black and white cameras,” writes Dennett. She changes herself in a way that Mary’s man cannot.

This new setting allows her to, for example, look at an apple with her black and white vision and then accurately represent it as the correct color code for the Mark 19 bots.

RoboMary begins to automatically apply this setting to everything as she explores the world. But here’s where it really stands out. She observes other Mark 19s at work, studying how they react to different colors, and adjusting herself accordingly.

At the moment, RoboMary knows what each color is and reacts to them in exactly the same way as any other Mark 19. An important day is coming. RoboMary’s color sensors start working.

“When she finally installs her color cameras, disables the colorization program and opens her eyes, she doesn’t notice… anything. In fact, she has to check if she has color cameras installed,” writes Dennett. “She already knew for sure that she would see colors just like the other Mark 19s.”

I get goosebumps thinking about it. By changing her settings, RoboMary appears to have modeled a qualia for herself. But I also can’t stop imagining a much scarier situation. What if RoboMary opens her eyes… and everything is different?

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As humans we are limited

Mary’s saga doesn’t end there.

Despite tons of other changes – some of which come from Jackson himself to refine the original argument – all of Dennett’s work is also incredibly thorough.

He goes over the countless objections that can come up when you think of Mary and RoboMary, and then goes over the tricky scenario that prevents RoboMary from changing his settings at all to check if qualia persists. There is even a continuation of Dennett’s article titled “What RoboDennett still doesn’t know”.

But like all philosophical thought experiments, Mary and RoboMary’s goal is not to tell you the truth. It is to force you to consider your options and find the truth for yourself.

Here are a few options I came up with: Perhaps an AI needs to be created in the same way as RoboMary in order to have qualia.

Or perhaps robots can be programmed to be conscious in a broader sense – that is, if we can find a way to mathematically explain consciousness in general. A potentially “conscious” robot could explore the world as we do, and therefore acquire qualia as we do.

Or maybe qualia is not what we think? Jackson’s story makes a strong case that as soon as Mary looks at the color red, something definitely happens.

This phenomenon was given the name “qualia” and attributed to the fact that it is associated with the knowledge of something new, but what if it is a combination of many things with different names and has nothing to do with knowledge?

Or… maybe qualia really is an untouchable, unprogrammable barrier between human consciousness and artificial intelligence.

These views are just the tip of the iceberg, and over the years they can (probably will) be refuted, if not already refuted. But remember the reason why RoboMaria was mentioned in the first place: to imagine an entity that transcends human limitations.

This is a contrived thought experiment because, as humans, we are limited. We can only speculate.


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