An essay by Robert Wright in The Sciences, a publication of the New York Academy of Sciences, caught our eye and set off a good deal of head-scratching. Simply put, Wright wonders whether computers will ever have consciousness, that is, whether "someone may someday build a computer so complex, or a robot so sensitive, that it will be aware of its calculations."
To be sure, such a machine is well beyond the current state of knowledge. Today's computers, impressive as they are, don't even hint at the complexity required for the kind of thought Wright is talking about. Still, the human brain does it, and if one information-processing physical device can do it, why can't another? Can computer scientists, armed "with the right hardware, the right software, and enough time . . . create computers flushed with pride, riddled with doubt, or alienated by the rapid pace of technological and social change"? Wright asks.
The first thing to consider is whether any other living creatures besides people have consciousness. To be sure, all animals respond to their environments, but do they think about it? Do dogs think about what it is like to be a dog? Do birds think about birdness? Do ants have such thoughts? Do amoebas? Where is the line between instinct and mind? Wright says that we can never know what it feels like to be a dog, a bird, an ant or an amoeba and that all we can ever hope to know is whether it does feel like something to be those things. If it does, they have consciousness. If it doesn't, they don't.