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Chappie and Counterfeit Consciousness

Added by David Sanford

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_“I am consciousness. I am alive. I am Chappie.” –Sharlto Copley Sharlto Copley performed the acting and voice for Chappie, the robot in director Neill Blomkamp’s latest film. The Chappie seen in the film was painted on top of Copley’s movements in post-production. The end result is quite stunning. Chappie appears to move naturally through the physical world while also appearing to navigate the world of emotions, ideas, and decisions. Thanks to the vision of Blomkamp, the acting of Copley, and the hard work of more than 200 animators, Chappie comes alive on screen and appears conscious. Blomkamp chose to explore the nature of consciousness because the “most core, fundamental question humans can ask” is “why we exist and why consciousness exists.” Exploring the nature of consciousness is a small step toward answering this larger question. The ideology of the film is that people “can begin to manipulate the matter around [them] to build better sentient life” (New York premier press conference, March 5, 2015). Blomkamp’s fictionalization does lead to a critical question about consciousness. But it is not, What is consciousness? Instead, the more instructive question is, What is simulated consciousness? Can we recognize a counterfeit? If we manipulate the matter around us to have the appearance of sentient life without actual sentient life, will we know the difference? Bank tellers have a marking pen to test $100 bills. I did not have one of these pens when I crossed from Tanzania into Kenya several years ago. As a result I accepted a fake $100 bill. Just because a piece of paper looks like a $100 bill does not mean it is a $100 bill. It was an expensive lesson. Perhaps we need a marking pen for consciousness so we can distinguish the real from the fake. Just because something looks like consciousness does not mean it is consciousness. We need a better standard than appearance. Scientists have made great strides in understanding the quantitative function of our brains. They have identified the function of neurons, dendrites, and synapses, and are working to map the signal processing of neuronal networks. There are similarities between these functions and electrical circuits in your computer. For example, the processor in your computer runs at 1.50 volts. The signals in your brain are at 0.10 volts. But these quantitative similarities are superficial when it comes to the qualitative nature of consciousness. We know that consciousness is conjoined to the brain, but signal processing alone does not explain consciousness. Thus, we cannot derive consciousness from mimicking the signal processing of our brain. Computers can mimic many of our actions. For example, the Google Street View cars capture images on all seven continents. Yet they cannot see. The Street View system mimics our ability to see, but it only captures images, stitches them together, and presents them back to us. The Street View system is not conscious. The system has no experience of seeing those images. We know this because science has taught us that consciousness is conjoined to the biological brain. You know this because it is intuitively obvious. Biological life has been the standard for identifying consciousness for millennia. You may be momentarily frightened by a rubber snake, but there is no mistaking a real viper. We know the real one is alive and dangerous. This brings us back to Chappie. If Chappie were a real robot it might not be as intuitively obvious that Chappie was not conscious. It is one thing to mimic one of our abilities. It is an entirely different thing to mimic virtually all of our abilities. Thus, we may succumb to Chappie counterfeits if we are not careful. Signal processing can be coupled with a microphone and speaker, enabled to process ones and zeros, and named Siri, but that program cannot be conscious no matter how complex it is. If we add a camera and more signal processing that computer is still not conscious. If we further add mechanical movement to the computer it is still not conscious. No amount of signal processing and hardware can make it conscious, no matter how closely it mimics our appearance and behaviors. You and I are the best consciousness detectors available. We know that consciousness is conjoined to the biological brain. We are the marking pens for identifying consciousness. Do not be deceived by Chappie counterfeits.