The prospect of giving a machine consciousness seems beyond the realm of possibility. It might be possible to create a computer that is smarter than humans. Computers are able to solve calculations far more quickly than a human, and they can quickly and accurately solve many problems that would plague teams of scientists for months. But that’s all a computer can do; it cannot do anything without a conscious person behind it. If a computer can only crunch numbers and a machine can only act mechanically, then how could they ever simulate consciousness?
Of course, there are “conscious” aspects that a computer can easily reach. They can categorize and react to changes, use or react to information, and deliberately control their behavior. A being without these features cannot be considered conscious. But can a machine have “personal” tastes, prefer classical music to rock, or appreciate a sunset?
Before we can answer these questions, however, we must ask some simpler ones:
One way to verify the existence of the thought process is through language. Language is considered to be the most complicated of human behaviors. Although many species of animals can communicate, the ability to put communication into language and to think in words (as opposed to ideas) is a strictly human phenomenon and is the most evident indicator of consciousness. This is the basis of the Turing Test and the objections and counter objections that stem from it.
In the early 1600’s, Rene Descartes theorized that the universe was made of two distinct substances. There’s the mental substance, which consists of the mind; and there’s the physical substance, which consists of pretty much everything else. One cannot turn physical things into a mental thing because they are created differently. Consciousness, then, would come only from mental substances. Since then, scientists studying the brain have determined that it is made of all-natural substances. That is, the brains are made of pure matter, if you look deeply enough. Therefore, if consciousness can be fashioned from amino acids, as natural brains are, who’s to say that consciousness can’t arise from other natural substances as well? If a non-conscious object can make decisions, could it be made to become conscious?
There is sufficient evidence to believe that, with enough development, computers could advance enough to pass the Turing Test. Whether this means the computer is conscious, or could become conscious, is still open to discussion. Time and technology will tell for sure.