The science fiction Western series “Westworld” confronts a mightily important question for our species: What are the implications of creating echoes of the human mind in the machine? I think about this question a lot. In fact, I think it is one of the most neglected and under appreciated questions out there.
Let’s start by describing the creature that, as a victim of circumstance, has been tasked with understanding and defining consciousness. Of course, I speak of you and me—the Homo sapiens. How unfair (or perhaps fortunate) that we, an animal as soft and vulnerable and weak as any other, have been given such a task. With our weird anatomical architecture, we carry what seems to be the source of consciousness around at a height of about six feet. Consciousness seems to lurk behind the eyes, originating from the complex micro-explosions occurring across synapses in the human brain. All of this is to emphasize the fact that, as of now, consciousness seems to be a biological process—one that requires a warm body hosting a wet 1.4 kg glob of tissue that serves as its command center. A logical question to ask here is whether a mortal biological organism is a necessary precondition for consciousness to manifest. In other words, if we were to upload your consciousness to a machine (or create it from scratch), would you still be conscious? There are arguments for both sides.
A “yes” argument could be simplified as follows: if we created a perfect simulation of the human brain, operating under identical initial conditions and laws, what is separating it from the real thing? A “no” argument can be made following a line of reasoning popularized by the neuroscientist Christof Koch. Koch uses the simulation of supermassive black holes as an example of why a perfectly simulated brain would not necessarily be conscious. That is, just as the simulation of a black hole doesn’t warp the spacetime surrounding the computer (i.e. alter physical reality), a simulation of the brain may not experience qualia, or the feeling of conscious experience.
The wonderful HBO series “Westworld”provides a thought-provoking storyline that entertains this question and others like it. The show is set in a futuristic theme park that has robot hosts with artificial intelligence. Visitors to the park can live out their wildest desires (which for most humans is sex, murder, and substance abuse) since they know that the hosts are programmable computers with no memorable conscious experience. Or so they think…