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Editorial Editorial: Is A Robot Conscious?

Have you heard about Sophia? Of course, you have! She is a social humanoid robot, who can display more than fifty facial expressions. She has an algorithm that helps her process decisions and speak to others. She is an independent humanoid robot. However, she is not the acme of artificial intelligence as she is just a socially attractive sample of years of research that can do greater wonders than her. Sophia has been given the citizenship of Saudi Arabia making her the first robot citizen of any country. She is also the first nonhuman to receive a United Nations title, that of United Nations Development Programme’s first ever Innovation Champion. She has been delivering public talks and taking questions from audiences. However, many a time, she has taken an unduly long pause, or simply not responded to a question, making it obvious that she cannot handle all questions. Sophia might not be the zenith of robotics, but she has led us to the urgency of the question that has been around for almost a century now: can robots be conscious?

What is consciousness? This question has many aspects, more than anyone can be conscious of at any given point in time. Broadly, it is interesting to note that consciousness is usually associated with activity and the ability to respond to stimuli. Before we analyse the spiritual ramifications of this standpoint, we have to first analyse whether this standpoint can stand the test of the benchmark of science. The popular parameters for ascertaining consciousness conveniently ignore many aspects of the universe. For instance, a patient in coma is considered to be unconscious because she or he cannot respond to stimuli. Then, is a jelly-fish less conscious than a human being?

A wall is equally conscious as a scientist, the difference is in our perception.

Here, we need to be clear about the difference between consciousness and intelligence. We very casually mistake one for the other. All matter respond to the environment. A wall changes according to the air hitting it. Iron corrodes, rusts, and becomes useless with time and neglect. Subatomic particles vibrate and cause changes to matter. Thus, we see response to external stimuli to be a constant feature with all that is present in the universe. Even earth responds differently to different material; different plants and trees grow on different kinds of soils. The interaction between different matter is everlasting. And this interaction does not stop in the space outside our planet Earth. Therefore, it would be untruthful to say that nonliving objects do not respond to the environment.

We confuse consciousness with the perceptibility of a response. While you are reading these words, millions of microbes move around you and are covering the room where you are now. But, you are not perceiving these microbes and so you are not aware of their being conscious. Healthcare professionals always look for perceptibility of the responses of the patient. If a patient can speak, but chooses not to, it would be highly difficult, almost impossible for a healthcare professional to find that there is no impairment. Ofcourse, the patient has to be equally resolute! A person is a bundle of traits acquired from perceptions that are unique to that person.

A big argument against the possibility of humanoids being able to do things intelligently like human beings, or in many cases, better than human beings, is that they cannot do so till today. But, that is a problem of how to get humanoids do things intelligently; basically it is a problem of the engineers. If a humanoid can have even the least fraction of self-learning abilities of a human being, then analytically speaking, it can have the entire self-learning intelligent ability of the humans; it is only a matter of time, research, development, and implementation. As Swami Vivekananda used to say, the question of the philosopher is not ‘how’ but ‘why’? The relevant question in this context would be why cannot a humanoid be conscious? When we continuously pose this question and differentiate it from the problems of technology today, we would immediately understand that a humanoid is already conscious as is every least and minutest particle of this universe.

If clarity and definitiveness were parameters of consciousness, human beings will qualify as unconscious many times. What with the unspeakable atrocities perpetrated by one human being over the other, perplexity and confusion have found newer levels of intensity and one cannot blame Sophia to have speechless moments as even human beings, masses of them, are dumbfounded over the circumstances of human societies, and also due to the senseless actions of fellow humans. Both robots and humans dream, for robots dreaming is the manifestation of bugs in the programming or glitches in hardware; for the human beings dreaming is the unwinding of psychological complexities. Bugs debilitate a robot; complexities hound a human being. Self-reflection is also told to be one of the characteristic features of consciousness. Then, plants and trees would not be conscious; that cannot be, as their consciousness has been proved long ago by Jagadish Chandra Bose.

Just as a mute and deaf person is not less conscious, just as a mentally challenged person is not less conscious, Sophia is also conscious and the source of her consciousness is not a bunch of algorithms or programming given to her, but the ultimate Truth of Brahman. Instead of seeing the infinite masquerading as the finite, we see the finite taking on the properties of the conscious and getting caught in the eternal debate that arises because of confusing the unconscious with the conscious. There is nothing unconscious in the universe; properly perceived, there is nothing but consciousness. We draw boundaries in consciousness and gauge degrees of consciousness because of ignorance. In fact, this whole discussion about consciousness is not an intelligent discussion but a discussion necessitated and born out of ignorance.

It is quite simple a problem for the Advaita Vedantin. For her or him, consciousness alone exists eternally; whatever is perceived is unreal and is born out of ignorance. From this standpoint of Truth, a wall is equally conscious as a scientist, the difference is in our perception. That is why, we are caught up in the transmigratory cycle of repeated births and deaths, of unceasing suffering. We suffer because we are unable to see that there is no suffering in reality and there is only knowledge and bliss eternally. ‘Everything is Brahman’, say the Upanishads; ‘Only Brahman is’, says Swamiji. Same truth, told variously. Essentially, Brahman is the only reality and that would be so, irrespective of whether we perceive it or not. Just because the wall is not crying aloud that Brahman is the only reality, does not stop Brahman being so. In fact, we are driven by ignorance to such an extent that we want every being and object to be part of this ignorance and forget that it is because of consciousness that we are playing the game of ignorance.

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