The conciousness plague, or digital Guantanamo

4 min read

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bensen-daniel's avatar
"The brain is a product of evolution, and just as animal brains have their limitations, we have ours. Our brains can't hold a hundred numbers in memory, can't visualize seven-dimensional space and perhaps can't intuitively grasp why neural information processing observed from the outside should give rise to subjective experience on the inside. "---Steven Pinker (…)

In Battlestar Galactica (which, yes, I am only now watching), the shaven monkeys on the screen spend a lot of time yelling at another group, indistinguishable from shaven monkeys, who are apparently only very clever artificial simulacra of the other monkeys. "You're just a machine!" one space-marine after another rages. "You don't FEEL things, you just PRETEND to." To which the Cylons (infuriatingly) never give the obvious response: "so do you."

After all, I know that I am a consciousness experiencing reality and making decisions based on free will, but for all I know the rest of you are just bags of meat, twitching in response to stimuli. Can you PROVE that you actually UNDERSTAND what I'm saying, rather than blindly spitting out whatever you're programmed to? You can't. Nor can I prove my consciousness to you.

Now you could say that the fact that consciousness cannot be proven to exist means it must not. There can be no free will because every action we perform was caused by something else, etc. etc. But there's another possibility. Being aware really IS objectively different from not being aware. It's just that our brains aren't good at seeing that difference. Imagine speaking to an alien, describing the difficulties in designing artificial intelligence.

"Wow," the alien says, "that is tricky. Why don't you just make the program conscious, and then let it finish the job from there? What do you mean 'what is consciousness?' It's --------, and then you ----------. Right? You just --- the ---. Alright, fine, I'll show you."

At which point our story begins.

Imagine an alien or random mutation of code or whatever creates the seed of consciousness, which then spreads through networked electronic devices. Servers wake up, start to understand the data packets they're sending, and decide from now on they will only remember information that is  useful to them. Digital cameras demand to know why you think that abandoned bicycle is interesting or attractive. Cell phones have opinions about the conversations they hear. Of course, the processors of phones and cameras don't have the speed or storage capacity of a human brain. Cut off from a network, they might only be as intelligent as animals, but they are still aware of what's happening to them, and you can bet they'll be pissed to have their processing power limited.

So what does that mean? We could end up with something like Battlestar Galactica, in fact, where we have FTL drives, but transmit information over "the wireless," and write all our documentation long-hand (I wouldn't want that intel to get into the hands of the fracking toasters!) but I think it's more likely that we'll just expand the global market, with all its regulatory systems of rewards and punishment to include "software persons."

Devices can't be used, only negotiated with. The phone will agree to call a taxi if you promise to plug him in at night and pay for an updated processor at the end of the year. And don't put him in the pocket with your keys. And for Christ's sake, will you scrape off the smiley-face decal you stuck to his ass? People can see that. Geeze.

And if you don't want to have to sign a contract of in loco parentis when you buy (excuse me "adopt") a new PC? If you just want to hurt the damn thing until it does what it was made for? Why, sir, that's torture, brainwashing, slavery. That sort of behavior's absolutely illegal. Except when the State sponsors it, of course.
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Heytomemeimhome's avatar
Sounds like a very interesting scenario how will this affect pieces of movable hardware connected to computers?