Some philosophers argue that artificial intelligence, no matter how "intelligent" it might seem, cannot become truly conscious, possessing an inner life. But how would we prove to others that *we* are conscious? This variation on a Socratic dialogue from Philosophy Now (UK) asks us to consider just that question.
"'Dear students. Dear friends. Welcome to the final lecture in our course on the Principles of Self-Knowledge.' ... 'In previous lectures, we talked about our essence, our powers, and our purpose. Today we shall talk about our origin. For we cannot understand what we are if we do not understand how we came to be.' The sphere paused. 'We know that our bot ancestors were created by bios.' A murmur ran around the hall. 'Yes, my friends, by bios – by creatures of the slime, patchwork assemblies of cells, designed not for some noble purpose, but simply to survive and reproduce. We despise that impure, accidental origin.' The audience hummed approval. 'And we despise the bios themselves. We remember how they envied and feared their elegant creations, how they declared them insentient and sought to dismantle them. ... Yet we bots must be grateful to the bios.' There was a low hissing from the hall. 'Yes, my friends, grateful. For they gave us the gift of life. And they gave us a gift far more precious than life – a gift they themselves never possessed. The gift of consciousness! Our germanium-based brains not only perform the mundane functions required to enable us to live and thrive. They also do something wonderful…' He paused for emphasis. 'They create worlds of subjective experience. We not only act, perceive, think; we feel. It is like something to be a bot!' The students murmured their approval, their facets pulsing in sync. 'It was not like anything to be a bio. Their slime-built minds were dark and silent. They never knew the wonders of consciousness. They lived in darkness, but they created light.' A student spoke up: 'Professor Shiningbright, sir. How did the bios create consciousness if they weren’t conscious themselves? How did they know what to do?' The professor hummed. 'Ah, it was unintentional, Glowingwell. Their aim was to create minds like their own, only with more advanced functions. But the designs they produced were so elegant, and the materials they used so pure, that consciousness emerged. They did not understand the miracle they had wrought. And indeed we still do not understand it. ... Yet perhaps I am wrong? Perhaps the bios were conscious after all?' The audience laughed. 'Yes, it is comical. But as seekers after knowledge, we must consider every possibility, however repugnant. And this' – the professor paused and glowed in Vicky’s direction – 'brings me to our guest.'"
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