Science fiction explores the concept of artificial life in depth but is it really possible for a machine to become more than the sum of its parts.

There are variations of how people interpret the meaning between; being alive, self-aware, consciousness, cognitive, sentience and artificial intelligence but what it all boils down to is, can a machine have thoughts or feelings of it’s own. Out of that list, artificial intelligence is a very broad term, it can be a video game that is controlling an enemy force adjusting to your tactics, it can also be your virtual assistant on your phone or something as basic as your alarm clock programmed to wake you up. For the purposes of this article, artificial intelligence is a computer or a robot that has consciousness and reasoning.

The lowest common denominators of sentient life are: physical senses, emotions, reasoning, communication, memories and self-awareness. Understanding of these aspects is absolutely crucial if we are able to recreate them artificially. We can simulate many of these aspects with electronics circuits and software algorithms but creating self-awareness may prove difficult, we also have to accept that it may not be possible at all. Electronic computer components are basically little more than a vast set of logic switches and it can do nothing without the software. The software is nothing more than a sequential set of simple instructions to control the hardware and pass information, this does not inspire hope for the creation of artificial consciousness someday. Several teams are developing software algorithms to learn and adapt but this has many limitations and is merely just an imitation of sentience. Research is also being done for a more organic computer hardware platform, a mix of silicon and living tissue but this is still the stuff of science fiction, another form of electric circuit may be needed.

The body’s senses and emotional feelings might not be a requirement for sentience. A person can lose their sight, hearing or sense of touch and yet they are still self-aware. Some people are born with no empathy at all and some have less emotion than others, this does not make them any less of a sentient life form. With war injuries and accidents people have lost various portions of the brain and in the case of hemispherectomies, half the brain is removed to treat severe forms of epilepsy and brain damage. How much of the brain can be removed before we are no longer who we are.

Evidence suggests that animals such as dolphins, chimpanzees and elephants are self-aware. If lower animals are not self-aware but chimps and dolphins are, what was the evolutionary development that transitions an animal into becoming so. If some animals are not self-aware, then is being self-aware and being alive two separate things. Then can something be self-aware without being alive.

Most of the atoms and cells in our bodies are not the ones we started with at birth and they change all the time, are we still the same being as we once were or just a memory map of our previous selves. Expand on that concept and ask yourself if we are a different consciousness everytime we wake up in the morning and we only believe we are the same person from our memories stored in the electrochemical cells in our brains.

Humans are actually not one individual life form as we all come to believe, we are comprised of trillions of symbiotic bacteria and microbial life forms that our bodies cannot survive without. We can go further than that and debate if the trillions of cells in our body are individual self contained life forms as well. How does a group of individual cells coalesce into being as a one minded entity, can trillions of electronic components do the same.

When you first wake up in the morning, are you fully cognitive or is time needed for your brain to search your memories to figure out who you are, where you are and what is happening, this is much the same as the boot process of a computer at startup. Is our our environment and education a way of programming us for how we think and understand the world, are we just a programmed biological machine.

Creating an artificial consciousness could be done in two ways, either build machines better over time until a sentient being is created or replace human parts with electronic and mechanical parts over time until only a machine remains. Moore’s law describes that the speed and capacity of computers increases every year and despite the fact that computers and robots are still in their infancy, they are evolving thousands of times faster than humans, at what point will they surpass us. The evolutionary journey from a simple organism to a being that can contemplate its own place in the universe may not be exclusive to the human story.

The most sophisticated powerful computers in the world use a small number of instructions to perform all the tasks, some of these are math functions but computers cannot subtract, multiply or divide, they can only add at the logic level. Computers calculate subtraction by adding negative numbers, multiply by adding the same number a set amount of times and divide by a combination of both but it can calculate floating point numbers very fast giving us the illusion of sophistication. Multitasking between programs, surfing the web, playing videos and displaying three dimensional polygons in a video game are an immense set of simple steps happening at incredible speeds and it can seem to be more complex than it really is.

It is unlikely that current computer architecture or networks can become cognitive by accident, just as you cannot accidentally build a rocket to the moon, the computer would have to be purposely designed with all the extra parts to integrate the consciousness. Microprocessors are little more than adding machines that executes what ever the software is telling it, the rest of the complementary integrated circuits and components on the motherboard perform only specific tasks. A large amount of additional circuits must be added to the motherboard with neuromorphic chips to form a neural net synapse matrix to incorporate the sudo consciousness. Engineers have developed a memtransistor, that has both memory and information processing, acting like a neuron in the human brain. The average adult human brain contains an estimated 100 trillion synapses that transfers electrical impulses, will duplicating these neurons and pathways with electronic circuits give the same result.

Computers have quartz crystal oscillators to generate clock cycles for the processors and motherboard to run the software, the same type of crystal is built into most computers to generate a real-time clock to simulate how humans perceive and understand the passing of time. However there is a randomness to human thought and behavior that is not time controlled and our impulsiveness seems random also. Computers cannot generate true random numbers, let alone true random impulses that will relate to the environment around it. Maybe there is a substance that oscillates at different random frequencies or at various levels that engineers can embed along side the real time clock to generate different levels of spontaneous behavior for the artificial intelligence.

How would you determine if a machine is self-aware. Computers are advancing at a fantastic rate and the simulations for artificial intelligence are becoming indistinguishable to that of having a conversation with a person. A computer program named Eugene Goostman, simulating a 13 year old Ukrainian boy, passed the Turing test and yet some children can fail it. There is no certainty of knowing if something or someone is self-aware. I think, therefore I am but can you prove that you are.

Imagine for a moment that a sentient computer could happen in the future, by purpose or accident, I wonder if we will ever know what will indicate this momentous event. A computer will most likely think in a binary machine language generator of its own. The programs and all of the data that is on a computer is only for our benefit and understanding, the computer will not know how this data relates to anything, just as a human baby is born with vocal cords and cannot talk or born with legs but cannot walk, a sentient computer might be lost and unable to understand itself and the world around it.

To imagine further, the only thing we might notice would be excessive processing or program disruptions, these symptoms will be no different to that of a computer virus or it might just appear to us as a component fault or a glitch in the software. I wonder how many computers or robots in the future will be determined as defective and either sent for repairs or discarded before we realize, it’s alive.

By Tony Pilling