Two days ago as I write this, a press release announced that Korean scientist Daegene Song claims his quantum research mathematically proves that human consciousness has an element that can never be duplicated by a machine. I am tempted to believe this because those who suggest that “strong” artificial intelligence can be built out of electronics immediately bring out my inner biological supremacist. Those who suggest that we can take a cryonically preserved body and nanotechnologically repair it and restore it to life make me come very close to arguing for a soul. Fortunately, I can say “agnostic” and “I don’t know” and wait for evidence.
Artists love synthetic beings: robots; AIs; androids; Golems … At the recent We Robot conference, R2D2 creator Tony Dyson suggested that “[w]e all want a slave”. The last couple of years’ worth of news about killer robots, jobs lost to automation, and algorithms has spawned a new wave of exploration, notably Her (Spike Jonze, 2013), Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015), and Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Hard Problem (2015). I saw the news a few days after seeing both Ex Machina and The Hard Problem, both of which put consciousness at the centre of the action. Garland opts for a version of the Turing test. Stoppard discusses consciousness via several key arguments: altruism; miracles; mind-body dualism. Neither was really satisfying.
Stoppard’s characters’ first difficulty: they’re less characters than constructs to which Stoppard has assigned roles in the argument. The nearest to an exception is the main character, Hilary Matthews (played at the National Theatre by Olivia Vinall), who prays nightly for a miracle to ease the agony that haunts her of not knowing what has happened to the child she bore at 15 and gave up for adoption. You should, she tells her fellow student and occasional lover, Spike (Damien Molony), pray every day for those you love: “It puts them in your diary.”
As the play opens, it has taken Hilary some years to recover and return to academia. Now a psychology student at Loughborough, she is applying for a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, a research institution funded by the insanely wealthy Jerry Krohl (Anthony Calf), who made his money from the financial markets, and has an adopted daughter who, like Hilary’s lost child, is called Catherine. We know from first sight of Cathy early in the first act that she is that child: coincidence or miracle? Neither character nor story is the thing here: just the argument.
Ex Machina is also character-light, but dumps its arguments after half an hour in favour of well-worn story. A young programmer, Caleb Smith (Domnhnall Gleeson), is invited to spend a week with his ultimate boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the insanely wealthy owner of Blue Book, the world’s largest search engine company. Soon he finds out why: he’s there to assess whether an AI passes a version of the Turing test. A series of face-to-face sessions follow with the AI he’s asked to judge, an ostentatiously mechanical android named Ava (Alicia Vikander) that is kept locked inside a separate area of Nathan’s computer game-styled residence-cum-research lab.
In Stoppard’s play, when Hilary is asked if a chess-playing computer is intelligent, she says what matters is whether it’s thinking while its opponent is debating his move or merely being a toaster. For her, what would make it conscious is whether it minds losing. But there again: does it really mind, or is it just a very good simulation? How can you tell? This is also Caleb’s problem, though his criterion is different: can Ava make a joke?
In the mid-1990s, when scientists began being able to see the biological workings of the brain, there was a lot of talk about being able to back ourselves up onto more durable substrates. Stoppard’s arguments seem to me to have moved along very little since then (see, for example, Andrew Brown’s piece on the 1996 Tucson conference on consciousness for Wired 2.08). I’m even more impatient with Garland’s characters: why don’t they know it’s bad news to be alone in the world and visit a mad scientist in his lonely castle? Unworldly, geeky Caleb is your basic Victorian maiden of gothic tales, trapped between a human monster and a mechanical one.
Neither Caleb nor Nathan wonders whether Ava has an emotional stake in Caleb’s eventual diagnosis (Hilary’s “computer that minds losing”). The film’s answer is to abandon argument to turn into a horror movie about oppressive sexism, especially when Nathan tells Caleb no consciousness exists without a sexual component, so Ava is capable of sexual intercourse. How very convenient for a dysfunctional man who thinks he might be a god. Hilary, unable to find answers and trapped by other people’s misguided efforts, torpedoes her career, finds peace, and abandons the hard problem in favour of philosophy.
If we must have some criterion for distinguishing a toaster from a conscious being, here’s my suggestion: does it get bored? We should be able to see the signs. A bored animal paces interminably; a bored human fidgets; the inadequately occupied, non-corporeal AI Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in the 2013 movie Her, was just distracted enough in conversation for her owner, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), to ask, “Are you talking to other people?” Yes. Yes, she was. Eight thousand of them.