Existence as Ascription
Hans Moravec, 1999
Chapter 7 of Robot
was my first presentation of a surprising chain of reasoning. I
wanted to rewrite it, but didn't have the energy in time for
publication. Now that the pressure is off, and my visceral comfort
with the ideas has risen, I'd like to present them more compellingly.
This piece is a start.
A decade of net newsgroup philosophical debates on
phenomenology (or subjective vs. objective reality) forced me to think
hard about these issues, though in hindsight I see roots decades
Start with the premise (A) that properly designed minds implemented
in computers can have conscious experiences just like minds implemented in
flesh. Also assume (B) that experiences of rich virtual worlds can be as
vivid as experiences of the physical world. Immersive video games make the
second premise non-controversial. Materialistic accounts of the evolution
of life and intelligence, providing a rough roadmap for the evolution of
machine intelligence, make the first premise compelling to AI guys like me.
(Also, Occamesque, it demands no mysterious special new ingredients to make
Let AI = Artificial Intelligence and VR = Virtual Reality.
Combine the two halves of both premises into four cases:
1) a flesh human in the physical world.
2) a conscious AI controlling a physical robot.
3) a human immersed in a VR, maybe by neural interface.
4) a conscious AI linked to a VR, all inside one computer.
Case 4 is a handle on the subjective/objective problem that was not
available to past philosophers. Unlike flesh, dreams, stories,
sensation-controlling demons or divine ideas, it is nearly free of slippery
unstated assumptions about human minds or physical reality. On the
outside, we have a simple objective device stepping through states. Yet, on
the inside, there is a subjective mind experiencing its own existence.
What connects the internal experience to the external mechanism?
As in any simulation, it is an interpretation. Storage locations can be
viewed as representing bit patterns, numbers, text, pressures,
temperatures, sensations, moods, beliefs, feelings or more abstract
relationships. In general, different observers will have different
interpretations. Someone looking at the simulation trying to improve
memory management in the operating system will likely put a different
interpretation on the memory contents than someone wanting to view life in
the simulation, or to talk with its inhabitant.
But does the AI cease to exist if there is no one outside who
happens to have the correct interpretation to see it? Suppose an
experimenter sets up an AI/VR, and builds a translating box allowing him to
plug in and talk with the AI. But on the way home, the experimenter is
killed and the translating box destroyed. The computer continues to run,
but no one suspects it holds a living, feeling being. Does the AI cease to
be? Suppose one day enough of the experimenter's notes are found and a new
translating box is built and attached. The rediscovered AI then tells a
long story about its life in the interval when it was unobserved.
My take on this is that there is an observer of the AI even
when it goes unobserved from the outside, namely the AI itself. By
interpreting some process inside the box as a conscious observer, we
grant that process the power of making observations about itself.
That self-interpretation exists in its own right whether or not
someone outside ever appreciates it. But once you allow externally
undiscovered interpretations of AI's that exist only in their own
eyes, you open the door to all possible interpretations which contain
self-aware observers. Which is fine by me. I think this universe is
just such a self-interpretation, one self-defining subjective thread
in an infinity or alternatives that are just as real to their
To be continued . . .