The Quibble Convention had been going on for over thirty years now, always with the same strict rules. The place was still the secondary room of the Royal Academy, which could sit only 25 people. It was in the form of a trial, with the Exponent and three Opponents. The Exponent would make his statement, no longer than one sentence, and the debate would begin.
This time the exponent was Sir William Orchid, and people knew already what his statement would be. He stood up with the ring of the bell, looked at the small crowd and said:
-There cannot be any Turing test for consciousness.
The Chairman, Sir John Stringmore, answered with a short dry smile.
-Maybe, Sir, you would add a couple of clarifying sentences?
-Ah, yes, well, only a few words. The Turing Test, as outlined much time ago, was invented to permit discrimination between a machine and a human being, on the basis of questions asked by a judge. The latter does not know which is which, and if he is not able to notice a difference between the two answers, well, the inference is, that there is no intellectual difference between the man and the machine. The machine, or robot, as you want to call it, passed then the Turing test...
-This is all very clear to all of us, Sir. -nodded the Chariman-We need perhaps an additional clarifying sentence from you...
-Well...next is the notion of consciousness as a subjective experience. I know that I have consciousness, but there is no way for me to know whether you have consciousness. I may assume so, but there is no way for any observer to know about the consciousness of anybody else. It is the old story, pardon me if I say trivial things, that "my red" is only my red, and nobody else can access it.
-Therefore, is perfectly silly to ask questions about consciousness to anybody else, and doubly silly, if I may say so, to ask a machine.
The chairman made a small movement with the head, and when he spoke, his voice was a little harsh.
-You know perfectly, Sir, that there are several Institutes for the study of consciousness in robots, ad that our global Government has invested several billion in Robotic Artificial Intelligence precisely in this field. Are you then implying that all this is a non-sense?
-Yes Sir, this is what I am implying.
There was a movement of discomfort in the room. The Chairman made a movement by the hand, so to impose silence, then he turned towards the person sitting in the far corner of the first raw, the First Opponent.
-Doctor Zhang, you may talk now.
Doctor Zhang, the famous cosmic AI engineer, was over ninety years old, and his voice was barely audible.
-Suppose that, in the test, the judge asks simply: do you have a consciousness? Wouldn’t that be a test?
The answer of the Exponent was not very friendly:
-So, if a machine is going to tell you "I am a conscious robot"- would you believe it? How would you prove it? -But then you can ask: are you sincere?
- Sir, would you believe his answer? You would never know.
Doctor Zhang, impatiently, asked to speak again.
-Are you now implying, Sir William Orchid, that a robot can lie? That a robot can decide to lie?
-No, Sir. I am suggesting that a robot obeys the program that iwas imposed on it. He obeys the program, regardless of the real truth.
-So, in poor words, you are stating that a robot can never be conscious.
-I didn't even say that, Sir.
-What did you say, then? - the feeble voice was now angry.
-I said that asking that question is simply silly. There is no way to know, there is, and there cannot be, any Turing-test by which an external observer can assess the presence of consciousness in an observed person-or thing.
-The question, whether a robot can lie, is a very interesting one- interrupted the Chairman with a friendly, peaceful voice and gesture. Clearly, he wanted to avoid that the debate would became too fierce. And then, with a friendly smile, made a gesture to the Second Opponent.
This was professor Paul Smart, known -in addition to his famous nano-robots, for his good humour and friendly character.
-I wish to go back to the point made by our Chairman, that the statement of Sir Orchid would challenge the research meaning of several of our AI Institutes. Well, it is not so, as they, these institutes, have simply a different definition for consciousness. For them, a conscious robot is simply a machine which is capable of taking autonomous decisions. Just like our nano-robots.
-Decisions ...have nothing to do with consciousness! - Sir William Orchid almost jumped up from his chair. - Decisions have to do with thinking, with reasoning and understanding, and this leads to intelligence, cognition, and the all realm of knowing...
-Let me understand: You are saying that a robot which is capable of autonomous decisions, like to go out of the room or not, like to bring me a tea or not, is not conscious?
-Of course, he is not, professor Smart! This is just a zombie which has been programmed to do zero or one, according to a complex algorithm.
-Agreed, but listen. My point is that, at a certain point, consciousness has to become mental. This is when you say to yourself: "Oh, I am conscious, oh yes, I have a consciousness". Well, when you say so, this is a thought. Agreed?
-Mister Smart, you are confusing the issue! Of course, I agree, but so what? Here the matter is consciousness. Consciousness is feeling prior to thinking. You do not need the brain, or the mind, to feel that you are. If you say, or think, that you are feeling something, well, this is now a thought, a mental process, no consciousness anymore.
Professor Smart made another one of his famous open, friendly smiles.
-Okay, I am just saying that the thinking "Oh, I have the feeling of being", this very thought -which you may call reflexive consciousness- brings consciousness into the realm of understanding.
-Oh, what do you mean with this term?
-I mean that now we have abandoned the state of consciousness to arrive at the stage of mental realization, namely the moment you can grasp something with your mind.
-Okay, but how can this help our question of the Turing test for consciousness?
-May I? -it was the Third Opponent. This was the most prominent astrophysicist lady, Karin Mustafa, the very one who was successfully tackling the problem of the dark energy. The chairman allowed her to speak.
-Suppose that I -as a judge- tell a joke to the man, and to the machine. As a judge, I want to see if they both, or only one, is going to laugh at my joke.
There was a general soft laughter in the room, and the Chairman was happy about that. He waited for silence and said:
-This open another interesting question. Can a robot laugh?
-Suppose he does! -said the Exponent- This would only mean, that he has been programmed in a determined way. For example, he has learned from Global Wikipedia all human normal behaviour, and he has been programmed to laugh, when a story contains a paradox to the learned rules...
Now the first man in the second raw insistently asked to speak.
-And what is here the difference with respect to a human? A man or a woman also laugh, because of the paradox with respect to the expected behaviour. Also in this case, pardon me, there is a strict determinism!
-Oh, boys! - this was the happy voice of professor Smart again.- This bring us to the issue of free will. Please let us forget this point!
The Exponent stood up again.
-I tell you what is the difference between a robot and a human! -protested - Take those robots who help sick or disabled people. Useful, nice, great! But: do these robots feel the sufferance of their patients? Do they feel compassion? No, because they have no consciousness, no capability of feeling! That seemed to be a strong point and the audience was silent for a few seconds.
-Anyway-this was again the Exponent-is clear that laughing at a joke is based on understanding a series of rules and conventions, and has nothing to do with consciousness. I do not believe that a robot can ever laugh, or can ever feel compassion. And tell me, professor Smart, do you think that a robot can ever dream? you know, have a dream as we human do?
-If you ask me- was the polite answer- I believe that a dream is based on some previous states of consciousness. So, if we agree that a robot can have consciousness, I may even accept the idea that he, the robot, can have a dream...
-Don't call a robot "he"- protested the Opponent- Just say "it"!
-No, excuse me, I call him he for a certain respect to these new guests of our Earth...
-Why not "she", then? - the voice of the Opponent was again harsh.
-Please, no private discussion, sirs. -The Chairman was now trying to regain the control -I would rather like to clarify one point here. Silence, please. We were confronted with two different definitions of consciousness. The one, as advocated by the Exponent, states that consciousness has exclusively to do with the subjective experience- --all goes in the dynamic archive of consciousness and forms the internal view of the world. The other definition, is instead, that we can talk about consciousness as soon as we have autonomy in the decisions-making.
The Chairman made a long pause, and said then something not usual in a Quibble Convention.
-I would like to take a kind of informal vote, here. How many of you would agree with the opinion of the Exponent, that decision-making is not -I repeat: not- a state of consciousness, but just a state of intellectual understanding?
The audience did not react for a while, then the first hands were risen up.
-Let's see, let's see- said the Chairman with excitement. - You are twenty-five, and I count eighteen hands up. It is, I would say. Interesting is also, that in the seven votes against it, five are women...But it a significant majority.
-Real truth is not a question of democracy! - this was the comment of prof. Smart, and the Chairman decided to ignore him.
The Chairman looked at his watch, the first hour was gone, it was the time for tea. Then he looked again at the Exponent with an air of defiance.
-You know- he told him- that the Global Galactic Wikipedia is now active, and contains all information about mankind, from the social habits to the whole history, all forms of art to all possible science discipline, including of course anatomy and neurobiology, contains all books, all photographs, all journal articles, everything in all detail, and, listen, also three petabytes of algorithms...All what we know on Earth. Now, this can be downloaded in a robot-although it may take couple of days. Then, Sir Orchid...
Here the Chairman made a pause, and looked at him:
-Then you will agree with me that also any form of consciousness must have been downloaded on that robot. It will then be a robot with consciousness. Do you agree?
The Exponent looked at him with an unfriendly smile.
-I am afraid you didn't get the point, mister Chairman. The point is, let me repeat it, that there is no way to know whether your robot will have consciousness or not. No observer can demonstrate the feelings of the observed.
The Chairman didn't give up.
-But you would agree that after this downloading, this robot might be alive!
-Oh, maybe. And to check that, we have tests.
-So, are you saying that we can look at robots who are alive but have no consciousness?
-Indeed, this is quite a possibility with your things, I mean your robots. More generally I certainly accept the idea that there can be life without consciousness. But, mind you: we will never know. Because, remember: there is no Turing test for consciousness.