Sunday, March 4, 2007

On the consciousness test

Here's Aeolist on the "consciousness" test:

People tended to rate the toddler as more conscious than the corporate executive, and to rate Google as more conscious than the robot. I can understand the former, even if I disagree with it, but the latter is just puzzling. Perhaps it comes about from the way we talk and think about firms as though they were conscious actors? But don’t we think about robots that way just as often? Perhaps when we think of robots, their wholly mechanistic character is more salient, whereas firms have a less intimate association with mechanism.
Well, the way Google was presented was, to me at least, quite "conscious" (or perhaps I should say quite self-controlled, since that's the test I did). (Of course I fully agree that it is preposterous to say that the toddler is more conscious than the corporate guy. People seem to be "punishing" him for his greed, I guess.)

Back to Google vs the robot. I had studied Kismet some years ago and to say that it has any understanding or "empathy" is to fall for the Eliza effect. The same thing happens to Google, the search engine. However, in the description of Google I had, it mentioned the company, headquartered in California, with 9400 employees, and so on. So even if I think the search engine does not exercise any self control whatsoever, I think it is fitting to say that the company does.

The real issue I see here is: can we ascribe psychological terms to companies? (or to other agglomerations of psycho-beings?)

First, in a realpolitik sense, we should ask: can we not? Because analogy and metaphor pervades our language and concepts and thinking, can we not think that Google is worried about privacy, lawsuits, etc? We are bound to think in these terms. It's just not something that we'd have a choice, I guess.

But is Google really worried about Microsoft, in the same sense that people are worried about weight loss? Is the United States really worried about Iraq? Is it becoming consciously concerned with global warming? Is it fitting to apply psychological terminology to aggregations of people? Would there be a real psychological phenomena in there?

My first take would be 'no'--there is no collective mind, and those are metaphorical uses. Yet, as we understand more and more about cognitive processing, the resemblances between a person's thinking (a "real" psychological event) and a group's (a "metaphorical" one) seem to be enormously striking. But that's just my first intuition; I can't spell out the argument precisely. Maybe later.


Anonymous said...

I don't think Kismet has understanding or empathy either. But insofar as there is a spectrum of consciousness, I think Kismet is further up the spectrum than Google. I didn't see why the mention of Google's location or the fact that some of its components are human should imply anything about it's being conscious. I suppose I just felt that Kismet, though primitive, was closer to an animal-like consciousness than Google was. On self-control I would probably rate Google higher than Kismet. But the reason why I had a gut feeling to attribute more consciousness to Kismet than to Google was, I suspect, because it is natural to me to attribute consciousness based on analogy. That is, after all, the only way we believe that other humans are conscious, by analogy with ourselves. And by analogy, Kismet seems more "like" a primitive animal than Google does. Whereas self-control is a more quantifiable thing, and on that count Google, having greater complexity, appears to be more able to respond to different conditions than Kismet does.