Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
A consciousness that exists without a decaying body is undoubtedly very powerful. That is, of course, if it has the means to perform actions, like a CPU being connected to a monitor, mouse, and keyboard. Because without the worry of bodily functions, feelings, and emotions, would a consciousness be functional and have goals, a drive, etc?
This is related to the topic of artificial intelligence. A claim that comes from the side that says artificial intelligence will not become the enemy of humans is that, because we program machines and robots, they will inadvertently have the traits and values that we give it. And therefore be merciful to humans and seek to protect them just as we, sort of, do. Some science fiction movies have toyed with the idea of not making AI, but turning humans into computers. For example, Transcendence, in which they successfully upload a human’s consciousness to a computer and the internet. Now this is a work of fiction, so the exaggerations are many. However, this demonstrates that this is not a new concept or question. Would humans be more powerful without our physical entrapments?
What would this look like? Our notion of consciousness and sentience is imagined and shaped only by human (emotion-packed) ideas. From identity, to preferences, to aspect, and motivation and values. It’s a paradox because humans cannot experience anything non-human. We don’t know what it’s like to be an animal or a nonliving object, although we often try to. Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his novel Breakfast of Champions, “Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.” This gains it’s humor from the supposition that yeasts think and act like humans. From as far as we can tell, yeast pieces don’t discuss, suffocate, guess, or contemplate the meanings of life. But, we cannot assume that humans are the only beings with consciousness. That would be egotistic of us. For it could manifest itself differently, yet still matching the definition, in various beings.
Despite the obvious differences and theoretical problems that are evident in this idea, a consciousness needs devices and mechanisms to use for input and output. For instance, our brain uses physical structures like the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth to observe the world and obtain information, and uses the same facilities to output the result of the interaction with that information. Because of this I don’t think a brain-in-a-vat future or having a cloud server in place of our brain is viable for us. It is currently far too complicated for us to simply extract one part of our machine and expect it to work without everything else. It is a pleasant fantasy to imagine a human not worrying about sleeping, eating, and the other bodily needs. A person solely focused on the interests and curiosities of the mind in a world with access to seemingly infinite information would be unlike any other. Another movie that has presented this idea is Her. In which, an original computer AI created a group of “hyperintelligent” AI systems including great minds like the British philosopher Alan Watts. In essence, reviving thinkers to use the unlimited resources to develop a greater understanding of the universe.
We should have bodies because they are our input and output systems, although not having them be a limitation to our productivity would be amazing. We need our current structures in order to function in the way we deem proper. And they aren’t going away anytime soon. So we need to accept that we’re not computers, and we need rest and dynamic relationships and environments. But that’s not going to stop us conceptualizing our future, whether in fiction or theory, and designing it in the way that’s most suitable for us.