The Fundamental Differences Between Artificial and Human Intelligence

By Federico Faggin

(Paper presented at the V Congress of the Future, Santiago, Chile)

There is much speculation today about a possible future where mankind will be surpassed, perhaps even destroyed by machines. We hear of self-driving cars, Big Data, the resurgence of artificial intelligence, and even of transhumanism, the idea that it may be possible to download our experience and consciousness in a computer and live forever. We also hear major warnings by public figures, such as Steven Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk about the dangers of robotics and AI. So, what is true and what is fiction in this picture?

In all these projections, it is assumed that it will be possible to make truly intelligent and autonomous machines in the not too distant future; machines that are at least as good, if not better than we are. But is this assumption correct? I will argue that realintelligence requires consciousness, and consciousness is something our machines do not have, and most likely will never have.

Today most scientists believe that we are just machines; sophisticated information processing systems based on wetware. That’s why they believe it will be possible to make machines that will surpass human beings. They believe that consciousness is an epiphenomenonof the operation of the brain produced by something similar to the software that runs in our computers. Therefore, with more sophisticated software our robots will eventually be conscious. But is this really possible?

Well, let’s start by defining what I mean by consciousness: I know within myself that I exist. But how do I know? I am sure I exist because I feelso. So, it is the feelingthat carries the knowing; and the capacity to feel is the essential property here. When I smell a rose, I feelthe smell. But careful! The feeling is not the set of electrical signals produced by the olfactory receptors inside my nose. Those signals carry objective information, but that information is translated within my consciousness into a subjectivefeeling: what the smell of that rose feels liketo me.

We could build a robot capable of detecting the particular molecules that carry the smell of a rose and correctly identify a rose by its smell, for example. However, the robot would have no feeling whatsoever. It would not be awareof the smell as a particular sensation. To be aware one has to feel. But the robot stops at the electrical signals, and from those signals it can generate other signals to cause some response, some action. But we do much more than that because we actually feelthe smell of the rose, and through that feeling we connectwith that rose in a special way, and we can also make a free-will decision that is informedby that feeling.

Consciousness could be defined simply as the capacity to feel. But feeling implies the existence of a subject that feels – a self. Therefore, consciousness is inextricably linked to a self, and is the inherent capacity of a self to perceive and know through feelings, through a sentient experience; it is a defining property of a self. Now, feelings are clearly a different category of phenomena than electrical signals, incommensurable with them. Philosophers have coined the word qualeto indicate what something feels like, and explaining qualia is called the hard problem of consciousnessbecause nobody has been able to solve it. Now, in the rest of my talk I will use the word qualia to refer to four different classes of feelings: physical sensations and feelings, emotions, thoughts, and spiritual feelings.

Electrical signals, be they in a computer or in a brain, do not produce qualia. In fact, there is nothing in the laws of physics that tells us how to translate electrical signals into qualia. How is it possible then to have qualia-perceptions? Having studied the problem for over 20 years, I have come to the conclusion that consciousness may be an irreducibleaspect of nature, an inherent property of the energy out of which space, time and matter emerged in the Big Bang.

In this view, far from being an epiphenomenon, consciousness is real. In other words, the stuff out of which everything is made is cognitivestuff, and the highest material expression of consciousness is what we call life. In this view, consciousness is not an emergent property of a complex system, but it’s the other way around: a complex system is an emergent property of the conscious energy out of which everything physical is made. Therefore, consciousness cannot magically emerge from algorithms, but its seeds are already present in the stuff of creation. In this view, consciousness and complex physical systems co-evolve.

There is no time to explore this subject in depth because I want to make a convincing case that to make truly intelligent, autonomous machines, consciousness is indispensable, and that consciousness is not a property that will emerge from computers. Some people may then insist that computers may be able to perform better than humans without consciousness. And that’s what I would like to discuss next. I want to show that comprehensionis a fundamental property of consciousness, even more important than qualia-perception, and that comprehension is a defining property of intelligence. Therefore, if there is no consciousness there is no comprehension, without comprehension there is no intelligence, and without intelligence a system cannot be autonomous for long.

Let’s consider how human beings make decisions: Our sensory system converts various forms of energy in our environment into electrical signals which are then sent to the brain for processing. The result of the processing is another set of electrical signals representing multi-sensory information: visual, auditory, tactile and so on. At the end of this process we have a certain amount of objectiveinformation about the world. Computers can arrive up to this point.  This information then is converted somehow within our consciousness into semanticinformation: an integratedmultisensory qualia-display of the state of the world that includes both the innerworld and the outerworld. In fact, it may be even more accurate to say that the outer world has been brought inside of usinto a representation that integrates both worlds.

This is what I call qualia-perception. But this is only the raw semantic data out of which comprehension is achieved through an additional process even more mysterious than the one that produced qualia-perception. Comprehension is what allows us to understandthe current situation within the context of our past experience and the set of our desires, aspirations and intentions.

Understanding then is the next necessary step before an intelligent choice can be made. It is understanding that allows us to decide if action is needed, and if so, what action is the optimal one. And the degree to which consciousness is involved in deciding what action to take has a huge range, going from no involvement whatsoever, all the way to a protracted conscious reflection and pondering that may take days or weeks.

When the situation is judged to be similar to other situations where a certain action produced good results, the same action can be subconsciously chosen, producing something akin to a conditioned response. On the other extreme there are situations unlike anything encountered before, in which case the various choices based on our prior experience are likely to be inadequate. Here is where our consciousness gets deeply involved, allowing us to come up with a creativesolution. Here we find the cutting edge of human consciousness, where consciousness is indispensable, not in solving trivial problems. Therefore, real intelligence is the ability to correctly judge a situation and find a creative solution. Real intelligence requires comprehension.

Now, to have true autonomy, a robot needs to be able to operate in unconstrained environments, successfully handling the huge variability of real-life situations. But even more, it must also handle situations in hostile environments where there is deception and aggression. It is the near-infinite variability of these situations that make comprehension necessary; and only comprehension can reduce or remove the ambiguitypresent in the objective data. An example of this problem is handwriting recognition or language translation where the syntacticalinformation is ambiguous. Therefore there is not enough information at that level to be able to solve the problem.

Autonomous robots are only possible in situations where the environment is either artificially controlled or its expected variability is relatively small. If qualia-perception is the hard problem of consciousness, comprehension is the hardestproblem of consciousness. Here is where the difference between a machine and a human being cannot be bridged.

All the machines we build, computers included, are made by assembling a number of separateparts. Therefore we can, at least in principle, disassemble a machine in all its separate components and reassemble it, and the machine will work again. However, we cannot disassemble a livingcell into its atomic and molecular components, and then reassemble the parts hoping that the cell will work again. The living cell is a dynamic system of a different kind than our machines: it uses quantum componentsthat have no definable boundaries.

We study cells reductively, as if they were machines, but in fact cells are holisticsystems. A cell is also an opensystem because it constantly exchanges energy and matter with the environment in which it exists. Thus, the physical structure of the cell is dynamic; it is recreated from moment to moment with parts constantly flowing in and out of it, even if it seems to us that the cell stays the same. Therefore, a cell cannot be separated from the environment with which it is in symbiosis without losingsomething. A computer instead, for as long as it works, has the same atoms and molecules that it had when it was fist constructed. Nothing changes in its hardware, and in that sense, it is a staticsystem.

The kind of information processing done in a cell is completely different than what goes on in our computers. In a computer, the transistors are connected together in a fixed pattern; in a cell, the parts interact freely with each other, processing information in ways we do not yet understand. But as long as we study cells as reductivebiochemical systems rather than quantum information-processing systems, we will not be able to understand the difference between them and our computers.

When we study a cell reductively and separated from its environment, we are reducing a holistic system into the sum of its parts, throwing away what is more than the sum of the parts. That’s where consciousness is. Consciousness exists only in the open dynamismof life, and life is inextricably linked to the dynamism we see in the cells, which are the indivisible atoms out of which all living organisms are built. The bottom line is that life and consciousness are not reducible to classicalphysics, while computers are so reducible.

Without consciousness there can be no self and no interiority, just mechanisms going through their own mindless paces, imitatinga living thing. But what would our life be if we didn’t feel anything? If we didn’t feel love, joy, enthusiasm, a sense of beauty and why not, even pain? A machine is a zombie, going through the motions. There is no inner life in a machine; it is all exteriority. In a living organism, even the outer world is brought inside, so to speak, to give it meaning. And it is consciousness what gives meaning to life.

The idea that classical computers can become smarter than human beings is actually a dangerous fantasy. Dangerous because, if we accept it, we will limit ourselves to express only a very small fraction of what we really are. This idea actually takes away our power, freedom and humanity: qualities that pertain to our consciousness and not to the machine we are told we are.

In my opinion, the real danger of the progress in robotics and AI will not be to create machines that will take over humanity because they will be more perfect than us. The real danger is that men of ill will may cause serious damage to mankind by using evermore powerful computers and robots to evil ends. But then it will be man, not the machine, to cause the trouble. And this is a major challenge that society will have to face as soon as possible.

Used properly, computers and AI will allow us to discover the magnificence of life as we critically compare ourselves to them; and this new knowledge can accelerate our spiritual evolution. Used poorly, AI may enslave us to hateful men. The choice is ours and ours alone.