Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Subjective experience and Artificial Intelligence

Matt Berryman referred me to a blog piece by Aaron Clauset. I had a hard time figuring out what Aaron's position was with respect to subjective experience and artificial intelligence. He refers positively to Daniel Dennett's dismissive position on qualia. (It wasn't clear to me who was being quoted in this description of Dennett's position.)
For years Dr. Dennett has argued that qualia, in the airy way they have been defined in philosophy, are illusory. In his book “Consciousness Explained,” he posed a thought experiment involving a wine-tasting machine. Pour a sample into the funnel and an array of electronic sensors would analyze the chemical content, refer to a database and finally type out its conclusion: “a flamboyant and velvety Pinot, though lacking in stamina.”

If the hardware and software could be made sophisticated enough, there would be no functional difference, Dr. Dennett suggested, between a human oenophile and the machine. So where inside the circuitry are the ineffable qualia?
Aaron then goes on the say
I think [Searle's Chinese Room] argument actually shows that the whole notion of "intelligence" is highly problematic. In other words, one could argue that the wine-tasting machine as a whole (just like a human being as a whole) is "intelligent", but the distinction between intelligence and non-intelligences becomes less and less clear as one considers poorer and poorer versions of the machine, e.g., if we start mucking around with its internal program, so that it makes mistakes with some regularity.
The problem is that subjective experience and intelligence are two completely different things. It's certainly possible to have subjective experience without much intelligence. I'm perfectly happy to grant that animals have subjective experience. Yet they're not especially intelligent. Similarly, a brilliant chess playing computer or a master computer oenophile may be intelligent in some reasonable sense, but neither (at least given the current state of our technology) has subjective experience.

Unfortunately, we don't have a test for subjective experience. It's something we all have, but we don't know how to verify that something else has it. Of course that was the root of behaviorism, which was not the right way to do psychology. For now, subjective experience has to be taken as a brute fact — although people who work on brain injuries are beginning to figure out how to talk about it as more just a black box.

My discussion with Matt drifted toward quantum phenomena. I have no idea whether quantum phenomena have anything to do with subjective experience. I don't see any reason why they should, but they might. (In a previous discussion I argued that quantum phenomena are important to intelligence because they supply a source of randomness, which seems to be essential for intelligence — using an argument based on Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea.)

Subjective experience seems so far beyond our scientific grasp that we just don't know how to proceed. But that doesn't mean that we should dismiss it. The term qualia refers to subjective experience. It has a perfectly good meaning. We all experience qualia. It's just that we don't know how to explain them.


Aaron said...

Hi Russ, I posted some thoughts in response to your most recent comments. Looking forward to hearing what you think.

Jon Beaupre said...

Russ, I particularly like your distinctions between subjective experience and intelligence, even though the inquiry is frought with ambivalence and intellectual pitfalls.

The distinction between experience and intelligence would be much easier if a.) they didn't appear to use the same human synaptic circuitry and b.) intelligence didn't appear to be at some level a discrete subset of experience - or at least how experience is 'metabolized'.

Isn't it possible that the sum total of experiences at some level result is some sort of intelligence? In this sense, the quantum argument doesn't seem so far off - not the ephemeral nature of if, for which I agree with you. But on the other hand, one of the qualities of quanta are that the behaviors of large 'quanta' cannot be predicted by the behavior of individual 'quanta'. If we can't describe the behavior of the universe by the direct observations of individual atoms, how could we ever use individual experiences to determine those intangibles like 'behavior' (which is at least measurable), 'character', and 'intelligence'?

They use the same circuitry, in the same way that both quarks and nebulae use the same forces, but the behaviors and outcomes are vastly different.

It also raises the question as to why our leaders, with apparently vast amounts of experience, make such dreadful decisions, but that is perhaps a subject for another discussion...