15th February 2012 · By Lee Jacobson

Consciousness, coming to a machine near you.

Due to it's age, this post may no longer be relevant, or representative of my current thoughts.

What is consciousness?

It's one of the biggest questions, what is consciousness? And it's a question that is becoming more relevant with increasing computational abilities and promises of ever more 'clever' robots. To help us answer that question a good place to start is by asking some simpler questions. For example, is an earthworm conscious? Even this is hard question to ask but we would probably agree that it doesn't really. Now how about a cat? It's harder to be sure, cats seem to be aware of their surroundings, they get scared and feel pain but they wouldn't recognise themselves if you put them front of a mirror. So we can say they are more conscious than an earthworm but still probably not to the same extent as us. But what makes a cat different to an earth worm or a human? Well it probably something to do with how big the brain is. We know that consciousness at least has something to do with the brain because we know when someone has damaged their brain their consciousness can be effected it a variety of ways, more on this in second!

Consciousness and the brain

So now we know consciousness is linked to the brain we can apply our first set of questions to the brain, how many neurons does it take to be conscious? How about a single neuron? That's simple, no. 10,000? Nope.  What about 75,000,000 (about as many as a mouse)? It's harder to say. So is it just the number of neurons and raw brain power that make conscious or it something else?
Imagine we built a robot that had equivalent processing power to the human brain, something that should be easily done by the end of the century, would it have conscious? Well we're not sure but it's unlikely. So it's probably not just raw brain power that makes us conscious, that means it's got to be more to do with how it's wired.
We know we experience conciseness as being aware of what we are sensing. So could it be to do with the areas of the brain that deal with our senses? Studies show that not to be the case. There are phenomenon's such as blindsight in which a patient is unaware of any visual input. The interesting part is just because they are unaware of the visual input doesn't mean they can act on it. Patients with blindsight are able to predict visual stimuli such as the movement of objects with reasonable accuracy.

Is it all an illusion?

So if there isn't a single area of the brain we can connect to consciousness what causes us to be conscious. I hate to disappoint but we just don't know yet and we may never know. There are many different hypothesis, it could be a side-effect from complex processes in our brain or maybe we appear conscious but we're really just victims of cause and effect.
One of the most fascinating things about consciousness is that we don't have any way of telling if anyone else is really conscious. For all we know everyone around us could just be acting unknowingly on inputs they're receiving from their sensory inputs. If we ever did create a conscious robot we would never really know if it was truly conscious or just acting in a way that made it seem conscious. Being able to merely say you're conscious doesn't make it so.
If you're interested in learning more about consciousness I urge to check out the links below and to submit your thoughts on where consciousness comes from to this survey: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/play/what-is-consciousness/

More information on consciousness





Lee JacobsonHello, I'm Lee.
I'm a developer from the UK who loves technology and business. Here you'll find articles and tutorials about things that interest me. If you want to hire me or know more about me head over to my about me page

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