The first article of this series described consciousness as the capacity to have an inner experience based on sensations and feelings, what philosophers call qualia, and highlighted the characteristics of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual qualia. The second article explored the basic properties of qualia—perception, and comprehension—which allow us to experience life and get meaning and purpose out of conscious living. The third article made the case for consciousness being a fundamental property of nature, arguing for a new interpretation of the core assumptions of physics that could reconcile the existence of consciousness from the beginning of being. The fourth article further explored the nature of reality under the hypothesis that consciousness has always been in existence, concluding that consciousness must have influenced the evolution of the universe in a non-trivial way, otherwise it would simply be an unnecessary hypothesis. The fifth article presented a model of reality based on the idea that all that exists emerges from the communication of a vast hierarchy of conscious entities. Within such model, the matter, energy, space, and time of physics, as well as the laws of physics, are all outer, informational aspects of ever-evolving organizations of communicating conscious entities. The last article described the nature of life, a phenomenon like no other known, for life creates an interacting and evolving web of living and conscious organisms called ecosystem. The ecosystem can create evermore complex forms with the capacity to change the very physical nature of the planet in which it exists.
This article will explore whether digital computers can evolve to be conscious, potentially becoming more intelligent than human beings. This is a prediction that many scientists currently believe to be possible in a few centuries, if not in a few decades.
The nature of information
The classical world and digital computers can be described with Boolean information of which the binary digit or bit is its smallest unit. The bit is the simplest abstract symbol, a symbol that represents only two possibilities or states: “yes” or “no”; “1” or “0”; “true” or “false”; “on” or “off”; “is” or “is not”. The bit of a computer is represented by a convention that must be strictly respected in all its electronic circuits. One convention, for example, could be the following: If the voltage in a node of a circuit is between 0.6 and 1.0 volt, the state of that node corresponds to “1”. If the voltage is between 0.0 and 0.3 volt, the state corresponds to “0”. If the voltage is between 0.3 and 0.6 volt, the state is undetermined and could cause errors. The bit is an abstract symbol without any inherent meaning. It is a human idea that can physically exist only by forcing a representation of it over a man-made physical structure by a convention like the one above.
Similarly, the quantum world is made of quantum information whose elementary unit is the qubit (quantum bit). The qubit is the generalization of the bit obtained from the quantum superposition of two possible complimentary quantum states: “1” and “0”, existing in an abstract two-dimensional space of complex numbers called Hilbert space. This superposition generates an infinity of states that can be represented by all the points on the surface of a sphere of radius 1, called Bloch sphere. Like with classical information, quantum information is carried by quantum entities like elementary particles. A qubit, for example, could be represented by the magnetic spin of an electron.
The qubit cannot exist in the classical world because in that world it can only manifest as a Boolean bit, either the “1” or the “0” classical state. Qubits can also be entangled, meaning that their states are correlated, and this property is called nonlocality because it is independent of how far in physical space are the particles that carry this information. Entanglement gives rise to phenomena that cannot exist in the classical world. For example, when one of two entangled electrons that are far apart is measured, the spin of the second electron is instantaneously set to the complementary value of the spin measured on the first electron. This phenomenon is independent of distance and creates an apparent paradox that is still baffling.
Superposition of states and entanglement provide representational and information processing capabilities with no correspondence in the classical world, making the quantum world a far richer reality than the latter. In the framework I am proposing, explained in the previous article, conscious entities can only exist in the quantum world, and these entities use quantum information to communicate with each other. To represent quantum information, I am assuming the existence of a “substance” called nousym of which everything that exists is “made,” whether quantum or classical. This substance is like the energy of physics, but it has the additional property that it can experience itself, as discussed in the last two articles.
The nature of consciousness
If we go one step further in the virtual reality metaphor introduced in the previous article, it is clear that the avatar is controlled by a portion of the consciousness that controls your body since you simultaneously are aware of existing both as an avatar in the virtual reality and as a body in the physical world. This is true except when you become fully identified with the avatar, in which case you “forget” you are the body. By induction, we may surmise that, if we are completely identified with our physical body, the consciousness that controls our body—what we normally call ego—may also be a portion of a vaster consciousness controlling a vaster “body” we are currently not aware of possessing.
If this reasoning is correct, the real you may then be that vaster self you “forgot” you are, given your strong attachment and interest in physical life that wrought the belief you are just the body. That vaster self, then, may be the one who decided to wear the body you now think you are, just like you have decided to wear an avatar in a virtual reality game with which you identified for a short while. Without realizing it, we may be simply repeating the same pattern at different “levels of reality.” There is indeed strong evidence for this view in the many reported near-death experiences (NDE) and in many other extraordinary conscious experiences.
A few words about the evidence of NDE is appropriate for the readers unaware of this phenomenon. In a typical case of NDE, a person has a heart attack and arrives dead at the hospital. She is placed in cryogenic reanimation despite both heart and brain showing no electrical activity. After one hour the patient is resuscitated and, sometime later, she reports having had an extraordinary experience while clinically dead. She reports finding herself floating near the ceiling of the operating room seeing the doctors and nurses busily working on her body. She correctly describes the procedures that doctors and nurses performed, and she even catches an unspoken thought of a doctor, which he later confirms having had.
Then the person feels drawn to leave the hospital scene by moving through some sort of tunnel with a bright white light at the end, strangely attracting her. She finds herself surrounded by a pleasant non-physical light and encounters her deceased husband and friends that welcome her with much love. The feelings of joy, love, and freedom far exceed any experience she ever had in her life and she would like to stay. But now a light being tells her she must return to her body, which reluctantly she does, awakening in the recovery room of the hospital.
This type of experience with similar structure has been reported by thousands of people, especially recently, given the major medical progress made in resuscitation. As if such an experience was not remarkable enough, the mental and emotional life of the experiencer was afterward changed for the better in most reported cases. You may ask, how can a clinically dead person with a non-functioning brain and heart have any experience? And on top of it, one so powerful and coherent to irreversibly change that person’s life for the better?
The physical world as a virtual reality
Imagine yourself so engrossed in a virtual reality (VR) game that you momentarily think you are the avatar and that the VR is real. In a well-engineered system this will certainly be possible in a few decades. Imagine now being “killed” in that game. When this happens, all the information coming from the VR stops reaching you. You would then immediately experience the information to which you were previously not paying attention. And you would then realize you had been captivated by the VR world the instant you perceive yourself as your familiar body living in the physical world.
Truly, you do not even need to wait for a better VR technology to confirm what I am saying, for I have just described an experience most of us have had: the experience of waking up from one of those vivid and mesmerizing dreams which you believed were real while dreaming.
Now, imagine that your body dies. Then, all the information coming from your body stops reaching your consciousness and now you become aware of a lot of other information to which you were previously not paying attention or that you thought was generated by the body. You then realize you were entirely “hypnotized” by the flood of information coming from the physical world through your body. You also recognize that some information you thought was coming from the body was instead coming from another level of reality. With much surprise, you discover that “you”—a different you now, but still you—are still alive, and that the body you believed was you is not “you.” I think this is essentially what may happen to those people who have an NDE.
Said differently, when our bodies die, we lose the ability to observe the physical world from the point of view of the body, but we now can “see” from the perspective of our vaster self who always existed in the quantum world and feels the same to us as it felt before. This deeper point of view and capacity to perceive another reality, drowned during our life by the louder body-perspective, becomes aware again. Thus, postmortem survival is a natural consequence of this new conceptual framework.
Digital computers are just machines
Based on the above model, consciousness and free will are properties of certain coherent quantum organizations existing entirely in the quantum world, which I refer to as “conscious entities.” To interact within the classical world, these entities need a quantum-classical system, a “body,” that can interface with the classical information of the objective classical world on one end and with the quantum information of the quantum entity on the other end. As far as I know, the only quantum-classical systems capable of performing this remarkable feat are living organisms—known to support consciousness already.
My contention that computers cannot be conscious is based on the idea that consciousness is a quantum information phenomenon out of reach of classical information. As such, consciousness cannot interface directly with computers but can only do so through living organisms by using methods for the moment unknown but theoretically possible, and to my knowledge never-before investigated. Notice also that a conscious entity can direct a computer through a body to perform actions impossible for its algorithms to specify, thanks to the comprehension and free will of the entity. This capacity may allow the human-computer combination to impact the classical and the quantum worlds in ways impossible to achieve with either conscious quantum systems or computers alone, assuming each class was to interact only with its own kind.
A typical objection here is that the computer should be able in principle to interface with a quantum system, and therefore be conscious since the computer hardware is made of quantum-classical matter. I do not think this is possible because the quantum-classical atoms and molecules of the computer hardware have been organized so that their quantum properties are averaged out to produce a strictly classical machine. The computer is indeed a reductionist system in which the hardware behaves entirely classically and is also separated from the software that runs on it. The computer bits are in fact represented by statistical properties that can only exist as averages of quantum properties of atoms constrained to exist in certain patterns. Likewise, the transistors, which are realized by an ingenious use of the quantum properties of crystals, behave as close as possible to ideal on-off switches. In other words, the quantum-classical matter of the computer has been permanently shaped to behave only classically with no means for it to affect the classical bits represented by it.
In a robot, the classical information of its computer brain can indeed control its classical body parts, and the classical body parts can send classical information to its brain. But everything is classical here, and there is no way for classical information to interface directly with a coherent quantum system. The interaction between a conscious entity and a living organism can instead occur because the conscious entity can control the position or momentum of an individual particle or an atom, for example, within a quantum-classical living cell, and these effects can be amplified, leading to classical macroscopic events within the cell itself. In other words, there is a path from quantum to classical (and vice versa), a path that does not exist in computers or robots so long as classical bits are represented by statistical properties of quantum matter. Notice that this conclusion is independent of the complexity of the classical system. Consciousness cannot emerge from the algorithmic complexity of a classical system—the current “scientific explanation” for consciousness.
On the other hand, a human being can indeed have a conscious experience of the classical information produced by a robot and can also control the robot’s actions using his free will informed by his conscious comprehension of the situation. A good example of this situation would be a person remote controlling a sophisticated military drone. This is possible because the human body can interface with both the quantum and the classical world, acting as a bridge from machines to consciousness. When a robot controls classically its own behavior it has no conscious experience and no comprehension of the situation. It simply reacts mechanically to the data the way it has been commanded by its program or by the way it has mechanically learned through its artificial neural networks. This lack of real comprehension could in fact lead the robot to a completely inappropriate behavior in response to even a slightly different situation from the one it had learned.
Said differently, the conscious experience and free-will control of a purely classical system cannot occur “within” a classical system, for classical systems do not have any inner reality. Inner reality exists only within coherent quantum systems. Therefore, classical robots cannot function autonomously in unconstrained and hostile environments for long because they lack the real intelligence that only comes with conscious perception and comprehension.
We are not machines!
Each of us observes the world with a unique perspective and in two different ways. We experience classical information produced by the body, and quantum information coming through another channel we do not yet understand. We attribute both types of information to the body since we believe that the classical world is all that exists. Through the first channel, classical information coming from the physical world is transformed by our senses and brains into symbols that give rise within our consciousness to the ordinary experience of the physical world. Through the quantum channel, instead, we get information like intuitions, imagination, original insights, vivid dreams, thoughts, and deep emotions, whose origins are currently unknown though they are attributed to the body.
The more we identify with the classical body and rational mind, and thus pay attention only to the symbols produced by the body, the more we lose contact with our deeper quantum reality. In this new framework, the vaster self “wears” a body to deeply experience itself in interactions with other selves that wear similar "costumes" made of matter. In this sense, matter works like a mirror allowing the conscious self to know itself more fully. I like to think that matter is like the ink with which the conscious self writes the comprehension of itself and the comprehension of the world. Still, the experience—what really matters—is not in the ink any more than the meaning of a book is in the physical book. It is our consciousness that gives meaning to physical matter.
Based on this framework, computers can only have mechanical intelligence while humans have real intelligence grounded on conscious comprehension, which goes far beyond the algorithmic properties of classical information. In fact, humans controlling computers can make computers perform actions impossible for a computer to entirely do on its own. Here is a great opportunity for creative cooperation, but only if humans understand and value the true nature of their own consciousness. I think that the idea that computers may best human beings is a dangerous fantasy based on a misinterpretation of the true nature of consciousness and the nature of physical reality.