Consciousness, Machines, and Moral Status


In light of recent breakneck pace in machine learning, questions about whether near-future artificial systems might be conscious and possess moral status are increasingly pressing. This paper argues that as matters stand these debates lack any clear criteria for resolution via the science of consciousness. Instead, insofar as they are settled at all, it is likely to be via shifts in public attitudes brought about by the increasingly close relationships between humans and AI users. Section 1 of the paper I briefly lays out the current state of the science of consciousness and its limitations insofar as these pertain to machine consciousness, and claims that there are no obvious consensus frameworks to inform public opinion on AI consciousness. Section 2 examines the rise of conversational chatbots or Social AI, and argues that in many cases, these elicit strong and sincere attributions of consciousness, mentality, and moral status from users, a trend likely to become more widespread. Section 3 presents an inconsistent triad for theories that attempt to link consciousness, behaviour, and moral status, noting that the trends in Social AI systems will likely make the inconsistency of these three premises more pressing. Finally, Section 4 presents some limited suggestions for how consciousness and AI research communities should respond to the gap between expert opinion and folk judgment.

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Henry Shevlin
Cambridge University


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