Is There a Test for Consciousness?
Blum discussed a theory of consciousness recently and this is a follow-up
Manny Blum is one of the great leaders of the theory community. He is a Turing Award winner; was the Ph.D. advisor to some of the top leaders in the field; is the creator of whole parts of theory—from Blum complexity, to algorithms of all kinds, to the theory of pseudo-randomness, to much more; and is one of the true visionaries of the field. There is only one Manny Blum.
Today I would like to talk about his recent presentation before FOCS 2009 on “what is consciousness?” I have no answer, but I have thought about his provocative talk and have a question that I would like to share.
When I was at Berkeley, in the late 1970’s as a faculty member, Manny was then the chair of the Computer Science Department. In those days we used those little pink square sheets of paper to keep track of calls. You may remember them; each had a space for the obvious information: who called?, when? any message? This was before email was common, and we still used the phone as the primary way to reach each other.
Manny had a spike in his office. On the spike were all the pink sheets, in order, of all the calls that he had ever gotten as the chair. I once asked him why he kept them all, and he just smiled. I never knew if he ever went back and looked at old ones, or if he just liked the physical image of all the messages he had handled as chair. I wish we had something as cool looking today with our email. I always like the image of the messages piled up on a spike.
Let’s turn to the discuss the issue of consciousness.
Manny discussed the: What is consciousness problem. (WICP). He is quite excited about the theory called Global Workspace Theory, which was created by Bernie Baars. As I said before, Manny believes that this theory has the ability for the first time ever to start to explain the WICP.
Since his talk, I have spent some time reflecting on what he said, and I have a simple thought. Manny talked about trying to figure out what is consciousness—trying to solve the WICP. He spoke at length about a variety of ideas that could lead to some computational like theory of how our brain creates consciousness.
What about a Turing test for consciousness? Is there a way to interact with something and see if it is conscious or not? I have no idea how such a test would go, but the idea would be that it would consist of some kind of interactive scheme. Suppose that X is some entity—it could be my friend Fred, or my dog, or a rock. Is there a series of interactions with X that have the following properties:
- If X passes the interactions, then it is reasonable to conclude that X is conscious.
- If X fails the interactions, then it is reasonable to conclude that X is not conscious.
The test does not have to be perfect, but having such a test would seem to be “easier” perhaps than understanding the WICP. Let’s call such a test a Blum test. Does it exist?
I checked and there has been some work on using the famous Turing test to argue about the WICP. I quote:
The Turing test has generated a great deal of research and philosophical debate. For example, Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter argue that anything capable of passing the Turing test is necessarily conscious, while David Chalmers, argues that a philosophical zombie could pass the test, yet fail to be conscious.
The test for conscious would not in my opinion be the same as the Turing test. I think that a consciousness test could be quite different. For starters, my dog fails the Turing test by definition since she cannot talk. But, that seems a bit narrow—maybe my dog is conscious?
There also is the so called mirror test, invented by Gordon Gallup. The test essentially checks whether or not, in our terms, X can recognize X in a mirror. The test seems to not be what I am looking for. If nothing else, it says that any X that cannot “see” cannot be conscious.
Finally, Atish Das Sarma points out that there could be some connection to the recent work of Brendan Juba and Madhu Sudan on Universal semantic communication. I do not know.
Is there a Blum test for consciousness? What would such a test look like? What do you think?