Daily Archives: February 1, 2016

Daniel Dennett: In Defense of Robotic Consciousness

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 11, 2016.)

Daniel Dennett (1942 – ) is an American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist whose research is in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He is currently the Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and a University Professor at Tufts University. He received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 1965 where he studied under the eminent philosopher Gilbert Ryle.

In his book, DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA: EVOLUTION AND THE MEANINGS OF LIFE, Dennett present a thought experiment that defends the possibility of strong artificial intelligence (SAI)—one that matches or exceeds human intelligence.[i] Dennett asks you to suppose that you want to live in the 25th century and the only available technology for that purpose involves putting your body in a cryonic chamber where you will be frozen in a deep coma and later awakened. In addition, you must design some supersystem to protect and supply energy to your capsule. You would now face a choice. You could find an ideal fixed location that will supply whatever your capsule will need, but the drawback would be that you would die if some harm came to that site. Better then to have a mobile facility to house your capsule that could move in the event harm came your way—better to place yourself inside a giant robot. Dennett claims that these two strategies correspond roughly to nature’s distinction between stationary plants and moving animals.

If you put your capsule inside a robot, then you would want the robot to choose strategies that further your interests. This does not mean the robot has free will, but that it executes branching instructions so that when options confront the program, it chooses those that best serve your interests. Given these circumstances, you would design the hardware and software to preserve yourself, and equip it with the appropriate sensory systems and self-monitory capabilities for that purpose. The supersystem must also be designed to formulate plans to respond to changing conditions and seek out new energy sources.

What complicated the issue further is that, while you are in cold storage, other robots and who knows what else are running around in the external world. So you would need to design your robot to determine when to cooperate, form alliances, or fight with other creatures. A simple strategy like always cooperating would likely get you killed, but never cooperating may not serve your self-interests either, and the situation may be so precarious that your robot would have to make many quick decisions. The result will be a robot capable of self-control, an autonomous agent which derives its own goals based on your original goal of survival; the preferences with which it was originally endowed. But you cannot be sure it will act in your self-interest. It will be out of your control, acting partly on its own desires.

Now, opponents of SAI claim that this robot does not have its own desires or intentions, those are simply derivative of its designer’s desires. Dennett calls this “client centrism.” I am the original source of the meaning within my robot, it is just a machine preserving me, even though it acts in ways that I could not have imagined and which may be antithetical to my interests. Of course, it follows, according to the client centrists, that the robot is not conscious. Dennett rejects this centrism, primarily because if you follow this argument to its logical conclusion you have to conclude the same thing about yourself! You would have to conclude that you are a survival machine built to preserve your genes and your goals and your intentions derive from them. You are not really conscious. To avoid these unpalatable conclusions, why not acknowledge that sufficiently complex robots have motives, intentions, goals, and consciousness? They are like you; owing their existence to being a survival machine that has evolved into something autonomous by its encounter with the world.

Critics like the philosopher John Searle admit that such a robot is possible, but deny that it is conscious. Dennett responds that such robots would experience meanings as real as your meanings; they would have transcended their programming just as you have gone beyond the programming of your selfish genes. He concludes that this view reconciles thinking of yourself as a locus of meaning, while at the same time being a member of a species with a long evolutionary history. We are artifacts of evolution, but our consciousness is no less real because of that. The same would hold true of our robots.

Summary – Sufficiently complex robots would be conscious


[i] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution And The Meaning of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 422-26.