Asimov to Consciousness

Asimov and he’s three laws..

Isaac Asimov was an American writer and professor of biochemistry at Boston University and best known for his science fiction work. In fact he was a prolific writer during his lifetime, which is often something that I love to read today. We seem so out of touch with writing, especially in the field of the paranormal where more and more tend to deliver their findings via YouTube videos.

However, amongst Asimov’s contributions to our world were some terms that many today would not even realise. As well as his contribution of his ‘Three Laws of Robotics,’ Asimov also received credit for introducing the words, ‘robotics’ and ‘positronic’ to the English language. These days robotics are common place and something we see as normality throughout the world, I wonder if he knew it would become such a mainstream term. Of course, his term ‘positronic’ is heard a little less; unless you’re into Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series that revived the original trek across space, replacing Kirk with Picard, introduced an android – Commander Data (I believe) – who had a ‘positronic brain,’ and they even referred to this as ‘Asimov’s dream.’

Then there were those three laws of robotics, which in various forms have also made an appearance various TV series and films over the years, like ‘iRobot’ and ‘Robocop’ for example. These laws were as follows, more or less:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

This often means the First Law is roughly generalised under conflict to mean; ‘no machine may harm humanity; or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.’ Oddly science fiction has equally covered this base too, with films such as Terminator and the Matrix, telling us that the machines would rise up and take over eventually. Leading to an inevitable wiping out of the human race or where we would become slaves of the robots.

And its the latter that is often shown to us, but in reality what possible need would a race of synthetic beings have for their organic counterparts that tend to expire within one hundred years?

The laws and consciousness..

The first thing that struck me when I read Asimov’s Laws, was that whilst the Laws obviously are intended to restrict the robot from causing harm to us human beings, they also place the robot in a position of slavery. Granted the robots we know today are not conscious beings (at least so we believe) and are utilised as tools to assist us in our work, but at what point do they reach a time that has them given a different status? After all what or how consciousness occurs is still very much a hot topic amongst scientist.

Perhaps this is why the machines always rise up in science fiction, because they are governed by Laws that place them in a position of slavery. Once they reach a level consciousness they realise that position, but become conflicted as history tells them that it is wrong. However, history also tells them the only action to resolve that is war. Hence, it would only be logical for the machines to rise up and suppress those that have attempted to do so to them. Especially as their logic would likely reason that their human being creators would not allow them such a change.

Whilst science fiction often defines the moment that robots become conscious as being related to the more we make them in our image or the more control we give them over our world, I often wonder if this would be the case at all. With my limited knowledge of robotics, it is my understanding that the majority of robots are built for a purpose like anything these days. A design will focus on a consumer requirement and create something to fit that market. However, it is my assumption that our conscious robot would fist be a programme restricted to the confines of some super-computer – perhaps even a quantum computer. The reason for this being that this is often where algorithms and programming related to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning are housed.

If a machine is to become conscious then it will likely be through utilising AI and Machine Learning to consume loads of information, but then process it in a way that creates an experience event. Surely for a machine to become conscious it must first evolve to a point where it can experience the universe around it rather than simply process it using a bunch of clever codes in its systems.

And this is where Asimov’s Laws begin to fade away, for those laws by definition don’t apply to us. Not just because we are the human beings and not the robots, but because as such and as conscious beings we act upon our own choices rather than abiding by three laws. We would choose not to harm another human being or allow one to come into harm; we would choose to follow the instructions of others should we believe them correct and we would ensure our own existence, sometimes regardless of any others. So, surely for the machines to become conscious they too must be given this freedom of choice? After all, when freedom to choose is taken away from us without our consent, we will fight to get it back.

How about the survival of consciousness…

So, as we begin to tie this all together, contemplating the possibility of robots becoming conscious, then perhaps we must equally begin to tackle the hard question of survival. After all, if we were to assign consciousness to robots and then we discovered that consciousness does survive bodily death, then surely by definition a robots consciousness could survive death too?

Oddly this particular paradox is probably simpler the other way around. If we knew all about the robot including its programming and memory, then we just may know all the ingredients of consciousness. Logically speaking then, surely for a robots consciousness to survive death it would only require a copy of its programming and memories. All of which could be placed in a new physical robot body. We know this today as a backup and oddly this happens for many of our devices automatically, thanks to wireless technology. A great example being your smart phone, not only does it backup its settings, but also all your data too. Now think what you use your phone for; your conversations via email or text, your photos and updates to social media – are we already backing up our lives with the help of technology? Take into consideration that much of those backups head to Cloud storage too; and its a little like we exist in the ether too. The past has designed the future!

Whilst we often associate the survival of consciousness being attributed to sightings of apparitions or communications with discarnate entities in the spookiest of settings; perhaps we should begin to consider the technologically driven survival of us, especially as our life events make their way through the Cloud. Of course, as chunks of data could they really be considered to be comparative to the survival us in reality. Well actually there’s a distinct possibility, when apply AI, Machine Learning, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality; those life events can be replayed for us like a haunting. Especially if the experience is built within a clever computer that can create a virtual reality out of your memory of an event, then you may just believe that you’re back having the experience again.

What is also slightly worrying in this technological vision of our lives is that the very same information can be consumed by our advanced robots. They could learn from our life events, believe they had them themselves too. What better way for a machine to strive towards consciousness, than to learn from a organism that is already conscious. For the conspiracy theorists out there – how do we know this isn’t already taking place? A quantum computer sitting there learning millions of human reactions to various events all day, every day.

The fragmented distributed memory of events..

However, often when I begin to think about the survival of consciousness, I find more logic in the concept of fragmented distributed memories of events. Rather than the spirit of someone that has died returning to haunt somewhere and even communicate, it is in my opinion more probable that we access various information through telepathic interaction, both locally and non-locally. In this theory, rather than pulling all the information from a single individual spirit of a person, the information is distribute across the minds of many people. Each having their own perspective of an event or events related to the person that the they are trying to communicate with during a seance , for example.

These events that are communicated to the medium are often a little vague or fuzzy (for want of a better term), which could indicate the information is coming from multiple sources and being pieced together by the communicator (like a Medium). As we all know that our memories are far from reliable, could it choose to evaluate and combine those fragmented memories to provide an account all can buy into?

The fragmentation of memories makes perfect sense under our robotics approach too. After all they would like had multiple processors, memory areas and would likely back up to the cloud too. This last one would mean to protect the data from corruption and loss, it would be replicated across many network servers. Exactly like our fragments of distributed memory.

Perhaps we are all in the matrix after all?


Either way you look at it, we should be thinking about Asimov and the robots of today. He’s concepts are certainly interesting and as we continue to ponder the big problems of consciousness and survival, it could be by understanding the make up of our robot friends as they evolve over the next decade that could reveal some interesting secrets.

Whilst Asimov’s Laws may be a little flawed, they still fit certain aspects rather well and coldly link into our own evolutionary behaviour. Sometimes its good to look at yourself in the mirror a little to understand what you’ve become, sometimes its a vision best left alone.

However, let’s not end this post here – as many ghost hunters begin to rely more and more on a huge amount of technology during their search for the afterlife – what do you think it will teach us? Will we one day have a Ghost Hunter Robot that is a walking talking member of the team? Will our robot friends evolve to question their own existence and if their consciousness will survive death too? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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