How can we tell if AI ever becomes conscious?

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Consciousness is a heavy quest that has puzzled philosophers for over two thousand years. Because of its subjectivity and elusiveness, it was not a subject for scientific study until recent decades. With the unprecedented advances of artificial intelligence (AI), in particular, the remarkable performance of large language models (LLM), understanding consciousness becomes pragmatic and pressing beyond the philosophical and academic debates — how can we tell if ChatGPT has consciousness, and how can humankind be prepared if “artificial” consciousness arises in the foreseeable future?

For the last three decades, neuroscientists have made initial strides in theorizing the inner workings of consciousness in human brains based on vast experimental data, as triggered primarily by two factors.

First, the advances in scientific methods have empowered scientists to study the activities of neural cell assemblies in awake-behaving primates and humans. These techniques include brain imaging technologies, neurophysiological recording of hundreds of neurons simultaneously, and neural network modeling propelled by AI.

Second, a group of distinguished scientists made the initial bold move to study consciousness with scientific rigor. The field has thrived ever since, attracting many more talented scientists and students. The leaders include the Nobel laureates Francis Crick and Gerald Edelman. Crick won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for his groundwork in DNA structure and functions. Edelman won the same prize in 1972 for discovering antibody molecules in the immunological system. They both dedicated their later life to studying the mind, particularly the neurobiological mechanisms underlying consciousness.

This article reviews what scientists have understood about human consciousness and what predictions their theories of consciousness have made. With this knowledge and clarity, we can examine AI models and their architecture to determine whether and when they can be conscious.

Before delving into neuroscience about consciousness, it is necessary first to understand consciousness from psychological and behavioral perspectives…

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