AI has changed the cultural landscape. Yet the change has been so gradual that we hardly have noticed the major impact it has. Some experts, including myself, predict that in about fifteen years, the average desktop computer will have a mind of its own, literally. This computer will be your intellectual equal and will even have a unique personality. It will be self-aware. Instead of just asking simple questions about the weather forecast, you may be confiding your deepest concerns to your computer and asking it for advice. It will have migrated from personal assistant to personal friend. You likely will give it a name, much in the same way we name our pets. You will be able to program its personality to have interests similar to your own. It will have face-recognition software, and it will recognize you and call you by name, similar to the computer HAL 9000 in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The conversations between you and your “personal friend” will appear completely normal. Someone in the next room who is not familiar with your voice will not be able to tell which voice belongs to the computer and which voice belongs to you.

This is a good place for us to ask an important question: “How can we determine whether an intelligent machine has become conscious (self-aware)?” We do not have a way yet to determine whether even another human is self-aware. I only know that I am self-aware. I assume that since we share the same physiology, including similar human brains, you are probably self-aware as well. However, even if we discuss various topics, and I conclude that your intelligence is equal to mine, I still cannot prove you are self-aware. Only you know whether you are self-aware.

The problem becomes even more difficult when dealing with an intelligent machine. The gold standard for an intelligent machine’s being equal to the human mind is the Turing test, which I discuss in chapter 5. As of today no intelligent machine can pass the Turing test unless its interactions are restricted to a specific topic, such as chess. However, even if an intelligent machine does pass the Turing test and exhibits strong AI, how can we be sure it is self-aware? Intelligence may be a necessary condition for self-awareness, but it may not be sufficient. The machine may be able to emulate consciousness to the point that we conclude it must be self-aware, but that does not equal proof.

Even though other tests, such as the ConsScale test, have been proposed to determine machine consciousness, we still come up short. The ConsScale test evaluates the presence of features inspired by biological systems, such as social behavior. It also measures the cognitive development of an intelligent machine. This is based on the assumption that intelligence and consciousness are strongly related. The community of AI researchers, however, does not universally accept the ConsScale test as proof of consciousness. In the final analysis, I believe most AI researchers agree on only two points:

  1. There is no widely accepted empirical definition of consciousness (self-awareness).
  2. A test to determine the presence of consciousness (self-awareness) may be impossible, even if the subject being tested is a human being.

The above two points, however, do not rule out the possibility of intelligent machines becoming conscious and self-aware. They merely make the point that it will be extremely difficult to prove consciousness and self-awareness.

There is little doubt that intelligent machines by the year 2030 will be able to interact with organic humans, much the same way we are able to interact with each other. If it is programmed to share your interests and has strong affective computing capabilities (i.e., affective computing relates to machines having human-like emotions), you may well consider it a friend, even a best friend. Need proof? Just observe how additive computer games are to people in all walks of life and various age groups. Now imagine an intelligent machine that is able to not only play computer based games, but discuss any subject you’d like to discuss. I predict interactions with such machines will become additive and may even reduce human to human interactions.