FEATURE 18 March 2015
Me, myself and iCub: Meet the robot with a self
The human self has five components. Machines now have three of them. How far away is artificial consciousness – and what does it tell us about ourselves?
By Tony Prescott
WHAT is the self? Rene Descartes encapsulated one idea of it in the 1600s when he wrote: “I think, therefore I am”. He saw his self as a constant, the essence of his being, on which his knowledge of everything else was built. Others have very different views. Writing a century later, David Hume argued that there was no “simple and continued” self, just the flow of experience. Hume’s proposal resonates with the Buddhist concept anatta¯, or non-self, which contends that the idea of an unchanging self is an illusion and also at the root of much of our unhappiness.
Today, a growing number of philosophers and psychologists hold that the self is an illusion. But even if the centuries-old idea of it as essential and unchanging is misleading, there is still much to explain, for example: how you distinguish your body from the rest of the world; why you experience the world from a specific perspective, typically somewhere in the middle of your head; how you remember yourself in the past or imagine yourself in the future; and how you are able to conceive of the world from another’s point of view. I believe that science is close to answering many of these questions.
A key insight is that the self should be considered not as an essence, but as a set of processes – a process being a virtual machine running inside a physical one, as when a program runs on a computer. Likewise, some ...
Can we learn about being human from a robot? (Image: Daniel Stolle)