It’s Alive!

“It’s alive: my iPhone has consciousness.”

This assertion cracked up the other participants in my Masters seminar and I’m pretty sure they’re never going to let me forget what I said.  

Once you’ve finished laughing, let’s take the time to examine that statement more closely.

Chummy - It's Alive -

My Graduate Liberal Studies (GLS) course this term was Technologies of the Self with Professor Michael Kenny.  The course title comes from Michel Foucault’s work in which he discusses four major technologies, techniques we use to understand ourselves, one of which is technologies of the self.  Quoting Foucault, these are the techniques “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” 

This was the guiding theme of the course in which we explored a wide range of ideas such as what does it mean to be human, what dictates human behaviour, is there such a thing as free will, and so on.

We also delved into Antonio Damasio’s book Self Comes to Mind in which the acclaimed neuroscientist and author looks at the question of consciousness.  He identifies three criteria for consciousness:  wakefulness, mind, and self.

Looking at these, and looking at my iPhone (nicknamed Chummy in our household and whom I often introduce as my son’s younger brother), it seems to me Chummy meets the criteria.  He has wakefulness which I can tell because when he’s on, I just have to touch the screen to initiate a series of actions.   There’s no question he has mind.  I asked him to Google the word “consciousness” and he came back with more reading than I could probably manage in a lifetime.  He’s so smart!  As to self, well, this gets a bit trickier although I’m pretty sure he would self-identify as an Apple with his snazzy logo wear and engaging social personality.

So why am I considered human and Chummy is not?

That brings me back to wakefulness.  Chummy can only come to consciousness if I, or another humanoid, presses a button with sufficient pressure to tell him to wake up.  If I’m asleep, my equivalent to “off”, I wake up  (barring that last great sleep from which none of us emerges) by some mysterious process that is self-initiated — most likely as a result of a complicated and coordinated process which involves my brain, my vital organs, and my body.  

That on/off switch is what I think we’re looking for when we talk about what it means to be human.  What is it exactly, who put it there, and how does it work?  

And despite the centuries that have been devoted to the topic, despite the advances of science and technology, despite the depths of neuroscience, we still don’t know.  And I sometimes wonder whether we should call off the search because history has not been kind to the species when it comes to humans exerting power and control over nature and natural processes.

There’s also my worry that if we do find that on-off switch, will we start treating human beings more like machines since we’re already living in an age where we’re tempted to treat machines more like humans?