todd_e_feinberg's picture
M.D. is Associate Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Chief of the Yarmon Neurobehavior and Alzheimer's Disease Center, Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City
What is the relationship between being alive and having a mind?


Last year, Steven Spielberg directed a film, based upon a Stanley Kubrick project, entitled "A.I. Artificial Intelligence". The film depicts a robotic child who develops human emotions. Is such a thing possible? Could a sufficiently complex and appropriately designed computer embody human emotions? Or is this simply a fanciful notion that the public and some scientists who specialize in artificial intelligence just wish could be true?

I don’t think that computers will ever become conscious and I view Spielberg’s depiction of a conscious feeling robot a good example of what might be called the "The Spielberg Principle" that states: When a Steven Spielberg film depicts a world-changing scientific event, the likelihood of that event actually occurring approaches zero." In other words, our wishes and imagination often have little to do with what is scientifically likely or possible. For example, although we might wish for contact with other beings in the universe as portrayed in the Spielberg movie "E.T", the astronomical distances between our solar system and the rest of the universe makes an E.T.-like visit extremely unlikely.

The film A.I. and the idea contained within it that robots could someday become conscious is another case in which our wishes exceed reality. Despite enormous advances in artificial intelligence, no computer is able to experience a pin prick like a simple frog, or get hungry like a rat, or become happy or sad like all of us carbon-based units. But why is this the case? It is my conjecture that this is because there are some features of being alive that makes mind, consciousness, and feelings possible. That is, only living things are capable of the markers of mind such as intentionality, subjectivity, and self-awareness. But the important question of the link between life and the creation of consciousness remains a great scientific mystery, and the answer will go a long way toward our understanding of what a mind actually is.