Last week the podcast All in the Mind had a good talk with neuroscientist John Donoghue from Brown University about interfacing brains with machines. Donoghue founded a enterprising upstart, Cyberkinetics, which cleverly makes a product called the BrainGate, which is gizmo that plugs a brain into a computer. Think it's crazy? So do people at Gizmag and Wired.
Currently the product has patients moving a cursor around a large screen, the concept carries some intriguing baggage. Specifically, I'm thinking of those pesky zombies. Here's a thought experiment:
Imagine a completely paralysed person of good mental health. We connect her up to one of Donoghue's BrainGate's and now she's moving a cursor around. Now imagine we afford her the ability of "clicking". At this point she's able to use a standard computer, with an on-screen keyboard, given it's positioned in her gaze. Now imagine we connect a sophisticated robot to this computer giving our permanently supine patient input, by way of LCD, and ability to control the robot. Predictability a bit slower than most, our patient now has the ability to move about the world and receive visual input from this interaction. Is it too naive to say we have succesfully embodied (some of) her cognitive processes? I think it is...at least at this point. But imagine we give her a suit that can stimulate her skin as the robot's skin is stimulated. Likewise, we reproduce all the other senses with technology. Now imagine we've perfected the BrainGate and deprecated the silly cursor-interface in lieu of a faster, fully integrated neural interactive mode. Lastly, imagine this apparatus is so absolutely integral that were the robot to experience what it is programmed to know as death, the interface would heartlessly recreate the experience for our hapless patient.
Could we have said the robot was conscious? No way. Unless! Conscious is as conscious does, a credo the robot lawfully enforces, however arbitrarily. Might this be "our" relationship to our "mind?" And might this relationship be of some evolutionary worth?