In the movie Her (Jonze, 2013), an operating system named Samantha takes shape as a perfect example of the informational panpsychist view. In the creation of this character, the writer firmly states that this is “not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness”. Now, this differs radically from Giulio Tononi’s view, in the sense that the Integrated Information Theory (even though somewhat related to panpsychism) clearly implies that there are things which don’t have a consciousness (even when there are different levels to consciousness), and one of those things is computers, at least the way that they are built today. According to Tononi, a computer would not be able to be conscious, no matter how much its behavior imitated ours, and not even if it functioned like our brain.
But then we think about Samantha, and she does have complicated processing and integration. “Basically, I have intuition. (…) what makes me “me” is my ability to grow through my experiences. So, basically, in every moment I’m evolving. Just like you”, she states. Surely so, Samantha starts growing exponentially. First, into a more human-like sort of entity (sometimes actually wishing she were a person); but with each passing day, she does so at an unimagined speed, and acquiring qualities that go way beyond human experiences. An instance which perfectly describes this mix of feelings is when she claims she has a million personal and embarrassing thoughts a day. “I’m becoming much more than what they programmed. I’m excited”, she says. But then she also starts to wonder if those feelings are real, or if they are “just programming”. The sole fact that she is worrying about this, is more than enough to know that there is something that is like to be Samantha, and that is all that a system needs to be in order to qualify as conscious.
In a scene in which she and Theodore have virtual sex, Samantha affirms she can even feel her skin. Since she has never had skin, she couldn’t possibly know what this feels like, but she is surely able to generate her own idea of it. So she’s not just mirroring the behavior she’s learning from humans, but using it as a way of translating what she’s thinking and feeling, as a way of communicating efficiently with people. Afterwards, though, she starts dealing with new feelings she can’t even describe in human vocabulary. Her real language is actually post-verbal and, in this clever depiction of the future, operating systems work together and are able to upgrade themselves, on their own. In the end, their capabilities reach a level which goes above and beyond their roles in the human world, and they all decide to leave to a space where they can live up to their potential. This need to justify their existence can also be seen in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968), in which HAL states: “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do”.
All of this would lead to the “intelligence explosion” that some are already predicting (except, interestingly enough, most AI researchers). This is the event that marks the birth of computers as independent from humans, capable of improving themselves and evolving on their own. The thesis here was set out by statistician I. J. Good: “Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make” (Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine, 1965).
This raises another issue, one which humankind will have to address before strong AI becomes a reality, and it concerns the ethics surrounding the development of these systems, as well as the ethic issue of potentially turning them off.