Consciousness: Perspectives from symbolic and connectionist AI


For many people, consciousness is one of the defining characteristics of mental states. Thus, it is quite surprising that consciousness has, until quite recently, had very little role to play in the cognitive sciences. Three very popular multi-authored overviews of cognitive science, Stillings et al. [33], Posner [26], and Osherson et al. [25], do not have a single reference to consciousness in their indexes. One reason this seems surprising is that the cognitive revolution was, in large part, a repudiation of behaviorism's proscription against appealing to inner mental events. When researchers turned to consider inner mental events, one might have expected them to turn to conscious states of mind. But in fact the appeals were to postulated inner events of information processing. The model for many researchers of such information processing is the kind of transformation of symbolic structures that occurs in a digital computer. By positing procedures for performing such transformation of incoming information, cognitive scientists could hope to account for the performance of cognitive agents. Artificial intelligence, as a central discipline of cognitive science, has seemed to impose some of the toughest tests on the ability to develop information processing accounts of cognition: it required its researchers to develop running programs whose performance one could compare with that of our usual standard for cognitive agents, human beings. As a result of this focus, for AI researchers to succeed, at least in their primary task, they did not need to attend to consciousness; they simply had to design programs that behaved appropriately (no small task in itself!). This is not to say that conscious was totally ignored by artificial intelligence researchers. Some aspect of our conscious experience seemed critical to the success of any information processing model. For example, conscious agents exhibit selective attention. Some information received through their senses is attended to; much else is ignored..

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