Can computers have consciousness?

(Ook beschikbaar in het Nederlands.)

What is Consciousness?

Consciousness is perceiving and dissecting reality into independent parts in order to make choices to achieve a goal. The simplest goal is to take a new position: in front, behind or in the tree. Weighing all the information to choose a goal is called thinking. By thinking I predict the immediate future: to what position will I move? Which position gives me the most advantage and how do I get there? Due to the large number of different situations, thinking is not a simple algorithm, but mainly weighing priorities to choose goals. For example, thirst makes drinking more important and therefore I take more risks to get water.

This definition of consciousness does not focus on the parts, such as perception, but on the usefulness, the choice of a goal. Without utility, the parts are a waste of energy. Consciousness comes in all shapes and sizes. Even the smallest choice of goal presupposes a (minimal) consciousness.


Consciousness requires being able to choose independently from multiple solutions. A reaction that always follows a change does not involve choice or awareness. Plants therefore do not choose, they only respond to chemical changes. Being able to learn is a useful criterion for clarifying the difference between operation and consciousness. Animals and people who have to learn skills in their youth to survive, undoubtedly have a consciousness. Transferring the choices to be successful, the experiences gained, is a clear indication of having a consciousness.

Choose a goal

Can a computer have or gain consciousness? A computer does not choose a goal and only applies an algorithm. After performing the steps, the result follows afterwards. Computers can adjust ('learn') their algorithm, but they cannot choose a goal in advance. That's why computers don't have consciousness and they can't have it. What purpose should a computer choose? Fly to the moon itself? What should the device do there? A human being can choose the moon as a goal and also carry out the journey.


But even if a computer can choose a target, the computer has no resources to perform the required actions. Being able to achieve a chosen goal is also a requirement to have consciousness. The objection that in the locked-in syndrome actions are not possible, but awareness is nevertheless there, underscores the connection between awareness, goal, and actions. Consciousness is only possible if actions have been possible before. Sleeping people have no consciousness, because actions are missing.

Interest in goal

Another difference between a computer and a conscious human being is the importance of the goal choice. A computer has no independent purpose. It executes a step-by-step plan and achieves a result. This result has no meaning for the computer itself. It can spew the biggest nonsense. For a human being, the result is of great value. If a person chooses wrongly, his existence can cease. Where a correct goal choice is of decisive importance for animals and humans, computers work towards an outcome that is unimportant to them.1The computer language Prolog and similar languages test whether a goal is true. It does not choose a target and is therefore a variance of calculating a result.


A third difference between computers and conscious people is the solution direction. While algorithms of 'learning' computers are becoming increasingly complex, conscious people are making choices more and more easily. The models that the computers work with require hundreds of millions of variables (internal measuring points) to arrive at a meaningful outcome for humans. So much that people can no longer oversee the algorithm and cannot calculate the outcome. The simpler a solution, the greater the consciousness of a human being. The pinnacle of human ingenuity is to see through the essence of reality in the very simple formula E=mc². Archimedes discovered why a ship floats, wrote it down succinctly and shouted: “Eureka”. We have yet to invent the first computer that can discover simplicity. Computers also remain ominously silent. They have no interest in anything.


We call being able to choose and achieve a goal consciousness, but we also perform many actions without conscious consideration. This is what we call the unconscious: goal choices that we have made before, but of which we have forgotten the details. Unconscious can also be described as weighing priorities in a situation to choose a goal, without overseeing all considerations.

Computers ever aware?

Computers are not conscious because they do not meet the criteria for being conscious: a. Being able to choose their own goal; b. Have an interest in the chosen goal; c. Striving for the greatest simplicity. Can computers ever gain consciousness? The current generation of computers will never meet these criteria for consciousness. But who knows, maybe in the distant future people will invent other types of computers. But don't wait for it. Chances are that computers themselves will never get an interest in anything.

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Arjen Meijer Mai 23 2023

Last modification on July 11 2023

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