Robot Free Will

At any given time the mind has to take decisions and multiple unconscious actions are done. Our conscious mind continuously confabulates making up the illusion that it is in charge. But, who is actually in charge?

Can science tell us what is exactly the human nature? Can we reproduce that in artificial machines? Consciousness and free will have been typically evading the scientific arena. However, in the latest decades, philosophers and scientists have begun to work together in the search for a scientific explanation of the mind. In a review of Dennett’s Book, Freedom Evolves [1], by Simon Blackburn [2], it is pointed out why scientists need philosophers. Libet’s experiments show that:

[…] neural activity that begins an action starts up around a third of second before the agent’s conscious decision to act.” […]

Usually, neuroscientists have interpreted this as the illusion of being in charge. Dennett supports that this is a mistaken view. Instead, a conscious agent must be seen as a continuum, where there is no single moment of decision. The interventionist conception deduced from Libet’s experiments usually lead scientists to think that evolution and culture have created a prison for the mind. Dennett argues the contrary, as he thinks evolution and culture are the key differentiators that make us humanly able to shape responses of reason and imagine the future. In relation with the link between thought and action:
“We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes,” he said. “We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”

According to the neurologist Mark Hallet [3], free will doesn’t exist: “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free. The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it.” Then, are we just biological robots? Well, some physicists argue that free will does actually exist. Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist, said that quantum randomness was “not a proof, just a hint, telling us we have free will” [3].

There are two main factors why some scientists establish a link between quantum mechanics and theories of consciousness. On the one hand, it is believed that a conscious mind plays an important role in the process of quantum measurement, and any theory of consciousness should account for that. On the other hand, some authors think that classical physics cannot explain by itself the properties of mind, but it could be explained based on the special features of quantum mechanics [4]. The trick here is that conscious observation play a crucial role in quantum effects. I am not an expert on quantum mechanics, but I would say that a mere (unconscious) observation would play the same role.

Focusing now on our main concern, conscious robots, can they have free will? According to Seth Lloyd, an expert on quantum computing, there is a kind of free will that machines and us share [3]. As Kurt Gödel demonstrated, in any formal system of logic there are statements that cannot be proven either true or false. Unless you wait and see the actual outcome, I would say. For a machine, as Lloyd explains, the only way to find out is to set it computing and see what happens. So, even if the actions of the machine (or ours) are determined, we don’t know what they will be until they actually take place. This leaves room for a kind of free will for machines.

[1] Daniel Dennett. “Freedom Evolves”. Viking. 2003.
[2] Simon Blackburn. “Who’s in Charge”. American Scientist, Volume 91. 2003.
[3] Dennis Overbye. “Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t”. The New York Times. Science. January 2, 2007.
[4] Hameroff, S. R. y Penrose, R. (1996). Orchrestated reduction of quantum coherence in brain microtubules: A model for consciousness. Toward a Science of Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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