The neuroethics group at CRB has just started its work as part of a new European research project about artificial awareness. The project is called “Counterfactual Assessment and Valuation for Awareness Architecture” (CAVAA), and is funded for a duration of four years. The consortium is composed of 10 institutions, coordinated by the Radboud University in the Netherlands.

The goal of CAVAA is “to realize a theory of awareness instantiated as an integrated computational architecture…, to explain awareness in biological systems and engineer it in technological ones.” Different specific objectives derive from this general goal. First, CAVAA has a robust theoretical component: it relies on a strong theoretical framework. Conceptual reflection on awareness, including its definition and the identification of features that allow its attribution to either biological organisms or artificial systems, is an explicit task of the project. Second, CAVAA is interested in exploring the connection between awareness in biological organisms and its possible replication in artificial systems. The project thus gives much attention to the connection between neuroscience and AI. Third, against this background, CAVAA aims at replicating awareness in artificial settings. Importantly, the project also has a clear ethical responsibility, more specifically about anticipating the potential societal and ethical impact of aware artificial systems.

There are several reasons why a scientific project with a strong engineering and computer science component also has philosophers on board. We are asked to contribute to developing a strong and consistent theoretical account of awareness, including the conceptual conceivability and the technical feasibility of its artificial replication. This is not straightforward, not only because there are many content-related challenges, but also because there are logical traps to avoid. For instance, we should avoid the temptation to validate an empirical statement on the basis of our own theory: this would possibly be tautological or circular.

In addition to this theoretical contribution, we will also collaborate in identifying indicators of awareness and benchmarks for validating the cognitive architecture that will be developed. Finally, we will collaborate in the ethical analysis concerning potential future scenarios related to artificial awareness, such as the possibility of developing artificial moral agents or the need to extend moral rights also to artificial systems.

In the end, there are several potential contributions that philosophy can provide to the scientific attempt to replicate biological awareness in artificial systems. Part of this possible collaboration is the fundamental and provoking question: why should we try to develop artificial awareness at all? What is the expected benefit, should we succeed? This is definitely an open question, with possible arguments for and against attempting such a grand accomplishment.

There is also another question of equal importance, which may justify the effort to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for artificial systems to become aware, and how to recognize them as such. What if we will inadvertently create (or worse: have already created) forms of artificial awareness, but do not recognize this and treat them as if they were unaware? Such scenarios also confront us with serious ethical issues. So, regardless of our background beliefs about artificial awareness, it is worth investing in thinking about it.

Stay tuned to hear more from CAVAA!

Written by…

Michele Farisco, Postdoc Researcher at Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics, working in the EU Flagship Human Brain Project.

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