Could Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Blade Runner

This is the first part of the talk ‘Could Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ about machine consciousness. The complete talk will eventually be available here.

1.Science Fiction

Blade Runner

The title of this talk is obviously derived from the famous Philip K. Dick science-fiction novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ which was popularized by the cult film ‘Bladerunner’.

In both the book and the film, the main protagonist, Deckard, is a bounty hunter whose job is to track down androids, verify they are indeed androids (for these androids are physically identical to humans) and destroy them. For humans are conscious, empathetic and moral whereas androids are deemed to be unconscious imitations, cold and expendible. Deckard must administer the so-called ‘Voigt-Kampff test’, a psychological empathy test, to distinguish between the conscious and the unconscious. Yet, the androids can be remarkably human (Rutger Hauer’s ‘tears in the rain’ soliloquy in the film) and Deckard wonders whether he himself is an android.

2. Science Fact

But in this talk, we are interested in science fact rather than science fiction. When I ask ‘Could androids dream of electric sheep?’ I am asking ‘could non-biological stuff like an Android mobile phone be conscious?’ By ‘conscious’, I mean actually having the same sort of thing to the awareness, sentience, ‘something it is like to be’, ‘qualia’ or whatever else you want to call it. And by ‘could?’, I mean not now but in say 20 or 30 years’ time – a human generation span. So in around the year 2040, when we might be further ahead in our understanding of consciousness than we are at present, could we take say a 2013 ‘Jelly Bean’ Android smartphone, download an app and run it and for it then to be conscious?(!)

3. No Imitations!


I need to make it clear I am not talking about imitating consciousness.  Chatbots have developed significantly since Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA program famously fooled students briefly in the 1960s. And the human-computer interface has improved too. The combination of the two can give us a Siri/Google Now voice-recognizing speaking ‘digital assistant’ on our phones now. But imagine if we had a button on the smartphone’s screen and every time we pressed the button the ‘digital assistant’ let out a howling shriek of pain. We would not for one moment think there was anything related to pain actually going on inside the phone. This is clearly just imitation and not the real deal. We might seek to prove it by getting hold of the source code to find where it went something like ‘if button-press then make-shrieking-sound’.

4. Whole Brain Simulation

One approach to get the real deal of conscious on a phone (or any other computer), would be to do a ‘whole brain simulation’. We could:

  1. take a computer model of a neuron (for example, from here),
  2. work out how thousands of neurons connect together to form cortical columns (see picture of 5 columns below)
  3. simulate a complete sheet of cortical columns – the huge cortical sheet that gets crumpled up to fit inside your skull.


Now, we could simulate all 85 billion-odd neurons on a smartphone. We wouldn’t have enough memory on the phone to store all the information but we could use cloud storage accessible via the mobile network for that. It’s true this would be incredibly slow; it would take years (real-time) to simulate a fraction of a second (simulation-time). So it might not be a practicable proposition. But that’s not the point. This is a thought experiment. We could do it. And if we did, would it be conscious?

IBM Blue Gene supercomputer
IBM Blue Gene supercomputer

It might be better to use a supercomputer to actually do the simulation, whilst we could still use our phone to interact with it. So, now with an Android phone communicating across the internet to the supercomputer, we could have the Siri-like interface as before. But this time, pressing the ‘pain’ button on the screen would cause the supercomputer to fire the sense neurons corresponding to the big toe of the whole brain simulation. Those signals would go up the brain stem and might provoke an ‘ow’ response. Now, do we think there would be any pain this time?

5. It’s Happening Now

Blue Brain Project

This might all sound a bit like the science fiction I said I wasn’t going to talk about. But work is already underway towards this. For example, In 2005 the ‘Blue Brain Project’ was started at EPFL, Lausanne. Using an IBM ‘Blue Gene’ supercomputer, they are working towards a whole brain simulation. Milestones for the project are:

  • 2006: simulation of a rat cortical column (10000 neurons, 10^8 synapses).
  • 2011: ‘mesocircuit’ of 100 rat cortical columns (10^6 neurons).
  • 2014: whole rat brain: 10,000 cortical columns, 10^8 neurons.
  • 2023: whole human brain: 10^11 neurons.

Human Brain Project

Then, in 2013, the EU allocated €1B funds to the new ‘Human Brain Project’ which effectively subsumes the Blue Brain Project. To get an idea of the overall scope of the project, here is an overview of the various Subprojects:

  • Brain Simulation platform: software, based on the Blue Brain Project. For simulating mouse and human brains.
  • High-Performance Computing platform: IBM JUQUEEN Blue Gene supercomputer at Jülich Forschungszentrum, near Cologne.
  • The Mouse brain atlas: U. Edinburgh/U. Madrid. We can experiment with mice . And it is a springboard towards…
  • The Human brain atlas: Jülich Forschungszentrum, near Cologne.
  • Cognitive architectures: top-down approach mapping understood cognitive tasks to simulation stimulation/response  CEA, Paris (French atomic energy authority).
  • Mathematical/theoretical abstraction: establishing a new European Institute for Theoretical Neuroscience (EITN), Paris.
  • Neuroinformatics: organization and accessing of brain data. EPFL / Karolinska Unstitutet, Stockholm.
  • Medical informatics: managing clinical data to get practically useful results from simulations. CHUV (hospital), Lausanne.
  • Neurorobotics: connecting the brain simulation to a virtual environment. TUMünchen/EPFL.
  • Ethics and Society issues.
  • Neuromorphic Physical Models: analogue/mixed-signal, U. Heidelberg.
  • Neuromorphic Multi-core: digital, building on the U. Manchester SpiNNaker project.

And there are other big projects going on, these being two significant ones Stateside:

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1 Response to Could Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

  1. Pingback: Consciousness and Zombies | Headbirths

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