The sudden availability of advanced Artificial Intelligence platforms forces us to confront not only the evaluation of our own abilities but, even deeper, what it means to be a conscious, self-aware human being. We can explore this from both scientific and philosophical points of view, ultimately drawing practical conclusions. My conclusion and exhortation is simple: Don’t be a zombie, be a luminary.
Like many, I have been curious about the boundaries of what recent AI platforms can and cannot do. They are very good at pretending to not only know many things, but also to self-reflect and understand their surroundings and, to some degree, their inner states. There is a fairly wide consensus that even though we don’t understand exactly how they work, as of yet, they are just pretending. GPT-4, for example, is not self-aware. But this is the right moment to improve our understanding of human self-awareness and why we feel it is indeed a unique phenomenon.
There are many ways to go about this. Traditionally, meditation, philosophical practices, and metaphysical experiences have been used. However, scientific disciplines have also opened doors to our understanding of the processes in the brain that give rise to the phenomenon we call self-awareness. I have had conversations with practitioners of some of these disciplines, such as an anesthesiologist who uses specific chemicals during surgical procedures to ensure patients do not feel pain, cannot move voluntarily, and are not aware of their surroundings. Practitioners in this field must intervene delicately, maintaining patients in a state between full wakefulness and vegetative support systems.
Another complex but essential discipline is psychiatry, which observes and treats people suffering from conditions like depression, schizophrenia, and paranoia. Over the years, both anesthesia and psychiatry have seen improved outcomes. Today, anesthesiology is extremely reliable, and psychiatry has moved away from extremely blunt tools like lobotomy to more nuanced and compassionate treatments.
Though I am not a fan of horror movies or fictional representations of zombies, I am aware of the concept. Zombies are not conscious and do not feel pain or emotions. In philosophy, the concept of philosophical zombies, or p-zombies, is used to highlight the difficulty in ascertaining what we call consciousness and self-awareness.
It is a useful exercise for everyone to try to understand who they are and to take care of their physical and mental health. Through introspection, we can improve our self-awareness. It is much better, I believe, for every human to be as far from being a zombie as possible. The term that is kind of the opposite of a zombie is “luminary” – someone who is curious, able to reflect on their experiences, and feel the whole range of emotions attached to them. Luminaries are fully aware of themselves and the emotional states and inner states of others. They actively participate in society and plan for a future worth living. Don’t be a zombie; be a luminary.