Picking our brains: Can we make a conscious machine?

By Celeste Biever CHALLENGES don’t get much bigger than trying to create artificial consciousness. Some doubt if it can be done – or if it ever should. Bolder researchers are not put off, though. “We have to consider machine consciousness as a grand challenge, like putting a man on the moon,” says Antonio Chella at the University of Palermo in Italy and editor of the International Journal of Machine Consciousness. The journal was launched last year, a sign of the field’s growing momentum. Another landmark is the recently developed “Conscale”, developed by Raúl Arrabales of the Carlos III University of Madrid in Spain to compare the intelligence of various software agents – and biological ones too (see diagram). Perhaps the closest a software bot has come so far is IDA, the Intelligent Distribution Agent built in 2003 by Stan Franklin at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. IDA assigns sailors in the US navy to new jobs when they finish a tour of duty and has to juggle naval policies, job requirements, changing costs and sailors’ needs. Like people, IDA has “conscious” and “unconscious” levels of processing. At the unconscious level she deploys software agents to gather data and process information. These agents compete to enter IDA’s “conscious” workspace, where they interact with each other and decisions get made. The updated Learning IDA, or LIDA,
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