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The business case for conscious machines Print E-mail
Saturday, 17 June 2006

It may sound strange to claim for the existence of a business case for conscious machines when there is even disagreement on the role that consciousness play in natural systems and its evolutionary value. This is clearly shown in the fact that there is even a school of thought that claims that consciousness is an epiphenomenon, i.e. nothing we can't live without.

Obviously, we don't think that way, and the best proof of its evolutionary value is our own everyday perception of consciousness: What do you prefer? a conscious or an unconscious taxi driver? What do you prefer? a conscious or an unconscious neurosurgeon? It's pretty clear that consciousness do play an important role in the correct execution of tasks, in the exercising of adequate behaviour in the presence of uncertainty.

But beyond exploring ideas on what consciousness is and how can it be manifested by an artificial agent we may consider the question of real needs for this technology. Is there any real business case for it?

Indeed it is. Not one but many business cases. Let's mention just two in quite different niches and then do some analysis that may serve as a general business drive for this technology.

The first business case is the case of the software systems we use to support human activity processes; our laptops, PDAs and mobile phones are full of software and communications because today's computing environment is changing from the isolated isles of productivity around a productivity toolset to the open sea of web services and dynamic applications. There is no longer a central deity that decides when to release a new complete update of our suite. There's nobody in charge of our whole environment anymore. We must strive for keeping our working environment in line with evolving realities out there. And the task is not easy at all: this new Flash 8 media file that can't be properly executed on my Linux Firefox browser; this just-relesed sequencer plug-in that my OS X music software rejects to incorporate. All they are changing in the world out of a coherent configuration management. There is no single authority that can do that.

The second business case is the case of electrical system internetworking between countries. National power production plants, transport and distribution grids are operated by companies or governments that have quite different objectives sand strategies. Cross-border interconnection seems necessary from many points of view (e.g. robustness, efficiency, policies, etc.). But, from a purely technical point of view, the task of controlling such a system is hopeless. There's nobody in charge anymore. Subsystems are built using different technologies and operated under different ruling agencies. While the technical issues may be solved relatively easily (standardisation bodies do help in this) the main problem remains: integrated, unified decision making. The local operation decisions can be contradictory at a system-wide scale. Autonomous distributed decision making processes mine the technically sound operation of the global network. These processes are not only political or commercial decision processes but also include technical, even automatic, decision processes that happen ubiquitously in the network and that can produce electrical ripples that may manifest catastrophically in a remote place. We are engineering systems that suffer butterfly effects. That old wildly free character of some natural realities is becoming a daunting fact of our infrastructures.

What do these two cases have in common? The answer is relatively easy to identify: the behaviour of the global system is driven by interaction of local systems that are not any longer under a common change authority. It may look like the problem is that of proper physical integration but not only. The main issue, the really daunting thing, is that the bottleneck, or to be more precise, the key of the path to the solution is the capability of cognitive level metareasoning and integration. The question is for a technical system to be able to reason about i) how it is able to think and act ii) how others do the same and iii) how can I communicate with them to achieve my objectives. Some of these topics have been addressed in the agents community but agent technology still lacks the level of self-awareness that is needed to properly vehiculate these processes.

The business case is clear: software intensive systems -real-time or not- are getting so complex that we're no longer in the position of fully controlling them and their environments to make them robust enough. The classic zero-defect engineering or replicative fault-tolerance approaches do not scale well to systems of such a size and such a rate of uncoordinated change.

The possibility we envision is also clear: make systems responsible for providing their function. Instead of having a single production engineer -producing either software or electricity- in charge of change let the systems take care of themselves. Make the systems self-aware. This is somewhat happening in the field of software (IBM's autonomic computing or Sun's conscientous software). We need it to also happen with physically embedded systems.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 18 November 2007 )
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