The Turing Test is commonly viewed as the holy grail of artificial intelligence. A computer that is capable of convincing humans of its humanity would have to be as richly programmed as a human brain. But would it truly be conscious, or would it merely be mimicking intelligence? Most computer scientists assert that the computer would actually be conscious in the same sense that we are. Since a brain, after all, is merely a pattern of information, it is no fundamentally different than a computer program. Both a brain and a computer program merely respond to external inputs and produce an output. There is no empirical test that we can conduct to determine if an entity is “conscious.” The only way to gauge that is by our interactions with the entity in question. When we interact with other humans, we typically take them at their word that they are conscious entities, because we are aware of our own consciousness and we observe that other humans generally behave like we do. Therefore, I think that any computer capable of passing the Turing Test would have just as much claim to consciousness as any human.
The mindset that computers, no matter how well-programmed, can only mimic consciousness will probably fall by the wayside in the 21st century, as the distinction between natural and artificial becomes much less clear. For all of their merits, silicon computer chips have a lot of drawbacks, such as the amount of heat they emit and the amount of power they consume. In the coming decades, we will probably see more organic, carbon-based computers. At the same time, we will probably see a lot more “natural” humans with artificial additions to their brains. To some extent, brain implants already exist to help people cope with brain damage or to mitigate certain mental conditions. Eventually, they may be used in perfectly healthy individuals to enhance their mental capacity. These kinds of developments will likely blur the line between human and computer. When complex forms of intelligence can no longer be so neatly classified as “human” or “computer,” but instead represent a diverse spectrum ranging from 100% organic to 100% machine, will it still make any sense to assert that computers are able to mimic intelligence without being intelligent? I think not.
I think the reason that some people believe a computer would only be mimicking intelligence is because intelligent computers are not yet commonplace. While we have grown accustomed to computers that can crunch numbers and play chess much better than we can, we have not yet encountered any computers that can recognize patterns or respond with emotions as well as we can. As computers become more and more powerful, this day will come. Many decades from now, we may have computers that are truly capable of passing the Turing Test. They will probably lobby for basic rights under the law. When this happens, I think we will expand the definition of human rights to include non-human forms of intelligence, as there would be no moral basis for doing otherwise. And will we believe their claims that they are truly conscious beings? I think we will. They’ll get mad if we don’t.