Sentience: Nicholas Humphrey's compelling interrogation of the human experience


Could robots abruptly attain sentience? This time, the journalists at Cybernews are delving into Nicholas Humphrey's newest book, seeking even a faint suggestion of an answer.

Milan Kundera, a recently departed legendary author, once asserted, 'While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and uninterchangeable self.' In his recently published work, Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness, Oxford professor Nicholas Humphrey echoes Kundera's sentiments, delving into the concept of sentience from an evolutionary vantage point.

This book serves as an illuminating starting point for those intrigued by the question of whether machines can attain sentience.

Last year, a Google engineer's claim of a sentient AI chatbot sparked widespread discourse on the potential for machine sentience. Definitive proof of sentient AI remains elusive, yet it’s unclear for how long.

At this point, it might not even be important whether AI is sentient. What truly matters is whether we attribute sentience to a machine. This aspect carries undeniable social implications, as human interaction with AI assistants could potentially escalate to scenarios involving suicide or even a plot for murder.

In essence, machines now mimic humanity, and that might be destructive enough. What if they somehow learn to think and feel for themselves? As adept as humans are at manipulation, machines would take that ability one step further.

However, fear resides in the realm of uncertainty.

Luckily, many scientists are on a quest to define sentience and whether a sentient machine could ever exist.

One of them is Nicholas Humphrey, an Emeritus Professor of Psychology and London School of Economics Senior member, Darwin College, Cambridge. His Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness is a fascinating read – not only because it offers a comprehensive look at sentience.

Nicholas Humphrey
Nicholas Humphrey.

It’s also just a well-written book with special features including monkeys and the professor’s dog, Bernie, and even introducing orgasm into the discourse of sentience.

From what I understood, sentience describes a very personal, individual response to sensations, or sensory stimuli. Being sentient, you can describe that you have pain in your arm, and that pain is horrible.

Apparently, intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean sentience – even if animals like the octopus can perform complicated tasks, it doesn’t mean they have the same level of feelings as we do.

While Humphrey does present us with scientific explanations for what sentience is, he doesn’t shy away from quoting writers or composers. I particularly liked a quote by the composer Michael Tippett.

“Why we want this [music] nobody knows, but human beings certainly do need it as part of something for which I think we must use the word ‘soul.’ We want our souls to be nourished, and unless they are nourished we are dead.”

That’s a great way to think about sentience, about what, at least for now, separates us from machines. A part of us wants to be nourished, and for each one of us, that nourishment might be very different in a sensory way – the smell of a meadow, the sound of the sea, a vision of a sunset, or all of those sensations combined. A robot just wouldn’t care for it.

I also took notice of Humphrey's observations regarding pain and sentience. Occasionally, I hear elderly individuals jesting that if nothing hurts it means they might have passed away. While this jest pertains to physical discomfort, it provides insight into the essence of sentience – our capacity to comprehend pain.

Furthermore, it highlights that we not only experience pain but also perceive similar levels of pain in varying ways. Have you ever come across the somewhat sexist joke about someone lamenting a 37°C "fever"? Such a quip might immediately lead to the assumption that it's a man complaining, given the general notion that they possess a lower tolerance for minor physical discomforts.

What about psychological “pain” then, of, let’s say, a divorce? My grandmother’s sister loves to say that we are all similar when happy, but pain is what makes us truly unique.

Back to Kundera: “I think, therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches...The basis of the self is not thought but suffering, which is the most fundamental of all feelings.”

From an evolutionary standpoint, the answer to whether machines can be sentient is quite obvious and even definitive. Humphrey suggests that “phenomenal consciousness is restricted to warm-blooded animals.”

I suggest you dive into the book to see how he came to this conclusion, since that’s a thought I’m inclined to believe. Humphrey suggests a quote by Emmanuel Levinas, describing a dog who used to wander into the Nazi labor camp where he was imprisoned: “The dog was always glad to see the prisoners, and thus was the sole creature to treat them as humans. He knew perfectly well that his imprisoned friends were sentient beings and he treated them as such, while their own conspecifics, the Nazi prison guards, did not.”

A dog treating prisoners as humans when no one else does. What a strong statement.

Nearing the end of the book, it seemed clear to me – robots aren’t warmblooded, therefore, they can’t be sentient. But Humphrey doesn’t let you off the hook that easily. In one of the last chapters of the book, called “Machina Ex Deo” [Machine from God. Originally, the latin phrase reads deus ex machina, aka God from the Machine], argues that sentient robots should essentially be built since they can’t develop sentience the way humans have.

Why would engineers want to build sentient machines, especially if they’d threaten humanity? Sentient or not, robots are destined to become more autonomous.

“The time is going to come when we’ll want to establish self-perpetuating colonies of robots on distant planets, with a mission to build a new life for themselves and only occasional contact with humans back at home,” Humphrey teases.


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