Bees find nectar and tell their hive-mates; flies evade the swatter; and cockroaches seem to do whatever they like wherever they like. But who would believe that insects are conscious, that they are aware of what’s going on, not just little biobots?
Neuroscientists and philosophers apparently. As scientists lean increasingly toward recognizing that nonhuman animals are conscious in one way or another, the question becomes: Where does consciousness end?
Andrew B. Barron, a cognitive scientist, and Colin Klein, a philosopher, at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, propose in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that insects have the capacity for consciousness.
This does not mean that a honeybee thinks, “Why am I not the queen?” or even, “Oh, I like that nectar.” But, Dr. Barron and Dr. Klein wrote in a scientific essay, the honeybee has the capacity to feel something.
Their claim stops short of some others. Christof Koch, the president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, and Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin, have proposed that consciousness is nearly ubiquitous in different degrees, and can be present even in nonliving arrangements of matter, to varying degrees.
They say that rather than wonder how consciousness arises, one should look at where we know it exists and go from there to where else it might exist.
They conclude that it is an inherent property of physical systems in which information moves around in a certain way — and that could include some kinds of artificial intelligence and even naturally occurring nonliving matter.
At the most basic level, consciousness is awareness, Dr. Barron and Dr. Klein say. A robot vacuum moves around and responds to information from the external world — when it is stopped by a wall, for instance. But the vacuum doesn’t have any experience, Dr. Klein says — it doesn’t feel like anything to be a Roomba.
The Latest on: Consciousness
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