Jim Davies in Nature:
Some researchers argue that consciousness is an important part of human cognition (although they don’t agree on what its functions are), and some counter that it serves no function at all. But even if consciousness is vitally important for human intelligence, it is unclear whether it’s also important for any conceivable intelligence, such as one programmed into computers. We just don’t know enough about the role of consciousness — be it in humans, animals or software — to know whether it’s necessary for complex thought. It might be that consciousness, or our perception of it, would naturally come with superintelligence. That is, the way we would judge something as conscious or not would be based on our interactions with it. A superintelligent AI would be able to talk to us, create computer-generated faces that react with emotional expressions just like somebody you’re talking to on Skype, and so on. It could easily have all of the outward signs of consciousness. It might also be that development of a general AI would be impossible without consciousness. (It’s worth noting that a conscious superintelligent AI might actually be less dangerous than a non-conscious one, because, at least in humans, one process that puts the brakes on immoral behaviour is ‘affective empathy’: the emotional contagion that makes a person feel what they perceive another to be feeling. Maybe conscious AIs would care about us more than unconscious ones would.)
Either way, we must remember that AI could be smart enough to pose a real threat even without consciousness. Our world already has plenty of examples of dangerous processes that are completely unconscious. Viruses do not have any consciousness, nor do they have intelligence. And some would argue that they aren’t even alive. In his book Superintelligence (Oxford University Press, 2014), the Oxford researcher Nick Bostrom describes many examples of how an AI could be dangerous. One is an AI whose main ambition is to create more and more paper clips. With advanced intelligence and no other values, it might proceed to seek control of world resources in pursuit of this goal, and humanity be damned. Another scenario is an AI asked to calculate the infinite digits of pi that uses up all of Earth’s matter as computing resources. Perhaps an AI built with more laudable goals, such as decreasing suffering, would try to eliminate humanity for the good of the rest of life on Earth. These hypothetical runaway processes are dangerous not because they are conscious, but because they are built without subtle and complex ethics.