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To those posting opinionated comments or answers (i.e. not factual research), please first describe your perspective of sentience and artificially intelligent machines - this is not the same as their definitions. Because this question is broad, abstract, and actively debated, readers have their own beliefs of what these terms should mean.

I was reading the Wikipedia article on a philosophical zombie:

[A philosophical zombie] is a hypothetical being that is indistinguishable from a normal human being except in that it lacks conscious experience, qualia, or sentience. When a zombie is poked with a sharp object, for example, it does not feel any pain though it behaves exactly as if it does feel pain (it may say "ouch" and recoil from the stimulus, or tell us that it is in intense pain).

[Philosophical zombies] think they are conscious, think they have qualia, think they suffer pains – they are just 'wrong' (according to this lamentable tradition), in ways that neither they nor we could ever discover.

The excerpt above describes my perspective of what I believe it means for something to be psuedo-sentient (not a real term). It seems to me that an artificial machine (constructed as modern computer programs are constructed, processing instructions sequentially with the ability to conditionally branch its execution) would not be capable of surpassing this quality of psuedo-sentience. What research has been done in this area and what are its answers?

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2 Answers 2

What research has been done in this area and what are its answers?

There are a lot of people doing research in this area, and as of yet, there are no answers.

Nobody (yet) knows how to make a machine that has qualia, or if such a thing is possible.

If this topic interests you, reading Chalmers (and his critics) is a good place to start.

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Significant progress has been made with projects like this one. Though we have no way (yet) to compare individual artificial neuron behaviors to organic ones. –  user2411 Dec 23 '12 at 11:41

The naturalistic answer--that is, the answer that you implicitly accept when performing scientific research--is yes.

The reasoning is pretty simple: all nontrivial computational devices are (when abstracted to devices with the ability to access infinite memory) equivalent, and everything in the physical universe is in principle describable mathematically (i.e. as a computation). Even quantum mechanics admits computations which are arbitrarily close.

We've no evidence that this picture (of reality being comprehensible/calculable) is wrong, and a vast and ever-growing pile of instances where it seems to work. As parts of the universe, we therefore are presumably inherently calculable. Since there's no difference in principle (just in implementation detail) between artificially intelligent machines and naturally intelligent humans, AIs can in principle do anything we can, including be sentient. Whether there will ever be AIs that meet the preconditions to be sentient (whatever those are) we don't know. But we do have a pretty good idea now that there's no more magic behind cognition (including sentience, presumably) than there is magical vital force behind life.

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