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My mother's ambitions for me


What is at the bottom of consciousness?
Francis Crick Scientist
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I feel they would… they will be of interest when we have a good theory as to what is at the bottom of consciousness, knowing how we could put it in a machine. Of course, computers are not used just for consciousness, they’re used for all sorts of things. They’re used, for example, by experimentalists, they often… experimentalists now run… experimentalists on a monkey, showing it things on a cathode ray screen, is often run by the computer and all the results are recorded on tapes and then played back and analysed often afterwards. So, there’s a lot of automation in… in laboratories and so on. And then, of course, people who are doing modelling, are doing theoretical work almost always do elaborate things on computers which I, personally, don’t do myself. I mean, I have used computers a little and my whole… my son and his family are all computer people and one of… even one of my… one… one of my daughters is… is a computer programmer and the other one is at least learning to use a computer but everybody uses computers nowadays, it seems to me. So I don’t do it specially but for some things, of course, they’re absolutely invaluable. But to answer your particular question, you know, can a computer be conscious? Well, it’s the sort of thing you might chat away occasionally at tea but unless you got a really got idea, I don’t think it’s… it’s going to get you anywhere. And I think… I think, and I’m sure Christof Koch would think the same, that the time to worry about that is when we have a real understanding, not necessarily a totally detailed understanding, but a real understanding of our own consciousness and animals' consciousness and so on. Then is the time to see what are the particular features that produce this type of awareness and how would you… put that in a… into a computer, what type of computer would it have to be. And I… I think our ideas are so vague really about what is… what is the characteristic features of consciousness, it's probably a waste of time to do it on a machine because you’re going to have a real problem getting a machine to tell you whether it’s conscious. It’s got to speak to begin with. Bad enough with a monkey. You have to assume that it’s conscious, remember. I have to assume you’re conscious when it comes right down to it. I have no direct knowledge that you’re conscious, it's only by analogy and because you say you’re conscious and you appear to behave the way I behave and I know I’m conscious, therefore I deduce you’re conscious but I don’t have direct knowledge of it. It’s much worse for a monkey.

The late Francis Crick, one of Britain's most famous scientists, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. He is best known for his discovery, jointly with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, of the double helix structure of DNA, though he also made important contributions in understanding the genetic code and was exploring the basis of consciousness in the years leading up to his death in 2004.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Christof Koch

Duration: 2 minutes, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: 1993

Date story went live: 08 January 2010