Welcome To Machine Consciousness


This section contains an introduction to the field of Machine Consciousness, in the form of a short overview and some answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ). The FAQ is categorised into sections of Who ,Why,How,Where, What.

As always, do not hesistate to ask questions that we have not yet answered.


The last decade has been marked by a rapid increase in the number of people interested in the scientific study of consciousness. Most such activity has been directed towards the understanding of the processes underlying consciousness in humans, and most research has taken place within psychology and neuroscience. However, in the last few years a third strand has emerged: the study, mainly by engineers and computer scientists, of how it might be possible to build conscious machines. We believe that the best name for this new enterprise is 'machine consciousness', and this web site is intended to serve as a focus and information source for anyone involved in the area or wishing to find out more about it.

Our aim at this stage is to be as inclusive as possible. The field of consciousness studies is extremely diverse, and we believe this will be reflected in the emerging field of machine consciousness. We do not intend to promote or to oppose any particular point of view, or to host any holy wars, and any filtering of submitted material will be solely on the grounds of relevance to the central subject area. There are plenty of other sites dealing with mainstream consciousness studies, AI, and cognitive science.

If there is any material you would like to see on the web site, or if you have any suggestions on how we might improve our service to this rapidly growing community, please email us at the address below.

Owen Holland
Magdalena Kogutowska


Will You Be There When The Brass Head Speaks?

The Brass Head Speaks, woodcut from The famous historie of fryer Bacon, published in 1627 and 1629 by Francis Grove. Read all about it.


What exactly is machine consciousness?
What are the ethical implications of machine consciousness?
Where can I find out more about consciousness?
(Where) Are there any universities running courses on machine consciousness?
(Where) Are there any workshops or conferences about machine consciousness?
(Where) Is there any industrial involvement in machine consciousness?
(Where) Is there a society or SIG for machine consciousness?
(Where) Is there a newsgroup or bulletin board about machine consciousness?
(Where) Which journals publish papers on machine consciousness?
How could you tell that a machine was conscious?
(How) Is it possible to get funding to work on machine consciousness?
Who is currently working on machine consciousness?


Q. What exactly is machine consciousness?

A. Broadly speaking, it’s whatever people mean by consciousness, but occurring in a machine - an artefact - rather than in a human or animal.

This definition, like all definitions of machine consciousness, brings problems: it is not just that different people can mean many different things by ‘consciousness’, but that there are well established arguments that the noun ‘consciousness’ does not correspond to any useful or consistent concept, and also that what many of us think of as consciousness is nothing more than an illusion.

In practice, this means that to engage in the study of machine consciousness, one needs to have a good understanding of the scope and results of the study of consciousness itself. There are also some lesser difficulties over the meaning of ‘machine’. For example, some people insist that digital computers cannot be conscious, others that a conscious machine needs a body (and therefore must be a robot of some kind) and so on. A background in engineering, control theory, computer science, artificial intelligence, or robotics is definitely helpful in understanding some of these arguments about particular types of machines. Of course, if you’re considering setting out to build a conscious machine, you’re going to need an adequate grounding in both machines and consciousness.


Q. What are the ethical implications of machine consciousness?

A. Although there have been several rather theoretical treatments of this issue, the best introduction for those interested in actually attempting to create machine consciousness is probably a talk called How Should We Treat Them given by Steve Torrance to the Turin Workshop on Machine Consciousness.



Q. Where can I find out more about consciousness?



There are lots of books about consciousness - in fact their number is increasing very rapidly - but most of them are propounding a particular theory or view of consciousness. If you are completely new to the field, a good way to start is by reading what is currently the only textbook on consciousness - Sue Blackmore's ‘Consciousness: an introduction’.

It’s written as a class textbook, with exercises, but it gives a comprehensive a nd balanced view of a difficult and complex subject, and provides an excellent selection of up-to-date references for those wishing to explore further.
See also the resources section.


An enormously useful resource, especially if you are interested in the philosophical aspects of consciousness, is David Chalmers’ web site . Amongst other things, it gives access to an annotated bibliography of contemporary philosophy of mind and more than a thousand online papers on all aspects of consciousness ( http://www.u.arizona.edu/~chalmers/online.html). Another informative website is the Centre of Consciousness studies at University of Arizona (they are also ones hosting the biennial consciousness conference in Tuscon, see their website for more information).


There are a small number of journals dealing with consciousness. The Journal of Consciousness Studies, or JCS, is a peer reviewed journal that takes in a wide spectrum of views. (Find it on the publisher’s web site) Its special issues, also published in book form, offer some of the best contemporary material available on particular topics in consciousness studies. The electronic journal Psyche offers articles and book reviews, and is linked to a couple of very active online discussion groups . The journal Consciousness and Cognition deals with "a natural-science approach to the issues of consciousness, voluntary control, and self" and is another excellent source.


The Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC) is an international organisation that promotes research within cognitive science, neuroscience, philosophy, and other relevant disciplines in the sciences and humanities, directed toward understanding the nature, function, and underlying mechanisms of consciousness. Full membership (with voting rights) requires an appropriate professional background, but associate membership is open to all; subscription rates are the same for both membership classes. The ASSC organises an annual conference (the next is in Antwerp, Belgium, in June 2004). Membership of the ASSC brings a discount on the conference fees, and also on some journals and books.


Q. (Where) Are there any universities running degree courses on machine consciousness?

A. None that we know of. But the issue occasionally crops up in philosophy courses - for example, Shaun Gallagher's course on Problems of Consciousness deals with the question: 'Is it possible for a machine to be conscious?'. However, almost all such treatments deal with the possible existence of machine consciousness, and the ways in which its presence might be recognised, rather than with possible engineering approaches to the design problem.


Q. (Where) Are there any workshops or conferences about machine consciousness?

A. There are no regular workshops or conferences solely focussed on machine consciousness, but consciousness conferences always contain a few relevant presentations, and sometimes there may be a session on the subject. There have been a small number of one-off workshops on machine consciousness. What was probably the first took place in Venice in 1991; the proceedings appeared in book form in 1994, but are now out of print. (Trautteur, G. (Ed.) (1995) Consciousness: Distinction and reflection, Bibliopolis, Napoli.) In 2001, the Swartz Foundation sponsored a workshop on 'Can a machine be conscious?'; a summary and some of the presentations are available on their website.
In September 2003 the European Science Foundation sponsored a workshop on Models of Consciousness (go to the website for reports and presentations from the workshop) centred around the theme of machine consciousness.
In the same month, the EU-sponsored Complex Systems Network of Excellence (Exystence) held a workshop in Turin on the theme of 'Machine Consciousness: Complexity Aspects'; more material from this workshop will be available shortly.


Q. (Where) Is there any industrial involvement in machine consciousness?

A. As far as we know, only Nokia are actively engaged at the moment. Imagination Engines Inc. claim that the activity in the two neural networks in their Creativity Machine (US Patent 5,659,666) can be regarded as 'a canonical model of consciousness in which the former net manifests what can only be called a stream of consciousness while the second net develops an attitude about the cognitive turnover within the first net (i.e., the subjective feel of consciousness)'.

We'd welcome information about any other industrial projects.


Q. (Where) Is there a society or SIG for machine consciousness?

A. Not yet...


Q. (Where) Is there a newsgroup or bulletin board about machine consciousness?

A. Not yet, but we may start one on this website if it would be useful to the community. Email info@machineconsciousness.org with your views.


Q. (Where) Which journals publish papers on machine consciousness?

A. There is as yet no journal dedicated to machine consciousness, but some of the journals covering consciousness (see above) occasionally publish relevant papers. In particular, the Journal of Consciousness Studies in April/May 2003 published a special issue on machine consciousness, also available in book form from the publisher Imprint Academic or from Amazon.



Q. How could you tell that a machine was conscious?

A. This is one of the most frequently asked questions, and one of the toughest to answer to anyone's satisfaction. Much of the relevant material can be found in papers on the philosophy of mind under the tag 'The problem of other minds', and (more recently) under 'Zombies'. In the narrower context of machine consciousness, most approaches are variants of the Turing test - for a treatment of this issue, see Can a machine be conscious? How? and the collection of online papers on 'The Turing Test' at Dave Chalmers' site. Aleksander and Dunmall have proposed an axiomatic approach intended to be used to determine whether anything - animal, human, computer - possesses the necessary set of attributes to qualify for some minimal level of consciousness (Aleksander I. And Dunmall B. 'Axioms and tests for the presence of minimal consciousness in agents' Journal of Consciousness Studies Volume 10, No. 4-5, April-May 2003. An online statement of the axioms is available. Their idea is that anyone finding their set of axioms unsatisfactory should propose amendments or additions, and so the science of machine consciousness should progress through the proposal and testing of explicit hypotheses in the same way as other sciences.


Q. (How) Is it possible to get funding to work on machine consciousness?

A. Yes, but it's difficult. In the UK, Owen Holland at the University of Essex and Tom Troscianko and Ian Gilchrist at the University of Bristol have received £493,000 (714,000 Euros, or $833,000) from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council for a project on 'Machine consciousness through internal modelling'. In the USA, Stan Franklin's IDA project was funded by the Office of Naval Research. And in industry, the Finnish telecommunications firm Nokia is funding the machine consciousness work of Pentti Haikonen, an engineer in the Nokia Research Centre.

There are a number of recent funding calls in the area of 'cognitive systems' that may be sympathetic to proposals involving machine consciousness. In the US, the DARPA Information Processing Technology Office (IPTO) has announced an initiative on 'Cognitive Information Processing Technology' (Announcement BAA2-21 - see FedBizOpps Reference for the original call, but check the modifications, especially No. 4 which gives the new closing date of April 5th 2004.) Among the topics in the call are systems with 'self-awareness'. Ron Brachman, the director of IPTO, sets out his view of cognitive systems in IEEE Intelligent Systems in the article: Systems That Know What They're Doing

In the EU, there was a recent call for proposals within a similar but perhaps less broad cognitive systems programme, containing no explicit references to self-awareness. If you followed the above link, click on 'Areas and instruments addressed within this call' and scroll down to the bottom for IST-2002-2,3,2,4 Cognitive Systems. However, in 2003 the EU funded two workshops on machine consciousness, and it may be worth keeping an eye on future calls within the Future and Emerging Technologies area (FET) , or even contributing suggestions to the FET open forum.



Q. Who is currently working on machine consciousness?

A. Many more people are interested in machine consciousness than are currently funded to work on it. Our list of links to people has been put together from attendee and speaker lists at machine consciousness workshops, authors of relevant papers and books, and personal contacts.