Computers: Intelligence, Consciousness, Moral Responsibility

            Intelligence, consciousness and moral responsibility are closely related qualities. They also have an interdependent nature. This is because someone cannot be described as intelligent without being conscious. An unconscious person is not responsible for their actions and therefore has no moral obligations to behave in a certain way. When a being is described as intelligent, they then have a responsibility to manipulate their environment as much as possible to achieve success in what they are doing. The catch here is that they also bear the responsibility for the consequences of their actions. This moral responsibility is often mediated by a conscience which is present only in conscious beings.        

             An intelligent being has several characteristics. Among these are the capacity to have one’s own thoughts, ability to respond to changes in the environment and thus find solutions for problems as well as a capacity for learning.  In addition, an intelligent being should have a more proactive than reactive role in the environment (Feinberg and Landau, 2004). All these characteristics are present in human beings and therefore human beings can be described as being intelligent though with varying levels of intelligence (Ma, 2002).  Computers on the other hand, are not alive and require information be fed to them for them to solve any problems. It may be argued that computers are able to perform tasks that people can do such as playing chess, composition of music, proving theorems and recognition of objects. It should be remembered however that these tasks are done to a limited extent. Even so for the computer to complete these tasks it relies on other’s thoughts (the programmer). Features of intelligence such as learning are not very prominent in a computer. Often the computer will retain the same knowledge it had and not form any new knowledge of its own. Most computers are able to respond to changes in the environment. This however is not an initiative of the computer and for them to be able to do so, they have to have a program that instructs them. For a computer to solve a problem, it also relies on a pre-written program, for instance, a computer can give an answer to a problem after calculating but usually it will not be able to think. Thus it cannot be described as being intelligent since for one to be intelligent they have to have the ability to think. Further, most computers, robots included do not have a brain. Many researchers agree that intelligence is a process that has a lot to do with the brain and other parts of  a body such as the eyes,arms, legs and ears so that the being can also communicate and act their thoughts. For a being to be truly intelligent it has to be able to plan, learn and be able to communicate its thoughts.

            Artificial intelligence as defined by several researchers includes such characteristics as learning, the ability to reason, ability to plan, communicate, capacity for knowledge, perception and being able to move objects (Rusell and Norvig, 2003 ). So far, computers only exhibit some of these characteristics while human beings the truly intelligent beings have all of these characteristics. Robots have come close to these characteristics as they are able to manipulate and move objects from place to place but they have to rely on a program to do this and many lack the ability to learn and perceive things. Achieving the characteristics of intelligence is a major long-term goal of research in Artificial Intelligence, making it even more apparent that computers have not yet attained intelligence.

            Alan Turing, a mathematician suggested a test that could be used to determine whether a computer or robot was indeed intelligent. According to the test, a machine has passed the test for intelligence if a a judge cannot tell apart a machine and a human being engaged in a conversation (Turing, 1950).  In this case if an individual was to chat with another who is able to uphold a conversation by giving appropriate answers to questions, the logical conclusion according to Turing is that the individual whether man or machine (that was programmed to give certain responses when words are typed in the screen) has the capacity to think and is therefore intelligent. The possibility however that a machine like this with genuine artificial intelligence exists is highly unlikely. This makes the Turing test not entirely convincing. In this case the machine would only be a user of language since it would probably lack other organs analogous to ears,eyes, arms and legs.

            Conscious beings are alive, are born with consciousness, have a mind and can think and finally can react to the environment. Consciousness has to do with awareness of one’s surroundings. Autonomy is also an important aspect of consciousness. Other aspects of consciousness other than awareness include anticipation, subjective experience and learning (Franklin, 2003). These aspects are also considered necessary for Artificial consciousness. Most computers are not self-aware and robots though they may have sensors of some kind lack the qualities of anticipation and subjective experience. A robot will likely not be able to explain how it has perceived an object or a person.

            Some researchers are of the view that it is not possible to test consciousness in anything. This view holds that in the same way that a thermometer cannot be expected to have appreciation for music is the same way a human being cannot think in more than three dimensions as it is not necessary. The argument here is that consciousness is more a social contract than anything else. While this may be true, the fact that computers lack in consciousness is apparent from the fact that other than failure to appreciate certain things that human beings can, most computers simply cannot operate in an unpredictable environment. Some things that computers are presently not able to perceive are pain and pleasure. Computers are prepared for interaction with humans by the use of programs. Without these they would not be able to predict any changes or events that would require a certain response. Computers therefore cannot be considered conscious beings because even at the time of their creation they have no awareness at all until a software program is installed in them. As such they are not born with consciousness. The lack of a mind also points to another reason why computers and robots cannot be described as being conscious.

            Human beings function not merely through logic as do computers but also depend on feelings, intuition to make decisions as well as semantics and aesthetics. These are systems that lack formality and are not available for use by computers making the quality of consciousness difficult for them to achieve. Further, the fact that a computer can be switched on and off makes describing it as a conscious  entity difficult and perhaps inappropriate. While humans may have periods where they are unconscious, often these are not because of a switch or failure to connection to a source of power. Consciousness as it is understood seems to be a property that grows and develops as a being grows from the embryo stage to an adult. This is lacking in computers and robots alike. It is unlikely that consciousness can be distributed, this however seems to be the case in computers that are networked making consciousness in computers a questionable reality.

             Morally responsible agents have both intelligence and consciousness. The levels of the intelligence and consciousness may be different but their presence is the more important thing. For a being to be considered morally responsible it has to have some perception of moral values as well as a comprehension of these moral values. Moral responsibility has a lot to do with the society that one lives in. A computer cannot be considered a morally responsible agent because it does not have the opportunity to interact socially. As such it remains unaware of socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior. This explains to a certain extent why the person who serves a jail term for hacking into an organization’s files is the computer hacker and not the computer itself. The computer in such a case does not have the same moral responsibility as the person who designed its software.

            Moral responsibility is shaped by one’s cultural values, the society they find themselves in and also an individual’s subjective experiences. A computer being a machine lacks all three and therefore may not make a decision concerning an ethical issue. Computers though able to perform similar tasks to human beings and often at a greater speed and accuracy do not have many of the characteristics that would make them more human such as consciousness, intelligence and the ability to make moral judgment.


Franklin S, 2003, IDA: A conscious Artefact, Machine Consciousness, Imprint Academic, Exeter pp10- 15.

Ma J, 2002, Visitor’s Descriptions of Emotions, CreaFeinberg J and Shafer-Landau R, 2004, Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy, Wadsworth Publishing pp 10-10, 21-22.tivity, Intelligence, Consciousness and Mind, Mind and learning pp 1-6 retrieved from    ,+consciousness

            .+computers;hl=       en;ct=clnk;cd=3;gl=ke;client=firefox

Norvig P and Rusell JS, 2003,  A modern approach to Artificial Intelligence, Second edition Upper      Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall pp5-8 .

Turing, A, 1950, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, Mind, vol 236 pp 433-460.


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