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Intelligence and Consciousness: What's the Difference?

By Jason M. Pittman, Sc.D.

Previously, we constructed a definition for intelligence. This definition enabled us to consider the nature of synthetic intelligence, whether we can detect it, and whether we can trust it.

However, the definition can only take us so far. Intelligence and consciousness are not the same thing. Further, much of the existing discussion surrounding artificial intelligence is really an attempt to suss consciousness. Such a claim engenders a litany of questions.

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We can start here: what is the difference between intelligence and consciousness? Let’s find out!

Intelligence versus Consciousness

Let’s explore the idea that there are three forms of consciousness: natural, artificial, and synthetic. We (humans) have natural consciousness. Artificial consciousness -- artificial general intelligence as it is commonly referred to -- seeks to imitate natural consciousness. As you might expect, synthetic consciousness is real but not necessarily natural. Consciousness, in any category, is irreducible, which makes it difficult to tease apart why and what. Furthermore, categories don’t tell us anything about differences between types. To illustrate the difference between intelligence and consciousness, let’s use natural intelligence and consciousness for an example.

First, natural intelligence and natural consciousness both seem to be inextricably tied to the biological substrate we call a brain. Most would agree that a natural being without a brain has neither intelligence nor consciousness. Still, a natural entity with a brain may have intelligence only, consciousness only, or both. The human brain substrate is important because we have a plethora of examples where physical differences, pathologies, and traumatic injuries produce measurable effects on intelligence or consciousness.

Second, intelligence reliably fits somewhere on a gradient, the gradient being quantified through IQ. Thus, we can categorize natural intelligence along such a gradient and, in conjunction with other factors, render powerful predictions about how this intelligence will exist in the world. On the other hand, natural consciousness, for all intents and purposes, appears to be binary; either something is conscious or that something is not.

What about artificial or synthetic consciousness. then?

I see no evidence to suggest that artificial or synthetic consciousness need be tied to a specific substrate. Putting aside the argument for or against a computational theory of mind, all modern efforts to create artificial consciousness use a computer as the substrate. Presupposing that artificial consciousness is an obtainable goal, there’s no rational claim for that consciousness being psy-locked to a specific hardware arrangement. In fact, artificial consciousness ought to be transferable.

Synthetic consciousness is somewhere in-between natural and artificial. Plants, fungi, and colonizing insects all display a distributed consciousness (i.e., hive mind) at a broad level of resolution.  That seems to be transferable. Yet individual organisms seem to operate either without consciousness at all, or with a form of natural consciousness. Moreover, I think that non-natural consciousness is not discrete but rather continuous, much like natural intelligence. The weirdness here, the apparent confusion, indicates just how interlinked intelligence and consciousness can be at times.

This leads us to a critical, next question: can we distinguish between types of consciousness?