Dr Kathleen Richardson
The Independent

October 25, 2011

At a recent anthropology conference, my colleagues and I were sitting around a table discussing our session when a wasp decided to come and interfere with our proceedings. Here I am talking about the insect creature, not the White Anglo Saxon Protestant variety. As one friend tried to shoo the wasp away another told us it would be better to ignore, rather than kill it, because when under attack, wasps will emit a danger pheromone and a search party will be sent from the nest. Rather than dealing with one wasp, we might have to contend with several more. Pretty impressive I thought, and it made me wonder if wasps were displaying a kind of consciousness? It definitely appears that wasps are interconnected, they have a social awareness of their own species and support systems to help and to assist each other. As a view of consciousness is based on awareness and interdependent interconnectivity, it would appear that wasps seem to possess a kind of consciousness.

Humanists tend to disagree with the view that nonhuman animals and machines are capable of consciousness and are very possessive about it as an exclusively human characteristic. John Gray’s book Straw Dogs argues (quite depressingly) that human uniqueness, of which consciousness and a transcendent mind are important components, is a delusion. But do humanists “‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’, so to speak, by rejecting the idea that nonhuman animals and machines might possess or come to possess consciousness? And what might anthropology contribute to this discussion?

Artificial Intelligence as a discipline is influenced by the humanist philosophy of René Descartes (otherwise known as Cartesian) and he is celebrated and attacked in kind for his dualist philosophy. Descartes theorised the human mind is transcendent whilst bodies, animals and machines are not. It may come as a surprise then to think a founding father of humanism and human uniqueness also inspired and repelled a generation of technologists interested in designing intelligent systems.

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