Federico Faggin on The Nature of Consciousness

“One day, robots will control the world” – “humans are the most complex machines on earth” – “robots can solve the most intricate problems in a better and more efficient way than men”. How many times have we heard those words, and how frustrating has it been the face to face (or face to monitor) with a computer with the awareness that the dispute had a designated winner since the beginning? In the last decades, scientists have been designing artificial intelligences by recreating the model of human brain, simulating the connections developed between neurons through the synapsis; robots were conceived to create pieces of art and, in some cases, they even got the citizenship of a country. According to physicians, within fifty years, computers will be able to become perfectly conscious and will replace men and women in accomplishing almost every task. But still, a bit cannot be compared to a piece of DNA.

Scientists are trying to make us believe that we are sophisticated machines, but, if it were true, humans would be able to create robots that could compete under any aspect with them. Federico Faggin, the physician who invented the first microprocessor, the man to whom we owe technology the way we know it today, one of the pioneers of the Silicon Valley, within his career was moved by the ambition of creating a conscious computer. What he found out is simply that it could not exist. The Italian inventor’s research led him to even more revolutionary discoveries than the technology behind the 4004, but with only one conclusion: a robot will never be conscious.

«At that time, I told myself if consciousness is the mechanic property of a complex system, being the computer a complex machine, I should be able to modify it in order to create a conscious computer. After two or three years, I felt that this attempt was moving me away from the nature of consciousness. I understood that I had to study consciousness in the only way I could, which is in first person. Since then, I dedicated my life to studying consciousness in every possible way».

What would you say if I told you that the big bang and the world as we know it are merely a secondary step in the process of the creation of life, a projection of an inner reality that resides in the mind of every living being? What if our inner self, the deepest and most profound aspect of our understanding was not only determined by neurons and synapsis, but by an even more complex and primordial reality, the “nous”: our inner intelligence? The Italian physician proposes a theory in which everything we are supposed to consider “our world” is in fact only the reflection of our comprehension of the world captured through “qualia”, i.e. feelings and emotions and translated in symbols. But It would require a strong effort and a significant dose of honesty and integrity to imagine a non-mechanic reality, a world with no objects, space or time, but only created through consciousness. For our whole lives we have been instructed to separate science from philosophy, to oppose religion and physics, but Faggin’s nature of consciousness subverts our vision of the world and opens new doors for the interpretation of reality. Ironically, it took a physician to tell us that philosophy, human nature and emotions worth as much, if not more, than quantum mechanics.

People grew with the conviction that they were made only by flash and bones and that perception was mainly a reaction to external stimuli. In this view, in the eternal battle between humans and artificial intelligences, the latter would easily master the game, overwhelming the opponent with incomprehensible tricks and by solving gazillions of operations in a second. But what people and scientists tend to forget is that computers would not exist if humans had not created them. Ideas and creativity constitute the indispensable input without which robots would not be able to respond. Humans created them in order to have a support, a subordinated instrument that could figure out those complex and tricky problems that would have stolen precious time to their studies, not to think for them. Humans should not be scared of the competition with artificial intelligences, but only of those who give them inputs that want to be considered better than others.

In Faggin’s view, the ego should not be reduced merely to its physical form, but it should be elevated to reach its bigger and most profound nature, reaching for the real understanding, right to the heart of the nature of consciousness.

Everything generates from comprehension, and comprehension passes through communication. Creativity is the result of ideas: some of them are worthless, but some others may be able to change the world. Art and science have always been the instruments through which humans have tried to get to the real meaning of reality, to interpret and explain the world, but without the ability to go deeper into the existence and without the capacity of perception given by the qualia, men and women would only be robots, not even able to have intuitions and to sense the existence. If men were like computers, art would be reduced to an algorithmic expression of data and there would not be the results of the genius of Mozart and Galileo and Dante would have not have been able to translate human nature in triplets. The world would have lacked of its beauty, and it would have been transformed in a simple repetition of a model trying to imitate life.

It takes courage, honesty and a little bit of audacity to propose a theory that challenges the rules of physics and to devote an entire life to the pursue of the meaning and the origin of life, and Federico Faggin never lacked of any of these qualities. From the microprocessor to the questions over the origin of life, from the Silicon Valley to the Faggin Foundation, the vision of the Italian thinker and physician was always guided by intuition and curiosity. Could a computer have done any of that?

Valeria Sforzini, Young Voices Board