Cardiff Metropolitan University
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Does Machine Understanding Require Consciousness?

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posted on 2022-08-16, 13:26 authored by Robert Pepperell

 This article addresses the question of whether machine understanding requires consciousness. Some researchers in the field of machine understanding have argued that it is not necessary for computers to be conscious as long as they can match or exceed human performance in certain tasks. But despite the remarkable recent success of machine learning systems in areas such as natural language processing and image classification, important questions remain about their limited performance and about whether their cognitive abilities entail genuine understanding or are the product of spurious correlations. Here I draw a distinction between natural, artificial, and machine understanding. I analyse some concrete examples of natural understanding and show that although it shares properties with the artificial understanding implemented in current machine learning systems it also has some essential differences, the main one being that natural understanding in humans entails consciousness. Moreover, evidence from psychology and neurobiology suggests that it is this capacity for consciousness that, in part at least, explains for the superior performance of humans in some cognitive tasks and may also account for the authenticity of semantic processing that seems to be the hallmark of natural understanding. I propose a hypothesis that might help to explain why consciousness is important to understanding. In closing, I suggest that progress toward implementing human-like understanding in machines—machine understanding—may benefit from a naturalistic approach in which natural processes are modelled as closely as possible in mechanical substrates. 


Published in

Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience


Frontiers Media


  • VoR (Version of Record)


Pepperell, R. (2022) 'Does Machine Understanding Require Consciousness?', Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 52. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2022.788486

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Cardiff Met Affiliation

  • Cardiff School of Art and Design

Cardiff Met Authors

Robert Pepperell

Cardiff Met Research Centre/Group


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  • © The Authors


  • en

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