LLMs and Theories of Consciousness

There’s been an immense amount of discussion about Large Language Models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT over the last year, of course. Some of that discussion has been whether they are intelligent, conscious, or on the path to Artificial General Intelligence.

I’m particularly interested in the “consciousness” question, as it was an area of personal interest when I was working as a cognitive scientist, in a prior career. I never did research on the topic, but I read plenty of philosophers of mind and neuroscientists as they tried to pin down what, exactly (or even vaguely), consciousness might be. One of my favorite treatments of the topic is by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, most accessibly covered in his book The Feeling of What Happens. (I recently read a new collection of short essays by him, entitled Feeling & Knowing, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It feels more like footnotes or stray thoughts than a coherent presentation or a novel contribution.)

Damasio makes a number of claims, a few of which I’ll try to briefly summarize here. I think that it’s worth thinking about LLMs in the context of theories of mind and consciousness, to clarify what those systems are actually doing (or not doing), and what it might take to tentatively bridge the gap. In some ways, LLMs seem conscious, in that they behave in a way that, if a human did that, we would say that they were conscious.

Damasio’s core ideas are as follows (Wikipedia has a good summary):

  • Intelligence is a low bar. Any system that reacts in a self-beneficial way to both external stimuli and what he calls “homestatic” signals is behaving intelligently. Homestatic signals are internal body signals about the chemical and physical health of the body, such as whether blood chemistry, temperature, or other systems are within bounds, or if the body has been damaged. Single-celled animals are, under this view, intelligent.
  • Consciousness is based on a lower-level capability, which is the ability to represent (remember) the homeostatic signals in some form, rather than just react to them. When humans have a feeling that they are cold, or thirsty, or in pain, then they are representing these signals as having a relationship to the self. So, it seems likely that most animals are conscious.
  • Human-level intelligence and consciousness requires other systems, such as language, attention, and theory-of-mind. But those things aren’t required for basic consciousness.

David Chalmers, a philosopher and another prominent writer in the field, has recently been writing about LLMs and consciousness. He doesn’t believe it’s likely that current LLMs are conscious, and provides a half-dozen gaps that he suspects rule it out. But these gaps could, in theory and likely practice, be addressed.

Three of his gaps, two that he spends a few paragraphs on, and one that he mentions in an “and also” list, that I think get at the heart of what might be required to build a minimally-conscious LLM model:

  • First is a “global workspace”, a “limited-capacity… central clearing-house in the brain for gathering information from numerous non-conscious modules and making information accessible to them.” LLMs don’t really have this, although systems such as ChatGPT have limited contextual memories that start to move in this direction.
  • Second is “unified agency” – a conscious entity needs “stable goals and beliefs of their own over and above the goal of predicting text.” ChatGPT has constraints about what it’s willing to generate, but its responses don’t generally appear to be from a single entity.
  • Third is “stimulus-independent processing… thinking without inputs” – you might call this a stream of thought or even a stream of consciousness. When nobody is asking a LLM a question, it’s basically comatose. No processing is going on at all.

It might be that LLMs, because of their general-purpose nature, and their ability to summarize prompted text relatively well, could be used in a relatively simple system with these three capabilities and rudimentary consciousness. People have been building more-complex LLM-based systems with aspects of this already – Chain of Thought prompting and Tree of Thought architectures already get at the idea of having processing be based on the composition of multiple prompt-response pairs. The goals of these systems has generally been to improve response accuracy, especially for reasoning tasks.

What if we focused on the consciousness-related gaps, rather than performance on any specific task? What would a simple LLM-based system with a global workspace, unified agency, and a stream of thought look like?

Here’s my completely untested proposal for such a system.

  • The system maintains a queue of something like 20 (50?) text statements, generated as described below. This is the global workspace. Old entries disappear as new ones are added.
  • The system asks prompts of its own global workspace, while also reacting to external prompts (potentially from multiple external sources/people). These prompts happen on a regular basis, perhaps every 10 seconds, regardless of whether external prompts are happening or not.
  • Those system-generated prompts might have several standard forms, perhaps something like:
    • What are the key things a conscious, intelligent agent motivated by helpfulness, kindness, and a strong desire to avoid harm to humans or humankind (abbreviated CIAHKAHH, for the purposes of this blog post, but presumably spelled out in practice) would remember from the global workspace below?
    • What would a CIAHKAHH feel about the global workspace below?
    • What goals would a CIAHKAHH have, given the global workspace below?
  • External prompts might get prefixed with the most recent responses to these questions:
    • You are a CIAHKAHH with the following recent history: [global workspace]. You have been asked the following question by human X. Please respond accordingly. [prompt]
  • The result would be summarized before being added to the list:
    • You are a CIAHKAHH with the following recent history. [global workspace] Please summarize the below prompt and response into a two sentence summary to be added to your recent history. X prompts: [prompt] You responded: [response]

The unified agency is maintained by the mix of hard-coded goals in the standard prompts, and dynamic goals maintained in the global workspace. Different instances of this system would have different dynamic goals, based on experience, and thus different but unified agency. Stimulus-independent processing, the periodic self-referential queries of the global workspace, is key to making this all (I suspect) work reasonably coherently.

Proposed LLM-based perhaps-conscious architecture

Are there independent reasons for having a consciousness system like this? That is, would consciousness be adaptive for an intelligent system like a language model? It might! In particular, by having these hard coded goals (I’m reminded of Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics), a model like this might give more helpful answers, and might be less likely to provide problematic responses.

What about risks? Unlike other approaches to extending LLMs, such as embedding/embodying them in the real world, or providing them access to external systems with real-world effects, it’s hard to imagine a system like this causing a great deal of harm. Certainly, with the hard-coded goals, it’s less likely to do so than a simple Google search, which will happily tell you how to make home-made napalm. (Please don’t.)

And what about obligations? Would it be murder to pull the plug on a system like this? I don’t think so. Most philosophers of mind are pretty sure that animals such as mice have consciousness (although almost certainly not based on any sort of language). Most humans set out mouse traps and eat relatively intelligent and conscious mammals without much guilt, and certainly without criminal charges. Also note that just because this system is based on language, doesn’t mean that it rises to human-level consciousness. It just so happens that we invented LLMs that are good enough to implement this sort of thing before we invented the sort of highly complex multi-sensory systems that likely are required for consciousness in (say) mice.

Does this proposal make sense? I’m not deep in the cutting edge of LLM-based cognitive science right now, so if I’m restating ideas other people are already running with, or have already ruled out, please let me know!