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Does Siri Have Consciousness?

Julia Peterson

Siri. A computer assistant that is always there to help. Many people have this assistant on their phones and use it frequently. We can make Siri tell us jokes, or check the weather, and even (in a cheesy romance comedy) make Siri fall in love with us. But, does this mean that Siri is conscious? The digital assistant can speak and communicate with us, but this does not mean it has a consciousness. Siri does not have a consciousness because the mind is far more complex than a computer can replicate. I can prove this just by examining language and the way our mind changes based on it. I will prove that my theory is correct by looking at Vygotsky’s theories of speech, Boroditsky and her rules for how language changes our consciousness, and Robert Epstein’s critic on the Information Processing theory.

Siri has the ability to hold a conversation with a human. It can respond to your comments, questions and jokes in a way that makes it seem that it has a mind of it’s own. However, external speech does not prove that Siri has internal speech as well (Like consciousness).  In Vygostky’s book “Thought and Word”, Vygotsky explains how there are two planes of speech. The first being the phonetic speech, or external speech. This speech is how we communicate our ideas and thinking to another human. The second plane of speech is semantic speech, or inner speech. This is the speech that goes on in our consciousness.

In a recent lecture, given by Professor Kleinknecht, the professor explains the difference between Inner speech and External speech. The different parts of speech are as follows; first, morpheme and phoneme. These are the basic units of sound. Next, is syntax which are the rules on how to combine these sounds into words. Following is semantic, this is the meaning of a word and the various meanings of that word in given situations. Afterwards we have Prosody, the tone and melody of the language, and Grammar, the understandability index. External Speech includes all of these parts of speech, but Inner speech only works within semantic speech. All our consciousness does is create and evolve the meanings associated with certain words. Siri, in comparison to the  different parts of speech, has the ability to mimic the Prosody and grammar of any given language, however Siri cannot evolve the semantics of a word like our consciousness can. Proving that Siri has ability of speech and language, but not necessary consciousness. Siri is limited to external speech only.

Siri has the ability to change languages to better communicate with a wider user base. The digital assistant has many language settings any person can choose from, however this does not mean Siri has a consciousness, because language does not equal consciousness. Unlike Siri, our consciousness can be shaped in different ways depending on what language we speak. This is what makes the human mind so different and more complicated from a computer assistant such as Siri. But how does our language change or consciousness, you may ask?

In Boroditsky’s journal chapter, “How the Languages We Speak Shapes the Way We Think”, she answers many questions about language and how they can affect how our consciousness works. Language shapes our consciousness by having a different vocabulary then any other language in the world. Because of the differences in vocabularies, languages all have different ways of describing an object, issue, or a person. An example of this that Boroditsky uses is how  speakers of Guugu Yimithirr are more directionally advanced then other language speakers because of their vocabulary. “For example, Guugu Yimithirr ( an Australian Aboriginal language), uses cardinal direction terms- roughly aligned with north, south, east, and west- to define space” (Boroditsky 618). This makes it easier for speakers for Guugu Yimithirr to constantly be aware of where they are directionally in their environment. They view the world through cardinal directions, whereas an english speaker, such as myself, can struggle with finding North without a compass or a map. Our two consciousness work vastly differently to serve two different needs in our language.

Another example of how our consciousness can be formed by language is whether or not our language is set in a present tone or a futuristic tone. In a Ted Talk given by Keith Chen, Chen discusses how individuals who speak a language that are more future driven are more likely to save more money. In English we can speak in past, present, and future tenses, and each tense has its own grammatical rules. Each tense is very separate and has very different ideas. Chen then uses his own language, Chinese, as an example of a language that does not divide time into different rules. “They can say, “Yesterday it rain,” “Now it rain,” “Tomorrow it rain.” In some deep sense, Chinese doesn’t divide up the time spectrum in the same way that English forces us to constantly do in order to speak correctly” (Chen 2012). Because English forces us to think about the future as something different from the present, English speakers tend to not prepare for that future in the same way a Chinese speaker would. This means that the consciousness of an English speaker is much less future driven than the consciousness of a Chinese speaker, proving that our language can change the way our consciousness operates.

Siri has the ability to change languages, meaning it can operate in a more directionally advanced way, or a more future focused way thanks to various algorithms. However, Siri does not have a consciousness just because it has a large language base.

Why do people associate language speaking computers with the singularity? Well, Cognitive science has  been using the Information Processing theory, and in this theory the mind works similarly to a computer. Therefore, computers can replicate the mind. This is not true. In “The Empty Brain” by Robert Epstein, Epstein explains that computers and human brain’s are not the same because of the uniqueness problem. It is impossible to replicate a human brain in a computer because the mind changes based on experience, and no one brain changes the same way. Computers are too simple to ever be as complex as the human brain. Think about the examples given in this paper. The mind is able to change based on what language one speaks. A person could be a better saver of money depending on his or her language. An individual can be more directionally advanced because of their language as well. The mind in these two examples are so different, and replicating even one of them would not give us the full picture of the mind.

Language is not the only aspect of the mind that is complex, other senses such as vision have a significant role in shaping our consciousness, according to Alan Baddeley in his book “Working Memory: Theories, Models and Controversies”. In one example, Baddeley explains that  successful imagery tasks are due to the visual practice in the brain, not the spatial. “He used a visual imagery mnemonic whereby two unrelated items are associated by forming an image of them interacting; for example, cow and chair could be remembered as a cow sitting on a chair” (Baddley 13). Using a visuo-spatial sketchpad within our consciousness can also play a role in the complexity of our mind.

Siri can never have consciousness, and a computer can never replicate a conscious mind. This is because the mind and consciousness change based on experience, and makes each mind unique. Language has a big role in this as well, and can re-shape an individual’s thinking based on what language they speak. In conclusion, the mind is far too complicated for a computer assistant, like Siri, to ever replicate.

References

Baddeley, A. (2012). Working memory: Theories, models, and controversies. Annual

Review of Psychology, 63(1), 1-29. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-120710-100422

Chen, K. (n.d.). Could your language affect your ability to save money? TED Conferences.

Lera Boroditsky. (2012). The Cambridge handbook of psycholinguistics. How the  Languages We Speak Shape the Ways We Think.

Vygotsky, L. S. (n.d.). Thought and Word. Thought and Language, 210-245.

Epstein, R. Aeon essays. (2016, May 18). Aeon.

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