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Interview with Philosophy faculty and COGS director Ron Chrisley

Ron Chrisley is a Reader in Philosophy, on the faculty of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, and is the director of COGS (Centre for Cognitive Science). Dr Chrisley describes his interest in his work as being deeply rooted in his character. When asked whether he is a scientist or a philosopher he describes himself as a “philosopher able to make contributions in other fields.” Originally from the US, his family decided to move to England when he was only 14 years of age. The week of travelling from the West to the East Coast, the rolling desert, and the importance of both religion and science in his family, prompted him to ask a whole host of questions, which included;

“Is the red I see the red everyone else sees?”

Unknown at the time, the questions he wrote down in his red notebook are common inquiries regarding the philosophy of perception and the mind. Moving back to America temporarily, and due to his mother’s encouragement, he took an advanced placement introducing him to philosophy at Cornell University. He describes falling “in love” with philosophy fully after being taught by an “excellent” lecturer at the time, Chris Shields.

Although his undergraduate studies were not in Philosophy, much of it had a philosophical basis. This led him to believe that questions regarding AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the mind needed to be sorted out “philosophically first.” Most of what he works on is based on how there can be a “meaningful, significant, aware thing” such as the mind in a seemingly physical world.

Asking whether consciousness could be understood or even replicated by humans posed an interesting challenge, which only led to more questions being brought to the surface. He highlighted that we do not know enough about consciousness itself, or what conditions need to be met for something to be conscious. Some of Dr Chrisley’s work aims to explore some abilities for which we do have a physical account of consciousness, for instance, the formulation of speech and memory. If we were to explain such abilities, then we obtain a very good idea of what consciousness actually is.

As the director of COGS, he highlights the importance of interdisciplinary work in cognition, whether it be natural or artificial. He believes that the mind is a “too tough of a nut to crack” to use solely a singular method. Furthermore, he expressed that not only do multiple methods need to be used, but the results of such studies need to be shared between disciplines.

Dr Chrisley recently co-authored an experimental study with phycologists looking at whether links could be made when auditory and visual stimuli were not “consciously perceived.” This study found that subjects behaved differently when exposed to different pairings of words and phrases. He explains that his contributions to this paper are more on the side of so-called theoretical science rather than experimental psychology. Some of his previous work, however, has been entirely philosophical in nature where there are no experiments to be conducted or simulations to be run. The product of research within the Informatics & the Engineering department, for example, has large monetary, environmental and social value within society. He claims that there are millions of examples of how research is helping “people that we could not do so before.”

What value does Philosophy hold in our lives? Chrisley suggests that although Philosophy is one of the harder disciplines to see an effect in “visible terms”, in terms of adding economic wealth, the true importance lies within “trying to understand ourselves better and the nature of the world”.

Dr Chrisley highlights the importance of encouraging awareness and increasing people’s “computational abilities” while using AI. As a part of that, he uses programmable robots to educate school children from the local community. He also emphasises the importance of understanding that robots “are only as good as the program you put on them.”

Between the Terminator and other popular culture, AI and robots are perceived to be approached with fear. However, Chrisley suggests that we don’t need to fear the AI systems themselves and that the Terminator situation is “irrelevant” in the present day. Chrisley proposes that systems (Robotic and AI) cannot be ethical within themselves, but it is possible to produce them an ethical way.

And if it all goes wrong, who will claim that responsibility? Chrisley admits this is a “difficult question” since the responsibility lies somewhere between the research and development teams, policymakers, as well as the people who use the AI and robot systems.

This fascinating interview left a lasting impression and the sense that we are only scratching the surface of what consciousness is and how programs and technology such as AI fit, if at all, into this rhetoric. Although Dr Chrisley believes he will never come across his red notebook, he, along with all the staff present in the departments he works with, aims to provide some of the possible answers to the big questions being asked in this fast-paced information age.    

This interview was conducted by Ramisha Rahman and published in our last edition’s Academic Armchair section.  

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