The 23 April 2007 edition of Newsweek featured an article by Sharon Begley entitled “Can animals and robots be self-aware?“. She writes: “To know what you know is [the mark] of consciousness, the last stand for human exceptionalism. Now, however, this claim is on the rocks as both animals and machines show signs that they can engage in self-reflection.”
Begley describes a study conducted by Jonathon Crystal and Allison Foote at the University of Georgia in which they tested introspection in rats. The researchers constructed an experiment that rewarded the animals for not acting if they didn’t know the correct choice.
[The results suggest] that when they opted out it was indeed because they had assessed the contents of their mind — do I know this? — and made the rational choice, the scientists report in Current Biology. “Rats can reflect on their internal mental states,” says Crystal. “They know when they don’t know.” Other scientists have gotten similar results with dolphins and rhesus monkeys, who also decline to take a test when they don’t know the answer. They think about thinking.
Some defenders of humanity’s lock on consciousness have argued that a rat or monkey need not be self-aware to tell that it doesn’t know something; ignorance might be expressed as “no test for me, thanks” unconsciousness.
Begley draws comparisons to the current state of artificial intelligence, and to the “vegetative state” experienced by some comatose patients.
Jonathon Crystal works for the University of Georgia psychology department, doing research in the Animal Cognition Laboratory. (Boy, does that web site need updating, or what?) Last year he published research related to episodic-like memory in rats.
[Newsweek: Can animals and robots be self-aware?]