Can Computers Become Self-Aware? 

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

“Self-aware” refers to one faculty of free will. Free will is the capacity of uninfluenced determination. Therefore, suggesting animals are self-aware is false, since an animal’s instincts compel it’s every act; there is no other capacity of “self.” As seen in the extreme synchronism of fish schools’ movements, instincts are identical in all species’ members. They are akin to robots. Animals cannot deviate from their instincts. So, animal’s have no “will”: a herbivore will never hunt. Even within the act of eating, when an animal chooses something more tasty over another food item, this too are the instincts at work. People err when assuming the animal made a decision, as people are projecting onto the animal how they feel they would select their choice of food.

Humans can also function this way, following instinctual drives. In this capacity, such a person is acting as an animal; he does not use free will. Or, a human can choose to follow his mind (soul), where he makes decisions based on intellect and morality: to either eat, or give the food to a more needy person, for example. Humans can act without the influence of their pasts, or their emotions; the mind functions independent of all else. This is what God told Cain when bent on killing his brother Abel: “Sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master” (Gen. 4:7). God told Cain despite his emotions, he has the capacity to choose based on his mind. Only humans are self-ware and can choose not to follow instincts or any influence. Animals follow only instincts, as they have no other faculty to determine their actions. 

While a computer can “mechanically” produce a conversation, the computer is merely a machine which does not function of its own free choice, it has no “self” or uninfluenced will…but follows inanimate mechanics: the conversation is 100% human design, and 0% computer will. Even machine learning follows the limited scope of human design. It is impossible for the computer to act otherwise, thereby rejecting the assumption that it has its own “will.” Although with practically unlimited functionality as compared to an automobile, the computer is mechanically no different than an automobile: both function limited by its manufacturer’s mechanical design. The difficulty people have, is that since a computer partakes in “dialogue,” it  creates an emotional facade that it is “talking”…as if it is self-aware. Machine learning is no different. 

One might then ask how a human is any different from a computer, for as a human follows God's design, he cannot do anything other than God’s will.

Man Uniqueness

When God created physical man, He also added a metaphysical element which animals and all other creations do not possess: “And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created them male and female” (Gen. 1:27). God did not create anything else in “His image,” meaning with intellect…a self-aware soul. It is with this soul that man became similar to God in his self-awareness and free will self-determination. Thought is the one activity uninfluenced by anything else. Man’s soul frees him from all other influences, enabling him to be self-determining, like God. Even though God's will is that man is good, man has a free will to choose evil, and all choices.

Machine vs. Man

A soul is not physical, and man can only create things which are physical. Therefore, man cannot create a soul and implant it into a computer. Thus, the computer—no matter how advanced—never attains self-awareness. This is because self-awareness does not emanate from a physical entity, nor from its massive stored data or computational capacity. Computers will grow very smart with machine learning and will exceed our expectations, but they will not attain a metaphysical soul. The question then arises regarding human manufacturing of DNA, organ generation, and the creation of man. Do we say that a soul is a natural part of any human being, even when created artificially, and not through egg fertilization? Or will the human from manufactured DNA—should this ever occur—be purely instinctual, bereft of a soul, just as a computer is bereft of a soul? One could answer that as we see a soul can exist separate from the body in death, the soul will not be naturally attached to body (when man fabricates DNA and a human), but only through God's will, when man is created in a natural fashion of egg fertilization. Time will tell.