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In recent years, artificial “intelligent” (AI) systems have been designed that mimic cognitive functions previously thought to be specific to humans. In certain domains these AI systems even outperform human abilities. This development gives rise to challenging questions concerning our self-image: Have we now understood how our brain works since we can recreate some of its most sophisticated functions in machines? Do we have to revise our concepts on the nature of consciousness? Is human dignity at stake? In order to provide a scientific basis for future discussions of these questions, artificial and natural “intelligent” systems will be compared and recent neurobiological concepts will be discussed. The latter emphasise computational strategies that differ radically from those implemented in current AI systems and seem to account well for functions in which natural systems excel. As these strategies rely on extremely complex non-linear processes evolving in high-dimensional dynamic state space, some of the characteristic features of consciousness – its holistic nature and seamless continuity – may find a neurobiological explanation. However, it will be argued, the immaterial connotations of consciousness cannot be accounted for solely on the basis of neurobiological mechanisms. Attempts for a naturalistic interpretation of consciousness should additionally take into account cultural evolution and the nature of social realities.
Prof Dr Wolf Singer is Director emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt and Founding Director of the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies (FIAS) and the Ernst Strüngmann Institute (ESI) for Neuroscience, in cooperation with Max Planck Society. His research focuses on the neuronal substrate of higher cognitive functions, in particular on the question of how the distributed sub-processes in the brain are coordinated and bound together to give rise to coherent perception and action.