== Nathan's Blog ==
infrequent posts about things I am working on


artificial intelligence philosophy

Have you ever tried to describe the color red to someone who suffers from protanopia, deuteranopia, protanomaly, or deuteranomaly? It is nearly impossible since those who are red-green color blind are missing the corresponding photoreceptors. The experience of seeing red is so familiar to those who have experienced it. And that type of experience, one which is difficult to communicate, does not change based on other experiences, is unique to the individual experiencing it, and immediately recognized, is qualia. 

Frank Jackson offered the following definition of qualia;

A few years later another philosopher/cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, identified four properties ascribed to qualia; “ineffable”, “intrinsic”, “private”, and “directly or immediately apprehensible in consciousness” (Tye 2002, 447). In simpler language, qualia is a word describing the properties associated with how something was experienced. The qualia of “seeing red” may be difficult to describe on their own but when compared to the qualia of “seeing green” they can be conceptualized and contrasted. That is often called “spectrum inversion” and a famous example was presented by John Locke in “Of True and False Ideas” :

(Byrne 2016)

These are very difficult concepts to teach an artificially intelligent agent. Concepts with very formal representations, like triangle or even something like a reptile are easier for artificially intelligent agents to differentiate. Things like “tastes salty” or “splitting headache” are very difficult to transfer to a learning agent since they are extremely personal. Whether or not quale exists is actively debated in the philosophical community. Especially in arguments around consciousness and self. I think that is why the exploration of qualia is so interesting to the development of AI. 

I think people like to explore what it could be like for robots with general intelligence to be sentient. But to develop those qualities, the engineer must examine the meta-cognitive processes that make up the human experience. This task is complicated and one that philosophers still argue about. What does it mean to be human? That question will need to be explored further in order to get closer to general artificial intelligence. In the mean time I invite you to make a mental note of the next time you try and describe qualia to someone else. What analogies did you use? How similar do you think the same experience is for both of you? 


  • Byrne, Alex, “Inverted Qualia”, _The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy _(Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/qualia-inverted/.
  • Tye, M., 2002, “Visual Qualia and Visual Content Revisited”, in Philosophy of Mind, D. Chalmers (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.