When we ponder how we are capable of self-awareness and consciousness, one piece that is hard to understand is how matter, regardless of how it is organized, could ever possibly have awareness. Bear with me here because I don't have great words to describe what I'm trying to say, and language itself starts to fail as you approach some of these issues.

When I was a kid, I'd write programs that would "respond to stimuli" (i.e. input via keyboard) and then perform some kind of action to mimic intelligence. Very quickly you learn that there is a difference between a program designed to simulate intelligence or awareness and the thing itself. I could never make my programs really care about their own existence, or voluntarily seek out stimuli. Now lots of advancement has been made in artificial intelligence, but I feel that basic problem still remains... If we could step into the "mind" of the robot, would there actually be any kind of subjective perspective akin to human awareness? Or, after everything, are our best robots just a great imitation?

For that matter, how did a big bag of water like ourselves ever go beyond reacting to stimuli and develop it's own subjective perspective on life? In Tolkiens' Lord of the Rings, he tells a story about the Elves who woke up trees and taught them language. Along those lines, what is necessary to "wake up" carbon, hydrogen, etc.? If we start from the assumption that we live in a "dead" universe, then the problem seems insurmountable. The easiest solution is to just declare consciousness a peculiar illusion, and just assume that if we make a good enough, and complex enough, imitation that we'll have captured the Essence of the thing.

Think about the function of the eye. Light hits the retina that then is "projected" to the cortex. At that point, who "sees" it? One can trace the pathways through the brain as a person sees an object and then responds, but the the subjective experience of it is illusive. All the scientists that observe the brain can really see are the mechanisms. Translating a mechanism into a subjective experience is a mental challenge.

Animism presents a unique and ancient solution to this problem. If we start with the assumption that each atom already has it's own perspective, spirit, or whatever, then human self-awareness simple becomes as simple as creating a feedback loop that takes that inherent seed of awareness in all things have and loops it back on itself using our senses, emotions, intellect, etc. Now am I implying that a slab of granite senses the world or has feelings? (Not quite, and I'm not sure that's really what all native Animists mean either.) Long ago, one theory of Gravity was based on the idea that a substance, ether, permeated the universe. What if the seed of consciousness is like that ether? What it there is some inherent perspective that each atom, molecule and clump of matter has that is uniquely it's own? Consciousness then would be a gathering of a clump of matter, creating a sense of separateness within it, and giving it senses that allowed it to internalize natural processes, principles and laws as if they belonged to it.

So, it this is true, then why wouldn't modern robots be conscious? I suspect it has to do with their separateness as a unit from the universe. While some separateness from the rest of the Universe would be necessary for consciousness to function, too much would make it impossible. Each cell and molecule in our body is constantly in flux responding to conditions around it. It may be that all it would take to make a robot conscious is to create the same kind of dynamic flux. Currently, the ones I've seen are like people watching a play instead of the actors within it. I think we tend to build them this way, because we tend to see ourselves as one layer of abstraction beyond nature, and so we build things that are yet a further abstraction beyond ourselves. There's a moment when a unified gust of wind spins off a dust devil, which for a moment becomes it's own thing. If we want to create real consciousness, it may be a similar process in a metaphoric sense. After all, building a dust-devil atom by atom would be an insurmountable task.

So, if there are any engineers out there who work in A.I. (when you get done laughing at my simplistic description of consciousness and the state of your field), I challenge you to think about building something using this model. Start with the assumption that consciousness isn't something that your robot "has" but something out there in the universe that it reflects. How does that change the design?