Long talks

Some (longish) talks and classes I’ve given on SMT

These talks are fairly complete overviews of the sensorimotor theory, and are all quite similar to each other. The first two are the shortest.

2024 Montreal BhealthyAgeLab talk

Will AI soon be Conscious?

Click above for the video recording of the 1 hour talk I gave on 15 Feb 2024 at the Biomedical Imaging and Healthy Aging Laboratory at Concordia University in Montreal.

This talk (which you can run through in half an hour at double speed!) gives a pretty comprehensible introduction to my sensorimotor approach to phenomenal consciousness. It explains why, if machines become sufficiently intelligent and are integrated into a social environment they will be conscious just like we are. The reason is that consciousness is not some kind of magical spark generated by special mechanisms in our brain. Consciousness is just a word that describes how intelligent agents interact with the world and with each other. As soon as agents are sufficiently intelligent and have sufficient interactions, they will say of themselves that they are conscious and have feels just like humans, and we will agree!


Despite current explosive developments, most workers at the forefront of AI believe that consciousness is still far away for machines. I will argue the contrary.

My work over the last 20 years shows that a coherent theory can be made of even the most basic aspect of consciousness, namely “feel”. This ultimate “what it’s like” to have sensations like the redness of red or the suffering of pain, is usually thought to be the primary obstacle to machine consciousness. But I will show how this supposedly “hard problem of consciousness” dissipates when you take what I call a “sensorimotor” approach.

The sensorimotor approach is not just a philosophical trick. It makes empirical predictions about colour perception, sensory substitution, and change blindness, and is a scientific theory.

It predicts that within the next 5-10 years machines will be as conscious as humans or even more so. Humans will realize they’re not so special and will be faced with severe ethical problems.

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Why Machines Will Soon Have Phenomenal Consciousness

Lugano Consciousness and AI Series May 13 2021

(One hour talk).

Most philosophers and scientists are convinced that there is a “hard problem” of consciousness and an “explanatory gap” preventing us from understanding why experiences feel the way they do and why they have “something it’s like”.
My claim is that this attitude may derive from the (understandable) desire to preserve the last remnants of human uniqueness before the onslaught of conscious robots.
My “sensorimotor” approach to understanding phenomenal consciousness suggests that this is a mistake. If we really think deeply about what we mean by having a phenomenal experience, then there is no reason why machines should not be conscious very soon, i.e. in the next decades.

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Why things feel the way they do

Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, 8 Aug 2014

This one-hour talk is a good overview of the sensorimotor theory. It starts with pain, goes on to color, that I treat in quite some detail, and then discusses sensory “presence” or “what it’s like”. I explain the role of attention and give some change blindness demonstrations, I mention the phenomenon of “looked but failed to see”, and talk about the Self and the taboo of changing the self.

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La conscience expliquée aux machines (approche sensorimotrice de la conscience)

Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition Center, Université Paris Descartes, 4 Feb 2019

This two hour talk in French (with English slides) is similar to the class I give every year to Masters’ students in the CogMaster course. I start with the robot Terminator, and ask what we would have to build into him so he actually felt pain, for example. I explain the explanatory gap problem and use the softness example to explain the idea of understanding feel in terms of sensorimotor skills. I show how this idea explains the differences between sensory modalities and predicts sensory substitution. I show a video of the “Voice” device. I talk about touch and the rubber hand illusion, and describe the approach to color in detail. I then go on to explain the “what it’s like” or sensory “presence” of sensory experiences in terms bodiliness, insubordinateness and grabbiness and mention the “phenomenality plot”. I show how this idea predicts change blindness and show several varieties of change blindness. After a pause I describe the need for attention to ensure consciousness of a sensory experience, and show inattentional blindness and “looked but failed to see”demos. I then go on to discuss different levels of the notion of self, and how it can be conceived as a social construction and how it might develop in infants.

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The Sensorimotor Theory of Phenomenal Consciousness

Barcelona Cognition Brain and Technology Summer School, Sept 2012

In this two-hour talk I start by defining what we mean by “raw” feel, and the three mysteries about it: ineffibity, the structure of sensory feels, and their sensory “presence”. I explain the explanatory gap and the “content-vehicle confusion” of thinking that a neural account of sound intensity or of color could explain the structure of sensory feels like the loudness of sounds or the redness of red. I go on to show how the sensorimotor theory overcomes the three mysteries. I show how it predicts sensory substitution and show a video of the “Voice” device. I describe the sensorimotor approach to color. I show how the approach predicts the rubber hand illusion. I then treat the topic of sensory “presence”or “what it’s like” using the ideas of bodiliness, insubordinateness. I show how this predictds Change Blindness. I go on to talk about attention and inattentional blindness and “looked but failed to see”. Finally I talk about the need for a notion of Self, and describe what is meant by this. There are numerous interruptions and interesting questions during the talk by people including Anil Seth, Paul Verschure and Andreas Engel.


Why red things look red

Barcelona Cognition Brain and Technology Summer School, Sept 2009

Below are links to the videos of a talk I gave on the sensorimotor account. Each video lasts between 30 and 45 minutes, and there are a lot of interruptions and questions from among others, Paul Verschure and Tony Prescott.
Part 1 In this part I start by talking about the Self: we only say that we experience something if we, as selves, are paying attention to what we are doing. But what is the Self? I will assume that the Self is amenable to science, and consists in a self-referential story that “I” construct about “I”! I present some empirical evidence that this makes sense. I then go on to address the main interest of the sensorimotor theory, namely “feel”, or phenomenal consciousness. I start with color, and show how neurophysiological accounts of “basic colors” red, yellow, green and blue, do not work.
Part 2. In Part 2 I go on to generalize from color to all “feels” and explain the “explanatory gap” problem of why any brain-based account of feel must remain unsatisfactory. I then propose the idea of the sensorimotor approach, which is that we could consider feels to be modes of interaction instead of brain activation. I illustrate it with the softness of a sponge. And then i show how, applied to color, it actually explains the “basic colors”.
Part 3 In Part 3 I then describe how the same ideas explain the “feels” of other sensory modalities, and how they predict the possibility of sensory substitution, and phenomena like the “rubber hand illusion”. I then talk about the feeling of phenomenal presence or “something it’s like” in terms of the notions of bodiliness, insubordinateness and grabbiness. This predicts the phenomenon of Change Blindness, for which I give some demonstrations.

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A New, Sensorimotor View of Seeing

Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences, Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation, Hebrew University, 24 Feb, 2011

In this one hour talk I start with the upside down image at the back of the eye and other defects of vision, like the blind spot, lack of color vision in peripheral vision, and eye saccades. I explain how the sensorimotor approach dispenses with the need to postulate compensation mechanisms to overcome these defects. I demonstrate inattentional blindness and “looked but failed to see”. I explain that seeing continuously does not need continuous brain activation, thanks to the phenomenon of the “refrigerator light” and thanks to “grabbiness”. I talk about the explanatory gap and the infinite regress of explanations it necessitates. I describe the sensorimotor account of color experience. I explain how the theory accounts for differences in sensory modalities and how it predicts sensory substition. I dont talk about the self.