Last night after the feast at the Sri Ramacandra festival, Raghu cornered me while all the blood was in my stomach and asked, “What is consciousness?”

As I was in no mood to do any philosophical work, I tossed off a glib cliché, “I think, therefore I am.”

Unfortunately, this didn’t placate him as he had an agenda. He was recently hired on at Wheeling Jesuit University as a programmer and is working on some sort of artificial intelligence project. I am guessing in the NASA center though I didn’t think to ask him. So he is trying to sort out what is it a computer needs to do in order to emulate a human, in other words, what separates consciousness from computative capacity.

I would throw out something and he would bat it away, saying that no matter what the limitation on computers today, you can’t project those into even 10 years from now.

To make it fun, I was avoiding any formulistic faith based responses, like the individual jiva being part and parcel of Krishna, life comes from life, love, etc.

What it seemed to come down to was humor and poetry. He said he could make a computer laugh at any joke, but I took the position that while you could teach a computer how to recognize specific jokes and respond appropriately, you couldn’t make it recognize humor at first encounter. I stipulated that you could teach a computer to write poetry, but it would never write good poetry.

Poetry and humor draw on emotion and intuition, and these are not logical, rational processes that can be captured in an algorithm; that one definition of poetry is that which communicates before the words are understood. Computers need to understand words.

I did finally manage to get an “Hmmm…” out of him, so it was back to uninterrupted, mindless digestion.