[NOTE: This is a post of mine from sometime around 2006 on a philosophy forum. Figured it should come home here.]
I tend to have little faith in civilization building, because the only definition we have is a human one. Therefore I discount and do not acknowledge its role in defining superior consciousness. To go the anthropomorphic route, one could easily argue that ants build civilizations. They create buildings, which are quite complex, have a hierarchy with an executive and judicial branch, and have clearly defined jobs.
To use an entirely humanistic perspective, how much have we really evolved in the last 3000 years? 300? The Sear’s tower is little different than the pyramids at Giza, aside from the material differences. The Mayans had a technological level that to this day we can not understand. They were a group of people who had no metal weapons and were limited to obsidian ones, yet created buildings with such precision that the stones are still perfectly fitted together. With the industrial use of lasers, we have only just begun to replicate this feat. The ancient Sumerians were claimed to have sailed around the world, in the years of 2100 bce, 3500 years prior to Columbus. In our pompousness we attributed the tale to myth. In the 1980s, a replication of a Sumerian-style boat was built and was sailed from the Mediterranean to the East coast of South America, proving that the Sumerian tale could be correct.
If anything, we have regressed. Our knowledge of the stars is just now beginning to rival the Mayans, the Dogan tribe has worshipped a star for over 5000 years, and in the 80's we finally found that star. DaVinci's sketches in the late 1400s-early 1500s, of the workings of a human heart have just been validated within the last 5 years. We have launched satellites into orbit, yet the Chinese were capable of this close to 3000 years ago, and Newton proved the possibility of this in the 1600’s. DaVinci in the 1500s created drafts of such an object. On the DaVinci front, he drew a flying machine that had been discounted as impossible to take air, even though there are folk tales of a gigantic bird flying through the air during the time of his experiments. In the beginning of this century/millennia, his drawings were built and his flying machine was proved to be theoretically correct and possibly viable. He may have been the first human to fly, beating the Wright brothers by over 400 years.
I do not think at all that language is a measure of consciousness, for the simple reason that as humans we have a clear identification of language. We have no proof that "lower" life forms do not effectively communicate with the ability that we do. We simply have no understanding of their system. Ants and bees are able to communicate a great deal of information through scents, and dolphins and whales achieve the same thing through sonic and subsonic waves. It is our arrogance as humans that brings us down. Yes, language is a capacity shared by high intelligence creatures, but again, language can never be based on our human beliefs.
We have spent centuries espousing apes and monkeys as being our progenitors, based on genetic similarities, and because of this we have ignored other creatures along the way. Darwin (1800s) studied worms and found that they were capable of adaptation and discriminatory abilities which are usually reserved for more highly intelligent and supposedly more conscious creatures. In the last decade we have found that crows are capable of fashioning tools. Birds, in general, are capable of amazing feats (to humans) of geo-location. The lowly octopods, with brains that are very dissimilar to ours, are capable of complex problem-solving that human infants could never hope to achieve.
Consciousness has been argued as being either physical or non-physical, yet few have argued the possibility of both. With the invention of MRI and FLAIR and PET, as a species we have come closer to knowing where consciousness lies. Neuroscience has recently supported the view that glia are not “stuffing” in the brain, but complex neurotransmitters. Recently, scientists have learned that what was believed to be a hormone, estrogen, is actually a neurotransmitter. It is my belief that we are no closer to understanding the nature of human consciousness than Descartes.
Can computers attain consciousness? Yes, I believe so. But I do not think that it is possible in the least for computers to mimic a human's thought patterns. The “Chinese Room” could easily be solved by a computer running the index of coincidence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Index_of_coincidence)
Would solving the “Chinese Room” measure anything viable or valid? Doubtful. A contention of mine is that no test developed by humans could ever successfully determine consciousness by the simple fact that we define it by our own beliefs.
Super String theory has stated that 13 dimensions are believed to be possible. Again our failing is humanity. Who are we to say that one of those dimensions is not one where computers are conscious? Philosophers like Dennet and Searle, and yes they are nothing more than philosophers (not a bad thing though) are human, and hence fallible. We can not be presumptuous enough to believe that our theories, based on human experience, can define a universal thing like consciousness. The best we can hope for is to define our particular brand.