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How Simple Photos Could Be Used as a Test for a Conscious Machine [Contest]

Join Scientific American's contest to show why conscious humans best unconscious computers and win a recently authored book by renowned neuroscientist Christof Koch



Geof Kern

**Update:  This contest ended as of September 1st, 2011 at 11:59pm ET. Thank you for your interest. If you would like more information on this topic, take a look at Christof Koch's June 2011 article, A Test for Consciousness. **

The mystery of human consciousness appears routinely as one of the greatest science problems of all time. One way to get a grip on this seemingly ineffable property would be to build a conscious machine. It may be many years before that happens. But the overriding question, when someone does try, will be: how will we know whether that machine is really conscious—and not merely faking it?

Probing a machine for consciousness need not require an elaborate mathematical construct. In fact, it might derive from something as simple as a street photo snapped with a cell phone camera, or you could use photo editing software to devise an image that just about any human would recognize is irrational or nonsensical, but that even today’s smartest computers might pass over as reasonable.

With that in mind, Scientific American invites you to create a photo (or two) for our Great Consciousness Contest that is based on a challenge set out by two leading neuroscientists, Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi, in the magazine’s June issue. The contest is looking for photos or images that depict a nonsensical scenario that could be perceived as sensible by any existing machine that attempts to imitate the conscious reasoning abilities of a human.

The authors define consciousness here as an ability to understand whether a photograph depicts an image that makes sense based on knowledge of the world that most people share—general knowledge that no present-day computer is capable of storing and processing in the way people do. A person, for instance, knows that a keyboard belongs in front of a computer screen, whereas a potted plant in that spot does not.

A computer might be able to win at Jeopardy, but it doesn’t have the basic common sense to understand that something is just plain wrong with the off-kilter juxtaposition of an iMac paired with a geranium. Koch and Tononi describe similar examples in their article, "A Test for Consciousness," available to readers free of charge. Even a six-year old, for instance, can pinpoint the fundamental improbability of an ice skater on the rug in the living room, a transparent cow or a cat chasing a dog. Yet a computer doesn’t "know” these things about the world.

These absurd yet simple images devised by the authors to illustrate this distinction between conscious human and unconscious computer led us to the idea of a contest in which readers could contribute their own examples of pictures that might fool a machine. Entries of digital images that display illogical imagery similar to what is described above can be submitted to ScientificAmerican.com for judging by Koch and Tononi and Scientific American editors (see the rules below). Koch and Tononi are the judges because unfortunately a real machine that could be used to carry out such a contest does not yet exist.

Three winning submissions will be selected by Koch and Tononi for a chance to be featured on our Web site. Winners will also receive a copy of Christoph Koch's book on the same topic, Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.

To submit photos to Scientific American's Great Consciousness Contest, simply read the official rules and fill out the form below. Please only submit photos that are your original work and for which you have distribution rights.

All fields marked with * are required. 

Contest has ended and submission form has been removed.

The Scientific American “Great Consciousness” Contest

Official Rules

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A PURCHASE DOES NOT IMPROVE YOUR CHANCES OF WINNING. 

Contest may only be entered in or from the 50 United States and the District of Columbia and entries originating from any other jurisdiction are not eligible for entry.  This Contest is governed exclusively by the laws of the United States.  You are not authorized to participate in the Contest if you are not located within the United States. 

1. How to Enter.  To enter The Scientific AmericanGreat Consciousness Contest (the “Contest”), complete the online entry form at www.scientificamerican.com/article/koch-contest-fool-the-machine-consciousness (the “Website”) (including all required fields as indicated on the form), read the Official Rules, provide a link to the location on a third party image hosting site (e.g., twitpic.com, yfrog.com or flickr.com) of, a photograph or image that depicts a nonsensical scenario that could be perceived as sensible by a machine that is conscious by design but not function, as described in the Scientific American’s June 2011 article “A Test for Consciousness” (the “Article”); and click the “Submit” button.  The photograph or image you submit should be created by you (but can be digitally-altered), should be a .jpg, .gif or .png file only and no larger than 4 MB and should be able to fool even the most intelligent computer into affirming that the scenario shown reflects reality.   All entry information and photograph or image submissions shall be collectively referred to herein as the “Submissions” or each as a “Submission.”  Sponsor reserves the right to cancel or modify this Contest in the event an insufficient number of entries are received that meet the minimum judging criteria. 

By entering, each entrant warrants and represents the following with respect to their Submission: (a) entrant is the sole and exclusive owner of the Submission; (b) the Submission is entrant’s own creation and is 100% original; (c) the Submission will not infringe on any rights of any third parties; and (d) any third party whose person or property appears in the Submission has given entrant appropriate written consent (which shall be provided to Sponsor upon request thereof) for such person or property to be filmed and used as permitted herein.

All entrants must have a valid e-mail address. Limit two (2) entries per person.  No automated entry devices and/or programs permitted.  All entries, including Submissions, must be the exclusive property of their respective entrants. Receipt of entries will not be acknowledged or returned. Sponsor is not responsible for lost, late, illegible, stolen, incomplete, invalid, unintelligible, postage-due, misdirected, technically corrupted or garbled entries, which will be disqualified, or for problems of any kind whether mechanical, human or electronic.  Only fully completed entry forms are eligible.  Proof of submission will not be deemed to be proof of receipt by Sponsor. 

2. Start/End Dates. Contest begins at 12:01 AM Eastern Standard Time (“EST”) on June 13, 2011 and ends at 11:59 PM ET on September 1, 2011.

3. Eligibility. Participation open only to legal residents of the fifty United States or the District of Columbia who are at least 18 years old as of date of entry.  Void outside of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia and where prohibited, taxed or restricted by law. Employees, officers and directors of Nature America, Inc./Scientific American™ (“Sponsor”) and its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, partners, dealers, advertising and promotion agencies, manufacturers or distributors of Contest materials and their immediate families (parents, children, siblings, spouse) or members of the same household (whether related or not) of such employees/officers/directors are not eligible to enter.  You are not authorized to participate in the Contest if you are not located within the United States or the District of Columbia.  All federal, state and local laws and regulations apply.

4. Judging/Judging Criteria. Judges reserve the right, in their sole and absolute discretion, to disqualify any Submissions that are inappropriate for any reason, including without limitation, for depicting or mentioning sex, violence, drugs, alcohol and/or inappropriate language.  All Submissions will be judged by judges that have the required knowledge and experience to apply the judging criteria.  By entering the Contest, entrants fully and unconditionally agree to be bound by these rules and the decisions of the judges, which will be final and binding in all matters relating to the Contest.

All Submissions will be judged by the authors of the Article on or about September 2, 2011.  All Submissions will be judged based on the following equally-weighted criteria:  (a) the image's depiction of a nonsensical scenario that could be perceived as sensible by a machine that is conscious by design but not function, as described in the Article; (b) creativity; and (c) aesthetic quality.  Subject to verification and compliance with these Official Rules, the three (3) entrants with the highest-scoring Submissions will be awarded the prizes.  In the event of a tie, the Submission with the highest criteria (a) score will break the tie. 

5. Prizes. Three (3) prizes: Each winner will receive one (1) autographed copy of Dr. Cristoph Koch’s self-published book, Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.  The prize winners’ Submissions will be considered for publication on the Website. Approximate retail value (“ARV”):  $130.00.  Total approximate retail value of all prizes combined: $390.00.  Prizes are non-transferable.  No substitutions or cash redemptions.  In the case of unavailability of any prize, Sponsor reserves the right to substitute a prize of equal or greater value.  All unspecified expenses are the responsibility of winners.  Limit one (1) prize per person.

6. Notification. Winners will be notified by e-mail on or about September 8, 2011 and will be required to sign and return, where legal, an Affidavit of Eligibility, Liability/Publicity Release and/or rights transfer document within ten (10) days  of prize notification.  Additionally, winners may be required to obtain releases from any and all third parties appearing in their respective Submissions.  If any winner is considered a minor in his/her jurisdiction of residence, Affidavit of Eligibility, Liability/Publicity and rights transfer document must be signed by his/her parent or legal guardian and prize will be delivered to and awarded in the name of minor’s parent/legal guardian. If any winner cannot be contacted within five (5) calendar days of first notification attempt, if any prize or prize notification is returned as undeliverable, if any winner rejects his/her prize or in the event of noncompliance with these Contest rules and requirements, such prize will be forfeited and may be awarded to the Submission with the next highest score. Upon prize forfeiture, no compensation will be given. 

7. Conditions. Sponsor shall not be liable or responsible in the event any winner’s Submission is not used for any reason.  Submissions may be cut, edited, reformatted, rearranged, combined with other materials and/or otherwise modified, in Sponsor’s sole and absolute discretion.  Any and all federal, state and local taxes are the sole responsibility of the winners. Participation in Contest and acceptance of prize constitutes each winner’s and each entrant’s permission for Sponsor to use his/her name, address (city and state), likeness, photograph, picture, portrait, voice, biographical information, Submission and/or any statements made by each winner or entrant regarding the Contest or Sponsor for advertising and promotional purposes without notice or additional compensation, except where prohibited by law. By participating, entrants and winners agree to release, indemnify and hold harmless Sponsor, its partners and promotion and advertising agencies and each of their respective parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, partners, representatives, agents, successors, assigns, employees, officers and directors (collectively, the “Released Entities”), from any and all liability, for loss, harm, damage, injury, cost or expense whatsoever including without limitation, property damage, personal injury and/or death which may occur in connection with, preparation for, travel to, or participation in Contest, or possession, acceptance and/or use or misuse of prize or participation in any Contest-related activity and for any claims based on publicity rights, defamation, invasion of privacy, copyright infringement, trademark infringement or any other intellectual property-related cause of action.  Entrants who do not comply with these Official Rules, or attempt to interfere with this Contest in any way shall be disqualified. Sponsor is not responsible if Contest cannot take place or if any prize cannot be awarded due to travel cancellations, delays or interruptions due to acts of God, acts of war, natural disasters, weather or acts of terrorism.

8. Additional Terms. Any attempted form of entry other than as set forth in Section 1 above is prohibited; no automatic, programmed; robotic or similar means of entry are permitted. The Released Entities are not responsible for technical, hardware, software, telephone or other communications malfunctions, errors or failures of any kind, lost or unavailable network connections, the Website or any third party website, Internet, or ISP availability, unauthorized human intervention, traffic congestion, incomplete or inaccurate capture of entry information (regardless of cause) or failed, incomplete, garbled, jumbled or delayed computer transmissions which may limit one’s ability to enter the Contest, including any injury or damage to entrant’s or any other person’s computer relating to or resulting from participating in this Contest or downloading any materials in this Contest.  Sponsor reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to cancel, terminate, modify, extend or suspend this Contest should (in its sole discretion) virus, bugs, non-authorized human intervention, fraud or other causes beyond its control corrupt or affect the administration, security, fairness or proper conduct of the Contest. In such case, Sponsor may select the winners from all eligible entries received prior to and/or after (if appropriate) the action taken by Sponsor. Sponsor reserves the right, at its sole discretion, to disqualify any individual it finds, in its sole discretion, to be tampering with the entry process or the operation of the Contest or the Website.  Sponsor may prohibit an entrant from participating in the Contest or winning a prize if, in its sole discretion, it determines that said entrant is attempting to undermine the legitimate operation of the Contest by cheating, hacking, deception, or other unfair playing practices (including the use of automated quick entry programs) or intending to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any other entrants or Sponsor representatives.

CAUTION: ANY ATTEMPT BY AN ENTRANT TO DELIBERATELY DAMAGE ANY WEBSITE OR UNDERMINE THE LEGITIMATE OPERATION OF THE CONTEST MAY BE A VIOLATION OF CRIMINAL AND CIVIL LAWS AND SHOULD SUCH AN ATTEMPT BE MADE, THE SPONSOR RESERVES THE RIGHT TO SEEK DAMAGES FROM ANY SUCH PERSON TO THE FULLEST EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW.

9.  Limitation of Liability; Disclaimer of Warranties.  IN NO EVENT WILL THE RELEASED ENTITIES BE RESPONSIBLE OR LIABLE FOR ANY DAMAGES OR LOSSES OF ANY KIND, INCLUDING DIRECT, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, CONSEQUENTIAL OR PUNITIVE DAMAGES ARISING OUT OF YOUR ACCESS TO AND USE OF THE SERVICE AND/OR THE CONTEST, DOWNLOADING FROM AND/OR PRINTING MATERIAL DOWNLOADED FROM ANY WEBSITES ASSOCIATES WITH THE CONTEST. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE RELEASED ENTITIES’ TOTAL LIABILITY TO YOU FOR ALL DAMAGES, LOSSES, OR CAUSES OF ACTION EXCEED $10. WITHOUT LIMITING THE FOREGOING, THIS CONTEST AND ALL PRIZES ARE PROVIDED "AS IS"  WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EITHER EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE OR NON-INFRINGEMENT. SOME JURISDICTIONS MAY NOT ALLOW THE LIMITATIONS OR EXCLUSION OF LIABILITY FOR INCIDENTAL OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES OR EXCLUSION OF IMPLIED WARRANTIES SO SOME OF THE ABOVE LIMITATIONS OR EXCLUSIONS MAY NOT APPLY TO YOU. CHECK YOUR LOCAL LAWS FOR ANY RESTRICTIONS OR LIMITATIONS REGARDING THESE LIMITATIONS OR EXCLUSIONS.

10. Disputes; Governing Law.  The parties waive all rights to trial in any action or proceeding instituted in connection with these Official Rules, including, without limitation, the Contest. Any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to these Official Rules and/or the Contest shall be settled by binding arbitration in accordance with the commercial arbitration rules of the American Arbitration Association. Any such controversy or claim shall be arbitrated on an individual basis, and shall not be consolidated in any arbitration with any claim or controversy of any other party. The arbitration shall be conducted in the State of New York, City of New York.

THESE OFFICIAL RULES AND THE INTERPRETATION OF ITS TERMS SHALL BE GOVERNED BY AND CONSTRUED IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE LAWS OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK WITHOUT REGARD TO ITS CONFLICTS OF LAWS RULES. For any matters which are not subject to arbitration as set forth in these Official Rules and/or in connection with the entering of any judgment on an arbitration award in connection with these Official Rules and/or the Contest, the parties irrevocably submit and consent to the exclusive jurisdiction and venue of the state and federal courts located in or closest to the County of New York in the State of New York.  The parties agree not to raise the defense of forum non conveniens.

11.  Use of Data.  Sponsor will be collecting personal data about entrants online, in accordance with its privacy policy.  Please review the Sponsor’s privacy policy at http://www.scientificamerican.com/page/privacy.  By participating in the Contest, entrants hereby agree to Sponsor’s collection and usage of their personal information and acknowledge that they have read and accepted Sponsor’s privacy policy. 

12. List of Winners. To obtain a list of winners, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope by November 15, 2011 to: Nature America, Inc./Scientific American™, 75 Varick Street, New York, NY  10013. 

13. Sponsor.  Nature America, Inc./Scientific American™, 75 Varick Street, New York, NY  10013.  

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