In June Scientific American launched its Great Consciousness Contest intended to get readers involved in testing an idea put forward by leading neuroscientists Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi. Their article in SA's June issue, "A Test for Consciousness," postulates that slight variations in the placement of objects that occupy ordinary everyday images can completely befuddle the most sophisticated image-recognition capabilities of today's computers. Only a fully conscious machine could deduce that something is not right with this type of image.
The authors defined consciousness as the ability of a computer to make sense of generalized world knowledge that most people share: You and I know, for instance, that a photo of a keyboard in front of a computer makes sense, whereas a potted plant that replaces the input device means that something is awry. Similarly, a man in a suit inspecting his watch while floating horizontally above farmland is just plain cuckoo.
The simplicity of the idea was such that Scientific American decided to ask readers to develop their own images that could, in effect, fool a machine. The winners of the contest—judged by Koch and Tononi—are now in and we want to share their submissions with you. As you will see, all of the winners manipulated real-world objects into bizarre placements. Koch's comments accompany the images.
So stand aside Watson. Here are three Scientific American readers who (at least from the perspective of a couple of bipeds) triumphed over the machine.
Andrew Griffith, first-prize winner, Jersey Shore, P.A.:
Christof Koch: The image, Koch says, is something you might have seen in The Matrix "once Neo wakes up. Clever. It's not impossible but in normal experience, you would never encounter anything like [it]."
Eugene Ingram, Jr., San Jose, Calif.
Christof Koch: "A photo-montage of a statue [in a pavilion] and on top of it, where we would not expect it. It's a semantic violation—that is, statues are usually not on the roof, although there are some on the Basilica in the Vatican in Rome."
Jason Bache, Albuquerque, N.M.
Christof Koch: "This is similar in spirit to René Magritte's 'Empire of Light.' The conflict here is between the lightbulb and the sunlight. This is a semantic violation, not a physical one."