December 2022

Accuracy Talks Straight #6 – The Cultural Corner

Sophie Chassat
Philosopher, Partner at Wemean

Zombie Data

‘Is Data conscious?’ This question, asked in relation to a character from the series Star Trek, is taken up by the philosopher David Chalmers in his latest book Reality +.1 Data is the name of an android. In the episode of the series titled ‘The Measure of a Man’, a trial takes place to determine whether Data is an intelligent and conscious being.

There is no doubt about the intelligence of the humanoid robot: Data has the capacity to learn, to understand and to manage new situations. However, the question of whether Data is conscious remains unanswered. Does Data have an inner life with perceptions, emotions and conscious thoughts? Or is Data what philosophers call a ‘zombie’? In philosophy, a zombie is a system that, on the outside, behaves like a conscious being but, on the inside, has no conscious experience. It behaves intelligently, but has no inner life or reflexivity about its actions.

Chalmers star ts with this story to question whether a digital system can be conscious or whether only humans and animals are gifted with consciousness. For this astounding Australian philosopher, a system perfectly simulating the functions of a brain could be conscious in the same way as a biological brain. This leads him to dizzying speculations: in that case, mirroring that logic, isn’t our actual consciousness just the effect of a simulation? Don’t we already live in a metaverse, and isn’t our god a computer?

If we make the story of the rather aptly named Data an allegory, we can use it to raise a simple ethical question when we exploit data. What type of data are we dealing with: Zombie Data or Conscious Data? In the first case, we harvest data that seem to behave intelligently, but ultimately their content is empty and without interest. We have all had the experience of trawling through masses of data for sometimes very little reward, or even absurd results! We can add that the data transform us, too, into zombies… Because here we are, reduced to aggregates of outer behaviours (purchases made, keywords typed into search engines, conversations held on social media, etc.) supposed to encapsulate our inner desires – which remain a little more subtle, nevertheless. Zombie Data make Zombie People!

As for Conscious Data, we can be certain that Big Data do not have the system consciousness that Chalmers deems entirely plausible in the future. The only thing left to do then is for human outer consciousness to give meaning to data, to humanise them. This is just like Data the android, who needs a human friend to evolve, a role fulfilled by Captain Picard in Star Trek. Conscious People make Conscious Data!


1 David J. Chalmers, “Reality +. Virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy”, Penguin Books/Allen Lane, 2022

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