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Consciousness in a Stack of Papers

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Consciousness in a Stack of Papers is a thought experiment which claims that a digital electronic computer[1] cannot become conscious unless proponents also believe all other objects in the universe can also be ascribed a level of consciousness.


This thought experiment imagines a computer based on a CPU, GPU, TPU[2] or other architecture, but made entirely out of digital gates written on sheets of paper. Given enough time, paper sheets and ink, it is possible for humans to manually process all the inputs that a real computer would receive and manually compute all the outputs that a real computer would produce. This includes the pen and paper equivalent of a highly sophisticated computer system that runs an artificial intelligence process which some may claim to be conscious.


if the real computer generates outputs that make a convincing case that it is conscious, then the pen and paper computer equivalent, which generates the same outputs, must also be conscious. This would imply that consciousness is contained within a stack of papers.

This concept can be extended to also include analog computers.


This thought process was conceived circa 2020 in an attempt to explain how a digital computer could never achieve a level of sophistication that would render it conscious, but merely fake consciousness. The original argument used logic gates drawn on sand, and pebbles representing active bits on the inputs and outputs of each logic gate. To reduce the level of abstraction, the thought experiment later referenced pen and paper, instead of the original sand and pebbles.


  1. "Digital electronic computer", Wikipedia, 2022-02-03, retrieved 2022-06-08
  2. "Tensor Processing Unit", Wikipedia, 2022-06-05, retrieved 2022-06-08

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