Consciousness is a slippery beast. Philosophers and neuroscientists alike struggle to explain what it is, where it is housed, and why it exists—if it exists at all. There is also serious debate about whether computers and animals can be conscious. This leads to another question: Can a company be conscious, too?
When Apple’s CEO Tim Cook spoke at MIT’s commencement, I asked him whether he thought Apple was conscious. He considered the question very thoughtfully. Then, over the course of several minutes, he said he thought Apple was an organism like a person with values and goals and that, of course, it was conscious.
But what could it mean for Apple to be conscious?
To answer that, we need to define consciousness. For the sake of this thought experiment, let’s consider five common definitions of consciousness:
- Awareness: The entity can react to changes in the world.
- Self-awareness: The entity can react to—and can tell others about—changes in itself.
- Goal-directed behavior: The entity can take intentional action to achieve goals.
- Integrated information: The entity can combine many different kinds of information simultaneously.
- Experience: The entity feels happiness, pain, hunger, or other subjective experiences.
According to all these definitions of consciousness, I think you would probably agree that you are conscious. And it seems to me that, according to these definitions, we are justified in saying that Apple is conscious in a way that’s closer to being literally true than just metaphorical.
But how do we prove it?
First, let’s define the supermind called Apple as including all the employees of Apple, Inc., along with all the machines, buildings, and other resources the employees use to do their work. Is this group conscious?
Apple certainly reacts to stimuli in the outside world. If you buy a song on iTunes, Apple will make it available for you to download. If you walk into an Apple store, someone will greet you and try to help you buy an Apple product. In 2007, Apple responded to a variety of changes in the markets for mobile phones, computers, and their components by introducing a widely acclaimed new product called the iPhone. In 2011, after Samsung introduced products that Apple believed infringed on its iPhone patents, Apple sued Samsung in various countries around the world.
For some of these actions, like responding to customers entering an Apple store, Apple is only “awake” at certain hours of the day. For others, like responding to iTunes orders, Apple is always awake. All these responses are much more complex than something like a thermostat turning a furnace off and on.
Now, you may be thinking that all these different kinds of responses Apple makes to the world are really the work of individual people (or, in the case of iTunes, computers)—that maybe it’s not really Apple that is conscious but just the individual people in it. There are at least two problems with this argument. First, even though individual people are certainly involved in these actions, none could have happened without the rest of the group. Second, and even more important, this line of reasoning would lead you to conclude that your own brain is not really conscious—only the individual neurons in it. I don’t think that is a conclusion you would welcome.
So at least in the sense of being aware of and responsive to its environment, I think we would have to conclude that Apple is indeed conscious.
Apple is certainly aware of many aspects of itself and its corporate identity. From financial statements to market-share data, it constantly monitors many measures of its own performance. Apple executives (especially the late Steve Jobs) have not been shy about sharing Apple’s self-image as a company that makes “insanely great” products, and Apple’s advertising and public relations efforts are remarkably sophisticated and effective in reporting to the world at least some aspects of how Apple sees itself.
I will probably never forget, for instance, Apple’s iconic “1984” Super Bowl commercial, which I showed to the first class I ever taught at MIT, in February 1984. In this commercial, a young female athlete smashes a huge television screen on which a Big Brother–like figure is addressing a crowd of soulless drones. The commercial ends by announcing the Apple Macintosh and saying that this new computer is why the year 1984 won’t be like the dystopian novel 1984. Most people interpreted the commercial as symbolizing how the countercultural ethos of Apple and its new computer would destroy IBM’s dominance of the computer industry, and that self-image—the one Apple portrayed to the world—helped propel its growth in the following decades.
Perhaps one of the most sophisticated ways Apple is self-aware is exemplified by Apple University, led by Joel Podolny, former dean of the Yale School of Management. The goal of this secretive internal training facility is to teach Apple managers the company’s proprietary way of managing, which Steve Jobs felt was quite different from what is taught in traditional MBA programs. For instance, course work at Apple University includes lessons in how Apple formulated its own retail strategy from scratch and how it took an unusual approach to commissioning factories in China
Given all these factors, it’s clear that in a variety of sophisticated ways, Apple is conscious in the sense of being self-aware.
Like any for-profit corporation, Apple needs to make a profit to survive. It’s clear that Apple does many intentional things to achieve this goal and that it has succeeded admirably in doing so.
In fact, Apple is unusual in having another goal beyond merely making a profit: the company strives to make innovative products, not just as a way of making money but also as a goal in itself. Here’s how Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief, summarized this idea:
“Steve’s talked about the goal of Apple, and the goal of Apple is not to make money but to make really nice products, really great products. That is our goal and as a consequence if they are good, people will buy them and we’ll make money.”
In fact, not only does Apple say it is intentionally pursuing this goal, it has also structured itself in an unusual way that makes this more likely. As Adam Lashinsky reports in his book Inside Apple, when Steve Jobs was CEO, only Jobs himself and the chief financial officer were responsible for the profit-and-loss statement. Other managers were rarely pressed for any kind of financial analysis. In fact, one former marketing executive said, “I can’t recall one discussion when the conversation was about dollars or expenses.” Instead much of Apple’s attention was focused on making innovative products.
So there’s lots of evidence to suggest that Apple is conscious in the sense of intentionally trying to achieve goals, both financial and nonfinancial.
Does Apple integrate information from a variety of sources in anything like the same sense that a conscious human brain does? Absolutely. Just as a human brain integrates many kinds of sensory information and knowledge to make conscious decisions, Apple integrates many kinds of business information—about factors like sales, product development, supplier relationships, and new technologies—to make its decisions.
Just as a human brain integrates many kinds of sensory information to make conscious decisions, Apple integrates many kinds of business information to make its decisions. In fact, Apple does this in a more centrally integrated way than most large companies do. Apple organizes the whole company along functional lines: executives responsible for functions like hardware engineering, software engineering, marketing, retail stores, and operations all report directly to the CEO. In most large companies, there are separate divisions for different products, and the functional managers for each product report to the product-division heads. But in Apple’s organizational structure, the only place all the different functional points of view come together is at the very top, which leads to an unusually centralized form of information integration.
And, as Lashinsky reports, much of the company’s information integration is accomplished at the weekly executive team meetings, held on Monday mornings. “Because Apple has so few products, the executive team is able to review all of them over the course of two weekly meetings…Teams throughout the company are in a constant state of preparing their boss or their boss’s boss to present at an executive-team meeting.”
Are the details of how information gets integrated for decision making the same in Apple as they are in your brain? Of course not. The kinds of information that get integrated, the methods of integration, and the amount of information integrated are clearly different. But both your brain and Apple depend on a kind of centralized information integration to function, and thus in this sense, both qualify as conscious.
At this point, you may be thinking something like, “This is all well and good. I agree that Apple has a number of the same characteristics as conscious humans. But I don’t think these characteristics really capture what consciousness means. I know from my own experience what it’s like to be conscious, and I just can’t believe that Apple—as a whole—is conscious in the same way.”
Of course, you’re free to have your own intuitions about whether it would be “like” anything at all to be Apple. And, of course, you’ll never really know what it’s like to be Apple any more than you will really know what it’s like to be your mother or your dog or Marilyn Monroe. But just as you can speculate what it would be like to be other people and animals, you can at least speculate about what it might be like to be Apple.
For instance, people can’t live without eating food, and if they don’t get enough, they feel hungry. Apple can’t live without making money, and if it doesn’t get enough, perhaps it feels something like hunger, too. In 1997, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple as CEO, for example, Apple had only about 90 days of cash left, and perhaps the company felt something like deep hunger pangs, perhaps even panic, at that point.
But if Apple sometimes feels hunger for profits, I think it probably feels something closer to lust for creating innovative products. Even when the company is well fed with profits, it seems driven by its desire to change the world by spreading its products all over the planet. This seems analogous, in some ways, to an individual human’s sex drive.
To speculate even further, I think that if I were Apple, I would have experienced something like deep sadness or pain when Steve Jobs died. Of course, many of the individual people in Apple grieved for the person they had known so well. But maybe Apple itself felt something like the pain and disorientation you might feel if you lost a leg or had a heart transplant.
Of course, we’ll never know for sure what it’s like to be Apple. But it seems to me pretty shortsighted—and perhaps just plain prejudiced against nonhuman entities — to claim that Apple couldn’t have some kinds of conscious experiences that are in some ways similar to those we humans have. Thus in this sense, too, Apple may be conscious.
In summary, therefore, the supermind called Apple is certainly aware, self-aware, goal-directed, and integrated in complex—not just trivial—ways. And depending on how empathetic we’re willing to be, it seems likely that Apple may even have experiences analogous to the experiences we humans have.
Adapted from SUPERMINDS: The Surprising Power of People and Computers Thinking Together. Copyright © 2018 by Thomas W. Malone. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.
This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.