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27 March 2023  

Daire Boyle

Daire Boyle

Daire Boyle

Daire Boyle , a graduate of Maynooth University, received a Travelling Studentship in Philosophy in 2018. He is currently undertaking a PhD in Philosophy that focuses on the interplay between consciousness, artificial intelligence, and phenomenology. Prior to this PhD, he received a BSc in Computational Thinking (Computer Science, Mathematics, & Philosophy) in 2017 at Maynooth University, as well as an MA in Philosophy at the same institution in 2018. When he is not working on his PhD thesis he loves to play music (piano, guitar, singing) and go running. He also greatly enjoys competitive debating and was the Auditor of Maynooth’s Literary & Debating Society in 2016/17.

What is the current focus of your research?

The working title of my PhD thesis is “The Relevance of Phenomenological Reflections on Consciousness for the Development of ‘Strong’ Artificial Intelligence” and deals with the issue of machine consciousness. In a nutshell, my work is concerned with investigating the question of whether machines could ever be considered conscious. To investigate this issue I have primarily looked to the works of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl and the field of study that he founded around the start of the twentieth century, namely, phenomenology. Broadly speaking, phenomenology (as envisioned by Husserl) seeks to understand the structure of consciousness through the lens of subjective, first-person experience. Husserl argues that the external world, that is, the world as we experience it, appears objective and indisputable on first glance. However, when we investigate further it becomes clear that this world is always mediated by our mind and our senses. In other words, while the external world may well be absolute (as opposed to some product of one’s own imagination) we cannot conclude this with the kind of certainty that we are used to in scientific observations. Thus, phenomenology functions as a foundation to the natural sciences – if we are able to understand how our consciousness operates we are better placed to interpret and understand our scientific observations of the world around us.

By adopting this Husserlian attitude we are able to view the issue of artificial intelligence in a different manner. In my work I seek to bring forward a phenomenological analysis of consciousness, and a key element of this analysis is to differentiate consciousness from other objects in the universe. Plainly, this means critiquing the view that consciousness is solely the result of neural activity in the brain and body. I argue that consciousness is something more than this – while a person certainly cannot be conscious without a physical brain it is not the case that consciousness arises solely due to physical things (such as neurons firing). On such a view it may seem natural to deny the possibility that machines could ever be conscious – after all, they are created by humans using physical materials – but my work attempts to question this idea. My thesis is, therefore, concerned with describing the phenomenological features of consciousness and assessing whether each of these individual features could ever be present in machines.

What would you consider to be your major achievements to date?

While most of my time has been taken up with researching and writing my thesis, I have also spent time on other projects. I have an upcoming publication (Winter 2020) in the Yearbook for Interdisciplinary Anthropology which analyses modern AI technologies through the lens of consciousness as described by Max Scheler, a German philosopher whose work was influenced by Edmund Husserl. This publication is based on a paper I gave at a conference in Cologne in November 2019, and is also influenced by a related paper I presented at a conference in Maynooth around the same time. Over the last two years I have also set and delivered several guest lectures based on my own research to undergraduate philosophy students on the topic of consciousness and artificial intelligence. I tutor first year undergraduate philosophy students at Maynooth University, and my experiences of lecturing and tutoring have been invaluable in terms of learning how to break down tricky philosophical concepts in an easily-understood format. This year I hope to publish papers related to my research in both Irish and international journals. I will also be heading to KU Leuven in Belgium this year in order to conduct research with Prof. Roger Vergauwen at the Institute of Philosophy. This is an incredible opportunity for me, and would not have been possible without the assistance of the NUI Travelling Studentship grant, as I will be able to learn from one of the leading experts in the philosophy of artificial intelligence.

What have been the benefits of holding an NUI Travelling Studentship, in your experience?

"This is an incredible opportunity for me, and
would not have been possible without the
assistance of the NUI Travelling Studentship grant,
as I will be able to learn from one of the leading
experts in the philosophy of artificial intelligence."

The primary reason I applied for the Travelling Studentship was in order to undertake part of my PhD research at KU Leuven. At Leuven I will be able to use the Husserl archives – containing original manuscripts written by Husserl that are unavailable elsewhere – as well as link up with Prof. Vergauwen. Access to these archives allows me to study the writings of Husserl in great detail, which is a major boon to my research, while Prof. Vergauwen’s expertise in the philosophy of artificial intelligence will help me craft a PhD thesis that is up to date and well-founded. Myself and my supervisor at Maynooth, Dr. Susan Gottlöber, are extremely excited to sample different schools of thought surrounding artificial intelligence via my stay at KU Leuven, and so I owe the National University of Ireland a debt of gratitude for facilitating this research.

What advice would you give to prospective applicants?

If you are eligible for this award – apply for it, you have nothing to lose! The beauty of the Travelling Studentship Award is that it allows you access to resources you may not get through other funding sources. It is always a good thing in academia to sample many different viewpoints, and what better way is there to do so than travelling to different locations and engaging with other peoples’ ideas. Even if your research seems to not “require” an element of travel, look further afield and see if there are any experts/locations/archives etc. that would enhance your work. Not only will your thesis be well served by this, your job prospects further down the line will be similarly boosted. Make contact with a potential supervisor before starting the application process to ensure that your proposal is well thought-out and reasonable. Ask lecturers in your current institution where the international experts in your field are located, and then contact those experts to see if they are interested in collaborating. Without the NUI grant I would never have gotten the opportunity to access this expertise, and my thesis will only be better for it. Finally, when it comes to putting together your proposal, make sure that you run it by your potential supervisor and/or other academics. They can help you streamline your proposal and ensure that your research goals are clearly articulated and achievable. With a solid research proposal anything is possible, and you could be off to far-flung places to write the best possible version of your thesis in no time.