Computers can obviously be aware of what they do. This is part of the role of the operating system. Operating systems monitor, control and protect the operation of the computer so as to keep the system healthy and able to respond to requests by users of the system.
The question of whether computers can be “self-conscious” really rests on how one defines “self.” If we only mean that which constitutes the thing in question, then yes, computers are already self-conscious. If however, by “self” we mean an entity which possesses “free will” and can therefore take independent action, then the answer to the question hinges on what constitutes “free will.”
Do we have “free will?” Where do our choices come from? Do we really make those choices? Where do our ideas come from? Where does our mind and mechanisms of thought come from? Thoughts appear in our minds and we follow chains of association, but how much of a part does the conscious self play in this process?
The point I’m trying to make here is that much of thought takes place outside of conscious observation. Given this, how much of our “will” is truly “free?” Genetic, familial, cultural, religious and societal expectations actually help form our brains by conditioning neural connections. When making a choice, how many boundaries to truly free choice are hidden from our view, being “invisible walls” so to speak?
The more we can raise our level of awareness of the process of thought itself, the more likely we are to be able to make truly free choices. As long as the underlying process of thought (especially the unconscious part) is unobserved by the conscious mind, the more likely we are to make conditioned choices, in effect being controlled by unconscious forces of which we have little understanding.
Computers can be programmed to appear to exhibit free will by programming intentionality into their software. Many would argue that this isn’t really free will, just the appearance of it since the choices of the computer are framed by its programming, but is computer programmed free will of a totally different nature than human free will? How exactly can we know that since our experience of free will is completely subjective?
The bottom line is that if we restrict the definition of free will to that which we believe to be exhibited in human beings, then we have defined computers out of ever being self-conscious. If however, we allow forms of programmed intentionality into this definition, then we open the door to the concept of self-conscious machines.
Even this line of distinction is blurred by neural network architectures, genetic or evolutionary environments and systems that have begun to incorporate biological materials for computation. These systems are not programmed in the classical sense, but instead are trained and learn to adapt to their environments.
The question of whether computers can be self-conscious can only be answered by looking deeply in our own mirror of awareness to determine what it means to be free.