Will Robots Evolve to Ask: “What is Life?”

Robots1 There is ongoing debate about what constitutes life.
Synthetic bacteria for example, are created by man and yet also alive.
Some go so far as to say that robot “emotions” may already have
occurred—that current robots have not only displayed emotions, but in
some ways have experienced them.

“We’re all machines,” says Rodney Brooks author of “Flesh and
Machines,” and former director of M.I.T.’s Computer Science and
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory,  “Robots are made of different
sorts of components than we are — we are made of biomaterials; they are
silicon and steel — but in principle, even human emotions are
mechanistic.” A robot’s level of a feeling like sadness could be set as
a number in computer code, he said. But isn’t a human’s level of
sadness basically a number, too, just a number of the amounts of
various neurochemicals circulating in the brain? Why should a robot’s
numbers be any less authentic than a human’s?

One of Brooks of his longtime goals has been to create a robot so
“alive” that you feel bad about switching it off. Brooks pioneered the
movement that teaching robots how to “learn” was more sensible that
trying to program them to automatically do complex things, such as
walk. Brooks work has evolved around artificial intelligence systems
that learn to do things in a “natural” process like a human baby does.
This approach has come to be known as embodied intelligence.

Cynthia Breazeal, once a student in Brooks Lab, is now an associate
professor at M.I.T. and director of the Personal Robotics Group.
Breazeal discovered firsthand how complicated it was to try to figure
out whether the “social” robots she has helped developed were capable
of “feeling”.

“Robots are not human, but humans aren’t the only things that have
emotions,” she said. “The question for robots is not, Will they ever
have human emotions? Dogs don’t have human emotions, either, but we all
agree they have genuine emotions. The question is, what are the
emotions that are genuine for the robot?”

One might think that a scientist who has spent a good portion of his
or her life creating and working with robots would have a more definite
opinion about whether robots are, or will ever be in a sense “living”.
But that’s a tough questions for anyone, and perhaps even more so for
the ones who understand the question best.

“I want to understand what it is that makes living things living,”
Rodney Brooks has said. On certain levels, robots are not that
different from living things. “It’s all mechanistic,” Brooks said.
“Humans are made up of biomolecules that interact according to the laws
of physics and chemistry. We like to think we’re in control, but we’re
not.”

As the field of robotics begins to accelerate, the debate will
likely grow stronger, and the answers more gray. If programming becomes
more self-aware—as most experts predict that it eventually will—perhaps
robots will someday be asking themselves the same question: What is
life?

Posted by Rebecca Sato

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