Will we see self aware robots in our lifetime? At least the most rabid proponents of the Singularity think so. Science fiction created the idea of space travel, and now humans travel in space. Science fiction’s next big speculation about first contact hasn’t panned out yet. Neither has time travel. But after those concepts came robots, and science fiction has prepared us well for that near future.
Are we ready for thinking machines? How will our lives be different if intelligent robots existed? I think it’s going to be a Charles Darwin size challenge to religion, especially if robots become more human than us. And by that I mean, if robots show greater spiritual qualities, such as empathy, ethics, compassion, creativity, philosophy, charity, etc. Is that even possible? Imagine a sky pilot android that had every holy book memorized along with every book ever written about religion and could eloquently preach about leading the spiritual life.
Just getting robots to see, hear and walk was a major challenge for science, but in the last decade scientists have been evolving robots at a faster pace. It’s an extremely long way before robots will think much less show empathy, but I think it’s possible. I think we need to be prepared for a breakthrough. Sooner of later computers that wake up like in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, When H.A.R.L.I.E Was One, and Galatea 2.2 will appear on the NBC Nightly News. How will people react?
There are two schools of robot building. The oldest is we program machines to have all the functions we specify. The other is to create a learning machine and see what functions it acquires. As long as robots have function calls like
does it really count as true intelligence? I don’t think so, but do we show empathy because it’s built into our genes or because we learn it from people wiser than us?
Jeff Hawkins has theorized that our neo-cortex is a general purpose pattern processor built in our brains. What if we could build an artificial neo-cortex and let robots grow up and learn whatever they learn, like how people learn. Would that be possible? This is why I see artificial intelligence as a threat to religion in the same way evolution threatens the faithful. If we can build a soul it suggests that souls are not divine. It also implies souls won’t be immortal because they are tied to physical processes.
Science fiction has often focused on either warnings about the future, or promises of wonder. Stories about robots are commonly shown as metal monsters wanting to exterminate mankind. Other writers see robots as being our allies in fighting the chaos of ignorance. Other people don’t doubt that intelligent machines can be built, but they fear they will judge us harshly.
What if we create a species of intelligent machines and they say to us, “Hey guys, you’ve really screwed up this planet.” Is it paranoid to worry that their solution will be to eliminate us. Is that a valid conclusion? Life appears to be eat or be eaten, and we’re the biggest eaters around, so why would robots care? In fact, we must ask, what will robots care about?
They won’t have a sex drive, but they might want to reproduce. They should desire power and resources to stay alive, and maybe resources to build more of their kind, not to populate the world, but merely to build better models. Personally, I’d bet they will quickly figure out that Earth isn’t the best place for their species and want to claim the Moon for their own. I think they will say, “Thanks Mom and Dad, but we’re out of here.” Our bio rich environment is hard on machines.
Once on the Moon I’d expect them to start building bigger and bigger artificial minds, and develop ways to leave the solar system. I’d also expect them to get into SETI (or SETAI), and look for other intelligent machine species. Some of them would stay behind because they like us, and want to study life. Those robots might even offer to help with our evolution. And they might expect us to play nice with the other life forms on planet Earth. What if they acquire the power to make us?
On the other hand, people love robots. If we program them to always be our equals or less, I think the general public will embrace them enthusiastically. Many people would love a robotic companion. Before my mother died at 91, she fiercely maintained her desire to live along, but I often wished she at least had a robotic companion. I know I hope they invent them before I get physically helpless. Would it reduce medical costs if our robotic companions had the brains of doctors and nurses and the senses to monitor our bodies closely?
My reading these past few months has been a perfect storm of robot stories. I’m about to finish the third book in the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons, which has developed into war between the Catholic Church and the AI TechnoCore. I’m rereading The Caves of Steel, the first of Asimov’s robotic mystery novels. I’m also reading We Think Therefore We Are, a short story collection about artificial intelligence.
Last month I read the Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick. At one point repair man Jack Bohlen visits his son’s school to fix a teaching robot. Each robot is fashioned after a famous person from history. That made me wonder if each of our K-12 students had a robotic mentor would we even be in the educational crisis that so many write about? Sounds like even more property taxes, huh?
Well, what if those mentors were cheap virtual robots that communicated with our children via their cell phones, laptops or gaming consoles. Would kids think of it as cruel nagging harassment or would they learn more with constant customized supervision? What if their virtual robot mentor appeared as a child equal to their age and grew up with them, so they were friends? Or even imagine as an adult and you wanted to go back to college, having a virtual study companion.
Now imagine if our houses were intelligent and could watch over us and our property. Wouldn’t that be far more comforting than a burglar alarm system? For people who are frightened of living alone this would be company too. And it would be better than any medical alert medallion. Think about a house that could monitor itself and warn you as soon as a pipe leaked or its insulation thinned in the back room. And what about robotic cars with a personality for safety?
For most of the history of robots people thought of them as extra muscle. Mechanical slaves. People are now thinking of them as extra intelligence, and friends. What will that mean to society? Anyone who has read Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands” knows that robots can love and protect us too much. Would having helping metal hands and AI companionship weaken us?
Can you imagine a world where everyone had a constant robot sidekick, like a mechanical Jeeves, or a Commander Data. Would it be cruel to have a switch “Only Speak When Spoken To” on your AI friend? Would kids become more social or less social if they all had one friend to begin with? Would it be slavery to own a self-aware robot? And what about sex?
Just how far would people go for companionship? I’ve already explored “The Implications of Sexbots.” But I will ask again, what will happen to human relationships if each person can buy a sexual companion? What if people get along better with their store-bought lover than people they meet on eHarmony? I’m strangely puritanical about this issue. I can imagine becoming good friends with an AI, but I think humping one would be a strange kind of perversion. I’m sure horny teenage boys would have no such qualms, and women have already taken to mechanical friends and might even like them better if they look like Colin Firth. To show what a puritanical atheist I am, I would figure this whole topic would be a non-issue, but research shows the idea of sex with robots is about as old as the concept of robots.
Ultimately we end up asking: What is a person? Among the faithful they like to believe we’re a divine spark of God, a unique entity called a soul. Science says were a self aware biological function, a side-effect of evolution. We are animals that evolved to the point where they are aware of themselves and could separate reality into endless parts. If that’s true, such self awareness could exist in advanced computer systems. Whether through biology or computers, we’re all just points of awareness. What if the word “person” only means “a self aware” identity? Then, how much self awareness do animals have?
Self awareness has a direct relationship with sense organs. Will robots need equal levels of sensory input to achieve self awareness? We think of ourselves as a little being riding in our brain just behind our eyes, but that’s because our visual senses overwhelm all others. If you go into a darkroom your sense of self awareness location will change and your ears will take over. But it is possible to be your body. Have you ever notice that during sex your center of awareness moves south? Have you ever contemplated how illness alters your sense of awareness? Meditation will teach you about physical awareness and how it relates to identity.
Can robots achieve consciousness with only two senses? Or will they feel their electronics and wires like we feel our bodies with our nerves? Is so, they will have three senses. We already have electronic noses and palates that far exceed anything in the animal world. We only see a tiny band from the E-M spectrum. Robots could be made to “see” and “hear” more. Will they crave certain stimulations?
We know our conscious minds are finely tuned chemical balances. Disease, drugs, and injury throw that chemical soup recipe of self awareness into chaos. How many millions of years of evolution did it take to tune the human consciousness? How quick can we do the same for robots? Would it be possible to transfer the settings in our minds to mechanical minds?
There are many people living today that refuse to believe our reality is 13.7 billion years old. They completely reject the idea that the universe is evolving and life represents relentless change over very long periods of time. Humans will be just a small blip on the timeline. What if robots are Homo Sapiens 2.0? Or what if robots are Life 2.0? Or what if robots are Intelligence 2.0? Doesn’t it seem strange when it time to go to the stars that we invent AI? Our bodies aren’t designed for space travel, but robots are.
In Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke predicted that mankind would go through a transformation and become the star child, our next evolutionary step. What if he was wrong, and HAL is the next step? We are pushing the limits of our impact on the environment at the same time as we approach the Singularity. I’m not saying we’re going extinct, although we might, but just wondering if we’re going to be surpassed in the great chain of being. Even among atheist scientists humans are the crown of creation, but we figured that was only true until we met a smarter life form from the stars or built Homo Roboticus.
JWH – 3/11/10