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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