WHAT IS A ROBOT?

Maxwell Anderson
Oct 18, 2015 · 9 min read
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Maybe it’s a silly question. You know a robot when you see one, right? Well, that’s true except for all the dystopian films about robots where they trick people into thinking they are human. By the way, if you haven’t seen Ex Machina yet, rent it now.

I’ve done a lot of robo-reading over the past months and it has challenged my view of the future. By now I’m pretty convinced that the advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and computing power are going to fundamentally change life as we know it over the next 50 years.

I told my wife I planned to do 4 or 5 Weekend Readers in a row on robots — covering everything from robots taking human jobs, to sexual ethics, to autonomous machine warfare. She suggested I cool my heels and spread that out over time, and cover some other topics in between. She, as usual, is probably right.

So this weekend is just an intro (and an incomplete one) to the state of robotics today. For those of you who are less geeky than me, these may feel unappealing to you. But skim through. There’s philosophy, laughs, and good videos throughout.

Read wisely. Read widely.
Max
P.s. if you are a facebooker (facebookie?) would you consider clicking here to “like” The Weekend Reader? I’m linking to a couple other cool videos and articles there for additional reading.

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The Sheer Difficulty of Defining What a Robot Is

by Jordan Pearson in Motherboard || Article Link
(6 minute read)

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What is a robot? Is it a mobile computer in humanoid form, like the friendly Star Wars droid C3PO? That definition would leave out that other famous Star Wars bot, the mobile, but non-humanoid R2D2.

The truth, it turns out, is that no one really agrees on a single definition of what a robot is.

Well, so what?

It’s important to know how to define a robot because pretty soon we’re going to be talking about them a lot. Jordan Pearson explains that “to reckon with all the coming changes that robotics and artificial intelligence may bring — widespread worker displacement and killer machines, to name just a couple — we need to know what we’re talking about.” The definition of what is a robot will be a social question and a policy question. And it’ll be one where we don’t all agree on the answer.

At a deeper level, the question of what is a robot goes beyond policy, and gets into philosophy. “Is the real substance of a robot its computer brain? Or the casing that brain goes into? It’s a question that mirrors our own, in terms of our fleshy bodies, and it’s still debated by philosophers. But with robots, the question of embodiment has immediate real-world implications.”

“What does it mean to be a robot?” mirrors and adds perspective to the question, “What does it mean to be human?”

Is a robot really just a computer program with a replaceable body? Or is the body an essential part of it? Some people believe that human consciousness is nothing but the electric wiring of the mind and could conceivably be transferred to another body or to a hard drive.

These body/mind questions are not new and there has never been consensus. The ancient Greeks thought the body was defiled and the mind was above it. Many Eastern philosophies and religions conceive of this world as something to get past and transcend. The Christian tradition has always been radical for claiming that God actually descended into bodily form, implying that this physical world is actually important — and worth caring about.

What it means to be human, when humanity begins, and where it ends has all sorts of important implications today (think abortion and genetic modification) and for the future (think cyborgs and biohacking).

Whether a technology is called a computer, a robot, or an AI may ultimately be less important than the fact that the technology is not itself human. The real important definition will soon be what makes people distinct from machines.

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The 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals

Published by The Verge
(6 minute video)

Depending on your perspective, DARPA (the U.S. Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency) is one of the coolest or most frightening institutions in the world.

Every year they host a robotics competition, awarding million dollar prizes to teams of engineers who design robots that will successfully navigate a complicated obstacle course.

The stated goal is to spur research that could lead to robots that could be sent as rescuers into conditions inhospitable to human life (think natural disasters and nuclear meltdown situations), though almost certainly DARPA has less publicized goals to build fit-for-combat versions of these machines.

This video gives an inside look at this summer’s competition.

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Robots Falling Down

(at the 2015 DARPA Finals)
Published by IEEE Spectrum
(1 minute video)

It turns out that the course DARPA designed is pretty difficult. Nearly all of the robots fail to complete it perfectly.

This has led to a few good videos spoofing the state of robotic sophistication today including this one. This should give comfort to those of you fearing a terminator-style robot revolution just around the corner. It’s unexpectedly entertaining.

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MIT’s Cheetah-Bot

(and Boston Dynamic’s “Dog” and “Wildcat”)
(6 minute read)

But don’t get too comfortable with the idea of incompetent robots. Up in Boston they are creating fascinating robots capable of mimicking the moments of dogs, cats and cheetahs with shocking sophistication and mobile ability.

Check out how “Spot” maintains his balance even when he’s kicked, how “Wildcat” gallops or bounds with speed, and how the “cheetah” autonomously senses and jumps over obstacles (below).

The “Cheetah Bot” in action

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Cute robot politely shows self-awareness

by Michelle Starr for CNET || Article Link
(5 minute read + 2 minute video)

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In this interesting article and video, a little robot seems to establish independent self-awareness. From the article:

“The three robots were told that two of them had been given “dumbing pills” that rendered them unable to speak, and one a placebo (in reality, they had a button pressed on their heads, but the result was the same). They were then asked if they had been given the dumbing pill or the placebo.

There are several long moments of silence before one robot stands up and says ‘I don’t know.’

It then raises its hand like a child in a schoolroom, and offers a correction: ‘Sorry, I know now. I was able to prove that I was not given the dumbing pill.’

In order to demonstrate this sort of self awareness, the robot must be able to understand the rules of the puzzle, recognise its own voice and recognise that it is an individual distinct from the other two robots.”

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Increasingly Adaptable Robot Can ‘Heal’ Itself in 2 Minutes

by Charles Q Choi for LiveScience || Article Link
(6 minute read)

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Credit: Antoine Cully

One advantage living things have over inanimate things is that they can heal. The human body is remarkable for it not only bleeds, but can stop bleeding. A bone can be broken but it can reattach itself. A dog can lose a leg and still learn how to run and catch a frisbee.

Now we may not be alone.

“Robots that are damaged in action can now quickly “heal” themselves by tapping into experiences from simulated lives, according to a new study. It may sound like science fiction, but these abilities could lead to more robust, effective and autonomous robots, researchers say.”

“Until now, robots typically recovered from damage by first diagnosing their problems and then choosing which contingency plan to follow. However, even if a robot possesses an expensive suite of sensors with which it can diagnose itself, it will be rendered helpless if its designer failed to foresee whatever problem the robot is facing.”

“In comparison, injured animals rely on trial and error to learn how to overcome adversity — for instance, learning that limping could minimize pain in the leg. Although scientists have experimented with trial-and-error programming for robots, it could take 15 minutes or more for such robots to overcome even relatively simple problems.”

“Now scientists have developed a trial-and-error program that enables robots to adapt to damage in less than two minutes, all without a suite of sensors to diagnose itself or a host of contingency plans.”

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Artificial Intelligence Experts are Building the World’s Angriest Robot. Should You Be Scared?

by Olivia Goldhill at The Telegraph || Article Link
(6 minute read)

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Photo: Warner Br/Everett/REX

The title of this article is totally click-bait. I’m sorry about that. But the topic itself is really interesting.

Basically an artificial intelligence development company called Touchpoint is creating a robot with “hundreds of millions of angry customer interactions uploaded to its database and the robot will be programmed to mimic and repeat these conversations.”

I imagine this experiment is likely to create unbelievably good training sessions for people in customer service roles. But the really interesting thing to me is not the business improvement opportunity, but the philosophy.

“Theoretically, we might one day be able to build robots that exhibit all human signs of anger.”

“There is a complicated philosophical debate about the point at which mimicked emotion and consciousness is indistinguishable from actual emotion and consciousness.”

“If a robot can exactly mimic human consciousness, and react with the same emotional responses to the same events, then are we really justified in calling it unconscious?”

If a robot is exhibiting believably angry behavior, then, even if we know it is just following it’s programming, a human interacting with it would probablyexperience the behavior as real anger. The programmer’s goal is to make the robot mimic human anger behavior so completely that the robots provoke in their human counterparts a real emotional reaction to anger. That is a phenomenon worth pondering.

Psychologists would call this reaction a cognitive error (believing something that isn’t true) and have a term for it: “The Fundamental Attribution Error.” According to Psychology Today, it is the tendency, “When we see someone doing something…to think it relates to their personality rather than the situation the person might be in.” For instance, when your boss cuts you short in a conversation, you may tend to think it is because he is a jerk, rather than understanding he is making a decision based on his need to take a call from an important client. Psychologists call this error fundamental because everyone is a victim of it.

In the future we are going to interact more and more with robots with sophisticated human-like behaviors that display emotion. They will provoke us into thinking they actually feel something that they don’t. And that is going to lead to a whole lotta change for our society.

Want a little more?
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READ WIDELY.

Maxwell Anderson

Written by

I publish The Weekend Reader. Subscribe at www.maxwella.com I’m also a founding partner of www.saturnfive.com.

THE WEEKEND READER

READ WIDELY. READ WISELY. The Weekend Reader explores technology, culture and the meaningful life in the modern world. I share the most valuable writing from multiple sources to explore the ideas and trends shaping our world.

Maxwell Anderson

Written by

I publish The Weekend Reader. Subscribe at www.maxwella.com I’m also a founding partner of www.saturnfive.com.

THE WEEKEND READER

READ WIDELY. READ WISELY. The Weekend Reader explores technology, culture and the meaningful life in the modern world. I share the most valuable writing from multiple sources to explore the ideas and trends shaping our world.

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