Every so often a technological advancement renews concern around the future of humanity as we know it, in recent months, the role of technology in enabling robots has surfaced – again. I think the reason “robots” get a bad rap is because those of my generation grew up with robot characters like The Robot from Lost In Space and Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons (OK I’m dating myself, I’m sure you can find many more modern examples). These characters are robots with a vaguely human shape to them. Today’s robots are nearly indistinguishable from human beings. These robotic forms make it easy for us to anthropomorphize them – attribute human emotions and feelings to their actions. Those of us in the technology business know that robots do not “think” this way.
The latest technology scare occurred when we were told that a computer program passed the famous Turing Test. The Turing Test was proposed by Alan Turing, a British cryptographer considered to be one of the pioneers of modern computing. His test involved humans communicating with a computer program through a “chat” mechanism. If the computer program could convince at least 30% of the humans communicating with it that it was a real person and not a computer program, the program is said to have passed the Turning Test. Other programs have come close before, but none had reached the 30% mark.
Recently, a computer program called Eugene convinced 10 of 30 judges that he was a 13 year-old boy from Ukraine. While it is quite debatable whether or not this program passed the spirit of the test as well as the letter of the test, all most people heard was, “Welcome, robot overlords.”
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
The anthropomorphizing of robots is probably fueled, at least in part, by publications from researchers who work in the field of artificial intelligence, or AI. Their goal, in fact, is to impart human characteristics into computer programs, such as the ability to learn from mistakes. AI has proven to be quite daunting. We still do not fully understand how the human brain works, so how can we program something we don’t understand into a computer? I don’t doubt that people in the AI field will be able to make great strides using the parts of human cognition that we do understand. Perhaps AI will actually teach us a great deal about how the human mind does, or at least does not… work.
Robots In Industry
I don’t know of any robots in industry that are using AI to perform their jobs. I know that AI has been used in vision systems for things like classification of defects. By training a vision program using a large set of different defects, their program can start correlating things like shape, brightness, and texture with those defects, then categorize new defects into one of these pre-defined classification bins based on this information. But this is a long way from a completely autonomous robot, and certainly a long way from anything we humans would describe as “thinking.”
Technology continues to advance at incredible rates. And while someday a combination of technologists and biologists may crack the code for human thought, I don’t think any of us need to be worrying about sentient robots taking control of the planet any time this century. But, just to be on the safe side (see Pascal’s Wager), let me be the first to say, “Welcome, robot overlords.”