New robot ‘on the path to self-awareness’

I, Robot: OpenAI, Google’s DeepMind and others are working constantly to accelerate AI technology.

Will robots ever be self-aware? Scientists at Colombia University have built a machine that learns about itself in the same way as a baby. Could it become more intelligent than a human?

What makes you you? The answer is probably lots of things. You recognise that you are separate from other people. Your memories show that you have a unified self through time. When you look at a picture, you are also aware of yourself looking at it.

These characteristics are uniquely human. But perhaps they won’t be for long, thanks to rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI).

Researchers at Colombia University have created a robot arm with the ability to learn, but with no programming about physics or its own construction.

After initially flailing around, the robot came to learn about its physical dimensions by bumping into things.

Eventually, it learnt not only to move around but to repair itself and to write with a marker.

“We believe that this ability is on the path to machine self-awareness,” says scientist Hod Lipson.

“This is perhaps what a newborn child does in its crib, as it learns what it is.”

This is not the first big breakthrough. In 2015, a robot passed a classic self-awareness test known as the “wise men” logic puzzle for the first time.

In order to have succeeded, the robot must have understood the rules of the test, recognised its own voice, and known that it was a different being from the other robots participating.

But will a robot ever be conscious in the same way as a human?

René Descartes argued that even if the physical world and his body were an illusion, he could not doubt the existence of his thinking mind. “I think, therefore I am.”

For Descartes, this was proof that there is an immaterial mind separate from the body.

Many religions also have dualist ideas of the soul or a “divine spark”. If they are right, then no matter how much a robot might seem conscious, it would always be missing something central to the self.

In contrast, modern neuroscience treats the brain like a machine.

Our sense of self is created by physical processes in the brain. However, we still do not know exactly how this works.

“Philosophers, psychologists and cognitive scientists have pondered the nature of self-awareness for millennia, but have made relatively little progress,” Lipson says.

“Robots now force us to translate these vague notions into concrete algorithms and mechanisms.”

Cogito ergo sum

Will robots ever be self-aware? If the brain is just a complex computer, then it is possible we will be able to build an artificial brain in the future. Would such a robot be truly conscious, or just mimicking it? How could we tell the difference?

And if robots can achieve full self-awareness, what then? Would they have feelings too? Should they have rights and equal status to humans? We wouldn’t experiment on a human. Is it wrong to experiment with AI?

You Decide

  1. Are you a mind with a body, or a body with a mind?
  2. Is the rise of artificial intelligence something to fear?


  1. Write a list of all the words you associate with “artificial intelligence”. Are they positive or negative? How is AI portrayed in the media and our culture generally? Discuss these questions in groups.
  2. Read the link to the Futurism article in Become An Expert. Then, in groups, create a video news report about the experiment. You could include “interviews” with the scientists performing the research.

Some People Say...

“I visualise a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans. And I am rooting for the machines.”

Claude Elwood Shannon (1916-2001), US mathematician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Popular culture is replete with self-aware robots. In The Matrix and Terminator films, intelligent robots have enslaved humanity. In more sensitive depictions like Wall-E and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, innocent robots with a full range of human emotions are misused by humans.
What do we not know?
How quickly and far artificial intelligence can advance. Within just the past few years, AI assistants like Siri and Alexa have become commonplace, and they are constantly becoming more complex. With such rapid progress, it is impossible to imagine what robots will be like in 10 or 20 years.

Word Watch

What size it is.
Three robots were programmed to believe that two of them had been given a pill that muted them. The scientists then muted two robots. When the robots were asked which of them had been given the muting pill, only one robot replied, “I don’t know.” After hearing its own voice, it realised that it must be the one who wasn’t given the pill and changed its answer.
René Descartes
A French philosopher, scientist and mathematician (1596-1650). Ideas related to his work are described as “Cartesian”.
Dualism is the idea that there is a non-physical mind or soul that is separate from the body. While dualism is often associated with Christianity, Catholic teaching holds that the mind and body are bound together. On judgement day, the dead will be resurrected and their physical bodies taken to heaven. A more common modern belief is that the soul goes to heaven at the moment of a person’s death.
Cogito ergo sum
Latin for “I think, therefore I am”.

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