New robot ‘on the path to self-awareness’

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

Scientists at Colombia University have built a robot that learns about itself in the same way as a baby. It could be a major step towards machines that are fully self-aware.

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 things are uniquely human. But perhaps they won’t be for long, thanks to artificial intelligence (AI).

Now, 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 shape 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.

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 a fake 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?


  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.

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 full of stories about 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 develop.

Word Watch

United; a whole.
In a way that belongs or links to one thing or person.
Artificial intelligence
A computer that can learn for itself like a human.
Moving around in a random way.
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 have been the one that wasn’t given the pill and changed its answer.
Cogito ergo sum
Latin for “I think, therefore I am”.

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