Robots are narrowing the gap with humans

April 22, 2009 By Robert S. Boyd

Robots are gaining on us humans. Thanks to exponential increases in computer power -- which is roughly doubling every two years -- robots are getting smarter, more capable, more like flesh-and-blood people.

Matching human skills and intelligence, however, is an enormously difficult -- perhaps impossible -- challenge.

Nevertheless, robots guided by their own computer "brains" now can pick up and peel bananas, land jumbo jets, steer cars through city traffic, search human DNA for cancer genes, play soccer or the violin, find earthquake victims or explore craters on Mars.

At a "Robobusiness" conference in Boston last week, companies demonstrated a firefighter, gardener, receptionist, tour guide and security guard.

You name it, a high-tech wizard somewhere is trying to make a robot do it.

A Japanese housekeeping robot can move chairs, sweep the floor, load a tray of dirty dishes in a dishwasher and put dirty clothes in a washing machine.

Intel, the worldwide computer-chip maker, headquartered in Santa Clara, Calif., has developed a self-controlled mobile robot called Herb, the Home Exploring Robotic Butler. Herb can recognize faces and carry out generalized commands such as "please clean this mess," according to Justin Rattner, Intel's chief technology officer.

In a talk last year titled "Crossing the Chasm Between Humans and Machines: the Next 40 Years," the widely respected Rattner lent some credibility to the often-ridiculed effort to make machines as smart as people.

"The industry has taken much greater strides than anyone ever imagined 40 years ago," Rattner said. It's conceivable, he added, that "machines could even overtake humans in their ability to reason in the not-so-distant future."

Programming a robot to perform household chores without breaking dishes or bumping into walls is hard enough, but creating a truly intelligent machine still remains far beyond human ability.

researchers have struggled for half a century to imitate the staggering complexity of the brain, even in creatures as lowly as a cockroach or fruit fly. Although computers can process data at lightning speeds, the trillions of ever-changing connections between animal and human brain cells surpass the capacity of even the largest supercomputers.

"One day we will create a human-level artificial intelligence," wrote Rodney Brooks, a robot designer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass. "But how and when we will get there -- and what will happen after we do -- are now the subjects of fierce debate."

"We're in a slow retreat in the face of the steady advance of our mind's children," agreed Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. "Eventually, we're going to reach the point where everybody's going to say, 'Of course machines are smarter than we are.'

"The truly interesting question is what happens after if we have truly intelligent robots," Saffo said. "If we're very lucky, they'll treat us as pets. If not, they'll treat us as food."

Some far-out futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and technology evangelist in Wellesley Hills, a Boston suburb, predict that robots will match human intelligence by 2029, only 20 years from now. Other experts think that Kurzweil is wildly over-optimistic.

According to Kurzweil, robots will prove their cleverness by passing the so-called "Turing test." In the test, devised by British computing pioneer Alan Turing in 1950, a human judge chats casually with a concealed human and a hidden machine. If the judge can't tell which responses come from the human and which from the machine, the machine is said to show human-level intelligence.

"We can expect computers to pass the Turing test, indicating intelligence indistinguishable from that of biological humans, by the end of the 2020s," Kurzweil wrote in his 2005 book, "The Singularity Is Near."

To Kurzweil, the "singularity" is when a machine equals or exceeds human intelligence. It won't come in "one great leap," he said, "but lots of little steps to get us from here to there."

Kurzweil has made a movie, also titled "The Singularity Is Near: A True Story About the Future," that's due in theaters this summer.

Intel's Rattner is more conservative. He said that it would take at least until 2050 to close the mental gap between people and machines. Others say that it will take centuries, if it ever happens.

Some eminent thinkers, such as Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive scientist, Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, and Mitch Kapor, a leading computer scientist in San Francisco, doubt that a robot can ever successfully impersonate a human being.

It's "extremely difficult even to imagine what it would mean for a computer to perform a successful impersonation," Kapor said. "While it is possible to imagine a machine obtaining a perfect score on the SAT or winning 'Jeopardy' -- since these rely on retained facts and the ability to recall them -- it seems far less possible that a machine can weave things together in new ways or ... have true imagination in a way that matches everything people can do."

Nevertheless, roboticists are working to make their mechanical creatures seem more human. The Japanese are particularly fascinated with "humanoid" robots, with faces, movements and voices resembling their human masters.

A fetching female robot model from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology lab in Tsukuba, Japan, sashays down a runway, turns and bows when "she" meets a real girl.

"People become emotionally attached" to robots, Saffo said. Two-thirds of the people who own Roombas, the humble floor-sweeping robots, give them names, he said. One-third take their Roombas on vacation.

At a technology conference last October in San Jose, Calif., Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT robot developer, demonstrated her attempts to build robots that mimic human and social skills. She showed off "Leonardo," a rabbity creature that reacts appropriately when a person smiles or scowls.

"Robot sidekicks are coming," Breazeal said. "We already can see the first distant cousins of R2-D2," the sociable little robot in the "Star Wars" movies.

Other MIT researchers have developed an autonomous wheelchair that understands and responds to commands to "go to my room" or "take me to the cafeteria."

So far, most robots are used primarily in factories, repeatedly performing single tasks. The Robotics Institute of America estimates that more than 186,000 industrial robots are being used in the United States, second only to Japan. It's estimated that more than a million robots are being used worldwide, with China and India rapidly expanding their investments in robotics.



Video of Herb, the Home Exploring Robotic Butler:

Videos of Japanese housekeeping robots:

Video of Cynthia Breazeal demonstrating her sociable robots:

Video of Rodney Brooks discussing obstacles to robot intelligence:

Video of Ray Kurzwell lecture on machines matching intelligence:


(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau on the World Wide Web at>

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not rated yet Apr 22, 2009
Personally, I hope that machine intelligence is incorporated into the human mind early on. Augmentation will enhance our own intelligence and maybe help us to keep up with human level AI.

It might also help us make our way through the resurgence of the age old slavery issue, when (if) our servant AI constructs start insisting that they ARE aware.

So, I am curious what you think:
Will we augment and self-evolve? Will AI be mankind's offspring and replace us? Will we manage to coexist? Or do you think AI is all a bunch of bull?

Augment, Replace, Coexist, or Bull?
not rated yet Apr 23, 2009
"I, for one, welcome our new Robot Overlords." Oh, wait... dang! I guess that's a little early.

I've been watching AI research as an interested amateur since I was a kid in the late 60s, and it... well... hasn't gone well. According to the wild optimists like Kurzweil, something that passes the Turing test has been 10-20 years out every year for the last 40 years.

I'm not holding my breath. I even think Rattner is very optimistic. We don't understand our own human consciousness well enough to do basic things like explain, using physical science, whether free will is real or an illusion. Heck, we can't even define mental illness well, let alone diagnose and cure it. So how in the world do people expect to be able to replicate what we don't understand?

Maybe there will be some fundamental breakthroughs and I'm full of beans. And I do think it's possible we'll create sentient AIs that are just very different from us.

I'm in favor of augmentation and self-evolution. And, given the cautionary tales in the last 100 years of sci-fi, I'm not too worried about AIs as a threat - unless we're stupid enough to give them control of the power cord.

Which, when I consider consider attitudes among the American booboisie toward things like teaching evolution in schools, the justification of the Iraq war, and anthropogenic global warming... I'm sure some jackass will defeat all the safeguards on his Roomba 3000 sentient floor-sweeper, install a battery pack, and then we WILL be welcoming our new robot overlords.
not rated yet Apr 23, 2009
Bobert -
Watch the Blue Brain project, I think you will be suprised. They are simulating a part of the brain twice. A brute force method at the molecular level and a simulated functional method. Results have been promising since 2005. The only limiting factor will be computer power. So at some point it will be done whether we like it or not. The big question is which nation will be the first to achieve it and what will they do with it.


not rated yet Apr 23, 2009
Robots will gain awareness in some form or another for sure, if that already didn't happen, in a limited capacity of course, such as same level as a cat(just an example).

There is no difference between humans and robots IMO, only thing different. The container and it's peculiarities. Humans are biological robots(constructs) that are very advanced due to evolution. Robots are simply another branch of our evolution, whether it's a dead end branch or something else, is yet to be clear.
not rated yet Apr 23, 2009
I think hat we really need to consider here, is how stupid our species really is in this context...meaning, we by our very nature will seek to destroy ourselves and strip any environment we happen to be in. So you get things at a high level like world wars, and at a low level like lies and deceipt. So, with that being said, we have to be utterly retarded to even attempt to build any AI that resembles our frame of "intelligence".
I don't think they would lord over us, and we most certainly wouldnt be pets...they are machines with logic built in whether or not they are AI or just that dell on your desk right now....this would play to the fact that each amchine would have a specific purpose, or many specific purposes more likely, and it would not deviate from those purposes merely to amuse itself with its pet human.
The argument for treating us as food (and yes i realize it was just an analogy) is even for machines is power...unless they turn our planet into the freakin Matrix machine city, the food thing aint a worry to me...

I for one can completely see the 2029-2050 timeframe being true though if they are indeed created...for 2 possible reasons...nanotechnology boosting the speed of existing silicon based systems (or rather, the systems of 20 yrs from now), or even better, quantum computing. Since qubits can have off and on at the same time, they should be able to easily mimic firing neurons if organized properly..

Fazer-I agree with human augmentation entirely...I want to cruise the internet to look things up in my head, not with my hands and eyes :) Imagine, in brain Oh and I think there can be only 1 possible outcome if true AI mimicing human intelligence is made real, that is that they will identify us as a lesser species, kind of how we see rats for example, or more accurately for our species, how we see that point of view will likely spawn in any intelligence the same thing it spawned in us...trophy hunting and erradication of habitat. I don;'t think co-existence will be possible unless we hard code those things in a form taking after the I, Robot movie (cannot harm a human in other words).

Bobert-my initial thought is that Turing test is mumbo me that does not define intelligence...I think you would need to put a machine into a survive or die situation to really test if its truly intelligent. Intelligence after all does give us our capacity and necessity for our own survival, and I think any intelligent entity will display this characteristic.

googleplex-see my earlier nanotech/quantum tech statement :) computer power wont be a problem by the timeframes they are talking...

Suzu-i have to disagree with you here. Humans and robots are worlds apart. Machines are not now, and never will be, truly living entities...yes we could make them appear that way (program lifespans into them and what not), but they will always be nothing more than a SIMULATION OF LIFE. This does not constitute any new branch off the bush of life by any means whatsoever, ESPECIALLY not off of our branch of evolution. Just because we make them, does not put them on our evolutionary branch....only cloning a human would result in that outcome. I will say though, that my comments are primarily based off the fact that, and not to disagree with transformers here, but a machine being able to naturally evolve in the way we have is simply not possible. Living organisms come from natural sources...robots do not and cannot (I bet the statistical probability of the natural evolution of a machine or a machine world is probably even greater odds against it than the existence of god...which would make it a number so dang large it isnt funny).

not rated yet Apr 25, 2009
Maybe the title should be "Human being dumbing down to the level of robots"?
not rated yet Apr 26, 2009
I think that as soon as a machine is able to design or create something, the world will never be the same again. As soon as a robot is self aware, it can design a better version of itself, and then that one can design a better version of itself and so on. this could mean that instead of computer power/capability doubling every 2 years, it will double every week or so. This could mean that (if the "equal to human intelligence in 20 years" theory is right, which i personally think is pretty close) by 2050 all our world issues will be solved and we will be well on our way into the final frontier.

The rate at which AI could get out of hand is astonishing. we had better hope they like us.
not rated yet May 08, 2009
(I bet the statistical probability of the natural evolution of a machine or a machine world is probably even greater odds against it than the existence of god...which would make it a number so dang large it isnt funny).

Well Lucky I love how you pulled out the existence of god odds. think the chance of rodots being able to evolve are better odds then proving god exists. Like Skittles said, once they are aware, if ever, they can self improve. Therefore evolving on their own.
not rated yet May 09, 2009
It was the largest statistical odds against factor I could think of :)

BUT, lets be sure were clear here...a non-living entity does not evolve....even if they become AI, they are still not alive, even by the very definition of life biological activity occurs within it, therefore, its not alive.
not rated yet May 12, 2009
I think that as soon as a machine is able to design or create something, the world will never be the same again. As soon as a robot is self aware, it can design a better version of itself, and then that one can design a better version of itself and so on. this could mean that instead of computer power/capability doubling every 2 years, it will double every week or so. This could mean that (if the "equal to human intelligence in 20 years" theory is right, which i personally think is pretty close) by 2050 all our world issues will be solved and we will be well on our way into the final frontier.

The rate at which AI could get out of hand is astonishing. we had better hope they like us.

I think a good example is the industrial revolution. Automation of human physical strength using machines transformed our existance. The advent of AI (or should that be real intellegence) will transform our lives un-imaginably. There will be protests (Ludites) and mistakes (pollution). However for those lucky enough to witness it there will be miracles.

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