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No Thinking Necessary?

Having had significant success to date by sidestepping the cognition problem, Rodney Brooks is ready to say that all cognition is unnecessary, regardless of the behaviors we hope to build into robots. He considers behaviors that we associate with cognition to be simply epiphenomenaCuriously, he considers cognition to exist in the mind of the observer, rather than describing at as an emergent property of the robot itself.and is explicitly not working on the problem.Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines (Pantheon Books, 2002): 39In fact, a key 'problem' in his work has become convincing humans that they are machines... As he sees it, "all of us overanthropomorphise humans, who are after all mere machines"Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines (Pantheon Books, 2002): 175and "all arguments that robots wont have emotions boil down to arguments that we are not machines."Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines (Pantheon Books, 2002): 176

With this view of human nature in place, he is able to claim that Artificial Intelligence research has produced a robot comparable to HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. He considers this milestone to have been passed onMay 9, 2000, when Cynthia Breazeal defended her thesis on Kismet, a robot designed for social interaction. According to Brooks, "Kismet is alive. Or may as well be. People treat it that way."Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines (Pantheon Books, 2002): 64Of course, he is fully aware of the limitations of current robotics. For example, Kismet can vocalize but cannot say words, and only hears prosody, but he does not see this as "an impediment to a good conversation."Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines (Pantheon Books, 2002): 95But in the final analysis he admits "... we do not stay fooled for long. We treat our robots more like dust mites than like dogs or people. For us the emotions are not real."Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines (Pantheon Books, 2002): 158

I'm deeply impressed by the work of Brooks and the AI Lab, but I would agree with his own assessment that the work to date has limitations. Because the robots are embodied and don't rely on digital technology, they are certainly agents where computer programs are not. But the degrees of complexity and internal freedom that we see in the next few generations of robotics will surely remain a far cry from biological systems. Personally, I suspect robotics will need to borrow techniques from biology, and even achieve similar levels of complexity before we will meet Commander Data from Star Trek. Unfortunately, as Brooks himself notes, biomolecularbehavior is "incredibly expensive to compute."Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines (Pantheon Books, 2002): 190

When Oxford theologian Keith Ward was asked in an interview if he would baptise a robot, he gave what I consider a very profound and helpful answer. His reply: "If it asked properly." Let’s unpack this: First, for 'it' to ask at all, we would have to be convinced that it was an agent. (If we could trace the question to programming provided from the outside, it would no longer be a valid request.) For it to genuinely 'ask' would require it to possess rich notions of intentionality and relationality. And finally, for it to ask 'properly' would entail us first deciding how we would tell if a human were to ask improperly, and then try and apply those criteria to the robot too. Presumably, in order for a robot to formulate a convincing 'proper' explanation of why it wished to be baptised, it would be able to express it's understanding of a transcendent reality. A robot capable of doing this would certainly have my attention!

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Adrian Wyard

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