The Human Touch: As We Endow Robots with More and More Intelligence, Awareness, and Perception, It's Hard Not to Wonder about the Fine Line between Cognition and Consciousness

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A fairly normal two-year-old by developmental standards, Mertz acquires new words by imitating adults, who point to their facial features, for example, and slowly say "nose" and "ears." Mertz coos and babbles at the steady stream of visitors, and follows, with big, curious eyes, when presented with a yellow stuffed teddy bear.

Comprised of two digital firewire cameras, electrical electrical cables, and a Motorola DSP56F807 motor controller, Mertz is able to photograph the visitors, store their images in a hard drive, and utilize face-recognition software to categorize and later identify them when they return. Mertz's humanoid head, mounted on a robotic pedestal and backed by a flickering computer screen, is one of the latest creations of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory--and one of a new generation of mechanical inventions designed to emulate human learning.

Robots are indeed getting better and better at cognition, a feat previously reserved for carbon-based life forms. Scientists have engineered robots so wisely that inventor and robotics expert Ray Kurzweil can see the day when artificial intelligence overtakes ours. "We will have the hardware to do this by the early 2020s," he says. "The software will take a little longer--I believe we will achieve this by 2029." For now, robots challenge our superiority only when it comes to tasks involving computation and calculation, but is artificial intelligence inching ever closer to what Rodney Brooks, director of the lab Mertz calls home, anxiously refers to as the "C word?"

Neuroscientists are just beginning to define consciousness in humans and animals, says Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at the University of California, San Diego. We know we are aware of what we perceive through our senses--sights, sounds, and smells, for instance; we know we experience sensations like dizziness and fatigue; and we know we can feel emotions and pain. "Perhaps not as infants, but later, we are aware of ourselves as having a body, having memories, and being a person," Churchland says. "What these things have in common, if anything, is not known. But all these phenomena are being studied, and we likely will, in the fullness of time, understand the brain processes involved." Given how little we currently understand about consciousness in humans, it's hard to imagine we are anywhere near re-creating it in machines. But given its importance to our sense of self and supremacy, there's little doubt we'll continuously wonder how close we are coming.

Most current household robots--including the self-propelled vacuum cleaner Roomba and scrubber Scooba, developed by iRobot, a company Brooks cofounded --and even military robots are not very smart at all. Though they can navigate the hardwood of your kitchen floor or the sandy terrain of the Iraq desert, many of them are remote-controlled by humans, and once they reach their destination, they generally perform only prescribed tasks (sending photos back from the danger zone, detonating improvised explosive devices, scrubbing and drying) rather than truly interacting with or absorbing anything from their environments.

In the works, however, are robots that combine AI models based on animal and human behavior with neuroanatomy that allows them to collect information from the outside world and modify tasks based on what their mechanical senses perceive around them. For example, Abrero, another of Brooks' robots, is outfitted with sixty-four tactile sensors on its mechanical hand. The sensors, essentially rubber domes topped with magnets, work the way the ridges on human fingers do--an object held in the robot's hand squashes the rubber in different directions as it begins to slip, changing the position of the magnets. This information is transmitted through four holotec sensors at the bottom of each dome, so Abrero can perceive it's losing its grip and immediately respond by grasping for the item. …