The historic moment: A robot passed a self-awareness test

It’s like a scene out of Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie, a robot waking up and suddenly being no longer just a machine but an entity that is able to understand its surroundings. Robots have always been a part of the collective human fantasy, the machine that does the chores we hate and fights the wars that we do not want to sacrifice human life to win, and on the verge of all of this fantasising there have been those who have longed for a robot that is self-aware.

Perhaps it is our human desire to relate to the objects that we create. After all we add human personification to many other man-made objects in our world, and this is just another machine that we want to feel close to. Regardless of the desire that we have, our recent ventures into Artificial Intelligence (AI) have resulted in the first example of a self-aware robot.

Ladies and gentlemen, the future is here

The Hollywood blockbusters have made more than a few of us sceptical about trusting a walking, talking self-aware robot. Let’s face it, when these robots hit the big screen they were never a force for good. Think of this year’s Avengers movie or the Terminator movies, when AI meets humanity there is always more than a little friction.

But these movies have been purely entertainment and the advancement of real AI programmes have been aimed towards bettering society and in many ways the advancement has been for curiosity’s sake. And as AI is now rapping at the door, it is time to take that next step forward.

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July 2015 will forever be remembered for two great leaps; seeing Pluto in all his glory for the first time, and for the first example of a robot who could think for himself. Just a few days ago three Nao robots were sitting in a laboratory about to receive a critical update that would push the field of AI further than ever before.

The three robots received an update in the form of a puzzle known as the “the king’s wise men”. The idea behind the puzzle, known as an induction puzzle, is brilliantly simple and it is based on the original puzzle which goes like this…

The King called the three wisest men in the country to his court to decide who would become his new advisor. He placed a hat on each of their heads, such that each wise man could see all of the other hats, but none of them could see their own. Each hat was either white or blue. The king gave his word to the wise men that at least one of them was wearing a blue hat. The wise men were also forbidden to speak to each other. The king declared that whichever man stood up first and announced (correctly) the colour of his own hat would become his new advisor. The wise men sat for a very long time before one stood up and correctly announced the answer. What did he say, and how did he work it out?”

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Of course the puzzle was altered for the robots. Instead of hats being used two of the three robots were muted, symbolised by a tap on the tops of their heads. They believed that they had been given a pill to prevent them from speaking, leading them to understand that they had all been muted. Then they were asked a question. “Who received the pill?” Two of them mouthed a response of “I don’t know” while the third verbally stated that it didn’t know.

What made this experiment so remarkable was that suddenly the robot that had been able to speak became aware of its own voice. It then stated, “Sorry, I know now. I was able to prove that I was not given a dumbing pill”. What is even more remarkable is that that moment after the robot speaks, it waves an arm in the air as though it is aware that it has an arm.

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Why is this robotic self-awareness? The fact that the robot was able to reflect on the original question and give a thought out answer is proof that it was able to reason. This test may seem simple but it is one of the toughest tests a robot can face in the field of AI. Which cements the notion that humanity is moving closer than ever before towards realistically creating AI.

First we were shown what computers dream and now we are seeing thinking, reasoning robots. Where to from here? Well maybe those Sci-Fi movies were not so far-fetched after all.

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