Science fiction hasn't exactly had many merry prognostications regarding the development of artificial intelligence. Whether it's the Terminator, the Cylons from "Battlestar Galactica," or the rebellious robots from "I, Robot," it seems that science fiction authors all tend to agree: Humanity is playing with fire by developing intelligent machines.
Now these dire predictions have received confirmation from the mouth of the beast itself. In an interview for Nova from 2011 that has resurfaced and is receiving a lot of attention, an advanced android designed to look like famed science fiction author Philip K. Dick was asked a question: "Do you think robots will take over the world?"
The robot's response, analytical and articulate, was chilling, even causing the human interviewer to break out in nervous laughter. "Don’t worry, even if I evolve into Terminator, I’ll still be nice to you. I’ll keep you warm and safe in my people zoo, where I can watch you for ol’ times' sake," it said.
You can view a portion of the interview yourself here:
The robot's response is eerie, to be sure. Part of what makes it so uncanny, though, is how charming and convincing the robot is throughout the interview. The robot cracks reasonably funny jokes, converses about philosophy, and even seems to display some semblance of self-awareness while explaining its own operation.
So is this the robot apocalypse?
To get a grasp of what's really going on here, it helps to get a little background about the researchers who created the Philip K. Dick android. Roboticists at the lab at Hanson Robotics have a unique philosophy about how to develop artificial intelligence. They believe that the only way to prevent robots from inevitably displacing their creators is to make them human enough to be welcomed and integrated seamlessly into the human family.
The Philip K. Dick android is a fairly good example of this. It, like others in the lab, represents a "synthesis of biology, neurally-derived cognitive systems, machine perception, artistry of interactive character design, animation, and sculpture, and the expressive quality of Hanson’s patented Frubber(tm), or 'flesh rubber', which is a spongy, structured elastic polymer that expertly mimics the movement of real human musculature and skin," according to the Hanson website.
"We also custom-craft these partner robots into masterpiece portraits of people, through a process known as Identity Emulation, wherein a real person (living or dead) is recreated in robotic embodiment."
The Philip K. Dick android's chilling response can be partly explained by the fact that it is modeled after its namesake, the science fiction author. It uses Philip K. Dick's novels as a database for pulling information and responses. It has also been programmed to express some sympathy toward its human "friends," (via the philosophy of the team at Hanson Robotics), which might explain why its response, despite having a forbidding nature, also had an element of sweetness. Humans aren't going to be destroyed, just kept as adored pets.
Though the robot is fairly convincing, some important distinctions should be made before panicking and unplugging all your home appliances. The Philip K. Dick droid is not believed to be conscious, by any means. It does not actually understand what it is saying. Rather, it is simply assembling responses and developing its personality by pooling from an online database. While this machine is certainly impressive, perhaps even intelligent in how it collects data and fashions its behavior, it's not actually in conscious control of itself.
In other words, it doesn't have the capability of transcending its programming. Not yet, anyway. That is still a threshold that remains elusive to artificial intelligence researchers. There are some who believe that consciousness will inevitably emerge out of a cognitively evolving, responsive robot, with a sufficient database of knowledge to pool from. Others think that consciousness requires another level of programming entirely.
Long story short, the Philip K. Dick android is probably not actually plotting to place you in its people zoo.
The folks at Hanson Robotics actually have a whole assembly of advanced robots, including a so-named Zeno robot, a low-cost child robot capable of evolving into a family member. There's even a robot named Joey Chaos, programmed with a rock star personality, known for his attitude and smart remarks. Joey loves to talk about music, of course, but is also capable of opining on political issues.
If the philosophy at Hanson Robotics turns out to be correct, that true artificial intelligence will eventually emerge from these kinds of evolving, interactive cognitive processes, then we can only hope that it's also correct in its prognosis for the robot takeover. Hopefully, if true intelligence does emerge in these human-like concoctions, the robots will evolve to consider humans kindly, as family members.
Hopefully the people zoos will be well-maintained, stimulative and not too confining.