Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I Think, Therefore I Am An Automaton

Robotics scientists are engineering machines that are self-aware. While there are some limits to the scope of these attempts so far, it all seems pretty amazing. A recent article in Scientific American (thanks to SMT and ASV for sending me the link) describes the some of the different ways that researchers are getting machines to learn from their own behavior, adapt to their surroundings, and change the way they interpret data. The experiments in metacognition and theory of mind are particularly arresting, as they draw together robots and AI in a way that humans in the western intellectual tradition have often found stimulating and terrifying. I've written before about medieval artificial intelligents (pun intended), but there are more well-known examples from more contemporary culture. Self-aware automata (or networked AI) is usually either presented as sinister (Skynet, which rightfully views humanity as a threat to its existence and tries to annihilate it) or tragic (Helen, the conscious computer in Galatea 2.2, who annihilates her "self" by disconnecting from the network). But my favorite self-aware machine is the Banana Jr. 6000, Oliver Wendell Jones' computer from Bloom County.

Still, I can't help but wonder if, some years from how, historians will point to this moment to mark the beginning of the arrival of our machine overlords.

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