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Robotics has a new kind of Cartesian Dualism, and it’s just as unhelpful

I believe robotics has re-invented mind-body dualism.

At the excellent European Robotics Forum earlier this year, I attended a workshop called AI meets Robotics. The thinking behind the workshop was:

The fields of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics were strongly connected in the early days of AI, but became mostly disconnected later on. While there are several attempts at tackling them together, these attempts remain isolated points in a landscape whose overall structure and extent is not clear. Recently, it was suggested that even the otherwise successful EC program “Cognitive systems and robotics” was not entirely effective in putting together the two sides of cognitive systems and of robotics.

I couldn’t agree more. Actually I would go further and suggest that robotics has a much bigger problem than we think. It’s a new kind of dualism which parallels Cartesian brain-mind dualism, except in robotics, it’s hardware-software dualism. And like Cartesian dualism it could prove just as unhelpful, both conceptually, and practically – in our quest to build intelligent robots.

While sitting in the workshop last week I realised rather sheepishly that I’m guilty of the same kind of dualistic thinking. In my Introduction to Robotics one of the (three) ways I define a robot is: an embodied Artificial Intelligence. And I go on to explain:

a robot is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) with a physical body. The AI is the thing that provides the robot with its purposefulness of action, its cognition; without the AI the robot would just be a useless mechanical shell. A robot’s body is made of mechanical and electronic parts, including a microcomputer, and the AI made by the software running in the microcomputer. The robot analogue of mind/body is software/hardware. A robot’s software – its programming – is the thing that determines how intelligently it behaves, or whether it behaves at all.

But, as I said in the workshop, we must stop thinking of cognitive robots as either “a robot body with added AI”, or “an AI with added motors and sensors”. Instead we need a new kind of holistic approach that explicitly seeks to avoid this lazy “with added” thinking.

[This post originally appeared on Alan Winfield’s blog on March 24, 2013.]

Alan Winfield is Professor in robotics at UWE Bristol. He communicates about science on his personal blog... read more

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