What is artificial intelligence? (Or, can machines think?)

21 June 2018

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Here are the slides from my York Festival of Ideas keynote yesterday, which introduced the festival focus day Artificial Intelligence: Promises and Perils.

I start the keynote with Alan Turing’s famous question: Can a Machine Think? and explain that thinking is not just the conscious reflection of Rodin’s Thinker but also the largely unconscious thinking required to make a pot of tea. I note that at the dawn of AI 60 years ago we believed the former kind of thinking would be really difficult to emulate artificially and the latter easy. In fact it has turned out to be the other way round: we’ve had computers that can expertly play chess for over 20 years, but we can’t yet build a robot that could go into your kitchen and make you a cup of tea (see also the Wozniak coffee test).

In slides 5 and 6 I suggest that we all assume a cat is smarter than a crocodile, which is smarter than a cockroach, on a linear scale of intelligence from not very intelligent to human intelligence. I ask where would a robot vacuum cleaner be on this scale and propose that such a robot is about as smart as an e-coli (single celled organism). I then illustrate the difficulty of placing the Actroid robot on this scale because, although it may look convincingly human (from a distance), in reality the robot is not very much smarter than a washing machine (and I hint that this is an ethical problem).

In slide 7 I show how apparently intelligent behaviour doesn’t require a brain, with the Solarbot. This robot is an example of a Braitenberg machine. It has two solar panels (which look a bit like wings) acting as both sensors and power sources; the left hand panel is connected to the right hand wheel and vice versa. These direct connections mean that Solarbot can move towards the light and even navigate its way through obstacles, thus showing that intelligent behaviour is an emergent property of the interactions between body and environment.

In slide 8 I ask the question: What is the most advanced AI in the world today? (A question I am often asked.) Is it for example David Hanson’s robot Sophia (which some press reports have claimed as the world’s most advanced)? I argue it is not, since it is a chatbot AI – with a limited conversational repertoire – with a physical body (imagine Alexa with a humanoid head). Is it the DeepMind AI AlphaGo which famously beat the world’s best Go player in 2016? Although very impressive I again argue no since AlphaGo cannot do anything other than play Go. Instead I suggest that everyday Google might well be the world’s most advanced AI (on this I agree with my friend Joanna Bryson). Google is in effect a librarian able to find a book from an immense library for you – on the basis of your ill formed query – more or less instantly! (And this librarian is poly lingual too.)

In slides 9 I make the point that intelligence is not one thing that animals, robots and AIs have more or less of (in other words the linear scale shown on slides 5 and 6 is wrong). Then in slides 10 – 13 I propose four distinct categories of intelligence: morphological, swarm, individual and social intelligence. I suggest in slides 14 – 16 that if we express these as four axes of a graph then we can (very approximately) compare the intelligence of different organisms, including humans. In slide 17 I show some robots and argue that this graph shows why robots are so unintelligent; it is because robots generally only have two of the four kinds of intelligence whereas animals typically have three or sometimes all four. A detailed account of these ideas can be found in my paper How intelligent is your intelligent robot?

In the next segment, slides 18-20 I ask: how do we make Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)? I suggest that the key difference between current narrow AI and AGI is the ability – which comes very naturally to humans – to generalise knowledge learned in one context to a completely different context. This I think is the basis of human creativity. Using Data from Star Trek the next generation as a SF example of an AGI with human-equivalent intelligence as what we might be aiming for in the quest for AGI I explain that there are 3 approaches to getting there: by design, using artificial evolution or by reverse engineering animals. I offer the opinion that the gap between where we are now and Data like AGI is about the same as the gap between current space craft engine technology and warp drive technology. In other words not any time soon.

In the fourth segment of the talk (slides 21-24) I give a very brief account of evolutionary robotics – a method for breeding robots in much the same way farmers have artificially selected new varieties of plants and animals for thousands of years. I illustrate this with the wonderful Golem project which, for the first time, evolved simple creatures then 3D printed the most successful ones. I then introduce our new four year EPSRC funded project Autonomous Robot Evolution: from cradle to grave. In a radical new approach we aim to co-evolve robot bodies and brains in real-time and real-space. Using techniques from 3D printing new robot designs will literally be printed, before being trained in a nursery, then fitness tested in a target environment. With this approach we hope to be able to evolve robots for extreme environments, however because the energy costs are so high I do not think evolution is a route to truly thinking machines.

In the final segment (slides 25-35) I return to the approach of trying to design rather than evolve thinking machines. I introduce the idea of embedding a simulation of a robot in that robot, so that it has the ability to internally model itself. The first example I give is the amazing anthropomimetic robot invented by my old friend Owen Holland, called ECCEROBOT. Eccerobot is able to learn how to control it’s own very complicated and hard-to-control body by trying out possible movement sequences in its internal model (Owen calls this a ‘functional imagination’). I then outline our own work to use the same principle – a simulation based internal model – to demonstrate simple ethical behaviours, first with e-puck robots, then with NAO robots. These experiments are described in detail here and here. I suggest that these robots – with their ability to model and predict the consequences of their own and others’ actions, in other words anticipate the future – may represent the first small steps toward thinking machines.

Related blog posts:
60 years of asking can robot think?

How intelligent are intelligent robots?

Robot bodies and how to evolve them


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

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