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#433728 AI Is Kicking Space Exploration into ...

Artificial intelligence in space exploration is gathering momentum. Over the coming years, new missions look likely to be turbo-charged by AI as we voyage to comets, moons, and planets and explore the possibilities of mining asteroids.

“AI is already a game-changer that has made scientific research and exploration much more efficient. We are not just talking about a doubling but about a multiple of ten,” Leopold Summerer, Head of the Advanced Concepts and Studies Office at ESA, said in an interview with Singularity Hub.

Examples Abound
The history of AI and space exploration is older than many probably think. It has already played a significant role in research into our planet, the solar system, and the universe. As computer systems and software have developed, so have AI’s potential use cases.

The Earth Observer 1 (EO-1) satellite is a good example. Since its launch in the early 2000s, its onboard AI systems helped optimize analysis of and response to natural occurrences, like floods and volcanic eruptions. In some cases, the AI was able to tell EO-1 to start capturing images before the ground crew were even aware that the occurrence had taken place.

Other satellite and astronomy examples abound. Sky Image Cataloging and Analysis Tool (SKICAT) has assisted with the classification of objects discovered during the second Palomar Sky Survey, classifying thousands more objects caught in low resolution than a human would be able to. Similar AI systems have helped astronomers to identify 56 new possible gravitational lenses that play a crucial role in connection with research into dark matter.

AI’s ability to trawl through vast amounts of data and find correlations will become increasingly important in relation to getting the most out of the available data. ESA’s ENVISAT produces around 400 terabytes of new data every year—but will be dwarfed by the Square Kilometre Array, which will produce around the same amount of data that is currently on the internet in a day.

AI Readying For Mars
AI is also being used for trajectory and payload optimization. Both are important preliminary steps to NASA’s next rover mission to Mars, the Mars 2020 Rover, which is, slightly ironically, set to land on the red planet in early 2021.

An AI known as AEGIS is already on the red planet onboard NASA’s current rovers. The system can handle autonomous targeting of cameras and choose what to investigate. However, the next generation of AIs will be able to control vehicles, autonomously assist with study selection, and dynamically schedule and perform scientific tasks.

Throughout his career, John Leif Jørgensen from DTU Space in Denmark has designed equipment and systems that have been on board about 100 satellites—and counting. He is part of the team behind the Mars 2020 Rover’s autonomous scientific instrument PIXL, which makes extensive use of AI. Its purpose is to investigate whether there have been lifeforms like stromatolites on Mars.

“PIXL’s microscope is situated on the rover’s arm and needs to be placed 14 millimetres from what we want it to study. That happens thanks to several cameras placed on the rover. It may sound simple, but the handover process and finding out exactly where to place the arm can be likened to identifying a building from the street from a picture taken from the roof. This is something that AI is eminently suited for,” he said in an interview with Singularity Hub.

AI also helps PIXL operate autonomously throughout the night and continuously adjust as the environment changes—the temperature changes between day and night can be more than 100 degrees Celsius, meaning that the ground beneath the rover, the cameras, the robotic arm, and the rock being studied all keep changing distance.

“AI is at the core of all of this work, and helps almost double productivity,” Jørgensen said.

First Mars, Then Moons
Mars is likely far from the final destination for AIs in space. Jupiter’s moons have long fascinated scientists. Especially Europa, which could house a subsurface ocean, buried beneath an approximately 10 km thick ice crust. It is one of the most likely candidates for finding life elsewhere in the solar system.

While that mission may be some time in the future, NASA is currently planning to launch the James Webb Space Telescope into an orbit of around 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in 2020. Part of the mission will involve AI-empowered autonomous systems overseeing the full deployment of the telescope’s 705-kilo mirror.

The distances between Earth and Europa, or Earth and the James Webb telescope, means a delay in communications. That, in turn, makes it imperative for the crafts to be able to make their own decisions. Examples from the Mars Rover project show that communication between a rover and Earth can take 20 minutes because of the vast distance. A Europa mission would see much longer communication times.

Both missions, to varying degrees, illustrate one of the most significant challenges currently facing the use of AI in space exploration. There tends to be a direct correlation between how well AI systems perform and how much data they have been fed. The more, the better, as it were. But we simply don’t have very much data to feed such a system about what it’s likely to encounter on a mission to a place like Europa.

Computing power presents a second challenge. A strenuous, time-consuming approval process and the risk of radiation mean that your computer at home would likely be more powerful than anything going into space in the near future. A 200 GHz processor, 256 megabytes of ram, and 2 gigabytes of memory sounds a lot more like a Nokia 3210 (the one you could use as an ice hockey puck without it noticing) than an iPhone X—but it’s actually the ‘brain’ that will be onboard the next rover.

Private Companies Taking Off
Private companies are helping to push those limitations. CB Insights charts 57 startups in the space-space, covering areas as diverse as natural resources, consumer tourism, R&D, satellites, spacecraft design and launch, and data analytics.

David Chew works as an engineer for the Japanese satellite company Axelspace. He explained how private companies are pushing the speed of exploration and lowering costs.

“Many private space companies are taking advantage of fall-back systems and finding ways of using parts and systems that traditional companies have thought of as non-space-grade. By implementing fall-backs, and using AI, it is possible to integrate and use parts that lower costs without adding risk of failure,” he said in an interview with Singularity Hub.

Terraforming Our Future Home
Further into the future, moonshots like terraforming Mars await. Without AI, these kinds of projects to adapt other planets to Earth-like conditions would be impossible.

Autonomous crafts are already terraforming here on Earth. BioCarbon Engineering uses drones to plant up to 100,000 trees in a single day. Drones first survey and map an area, then an algorithm decides the optimal locations for the trees before a second wave of drones carry out the actual planting.

As is often the case with exponential technologies, there is a great potential for synergies and convergence. For example with AI and robotics, or quantum computing and machine learning. Why not send an AI-driven robot to Mars and use it as a telepresence for scientists on Earth? It could be argued that we are already in the early stages of doing just that by using VR and AR systems that take data from the Mars rovers and create a virtual landscape scientists can walk around in and make decisions on what the rovers should explore next.

One of the biggest benefits of AI in space exploration may not have that much to do with its actual functions. Chew believes that within as little as ten years, we could see the first mining of asteroids in the Kuiper Belt with the help of AI.

“I think one of the things that AI does to space exploration is that it opens up a whole range of new possible industries and services that have a more immediate effect on the lives of people on Earth,” he said. “It becomes a relatable industry that has a real effect on people’s daily lives. In a way, space exploration becomes part of people’s mindset, and the border between our planet and the solar system becomes less important.”

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#433689 The Rise of Dataism: A Threat to Freedom ...

What would happen if we made all of our data public—everything from wearables monitoring our biometrics, all the way to smartphones monitoring our location, our social media activity, and even our internet search history?

Would such insights into our lives simply provide companies and politicians with greater power to invade our privacy and manipulate us by using our psychological profiles against us?

A burgeoning new philosophy called dataism doesn’t think so.

In fact, this trending ideology believes that liberating the flow of data is the supreme value of the universe, and that it could be the key to unleashing the greatest scientific revolution in the history of humanity.

What Is Dataism?
First mentioned by David Brooks in his 2013 New York Times article “The Philosophy of Data,” dataism is an ethical system that has been most heavily explored and popularized by renowned historian, Yuval Noah Harari.

In his 2016 book Homo Deus, Harari described dataism as a new form of religion that celebrates the growing importance of big data.

Its core belief centers around the idea that the universe gives greater value and support to systems, individuals, and societies that contribute most heavily and efficiently to data processing. In an interview with Wired, Harari stated, “Humans were special and important because up until now they were the most sophisticated data processing system in the universe, but this is no longer the case.”

Now, big data and machine learning are proving themselves more sophisticated, and dataists believe we should hand over as much information and power to these algorithms as possible, allowing the free flow of data to unlock innovation and progress unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Pros: Progress and Personal Growth
When you let data run freely, it’s bound to be mixed and matched in new ways that inevitably spark progress. And as we enter the exponential future where every person is constantly connected and sharing their data, the potential for such collaborative epiphanies becomes even greater.

We can already see important increases in quality of life thanks to companies like Google. With Google Maps on your phone, your position is constantly updating on their servers. This information, combined with everyone else on the planet using a phone with Google Maps, allows your phone to inform you of traffic conditions. Based on the speed and location of nearby phones, Google can reroute you to less congested areas or help you avoid accidents. And since you trust that these algorithms have more data than you, you gladly hand over your power to them, following your GPS’s directions rather than your own.

We can do the same sort of thing with our bodies.

Imagine, for instance, a world where each person has biosensors in their bloodstreams—a not unlikely or distant possibility when considering diabetic people already wear insulin pumps that constantly monitor their blood sugar levels. And let’s assume this data was freely shared to the world.

Now imagine a virus like Zika or the Bird Flu breaks out. Thanks to this technology, the odd change in biodata coming from a particular region flags an artificial intelligence that feeds data to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). Recognizing that a pandemic could be possible, AIs begin 3D printing vaccines on-demand, predicting the number of people who may be afflicted. When our personal AIs tell us the locations of the spreading epidemic and to take the vaccine it just delivered by drone to our homes, are we likely to follow its instructions? Almost certainly—and if so, it’s likely millions, if not billions, of lives will have been saved.

But to quickly create such vaccines, we’ll also need to liberate research.

Currently, universities and companies seeking to benefit humankind with medical solutions have to pay extensively to organize clinical trials and to find people who match their needs. But if all our biodata was freely aggregated, perhaps they could simply say “monitor all people living with cancer” to an AI, and thanks to the constant stream of data coming in from the world’s population, a machine learning program may easily be able to detect a pattern and create a cure.

As always in research, the more sample data you have, the higher the chance that such patterns will emerge. If data is flowing freely, then anyone in the world can suddenly decide they have a hunch they want to explore, and without having to spend months and months of time and money hunting down the data, they can simply test their hypothesis.

Whether garage tinkerers, at-home scientists, or PhD students—an abundance of free data allows for science to progress unhindered, each person able to operate without being slowed by lack of data. And any progress they make is immediately liberated, becoming free data shared with anyone else that may find a use for it.

Any individual with a curious passion would have the entire world’s data at their fingertips, empowering every one of us to become an expert in any subject that inspires us. Expertise we can then share back into the data stream—a positive feedback loop spearheading progress for the entirety of humanity’s knowledge.

Such exponential gains represent a dataism utopia.

Unfortunately, our current incentives and economy also show us the tragic failures of this model.

As Harari has pointed out, the rise of datism means that “humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of ‘free will’ is under threat.”

Cons: Manipulation and Extortion
In 2017, The Economist declared that data was the most valuable resource on the planet—even more valuable than oil.

Perhaps this is because data is ‘priceless’: it represents understanding, and understanding represents control. And so, in the world of advertising and politics, having data on your consumers and voters gives you an incredible advantage.

This was evidenced by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it’s believed that Donald Trump and the architects of Brexit leveraged users’ Facebook data to create psychological profiles that enabled them to manipulate the masses.

How powerful are these psychological models?

A team who built a model similar to that used by Cambridge Analytica said their model could understand someone as well as a coworker with access to only 10 Facebook likes. With 70 likes they could know them as well as a friend might, 150 likes to match their parents’ understanding, and at 300 likes they could even come to know someone better than their lovers. With more likes, they could even come to know someone better than that person knows themselves.

Proceeding With Caution
In a capitalist democracy, do we want businesses and politicians to know us better than we know ourselves?

In spite of the remarkable benefits that may result for our species by freely giving away our information, do we run the risk of that data being used to exploit and manipulate the masses towards a future without free will, where our daily lives are puppeteered by those who own our data?

It’s extremely possible.

And it’s for this reason that one of the most important conversations we’ll have as a species centers around data ownership: do we just give ownership of the data back to the users, allowing them to choose who to sell or freely give their data to? Or will that simply deter the entrepreneurial drive and cause all of the free services we use today, like Google Search and Facebook, to begin charging inaccessible prices? How much are we willing to pay for our freedom? And how much do we actually care?

If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that humans are willing to give up more privacy than they like to think. Fifteen years ago, it would have been crazy to suggest we’d all allow ourselves to be tracked by our cars, phones, and daily check-ins to our favorite neighborhood locations; but now most of us see it as a worthwhile trade for optimized commutes and dating. As we continue navigating that fine line between exploitation and innovation into a more technological future, what other trade-offs might we be willing to make?

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#433634 This Robotic Skin Makes Inanimate ...

In Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made world-famous by its adaptation in Disney’s Fantasia, a lazy apprentice, left to fetch water, uses magic to bewitch a broom into performing his chores for him. Now, new research from Yale has opened up the possibility of being able to animate—and automate—household objects by fitting them with a robotic skin.

Yale’s Soft Robotics lab, the Faboratory, is led by Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, and has long investigated the possibilities associated with new kinds of manufacturing. While the typical image of a robot is hard, cold steel and rigid movements, soft robotics aims to create something more flexible and versatile. After all, the human body is made up of soft, flexible surfaces, and the world is designed for us. Soft, deformable robots could change shape to adapt to different tasks.

When designing a robot, key components are the robot’s sensors, which allow it to perceive its environment, and its actuators, the electrical or pneumatic motors that allow the robot to move and interact with its environment.

Consider your hand, which has temperature and pressure sensors, but also muscles as actuators. The omni-skins, as the Science Robotics paper dubs them, combine sensors and actuators, embedding them into an elastic sheet. The robotic skins are moved by pneumatic actuators or memory alloy that can bounce back into shape. If this is then wrapped around a soft, deformable object, moving the skin with the actuators can allow the object to crawl along a surface.

The key to the design here is flexibility: rather than adding chips, sensors, and motors into every household object to turn them into individual automatons, the same skin can be used for many purposes. “We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task—locomotion, for example—and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” said Kramer-Bottiglio. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”

The task is then to dream up applications for the omni-skins. Initially, you might imagine demanding a stuffed toy to fetch the remote control for you, or animating a sponge to wipe down kitchen surfaces—but this is just the beginning. The scientists attached the skins to a soft tube and camera, creating a worm-like robot that could compress itself and crawl into small spaces for rescue missions. The same skins could then be worn by a person to sense their posture. One could easily imagine this being adapted into a soft exoskeleton for medical or industrial purposes: for example, helping with rehabilitation after an accident or injury.

The initial motivating factor for creating the robots was in an environment where space and weight are at a premium, and humans are forced to improvise with whatever’s at hand: outer space. Kramer-Bottoglio originally began the work after NASA called out for soft robotics systems for use by astronauts. Instead of wasting valuable rocket payload by sending up a heavy metal droid like ATLAS to fetch items or perform repairs, soft robotic skins with modular sensors could be adapted for a range of different uses spontaneously.

By reassembling components in the soft robotic skin, a crumpled ball of paper could provide the chassis for a robot that performs repairs on the spaceship, or explores the lunar surface. The dynamic compression provided by the robotic skin could be used for g-suits to protect astronauts when they rapidly accelerate or decelerate.

“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multi-functionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable. The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? … Given the design-on-the-fly nature of this approach, it’s unlikely that a robot created using robotic skins will perform any one task optimally,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “However, the goal is not optimization, but rather diversity of applications.”

There are still problems to resolve. Many of the videos of the skins indicate that they can rely on an external power supply. Creating new, smaller batteries that can power wearable devices has been a focus of cutting-edge materials science research for some time. Much of the lab’s expertise is in creating flexible, stretchable electronics that can be deformed by the actuators without breaking the circuitry. In the future, the team hopes to work on streamlining the production process; if the components could be 3D printed, then the skins could be created when needed.

In addition, robotic hardware that’s capable of performing an impressive range of precise motions is quite an advanced technology. The software to control those robots, and enable them to perform a variety of tasks, is quite another challenge. With soft robots, it can become even more complex to design that control software, because the body itself can change shape and deform as the robot moves. The same set of programmed motions, then, can produce different results depending on the environment.

“Let’s say I have a soft robot with four legs that crawls along the ground, and I make it walk up a hard slope,” Dr. David Howard, who works on robotics at CSIRO in Australia, explained to ABC.

“If I make that slope out of gravel and I give it the same control commands, the actual body is going to deform in a different way, and I’m not necessarily going to know what that is.”

Despite these and other challenges, research like that at the Faboratory still hopes to redefine how we think of robots and robotics. Instead of a robot that imitates a human and manipulates objects, the objects themselves will become programmable matter, capable of moving autonomously and carrying out a range of tasks. Futurists speculate about a world where most objects are automated to some degree and can assemble and repair themselves, or are even built entirely of tiny robots.

The tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was first written in 1797, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, over a century before the word “robot” was even coined. Yet more and more roboticists aim to prove Arthur C Clarke’s maxim: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432193 Are ‘You’ Just Inside Your Skin or ...

In November 2017, a gunman entered a church in Sutherland Springs in Texas, where he killed 26 people and wounded 20 others. He escaped in his car, with police and residents in hot pursuit, before losing control of the vehicle and flipping it into a ditch. When the police got to the car, he was dead. The episode is horrifying enough without its unsettling epilogue. In the course of their investigations, the FBI reportedly pressed the gunman’s finger to the fingerprint-recognition feature on his iPhone in an attempt to unlock it. Regardless of who’s affected, it’s disquieting to think of the police using a corpse to break into someone’s digital afterlife.

Most democratic constitutions shield us from unwanted intrusions into our brains and bodies. They also enshrine our entitlement to freedom of thought and mental privacy. That’s why neurochemical drugs that interfere with cognitive functioning can’t be administered against a person’s will unless there’s a clear medical justification. Similarly, according to scholarly opinion, law-enforcement officials can’t compel someone to take a lie-detector test, because that would be an invasion of privacy and a violation of the right to remain silent.

But in the present era of ubiquitous technology, philosophers are beginning to ask whether biological anatomy really captures the entirety of who we are. Given the role they play in our lives, do our devices deserve the same protections as our brains and bodies?

After all, your smartphone is much more than just a phone. It can tell a more intimate story about you than your best friend. No other piece of hardware in history, not even your brain, contains the quality or quantity of information held on your phone: it ‘knows’ whom you speak to, when you speak to them, what you said, where you have been, your purchases, photos, biometric data, even your notes to yourself—and all this dating back years.

In 2014, the United States Supreme Court used this observation to justify the decision that police must obtain a warrant before rummaging through our smartphones. These devices “are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy,” as Chief Justice John Roberts observed in his written opinion.

The Chief Justice probably wasn’t making a metaphysical point—but the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers were when they argued in “The Extended Mind” (1998) that technology is actually part of us. According to traditional cognitive science, “thinking” is a process of symbol manipulation or neural computation, which gets carried out by the brain. Clark and Chalmers broadly accept this computational theory of mind, but claim that tools can become seamlessly integrated into how we think. Objects such as smartphones or notepads are often just as functionally essential to our cognition as the synapses firing in our heads. They augment and extend our minds by increasing our cognitive power and freeing up internal resources.

If accepted, the extended mind thesis threatens widespread cultural assumptions about the inviolate nature of thought, which sits at the heart of most legal and social norms. As the US Supreme Court declared in 1942: “freedom to think is absolute of its own nature; the most tyrannical government is powerless to control the inward workings of the mind.” This view has its origins in thinkers such as John Locke and René Descartes, who argued that the human soul is locked in a physical body, but that our thoughts exist in an immaterial world, inaccessible to other people. One’s inner life thus needs protecting only when it is externalized, such as through speech. Many researchers in cognitive science still cling to this Cartesian conception—only, now, the private realm of thought coincides with activity in the brain.

But today’s legal institutions are straining against this narrow concept of the mind. They are trying to come to grips with how technology is changing what it means to be human, and to devise new normative boundaries to cope with this reality. Justice Roberts might not have known about the idea of the extended mind, but it supports his wry observation that smartphones have become part of our body. If our minds now encompass our phones, we are essentially cyborgs: part-biology, part-technology. Given how our smartphones have taken over what were once functions of our brains—remembering dates, phone numbers, addresses—perhaps the data they contain should be treated on a par with the information we hold in our heads. So if the law aims to protect mental privacy, its boundaries would need to be pushed outwards to give our cyborg anatomy the same protections as our brains.

This line of reasoning leads to some potentially radical conclusions. Some philosophers have argued that when we die, our digital devices should be handled as remains: if your smartphone is a part of who you are, then perhaps it should be treated more like your corpse than your couch. Similarly, one might argue that trashing someone’s smartphone should be seen as a form of “extended” assault, equivalent to a blow to the head, rather than just destruction of property. If your memories are erased because someone attacks you with a club, a court would have no trouble characterizing the episode as a violent incident. So if someone breaks your smartphone and wipes its contents, perhaps the perpetrator should be punished as they would be if they had caused a head trauma.

The extended mind thesis also challenges the law’s role in protecting both the content and the means of thought—that is, shielding what and how we think from undue influence. Regulation bars non-consensual interference in our neurochemistry (for example, through drugs), because that meddles with the contents of our mind. But if cognition encompasses devices, then arguably they should be subject to the same prohibitions. Perhaps some of the techniques that advertisers use to hijack our attention online, to nudge our decision-making or manipulate search results, should count as intrusions on our cognitive process. Similarly, in areas where the law protects the means of thought, it might need to guarantee access to tools such as smartphones—in the same way that freedom of expression protects people’s right not only to write or speak, but also to use computers and disseminate speech over the internet.

The courts are still some way from arriving at such decisions. Besides the headline-making cases of mass shooters, there are thousands of instances each year in which police authorities try to get access to encrypted devices. Although the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution protects individuals’ right to remain silent (and therefore not give up a passcode), judges in several states have ruled that police can forcibly use fingerprints to unlock a user’s phone. (With the new facial-recognition feature on the iPhone X, police might only need to get an unwitting user to look at her phone.) These decisions reflect the traditional concept that the rights and freedoms of an individual end at the skin.

But the concept of personal rights and freedoms that guides our legal institutions is outdated. It is built on a model of a free individual who enjoys an untouchable inner life. Now, though, our thoughts can be invaded before they have even been developed—and in a way, perhaps this is nothing new. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman used to say that he thought with his notebook. Without a pen and pencil, a great deal of complex reflection and analysis would never have been possible. If the extended mind view is right, then even simple technologies such as these would merit recognition and protection as a part of the essential toolkit of the mind.This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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#432051 What Roboticists Are Learning From Early ...

You might not have heard of Hanson Robotics, but if you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen their work. They were the company behind Sophia, the lifelike humanoid avatar that’s made dozens of high-profile media appearances. Before that, they were the company behind that strange-looking robot that seemed a bit like Asimo with Albert Einstein’s head—or maybe you saw BINA48, who was interviewed for the New York Times in 2010 and featured in Jon Ronson’s books. For the sci-fi aficionados amongst you, they even made a replica of legendary author Philip K. Dick, best remembered for having books with titles like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? turned into films with titles like Blade Runner.

Hanson Robotics, in other words, with their proprietary brand of life-like humanoid robots, have been playing the same game for a while. Sometimes it can be a frustrating game to watch. Anyone who gives the robot the slightest bit of thought will realize that this is essentially a chat-bot, with all the limitations this implies. Indeed, even in that New York Times interview with BINA48, author Amy Harmon describes it as a frustrating experience—with “rare (but invariably thrilling) moments of coherence.” This sensation will be familiar to anyone who’s conversed with a chatbot that has a few clever responses.

The glossy surface belies the lack of real intelligence underneath; it seems, at first glance, like a much more advanced machine than it is. Peeling back that surface layer—at least for a Hanson robot—means you’re peeling back Frubber. This proprietary substance—short for “Flesh Rubber,” which is slightly nightmarish—is surprisingly complicated. Up to thirty motors are required just to control the face; they manipulate liquid cells in order to make the skin soft, malleable, and capable of a range of different emotional expressions.

A quick combinatorial glance at the 30+ motors suggests that there are millions of possible combinations; researchers identify 62 that they consider “human-like” in Sophia, although not everyone agrees with this assessment. Arguably, the technical expertise that went into reconstructing the range of human facial expressions far exceeds the more simplistic chat engine the robots use, although it’s the second one that allows it to inflate the punters’ expectations with a few pre-programmed questions in an interview.

Hanson Robotics’ belief is that, ultimately, a lot of how humans will eventually relate to robots is going to depend on their faces and voices, as well as on what they’re saying. “The perception of identity is so intimately bound up with the perception of the human form,” says David Hanson, company founder.

Yet anyone attempting to design a robot that won’t terrify people has to contend with the uncanny valley—that strange blend of concern and revulsion people react with when things appear to be creepily human. Between cartoonish humanoids and genuine humans lies what has often been a no-go zone in robotic aesthetics.

The uncanny valley concept originated with roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that roboticists should avoid trying to replicate humans exactly. Since anything that wasn’t perfect, but merely very good, would elicit an eerie feeling in humans, shirking the challenge entirely was the only way to avoid the uncanny valley. It’s probably a task made more difficult by endless streams of articles about AI taking over the world that inexplicably conflate AI with killer humanoid Terminators—which aren’t particularly likely to exist (although maybe it’s best not to push robots around too much).

The idea behind this realm of psychological horror is fairly simple, cognitively speaking.

We know how to categorize things that are unambiguously human or non-human. This is true even if they’re designed to interact with us. Consider the popularity of Aibo, Jibo, or even some robots that don’t try to resemble humans. Something that resembles a human, but isn’t quite right, is bound to evoke a fear response in the same way slightly distorted music or slightly rearranged furniture in your home will. The creature simply doesn’t fit.

You may well reject the idea of the uncanny valley entirely. David Hanson, naturally, is not a fan. In the paper Upending the Uncanny Valley, he argues that great art forms have often resembled humans, but the ultimate goal for humanoid roboticists is probably to create robots we can relate to as something closer to humans than works of art.

Meanwhile, Hanson and other scientists produce competing experiments to either demonstrate that the uncanny valley is overhyped, or to confirm it exists and probe its edges.

The classic experiment involves gradually morphing a cartoon face into a human face, via some robotic-seeming intermediaries—yet it’s in movement that the real horror of the almost-human often lies. Hanson has argued that incorporating cartoonish features may help—and, sometimes, that the uncanny valley is a generational thing which will melt away when new generations grow used to the quirks of robots. Although Hanson might dispute the severity of this effect, it’s clearly what he’s trying to avoid with each new iteration.

Hiroshi Ishiguro is the latest of the roboticists to have dived headlong into the valley.

Building on the work of pioneers like Hanson, those who study human-robot interaction are pushing at the boundaries of robotics—but also of social science. It’s usually difficult to simulate what you don’t understand, and there’s still an awful lot we don’t understand about how we interpret the constant streams of non-verbal information that flow when you interact with people in the flesh.

Ishiguro took this imitation of human forms to extreme levels. Not only did he monitor and log the physical movements people made on videotapes, but some of his robots are based on replicas of people; the Repliee series began with a ‘replicant’ of his daughter. This involved making a rubber replica—a silicone cast—of her entire body. Future experiments were focused on creating Geminoid, a replica of Ishiguro himself.

As Ishiguro aged, he realized that it would be more effective to resemble his replica through cosmetic surgery rather than by continually creating new casts of his face, each with more lines than the last. “I decided not to get old anymore,” Ishiguro said.

We love to throw around abstract concepts and ideas: humans being replaced by machines, cared for by machines, getting intimate with machines, or even merging themselves with machines. You can take an idea like that, hold it in your hand, and examine it—dispassionately, if not without interest. But there’s a gulf between thinking about it and living in a world where human-robot interaction is not a field of academic research, but a day-to-day reality.

As the scientists studying human-robot interaction develop their robots, their replicas, and their experiments, they are making some of the first forays into that world. We might all be living there someday. Understanding ourselves—decrypting the origins of empathy and love—may be the greatest challenge to face. That is, if you want to avoid the valley.

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Posted in Human Robots