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#432671 Stuff 3.0: The Era of Programmable ...

It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.

In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?

This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”

In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.

Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.

Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.

Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.

Such are the dreams, anyway.

But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”

Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.

For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.

One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.

Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.

Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.

In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.

You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).

Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.

Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.

Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?

We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.

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#432568 Tech Optimists See a Golden ...

Technology evangelists dream about a future where we’re all liberated from the more mundane aspects of our jobs by artificial intelligence. Other futurists go further, imagining AI will enable us to become superhuman, enhancing our intelligence, abandoning our mortal bodies, and uploading ourselves to the cloud.

Paradise is all very well, although your mileage may vary on whether these scenarios are realistic or desirable. The real question is, how do we get there?

Economist John Maynard Keynes notably argued in favor of active intervention when an economic crisis hits, rather than waiting for the markets to settle down to a more healthy equilibrium in the long run. His rebuttal to critics was, “In the long run, we are all dead.” After all, if it takes 50 years of upheaval and economic chaos for things to return to normality, there has been an immense amount of human suffering first.

Similar problems arise with the transition to a world where AI is intimately involved in our lives. In the long term, automation of labor might benefit the human species immensely. But in the short term, it has all kinds of potential pitfalls, especially in exacerbating inequality within societies where AI takes on a larger role. A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research has deep concerns about the future of work.

Uneven Distribution
While the report doesn’t foresee the same gloom and doom of mass unemployment that other commentators have considered, the concern is that the gains in productivity and economic benefits from AI will be unevenly distributed. In the UK, jobs that account for £290 billion worth of wages in today’s economy could potentially be automated with current technology. But these are disproportionately jobs held by people who are already suffering from social inequality.

Low-wage jobs are five times more likely to be automated than high-wage jobs. A greater proportion of jobs held by women are likely to be automated. The solution that’s often suggested is that people should simply “retrain”; but if no funding or assistance is provided, this burden is too much to bear. You can’t expect people to seamlessly transition from driving taxis to writing self-driving car software without help. As we have already seen, inequality is exacerbated when jobs that don’t require advanced education (even if they require a great deal of technical skill) are the first to go.

No Room for Beginners
Optimists say algorithms won’t replace humans, but will instead liberate us from the dull parts of our jobs. Lawyers used to have to spend hours trawling through case law to find legal precedents; now AI can identify the most relevant documents for them. Doctors no longer need to look through endless scans and perform diagnostic tests; machines can do this, leaving the decision-making to humans. This boosts productivity and provides invaluable tools for workers.

But there are issues with this rosy picture. If humans need to do less work, the economic incentive is for the boss to reduce their hours. Some of these “dull, routine” parts of the job were traditionally how people getting into the field learned the ropes: paralegals used to look through case law, but AI may render them obsolete. Even in the field of journalism, there’s now software that will rewrite press releases for publication, traditionally something close to an entry-level task. If there are no entry-level jobs, or if entry-level now requires years of training, the result is to exacerbate inequality and reduce social mobility.

Automating Our Biases
The adoption of algorithms into employment has already had negative impacts on equality. Cathy O’Neil, mathematics PhD from Harvard, raises these concerns in her excellent book Weapons of Math Destruction. She notes that algorithms designed by humans often encode the biases of that society, whether they’re racial or based on gender and sexuality.

Google’s search engine advertises more executive-level jobs to users it thinks are male. AI programs predict that black offenders are more likely to re-offend than white offenders; they receive correspondingly longer sentences. It needn’t necessarily be that bias has been actively programmed; perhaps the algorithms just learn from historical data, but this means they will perpetuate historical inequalities.

Take candidate-screening software HireVue, used by many major corporations to assess new employees. It analyzes “verbal and non-verbal cues” of candidates, comparing them to employees that historically did well. Either way, according to Cathy O’Neil, they are “using people’s fear and trust of mathematics to prevent them from asking questions.” With no transparency or understanding of how the algorithm generates its results, and no consensus over who’s responsible for the results, discrimination can occur automatically, on a massive scale.

Combine this with other demographic trends. In rich countries, people are living longer. An increasing burden will be placed on a shrinking tax base to support that elderly population. A recent study said that due to the accumulation of wealth in older generations, millennials stand to inherit more than any previous generation, but it won’t happen until they’re in their 60s. Meanwhile, those with savings and capital will benefit as the economy shifts: the stock market and GDP will grow, but wages and equality will fall, a situation that favors people who are already wealthy.

Even in the most dramatic AI scenarios, inequality is exacerbated. If someone develops a general intelligence that’s near-human or super-human, and they manage to control and monopolize it, they instantly become immensely wealthy and powerful. If the glorious technological future that Silicon Valley enthusiasts dream about is only going to serve to make the growing gaps wider and strengthen existing unfair power structures, is it something worth striving for?

What Makes a Utopia?
We urgently need to redefine our notion of progress. Philosophers worry about an AI that is misaligned—the things it seeks to maximize are not the things we want maximized. At the same time, we measure the development of our countries by GDP, not the quality of life of workers or the equality of opportunity in the society. Growing wealth with increased inequality is not progress.

Some people will take the position that there are always winners and losers in society, and that any attempt to redress the inequalities of our society will stifle economic growth and leave everyone worse off. Some will see this as an argument for a new economic model, based around universal basic income. Any moves towards this will need to take care that it’s affordable, sustainable, and doesn’t lead towards an entrenched two-tier society.

Walter Schiedel’s book The Great Leveller is a huge survey of inequality across all of human history, from the 21st century to prehistoric cave-dwellers. He argues that only revolutions, wars, and other catastrophes have historically reduced inequality: a perfect example is the Black Death in Europe, which (by reducing the population and therefore the labor supply that was available) increased wages and reduced inequality. Meanwhile, our solution to the financial crisis of 2007-8 may have only made the problem worse.

But in a world of nuclear weapons, of biowarfare, of cyberwarfare—a world of unprecedented, complex, distributed threats—the consequences of these “safety valves” could be worse than ever before. Inequality increases the risk of global catastrophe, and global catastrophes could scupper any progress towards the techno-utopia that the utopians dream of. And a society with entrenched inequality is no utopia at all.

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#432467 Dungeons and Dragons, Not Chess and Go: ...

Everyone had died—not that you’d know it, from how they were laughing about their poor choices and bad rolls of the dice. As a social anthropologist, I study how people understand artificial intelligence (AI) and our efforts towards attaining it; I’m also a life-long fan of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), the inventive fantasy roleplaying game. During a recent quest, when I was playing an elf ranger, the trainee paladin (or holy knight) acted according to his noble character, and announced our presence at the mouth of a dragon’s lair. The results were disastrous. But while success in D&D means “beating the bad guy,” the game is also a creative sandbox, where failure can count as collective triumph so long as you tell a great tale.

What does this have to do with AI? In computer science, games are frequently used as a benchmark for an algorithm’s “intelligence.” The late Robert Wilensky, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and a leading figure in AI, offered one reason why this might be. Computer scientists “looked around at who the smartest people were, and they were themselves, of course,” he told the authors of Compulsive Technology: Computers as Culture (1985). “They were all essentially mathematicians by training, and mathematicians do two things—they prove theorems and play chess. And they said, hey, if it proves a theorem or plays chess, it must be smart.” No surprise that demonstrations of AI’s “smarts” have focused on the artificial player’s prowess.

Yet the games that get chosen—like Go, the main battlefield for Google DeepMind’s algorithms in recent years—tend to be tightly bounded, with set objectives and clear paths to victory or defeat. These experiences have none of the open-ended collaboration of D&D. Which got me thinking: do we need a new test for intelligence, where the goal is not simply about success, but storytelling? What would it mean for an AI to “pass” as human in a game of D&D? Instead of the Turing test, perhaps we need an elf ranger test?

Of course, this is just a playful thought experiment, but it does highlight the flaws in certain models of intelligence. First, it reveals how intelligence has to work across a variety of environments. D&D participants can inhabit many characters in many games, and the individual player can “switch” between roles (the fighter, the thief, the healer). Meanwhile, AI researchers know that it’s super difficult to get a well-trained algorithm to apply its insights in even slightly different domains—something that we humans manage surprisingly well.

Second, D&D reminds us that intelligence is embodied. In computer games, the bodily aspect of the experience might range from pressing buttons on a controller in order to move an icon or avatar (a ping-pong paddle; a spaceship; an anthropomorphic, eternally hungry, yellow sphere), to more recent and immersive experiences involving virtual-reality goggles and haptic gloves. Even without these add-ons, games can still produce biological responses associated with stress and fear (if you’ve ever played Alien: Isolation you’ll understand). In the original D&D, the players encounter the game while sitting around a table together, feeling the story and its impact. Recent research in cognitive science suggests that bodily interactions are crucial to how we grasp more abstract mental concepts. But we give minimal attention to the embodiment of artificial agents, and how that might affect the way they learn and process information.

Finally, intelligence is social. AI algorithms typically learn through multiple rounds of competition, in which successful strategies get reinforced with rewards. True, it appears that humans also evolved to learn through repetition, reward and reinforcement. But there’s an important collaborative dimension to human intelligence. In the 1930s, the psychologist Lev Vygotsky identified the interaction of an expert and a novice as an example of what became called “scaffolded” learning, where the teacher demonstrates and then supports the learner in acquiring a new skill. In unbounded games, this cooperation is channelled through narrative. Games of It among small children can evolve from win/lose into attacks by terrible monsters, before shifting again to more complex narratives that explain why the monsters are attacking, who is the hero, and what they can do and why—narratives that aren’t always logical or even internally compatible. An AI that could engage in social storytelling is doubtless on a surer, more multifunctional footing than one that plays chess; and there’s no guarantee that chess is even a step on the road to attaining intelligence of this sort.

In some ways, this failure to look at roleplaying as a technical hurdle for intelligence is strange. D&D was a key cultural touchstone for technologists in the 1980s and the inspiration for many early text-based computer games, as Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon point out in Where Wizards Stay up Late: The Origins of the Internet (1996). Even today, AI researchers who play games in their free time often mention D&D specifically. So instead of beating adversaries in games, we might learn more about intelligence if we tried to teach artificial agents to play together as we do: as paladins and elf rangers.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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#432311 Everyone Is Talking About AI—But Do ...

In 2017, artificial intelligence attracted $12 billion of VC investment. We are only beginning to discover the usefulness of AI applications. Amazon recently unveiled a brick-and-mortar grocery store that has successfully supplanted cashiers and checkout lines with computer vision, sensors, and deep learning. Between the investment, the press coverage, and the dramatic innovation, “AI” has become a hot buzzword. But does it even exist yet?

At the World Economic Forum Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, a Taiwanese venture capitalist and the founding president of Google China, remarked, “I think it’s tempting for every entrepreneur to package his or her company as an AI company, and it’s tempting for every VC to want to say ‘I’m an AI investor.’” He then observed that some of these AI bubbles could burst by the end of 2018, referring specifically to “the startups that made up a story that isn’t fulfillable, and fooled VCs into investing because they don’t know better.”

However, Dr. Lee firmly believes AI will continue to progress and will take many jobs away from workers. So, what is the difference between legitimate AI, with all of its pros and cons, and a made-up story?

If you parse through just a few stories that are allegedly about AI, you’ll quickly discover significant variation in how people define it, with a blurred line between emulated intelligence and machine learning applications.

I spoke to experts in the field of AI to try to find consensus, but the very question opens up more questions. For instance, when is it important to be accurate to a term’s original definition, and when does that commitment to accuracy amount to the splitting of hairs? It isn’t obvious, and hype is oftentimes the enemy of nuance. Additionally, there is now a vested interest in that hype—$12 billion, to be precise.

This conversation is also relevant because world-renowned thought leaders have been publicly debating the dangers posed by AI. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggested that naysayers who attempt to “drum up these doomsday scenarios” are being negative and irresponsible. On Twitter, business magnate and OpenAI co-founder Elon Musk countered that Zuckerberg’s understanding of the subject is limited. In February, Elon Musk engaged again in a similar exchange with Harvard professor Steven Pinker. Musk tweeted that Pinker doesn’t understand the difference between functional/narrow AI and general AI.

Given the fears surrounding this technology, it’s important for the public to clearly understand the distinctions between different levels of AI so that they can realistically assess the potential threats and benefits.

As Smart As a Human?
Erik Cambria, an expert in the field of natural language processing, told me, “Nobody is doing AI today and everybody is saying that they do AI because it’s a cool and sexy buzzword. It was the same with ‘big data’ a few years ago.”

Cambria mentioned that AI, as a term, originally referenced the emulation of human intelligence. “And there is nothing today that is even barely as intelligent as the most stupid human being on Earth. So, in a strict sense, no one is doing AI yet, for the simple fact that we don’t know how the human brain works,” he said.

He added that the term “AI” is often used in reference to powerful tools for data classification. These tools are impressive, but they’re on a totally different spectrum than human cognition. Additionally, Cambria has noticed people claiming that neural networks are part of the new wave of AI. This is bizarre to him because that technology already existed fifty years ago.

However, technologists no longer need to perform the feature extraction by themselves. They also have access to greater computing power. All of these advancements are welcomed, but it is perhaps dishonest to suggest that machines have emulated the intricacies of our cognitive processes.

“Companies are just looking at tricks to create a behavior that looks like intelligence but that is not real intelligence, it’s just a mirror of intelligence. These are expert systems that are maybe very good in a specific domain, but very stupid in other domains,” he said.

This mimicry of intelligence has inspired the public imagination. Domain-specific systems have delivered value in a wide range of industries. But those benefits have not lifted the cloud of confusion.

Assisted, Augmented, or Autonomous
When it comes to matters of scientific integrity, the issue of accurate definitions isn’t a peripheral matter. In a 1974 commencement address at the California Institute of Technology, Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” In that same speech, Feynman also said, “You should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist.” He opined that scientists should bend over backwards to show how they could be wrong. “If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing—and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.”

In the case of AI, this might mean that professional scientists have an obligation to clearly state that they are developing extremely powerful, controversial, profitable, and even dangerous tools, which do not constitute intelligence in any familiar or comprehensive sense.

The term “AI” may have become overhyped and confused, but there are already some efforts underway to provide clarity. A recent PwC report drew a distinction between “assisted intelligence,” “augmented intelligence,” and “autonomous intelligence.” Assisted intelligence is demonstrated by the GPS navigation programs prevalent in cars today. Augmented intelligence “enables people and organizations to do things they couldn’t otherwise do.” And autonomous intelligence “establishes machines that act on their own,” such as autonomous vehicles.

Roman Yampolskiy is an AI safety researcher who wrote the book “Artificial Superintelligence: A Futuristic Approach.” I asked him whether the broad and differing meanings might present difficulties for legislators attempting to regulate AI.

Yampolskiy explained, “Intelligence (artificial or natural) comes on a continuum and so do potential problems with such technology. We typically refer to AI which one day will have the full spectrum of human capabilities as artificial general intelligence (AGI) to avoid some confusion. Beyond that point it becomes superintelligence. What we have today and what is frequently used in business is narrow AI. Regulating anything is hard, technology is no exception. The problem is not with terminology but with complexity of such systems even at the current level.”

When asked if people should fear AI systems, Dr. Yampolskiy commented, “Since capability comes on a continuum, so do problems associated with each level of capability.” He mentioned that accidents are already reported with AI-enabled products, and as the technology advances further, the impact could spread beyond privacy concerns or technological unemployment. These concerns about the real-world effects of AI will likely take precedence over dictionary-minded quibbles. However, the issue is also about honesty versus deception.

Is This Buzzword All Buzzed Out?
Finally, I directed my questions towards a company that is actively marketing an “AI Virtual Assistant.” Carl Landers, the CMO at Conversica, acknowledged that there are a multitude of explanations for what AI is and isn’t.

He said, “My definition of AI is technology innovation that helps solve a business problem. I’m really not interested in talking about the theoretical ‘can we get machines to think like humans?’ It’s a nice conversation, but I’m trying to solve a practical business problem.”

I asked him if AI is a buzzword that inspires publicity and attracts clients. According to Landers, this was certainly true three years ago, but those effects have already started to wane. Many companies now claim to have AI in their products, so it’s less of a differentiator. However, there is still a specific intention behind the word. Landers hopes to convey that previously impossible things are now possible. “There’s something new here that you haven’t seen before, that you haven’t heard of before,” he said.

According to Brian Decker, founder of Encom Lab, machine learning algorithms only work to satisfy their preexisting programming, not out of an interior drive for better understanding. Therefore, he views AI as an entirely semantic argument.

Decker stated, “A marketing exec will claim a photodiode controlled porch light has AI because it ‘knows when it is dark outside,’ while a good hardware engineer will point out that not one bit in a register in the entire history of computing has ever changed unless directed to do so according to the logic of preexisting programming.”

Although it’s important for everyone to be on the same page regarding specifics and underlying meaning, AI-powered products are already powering past these debates by creating immediate value for humans. And ultimately, humans care more about value than they do about semantic distinctions. In an interview with Quartz, Kai-Fu Lee revealed that algorithmic trading systems have already given him an 8X return over his private banking investments. “I don’t trade with humans anymore,” he said.

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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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