When Josh Bongard’s creatures come to life —he must first turn them on—it is obvious that they know nothing about the world. They thrash and fling themselves around, discovering not that they have bodies but that bodies exist, not that they can move but that motion is possible. Gradually they grow more certain—more conscious, you might say. As they do, you sense, coming from somewhere deep inside, a note of triumph like a toddler’s first step.
Bongard’s babies are among the many early signs that our relationship with machines is on the verge of a seismic shift. Ever since the idea of artificial beings first appeared thousands of years ago, the question has been not so much what they might do for us—which services or functions they might bring to the table—but how we would relate to entities that are, and yet are not, human. There has never been a consensus. Frankenstein’s monster was a tragedy, while Pygmalion and Galatea found happiness together.
Humanoid robots previously held sway only in fiction, but scientists say such machines may soon move among us, serving as hospital orderlies and security guards, caring for our elderly, even standing in as objects of friendship or sexual and parental love. As we embark upon this new era, it is worth asking whether such robots might ever seem truly emotional or empathetic. Could they be engineered to show loyalty or to get angry?
Bongard, a roboticist at the University of Vermont, thinks the answer could be yes, and adds that we might respond in kind. Emotional relations with robots “are definitely a prospect in the near future,” he says. “You already see it with children, who empathize with their toys. Many of us have emotional relationships with our pets. So why not robots as well?”
Machines smart enough to do anything for us will probably also be able to do anything with us: go to dinner, own property, compete for sexual partners. They might have passionate opinions about politics or, like the robots on Battlestar Galactica, even religious beliefs. Some have worried about robot rebellions, but with so many tort lawyers around to apply the brakes, the bigger question is this: Will humanoid machines enrich our social lives, or will they be a new kind of television, destroying our relationships with real humans? The only given is that the day we learn the answer draws closer all the time.
Until now, of course, robots have been relatively crude machines, each assigned a single repetitive task—not much different from a washing machine or a lathe. Typically they have been disembodied arms or automated forklifts. Their original engineers rarely saw a reason for function or design to be tied to biological analogues; planes don’t have feathered wings, after all.
Recent research suggests that this is going to change. As it turns out, the more versatile a machine, the more the machine will have to look and behave like us. With our legs we can pivot, jump, kick, tiptoe, run, slog, climb, swim, and stop instantly. Our five-fingered hands, with their opposable thumbs and soft, compliant tissues, can hold and control an immense variety of object geometries. Our body is so flexible that we can recruit almost any muscle to the cause of manipulating the world.
To make the transition—to climb our stairs, handle our tools, and navigate our world—future robots will probably have approximately our height and weight, our hands and feet, our gait and posture and rhythms. Soft, flexible bodies could be a precondition for machines required to operate within complex, dynamic, confined spaces, such as squeezing through crowds.
One obvious domestic use for such humanoids, caring for our aging baby boomers, will require a machine that makes the beds, does the shopping, cooks the meals, and gives medicines and baths. The appetite of the military for machines that can navigate the chaos of the battlefield is without bounds. Every sector of society would love machines that could repair and maintain themselves forever —machines that, like us, could learn from experience, adjust to changing circumstances, and, if needed, evolve. And purely from a business point of view, you do not need to be Alan Greenspan to understand that the more things a machine can do, the bigger the market.
Even if our species looked like something else altogether, we might still end up building humanoid robots to serve us because the benefit would be so great. Today dozens of labs around the world are working on humanlike hands, legs, torsos, and the like, not because the researchers have read too much science fiction but because this approach represents the best solution to real problems. Their efforts to build humanoid machines vary, but they all bring something to the table; in the end, it is by aggregating the best of these efforts that the new robot generation will emerge.
Wisdom of the body
Perhaps the most interesting reason to design robots in our own image is a new theory of intelligence now catching on among researchers in mechanical engineering and cognitive psychology. Until recently the consensus across many fields, from psychology to artificial intelligence (AI), was that control of the body was centralized in the brain. In the context of robotics, this meant that sensory systems would send data up to a central computer (the robot brain), and the computer would grind away to calculate the right commands. Those commands (much like nerve signals) would then be distributed to motors—acting as the robot’s musculature—and the robot, so directed, would move. This model, first defined decades ago when the very first computers were being built, got its authority from our concept of the brain as the center of thought.
As time went on, however, it became apparent that central control required an almost endless amount of programming, essentially limiting what robots could do. The limits became clearer with deeper understanding of how living organisms work: not through commands from some kind of centralized mission control, but via a distributed interaction with their environment.
“The traditional robotics model has the body following the brain, but in nature the brain follows the body,” Fumiya Iida, of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, explains. Decisions flow from the properties of the materials our bodies are made of and their interactions with the environment. When we pick up an object, we are able to hold it not primarily because of what our brain says but because our soft hands mold themselves around the object automatically, increasing surface contact and therefore frictional adhesion. When a cockroach encounters an irregular surface, it does not appeal to its brain to tell it what to do next; instead, its musculoskeletal system is designed so that local impacts drive its legs to the right position to take the next step.