Researchers at Columbia University say they’ve built a robot arm that can construct a self-image from scratch — a capability they frame, provocatively, as a step toward machines that are truly self-aware.
“This is perhaps what a newborn child does in its crib, as it learns what it is,” said Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering who worked on the robot, in a press release. “We conjecture that this advantage may have also been the evolutionary origin of self-awareness in humans. While our robot’s ability to imagine itself is still crude compared to humans, we believe that this ability is on the path to machine self-awareness.”
The robot arm, described in a new paper in the journal Science Robotics, learns how to operate by experimenting — with no programming about physics, geometry or its own construction.
But after a flailing around process the researchers call “babbling” and a period of “intensive computing,” the arm’s algorithm starts to make sense of the world. After its self-discovery process, according to the researchers, it managed to handle complex situations including repairing itself and writing text with a marker.
Those accomplishments are impressive, but the arm is a long way from writing a poem. Still, Lipson frames the project as an important step toward understanding how humans learn to conceive of themselves — and perhaps one day building robots that understand themselves as we do.
“Philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists have been pondering the nature self-awareness for millennia, but have made relatively little progress,” Lipson said. “We still cloak our lack of understanding with subjective terms like ‘canvas of reality,’ but robots now force us to translate these vague notions into concrete algorithms and mechanisms.”