- We made you ‘cause we could.
- Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?
In Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s film about a space expedition searching for the origins of human life, the elegant, Lawrence-of-Arabia loving android David discovers from a crew member the possible motives behind his own creation – and understandably finds this less than inspiring.
But the idea of creating intelligent robots has fired human imagination for decades. These robots have taken many forms in speculative fiction, from the seductive charms of Futura in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis to the urbane, existential angst of David in Prometheus. In reality, though, how far have we progressed towards being able to create an intelligent robot just “’cause we could”?
To understand where we are now, we have to go back about twenty years, to a time when artificial intelligence research was in crisis. Rodney Brooks, then a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote a landmark paper in 1990 stating: "Artificial Intelligence research has foundered in a sea of incrementalism… small AI companies are folding, and attendance is well down at national and international Artificial Intelligence conferences... What has gone wrong?"
The problem, as Brooks saw it, was that the type of research inspired by Alan Turing’s famous artificial intelligence test had hit a dead end. The Turing test directed decades of AI efforts towards devising computer systems that “thought” by solving logic problems –focusing on the "sea of symbols", as Brooks put it, that were believed to undergird intelligence. These systems could shuffle and sort information with dizzying speed, giving them the appearance of intelligence when performing certain abstract tasks (like playing chess). But when it came to “common sense” intelligence – the kind we rely on when selecting a book from a bookshelf, distinguishing a cat from a dog or a rock, or holding a glass of water without dropping or crushing it – this symbolic, Turing-style AI couldn’t cope.
A better alternative for AI was to take a “situated” route, as Brooks called it. The first order of business: forget about building brains that can solve logical problems. Instead, focus on building bodies that can deal with and respond to the physical world. In other words: build robots.
There's something about an embodied agent that seems more "intelligent", in a general sense, than any algorithm. IBM's Watson system may be able to beat humans at Jeopardy! with its deep reservoir of facts – an impressive simulation of "book smarts". But Boston Dynamics' Big Dog robot, manoeuvering itself sure-footedly up hills and around unfamiliar obstacles, and even maintaining its balance when shoved by its human companion, actually seems to be smart – at least, in the same way a dog or horse is.
"One kind of smart has to do with knowing a lot of facts and being able to reason and solve problems; another kind of smart has to do with understanding how our bodies work and being able to control them," says Marc Raibert, CEO of Boston Dynamics. "That kind of smart helps people and animals move with remarkable mobility, agility, dexterity, and speed."
When Brooks wrote about this new kind of artificial intelligence in his 1990 paper, he introduced half a dozen robots who look like Big Dog's evolutionary ancestors. One of them was Genghis, a six-legged insect-like robot that could autonomously negotiate unfamiliar terrain in an eerily lifelike way, without any high-order processing or centralized control system. All it had were lots of simple sensors "tightly coupled" to motor controllers in each leg, loosely connected in a “nerve-like” network to pass sensory information between the motors, "without any attempt at integration".