Is 'Chappie' Our Future

This weekend the film “Chappie" opens nationwide in theaters.  It depicts a robot that can think, learn and feel.  While some will view this as the technology of distant tomorrow, Chris Adami, a computational biologist at Michigan State University, says that researchers are beginning to see breakthroughs on evolving “robot brains” and the technology may be closer than you think. 

Adami uses Darwinian evolution to develop robot brains that can navigate mazes, identify and catch falling objects, and work as a group. These robots learn over a lifetime, evolving much in the same way as human brains evolve—through experience. 

"When our robots are 'born,' they will have a brain that has the capacity to learn, but only has instincts,” says Adami. "It will take a decade or two of exploration and training for these robots to achieve human-level intelligence, just as is the case with us," he said. 

Adami’s lab has worked with a team of robots that required the machines to figure out and remember which order they would leave a room.  The robots were then asked to come back into a room in the same order they left, or reverse order.

"This is difficult because the robots have to ID each other," Adami said. After the genetic algorithm had run its course, the robots seemed to solve the problem by indicating roles to each other with certain motions.

“When robots have to make models of other robots' brains, they are thinking about thinking," he said. "We believe this is the onset of consciousness." 

These robots would be extraordinarily useful, says Adami, with possible functions across many different fields. But while AI is not something we should fear, there are myriad ethical and practical considerations.  Adami and his lab suggest that Hollywood turned AI into something to fear with “The Terminator.”  In fact, they suggest that an evolved AI might be less harmful because it has the power not to execute a command. 

“In brief,” he says, “I think the implications to society are incomprehensible."

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By: Kim Ward
Michigan State University
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