Can you imagine a world where robots walk among us, indistinguishable from the next person? Where they take on the role of car, carer, teacher, or even doctor? Where the worth of a machine becomes such that when forced to make a choice between the value irritating and a human, instinct doesn’t immediately act to save your conspecific?
These seem more like scenes from science fiction movies, but there were the topic of discussion over dinner following Professor Peter Robinson’s presentation “Machines in the Image of God” at the University of Cambridge’s Emmanuel College last Thursday evening, as part of the Faraday Institutes’s Science and Religion lecture series. I was lucky enough to be invited to the lecture and meal afterward, and get the opportunity to listen to an eclectic mix of biologists, computer scientists, mathematicians, doctors and religious peoples share their ideas on, essentially, what it would take for us to accept a computer as an equal.
This stemmed from Professor Robinson’s team’s work on writing computer programmes that recognise human emotion from cues such as facial expressions and hand gestures. From short clips of actors playing out a mental state, such as ‘interest’ or ‘disagreement’, the programme is able to map the position of multiple points and infer what the probability that the actor is expressing one of a suite of expressions the computer has been taught is. Suggested practical applications of such technology include teaching autism sufferers to empathise or creating a satnav that can tell when we are mentally overloaded and repeatedly telling us to ‘make a U-turn when possible’ is not helpful.
Recognising emotions using a complicated algorithm is, of course, a long way from creating something akin to a human, or any animal, brain. There was no suggestion that current technology will get anywhere near this for a long time yet so the discussion into how we might feel about or treat such a ‘human’ robot was highly hypothetical, but interesting nonetheless.
The Turing test was developed by Alan Turing in 1950 and tests the ability of a computer to display intelligent behaviour that is indistinguishable from a human. The test is a game where an interrogator asks questions to a person and a computer via a computer, such as “Will X please tell me whether X plays chess?”, and uses the responses to determine whether X or Y is the computer. The computer tries to get the interrogator to guess wrong, the other human tries to help them guess correctly.
Turing believed that, by the end of the 20th century. there would be a computer that had the storage capacity so large it would be able to fool the average interrogator after five minutes of questioning up to over 70% of the time: “I believe that by the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.” As I witnessed Thursday evening, Turing’s dream has not yet been realised.
There are already machines that draw our attachment such as the Tamogotchi or the robot child in the movie A.I., capable of making rational adults sniff. Children at least can assign human emotion and strong attachment to completely inanimate toys. Could there one day be a robot that can tap into that naievity long-forgotten in most adults?
A natural extension of such a subject is to question what it means to be human. To be squishy-celled? Well, how does this discriminate us from birds, bats or bugs? To be conscious? Is a cat not conscious? And what of a person in a coma, do they lose their humanity? To have empathy? Psychopaths are often thought to lack empathy, does being so damaged remove your right to human status? It is a huge,unresolved area of thought.
Dr Denis Alexander, of the Faraday Institute, and a biologist, queried: as all life we know is made out of squishy, carbon-based cells, could we ever accept something made out of wires as being truly alive? I understand where he is coming from; I think I would find it near-impossible to accept any being not created out of organic molecules, not able (as a species), to reproduce, that doesn’t grow, age, and die, as being truly alive, and worthy of the value of any animal.