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Posted: Aug 7 2007, 11:59 AM
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Conscious robots working in our homes by 2030, experts say
Ever since Bradley the family robot received his level-4 upgrade, he has been difficult to get along with. Bradley now has a conscience, and although he is still eager to care for Grandmamma, keep the house spotless, maintain security, and run errands; he wants more “alone time”, and he recently joined a robots rights group. We wonder what’s next; vacations; sick leave; going on dates?
Although this scenario may sound like fiction, it could depict a real situation in the future when robots, programmed with human consciousness, will want to be treated like us.
Tomorrow’s robots could easily maintain our homes, care for our aging population; even become our soldiers of the future. But here’s the concern; robots may be required to make decisions that could affect our lives, and we will place more trust in a robot that expresses human consciousness than one that simply acts like a machine.
But before robots can become conscious, researchers must identify what consciousness is and where it is. NY Times science writer David Dobbs believes that during the next decade, scientists will discover the neural networks that generate this elusive human trait. We may then find answers to some of the most profound questions in science: can the brain understand itself, and what is “self”?
“Once science unravels consciousness,” Dobbs says, “researchers could then create what might be called a ‘consciometer’ – a set of tests (probably an advanced version of a brain scan or EEG) that can precisely detect and measure consciousness.”
The ability to identify consciousness will change how we make end-of-life decisions, like the Terri Schiavo case, and beginning-of-life choices involving abortion. In both instances, religious conservatives may not be happy with the results.
After we understand consciousness, we will know the brain’s capacities and limits for thought, emotions, reasoning, love and all aspects of human life, say experts. Scientists are now studying how groups of neurons form functional networks when we learn, remember, see, hear, move, and love. And how these give rise to altruism, sadness, empathy and anger.
When the discussion turns to these imponderables, neuroscientist Gerald Edelman dives right in. Nobel Laureate, physician and cell biologist, Edelman is now obsessed with the enigma of consciousness – except he doesn’t see it as a mystery. In his grand theory of mind, consciousness is merely a biological phenomenon that one day can be built into machines.
In a recent Discover Magazine interview, Edelman talked about his research into synthetic consciousness and construction of a brain-based device (BBD) that he believes will one day become a superintelligent machine. Although his BBDs resemble R2D2, he says they are not robots, “because they do not use artificial intelligence; they operate similar to mammalian brains.”
Edelman’s team is now working on a new BBD called Darwin 12. It has legs and wheels with 100 different sensors enabling it to climb stairs and navigate unknown circumstances. This, they hope, will bring them closer to creating a truly intelligent machine.
Clearly, developing conscious robots poses unknown, possibly even dangerous consequences; but futurist Ray Kurzweil and other experts predict that by as early as 2030, we will experience this “magical future.”
This article will appear in various print media and blogs; comments welcome. See other published work by Futuretalk at http://www.positivefuturist.com and click on the “published work” tab.