Few sci-fi tropes enthrall audiences more reliably than the plot of artificial intelligence betraying mankind. Perhaps this is because AI makes us confront the very idea of what it means to be human. But from HAL 9000 to Skynet to the robots in Westworld’s uprising, fears of sentient AI feel very real. Even Elon Musk worries about what AI is capable of.
Are these fears unfounded? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps a sentient AI wouldn’t harm humans because it would empathize with us better than an algorithm ever could. And while AI continues to make amazing developments, a truly sentient machine is likely decades away. That said, scientists are piecing together features and characteristics that inch robots ever closer to sentience.
Self-awareness in and of itself doesn’t indicate consciousness or sentience, but it’s an important base characteristic for making an AI or robot appear more natural and living. And this isn’t science fiction, either. We already have AI that can gain rudimentary self-awareness within its environment.
Not long ago, Google’s Deep Mind made waves for organically learning how to walk. The result was pretty humorous; people across the web poked fun at the erratic arm flailing of the AI’s avatar as it navigated virtual obstacles. But the technology is really quite impressive. Rather than teach it to walk, programmers enabled the machine to orient itself and sense surrounding objects in the landscape. From there, the AI taught itself to walk across different kinds of terrain, just like a teetering child would.
Deep Mind’s body was virtual, but Hod Lipson of Columbia University developed a spider-like robot that traverses physical space in much the same way. The robot senses its surroundings and, through much practice and fidgeting, teaches itself to walk. If researchers add or remove a leg, the machine uses its knowledge to adapt and learn anew.
One of the greatest limits to AI is that it often can’t define problems for itself. An AI’s goals are typically defined by its human creators,…
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