The history of human progress is a testimonial to the strong desire that man has always had to make his life more comfortable. Every invention ever conceived has been designed to make life just a little bit better. Tools have been made for every activity from agriculture, hunting, construction, transportation and even entertainment. The desire for an easier existence for a few has also led to a few bad ideas such as slavery, military conquest, corruption and other manners of exploiting people.
While many tools and machines have been invented throughout history, they have mostly been of use in extending or enhancing the capabilities of the person using them. The ultimate desire of having artificial helpers and companions and the attempts to create them have a long history. We now have many machines and mechanical devices that operate automatically with humanlike skill for a wide range of routine tasks on command,
But the making of a fully autonomous machine that resembles a human has yet to be realized although it may be closer than most people imagine.
Man started out by inventing tools, from tools evolved machinery and most recently in human history do we have programmable functioning machinery. The next step is self-adjusting, self-adaptive and reprogrammable machinery to realize robotics ultimate goal: to create a machine which has equivalent capacity of a human. The refinements in technology that are necessary to create a fully functional robot are not so much founded in the physical design but rather in the development of artificial intelligence (AI).
Whether people realize it or not, we are surrounded by examples of artificial intelligence. Voice activated customer services, the GPS system in your car, the airport scheduling system that chooses the gate where your will disembark when your plane lands, most video games and even the software to write this article contains some form of Artificial Intelligence.
Right now, we are well into the period of Narrow AI which refers to artificial intelligence that performs a useful and specialized function that once required human intelligence to perform and executes those functions at human levels or better. Often Narrow AI systems greatly exceed the speed of humans as well as provide the ability to manage and take into account thousands of variables simultaneously.
The market for Narrow AI applications in 2007 was estimated to be over 21 billion dollars. A small list of areas where Narrow AI is currently being used includes
Defense and Intelligence
Science and Math
Language and Speech
Entertainment and Sports
While Narrow AI gives machines the ability to perform specific tasks, what is needed to develop and construct a fully functioning robot is Strong AI. Although there is no total agreement on what defines Strong AI, most researchers in the area of artificial intelligence agree that the properties of Strong AI should include the following:
” Ability to reason, strategize and make judgments under uncertain conditions
” Ability to represent knowledge including knowledge that is categorized as common sense
” Ability to plan and learn
” Ability to communicate in a natural language
” Ability to integrate all the above skills
Development in the area of Strong AI draws upon tools from three main areas: first, on what is currently known about the brain; second, based on the decades of research in Narrow AI; third, reverse engineering of the brain. Many tools have been developed and are emerging that provides the spatial and temporal resolution necessary to produce adequate data from extremely accurate scanning and sensing of neurons and neural components.
For a human being, the learning process required to master the knowledge necessary to function in any scientific area is decades. For a robot with artificial intelligence, learning will be just a matter of the time required to download the information from one machine to another. Once a human level of artificial intelligence is reached then technological advances in all areas will accelerated at an incredible exponential rate.
From the physical aspect, the development of a human like robot is much closer to being realized. In many depictions of robots in science fiction they are metallic and awkward but current technology already exists that can create an almost human appearing robot. In Japan, a new artificial outer covering gives the feel of real human skin by covering a 1-cm thick “dermis” of elastic silicone with a 0.2-mm thick “epidermis” of firm urethane. Countless tiny hexagonal indentations etched into the urethane epidermis provide it with a very realistic texture.
On the other hand, advances in medical technology are creating many artificial parts to replace some of our worn out or broken biological parts. Today, knee, hip and shoulder replacements are common. Artificial limbs are used by many who have lost their original ones. Advances will continue at a rapid pace so that in the near future we may be able to replace any organ or limb with a new and improved one. Some scientists hypothesize that all the information and memories in our brain may one day be downloadable. It seems possible that one day we may reach a point where the distinction between human and robot becomes too close to distinguish.
Robots have long been dreamed of as helpers and companions to enhance the lives of humans. Could it also be possible that the inadvertent direction of robotics will be, not to replace humans, but perhaps the next step in human evolution?