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MIT Scientist Argues That Robots May Challenge Human Claims to Uniqueness
When people find out that Rodney Brooks builds robots, he says that they usually have two questions for him: will we accept them, and will they want to take over? Brooks provided some surprising answers to both questions at "Flesh and Machines," a recent public lecture sponsored by AAAS's Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER). The talk focused on current artificial intelligence and robotics research and the philosophical and religious issues that arise from it and the future relationship of robots and humans.
Brooks, the Director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Fujitsu Professor of Computer Science at MIT and Chairman of iRobot Corporation, engineers intelligent, humanoid robots to interact with humans. The robots use a distributed computing system to perform tasks such as distinguishing human skin from colorful plastic, imitating the movements of a human instructor, and shying away from visitors that invade their personal space. With the help of some astonishing video, he showed how the robot, Cog, functions in a complicated environment of animate and inanimate objects and how another robot, Kismet, responds to human praise or scolding with a variety of fluid expressions that denote emotional states.
Brooks is especially interested in how humans respond to robots, since he believes that their future role will largely depend on how we feel about them. He believes that scientists have been chipping steadily away at the "specialness" of humans since the days of Copernicus and Darwin. As robots become more humanlike, we will probably be forced to give up our claims of uniqueness once again, said Brooks.
As computing power and design advance, Brooks believes that there will be robots that are truly fearful, for example, rather than robots that merely "appear" fearful. This development will have profound ethical implications, and Brooks cautions against any future "apartheid" discrimination that draws false distinctions between man and machine.
But will they conquer the world? Brooks said the answer is yes--but not in the way that everyone thinks. Humans are gradually incorporating machines within themselves, from cochlear implants to pacemakers. One day we could wire our brains to the Internet to live a virtual existence, he said. At the same time, researchers are exploring the digital control of living cells and the possibilities of robots built from biological materials. Brooks thinks that these two trends are pointing towards a merge between humans and robots, making it pointless to distinguish between them.
Noreen Herzfeld, theologian and Associate Professor of Computer Science at St. John's University in Minnesota, followed Brooks' remarks with a discussion of the moral status of robots in relation to the Jewish-Christian-Muslim tradition of humans made in the image of God. Herzfeld suggested that humans have a variety of motives for building intelligent machines, and future robots could run the gamut from assembly-line drones to fully social and emotional beings.
-- Becky Ham