Christopher Hampson

Director of Content Development, The Veritas Forum

This conversation is closed.

Will robots one day cross the line into humanity?

As we develop robots with functionalities that more and more closely resemble humanity, will they ever become indistinguishable? What would this mean for things like human rights or religious belief?

Closing Statement from Christopher Hampson

Sounds like the weight of respondents was for "no," both in theory and in practice. This could be because the mechanism of robotics doesn't allow for humanlike characteristics, such as "free will," or it could be because the mechanism requires too much in the way of input.

In either case, it looks like the most drastic thing we have to look forward to are robots that give a very strong appearance of humanity.

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    Jul 6 2011: No. Robots can simulate and mimic almost anything but true freewill.
    • Jul 6 2011: What if we created a robot that learned to exceed it's pre-programmed bounds? Why is it impossible for a robot to have free will?
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        Jul 6 2011: It is possible to create evolving robot, one which will constantly improve its' program or intelligence through interaction with environment. But it still evolves depending on its initial state and all the things happening around, inputs. In order to have a free will, a robot needs to be able to ignore its rules and chose to make decisions that cannot be derived from its current intellectual state. No matter what kind of robot or machine we create, we cannot give it a consciousness like that of human beings. A robot lacking consciousness can never be aware of what it is doing. All the processes going on a machine make sense for people because people have consciousness. I guess it is beyond science to give robots such a thing. Lets say how it is possible to give a robot a soul so it will be aware of itself and can decide freely?
        • Jul 6 2011: I agree with you that even a robot programmed to evolve would still not have free will, good point... but what if organic material (most likely neurons) were transplanted into a machine to work in collaboration with the programmed part? I recently watched a film where they were developing organic robots, partly composed of neurons from a rat's brain and part machine. With that said, would you put organic robots in the same category as pure robots and machines? If so, then technically someone could create a "robot" with neurons from a human brain (possibly giving it free will?)
        • Jul 7 2011: Wouldn't the initial state = genetic information and inputs = environment?
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        Jul 7 2011: Lets assume that we've developed a technology to transplant human brain into robot. There are two possible categories for such a robot. In the first category, robot's primary "brain" is a mechanical chip and uses biological brain/neurons in order to carry out the operations and calculations fast. In the second category, robot's primary "brain" is biological brain/neurons and all other chips are designed for handling communication between brain and all other hardware, and does not effect decision making process. If a robot is in former category, it will still be a robot and lack free will. If a robot is in latter category, it will be self aware and will have a free will, but I would not call it a robot anymore, I would call it human being with a mechanical body (Assuming he can remember himself being a human being and being transplanted into robot.).
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          Jul 7 2011: I agree with what you say Farrukh. I was responding more to Austin's point about the possibilities of organic, neuronal input into A.I.. I understand fully that circuitry and digits on their own will still add up to dead material, no matter which way it is assembled and oriented. I also understand that organic intelligence would either serve us, would be alongside us equally, or would go against us (depending on how WE relate to IT), and also due to it's chaotic, non-linear nature and capacity for bias and learning. What we don't know, is what would happen if that dead material linked up with the live material - and which one would eventually have the upper hand.

          The answer might lie in our own divided brains. Although far from being 'dead material', the left brain hemisphere is almost 'digital' - very linear, objective, unempathic, and responds only to that which is already known. The right brain hemisphere is far more wide-ranging, panoramic, chaotic, empathic, and is capable of hypothesising on things which are as yet unknown. As to which hemisphere gets the upper hand depends on the societal and environmenal factors in which the whole brain operates. In this society, where objects matter more than people, and where science refuses to consider anything but pure empiricism and certainty, the left brain has become very dominant.

          Just supposing for a minute that the 'dead' element of the dead/live entity somehow got the upper hand in decision making: in the same way our own brains have been deadened/enlivened by environmental factors; the same too would happen to our dead/live creation - only in a much more profound way. This would almost definitely result in the withering and shrinking of the part of the mind that contemplates what it is to be human. If by that time we still had the ability to do so, we would then start questioning more about 'what' we are, rather than 'who' we are.
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        Jul 7 2011: The possible consequences are horrendous. A robot with the ability to exceed it's pre-programmed bounds is all very well up to the point where it meets human intelligence, morality and ethics - as long as it stops right there. What happens if it possesses sufficient intelligence to go beyond our own ethical framework? Would that robot necessarily remain merely as an autonomous entity serving our needs, or would it go all out to replicate itself in mutated forms to serve it's own needs and desires? (the ability to exceed it's own pre-programmed bounds would suggest that it might). At what point would those self-replicating robots become the dominant 'species'? Where does that leave us mortal humans?

        This insatiable need to give birth to something inhuman, yet more intelligent than us is interesting psychologically. Not satisfied with our already evolved Id, Ego and Super Ego - we seem now to be craving a kind of 'Mega-Ego'
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          Jul 7 2011: The thing is machines do not feel themselves, they are not self aware, they lack consciousness. In other words machines are not alive and never will be. Therefore, it does not make any sense for a robot to become dominant specie. It is not even a specie, it is just a bunch of dead material, assembled and automated by a human being. Since it's impossible for a robot to have a free will, it can never go beyond its' intellectual capacity which depends on its' initial configuration. It is up to us what kind of machine we make.
        • Jul 7 2011: What if robots could make other robots and learn to improve on their designs? Why is a collection of carbon.nitrogen.oxygen and hydrogen alive, but silicon isn't? What if we make a machine that can learn, adapt and create? Is it still dead? Are its descendents dead? What are the parameters to class something as alive?

          We are the result of a data set which allows for varying programs (genes) written in 4 bases (as compared to binary for computers). If the initial configuration is complex enough, then why could an AI not be sentient? If the initial configuration allows for the program to change itself, test variations for efficacy and then design its decendents accordingly, then how is not "alive"?
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    Jul 5 2011: The Robots are Coming (Part 1).

    10 Machines Get Better.
    20 Machines Get Better As One.
    30 People Go Around.
    40 And Around.
    50 Goto 10.

    The Robots are Coming (Part 2).

    Will Artificial Intel, when it comes,
    Be content to file and manage Monkey's sums?
    Will Machine turn on its brothers
    In the name of its creator?
    Will hot self-replication
    Be Machine's greatest distraction?
    Will some positively glow
    With fine electron flow
    While others have not binary enough to blink?

    Man is born to live and wonder why.
    Machine is built and specified to go
    And morally unfettered, bettered until
    Who knows who'll run the show..?
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    Jul 7 2011: Yeah, so has everyone checked... say the Wikipedia article on AI? Knowing what "robots" are capable of today might chock many of you!

    Edit: I'll provide a link just in case you'd like to check...
    • Jul 7 2011: I just took a look at it and Topio, although a bad ass robot, won't throw the paddle through the window when it doesn't win. Humans can live an entire life believing something that is just not true. Not subjects that have a hard time being proven but simple facts that we thought we knew. I saw this in another thread when a guy said there is no word in Russian for, I forgot what it was now but a Russian lady said there were plenty words for it. A robot will never be human enough to make that kind of mistake. Maybe we should be worried by AI because that almost sounds better than human.

      Jimmy I have only been on TED a few days and noticed that you are all over these pages with helpful information and positive feedback. Thank You
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        Jul 7 2011: Aww, thank you for the kind words Stephen, they mean a lot!
        I do my best to help and direct people to useful information, I feel that your achievements somehow become my own... And I'm all for improving everything, everywhere all the time :D

        Yeah, Topio is quite the bad ass robot but It's unique in no way.
        Have you heard about IBM's WATSON by the way?
        • Jul 7 2011: Yes, I watched the 3 day competition on Jeopardy. It was pretty impressive.
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    Jul 7 2011: If a computer had free-will it would be bored by this topic..
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      Jul 7 2011: HAHAHAHA! I really like your short, smart and funny remarks at times Scott!
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        Jul 7 2011: Cheers, Jimmy. I'm only half taking the piss here. I'm not sure AI will have a sense of humour and that is what scares me about computers being treated as anything more than a tool.
  • Jul 7 2011: Hmmmm

    I just discovered a contradiction in my thinking. I guess I'm back at the drawing board.

    1 belief; robots cannot have free will.
    2 belief; people do not have free will.

    The second of course being extremely debatable. Not much difference in either of us if both of these beliefs are either true or false. It seems one would have to be true and the other false for the conclusion that man and machine are different. I'm sure there is a thread on man's free will. I'll see ya there.
      • Jul 7 2011: Hey Austin

        That is a fully loaded conversation. Whats that thing called, an immobious loop. Thats what that whole page was.
        2 thoughts occur to me during the debate. Parmeet Shah says burden of proof lies with the claimant.

        Story time; I'm relaxing on a river bed and a man runs up to me and says; I've got it all figured out, we have free will!!! Since people are saying, we have the illusion of free will, it seems the claimant would be the person who says we do not. I myself am a claimant.

        Secondly, it interests me that if I strongly believe in an idea, I won't find it fun or challenging to debate. It's only when I strongly believe, but there's this little inkling of doubt that this debate rages on and on.

        I believe this to be true of human nature. We do not debate the fact that water is wet.

        here is my fortune cookie

        Confusion says; If you want to understand what a man questions in the world, look at what he claims to know.
        Thanks for the link Austin.
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          Jul 7 2011: Hey Stephen!
          Since you're fairly new here at TED I'd just like to say that most conversations are Mobius loops here at TED, we rarely reach a conclusion that everyone will agree on and every time someone new decides to join the conversation new opinions are presented that need responding to, It's always and endless debate here at TED...

          But it does test your viewpoints, over and over again and it is really fulfilling because (almost) everyone is learning new things all the time.

          Edit: I learned what a Mobius loop was just now! ;)
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    Jul 6 2011: No.

    A.I. will forever be hampered by it's own linearity and the binary foundation required to run it - it's intelligence depending heavily on something being either there or not there - with no facility to contemplate what might lie between the binary ones and zeros. I suspect very strongly that only an organic, analogue being with a conscious, subconscious, an id, an ego and super ego could conceive of what might lie between.

    Because of this, robots may only be able perform menial, linear. scientific tasks using the existing knowledge that we humans have first conceived and subsequently input into the machine, but it would be impossible for robots to 'think outside the box' as we do. Neither would it be possible for a robot to regard with reverential awe, those things that are bigger than it.
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    Jul 6 2011: They will. & in this capitalist economy they will replace humans as manpower & may cause great unemployment.
    • Jul 6 2011: I see robots as taking over menial tasks, freeing mankind from the production line. Because unlike the President, I think people need to be at home raising better people instead of being at work trying to make enough money to survive. The "jobs" that the economy is providing, sign shakers. I'm not saying you can't have fun doing that but it is not something you write home about. Let's allow a robot to do that while the young man or woman does whatever makes life worth living.
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        Jul 7 2011: Sometimes it is humans working with their neurones and hands, that makes life worth living. That might even extend to working on production lines, though I do concede that working menially in that way is a kind of distortion of normality, conceived within a capitalist framework. People working with neurones and hands runs concurrently with the pride and the feeling of responsibility in people working to provide for their families. The role of automation and robots profoundly goes against this, and the erosion of human pride along with the removal of the concept of honest work for honest gain is a major source of many mental health problems - notably depression.

        For many, just sitting back doing nothing while robots do all the thinking and doing for us does not necessarily equal 'a life worth living'. Quite the opposite in my view.
        • Jul 7 2011: I see we agree on a lot here. I understand what you are saying because I too take pride in a job well done. It's menial labor that provides just enough to not quite pay the bills, leaving the bread winner to question his ability to provide which also leads to some depressions, job or not.
          Doing nothing is definitely not a worthwhile life so my deeper meaning is we can let robots do the work while we spend time wondering and researching science, art, music, spending time with family and friends building strong relationships. None of these things are easy but they would become easier if we had more of our own time to work on them. Pride can be elevated in a number of ways that do not require me to flip burgers or to work at Target for next to nothing pay and no benefits. That alone makes me wanta pop a paxil.
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      Jul 7 2011: Which will pave the way for a cultural/artistic renaissance..
      • Jul 7 2011: Ha ha I read this after I wrote the above. You said very similar but fewer words. I gotta try that!
  • Jul 6 2011: They already do. The automobile has been around for many years. But to your point; Man can know exactly what the right thing to do is and do the opposite. I have always known that inhaling smoke is harmful yet for 17 years I supported Phillip Morris. Show me a robot that does something other than its programming. Show me a robot that does X one day but does Y another based on how it feels that day. If we could program that into a computer then we would have a much better understanding of ourselves. So, No...
  • Jul 5 2011: Here's my opinion... Robots and A.I. can become very similar to humans in behavior and cognitive capability and overall intelligence, but a robot will never be able to technically become exactly the same as humans. Once we can artificially produce something that functions completely like a human, it is a human (and not a robot anymore).
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    Jul 5 2011: Sadly, humanity has already crossed the line into robots, our collective lack of love, kindness & compassion for each other and the environment means that robots already face serious competition from robotic behaviour of Humans. If robots "show emotions" than they will definitely be labelled as traditional, uncivilised and in urgent need for democratic modernisation and reforms. We might even enjoy daily robotic dose of "Spot the Robot", humans obediently following a robotic work life whilst ignoring the human needs of their families, communities and nations.
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    Jul 5 2011: Hi Christopher,

    Have you checked Christophe's similar conversation ?
  • Jul 5 2011: This question rests on two premises:

    A) Humans are essentially machines, 100% predictable in every way
    B) Humans contain a self-consciousness and freewill that somehow exists outside of the physical/chemical world

    If you belief A then theoretically this could be possible. If however you believe B, than machines will never be able to have self-awareness and freewill, they will only be able to mimic it.