AI, Robot?

Robots won’t take over the world while their brains still sit in a box.

At Google’s annual developer conference earlier this month, crowds gasped in awe at an audio recording of someone booking a hair appointment.

Now, nerds may make good foxes but they’re hardly slaves to fashion; so why the OMG! with a phone call? The caller was a computer.

The demonstration was the unveiling of Google’s latest development in digital assistants – Duplex. An extension to the Google Assistant smartphone app, Duplex provides the app with the ability to call, say, a restaurant, salon, or vehicle repair centre, and ask the person answering to, say, make a reservation or provide information such as what time they close.

Here’s the real wow factor: the demonstration suggested the person on the other end won’t know they’re talking to a computer – the voice and mannerisms will sound human.

Cue panicky wails that robots armed with AI (artificial intelligence) are closer to taking over the world and shoving human slaves down silicon mines. Let’s just calm down a little.

The comforting reality is that robots lack a fundamental component to being human-like – something you display every time you pick your nose: sensorimotor skills.

These are the instinctive and learned skills where sensory messages received through vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell (known as sensory input) produce a response (motor output). Hmm…something up nose…raise index finger…dig.

Simple though human sensorimotor skills may seem, they are the result of millions of years of evolution, and therefore difficult to replicate in something human-made. You not only have to build a sensory input system and a mechanical output system, but also the brain-like AI system that connects them. And it seems the brain-like part is the easy bit.

It’s something that both frustrates and inspires robotics engineers. In fact, they have a term for the strange contradiction that while high-level reasoning requires very little computation, low-level sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources. It’s called Moravec’s paradox.

Because of this, don’t expect robots to be a major player anytime soon. While an AI assistant can now call a hairdresser, a robot can’t cut your hair.

[This article originally appeared in the publication Fox Bytes (you can view it here) and on the mindofafox Growing Foxes app in the week of 21 May 2018. Growing Foxes is a school strategic intelligence programme designed by mindofafox. It is being piloted in a number of leading schools in the UK and South Africa. The app serves to support those students currently engaging with the programme. Click on the logo to find out more]

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