: The Human Age

When Robots Weep, Who Will Comfort Them?

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When Robots Weep, Who Will Comfort Them?

Its an Anthropocene magic trick, this extension of our digital selves over the Internet, far enough to reach other people, animals, plants, interplanetary crews, extraterrestrial visitors, the planets Google-mapped landscapes, and our habitats and possessions. If we can revive extinct life forms, create analog worlds, and weave new webs of communicationwhat about new webs of life? Why not synthetic life forms that can sense, feel, remember, and go through Darwinian evolution?

HOD LIPSON IS the only man I know whose first name means splendor in Hebrew and a V-shaped wooden trough for carrying bricks over one shoulder in English. The paradox suits him physically and mentally. He looks strong and solid enough to carry a hod full of bricks, but he would be the first to suggest that the bricks might not resemble any youve ever known. They might even saunter, reinvent themselves, refuse to be stacked, devise their own mortar, fight back, explore, breed more of their kind, and boast a nimble curiosity about the world. Splendor can be bricklike, if graced by complexity.

His lab building at Cornell University is home to many a skunkworks project in computer sciences or engineering, including some of DARPAs famous design competitions (agile robots to clean up toxic disasters, superhero exoskeletons for soldiers, etc.). Nearby, two futuristic DARPA Challenge cars have been left like play-worn toys a few steps from a display case of antique engineering marvels and an elevator thats old and slow as a butter churn.

On the second floor, a black spider-monkey-like robot clings to the top left corner of Lipsons office door, intriguing but inscrutable, except to the inner circle for whom its a wry symbol and tradesmans sign of the sort colonial shopkeepers used to hang out to identify their business: the apothecarys mortar and pestle, the chandlers candles, the cabinetmakers hickory-spindled armchair, the roboticists apprentice. Though in its prime the leggy bot drew the keen gaze of students, students come and go, as do the smart-bots they work on, which, coincidentally, seem to have a life span of about 3.5 yearshow long it takes a student to finish a dissertation and graduate.

A man with curly hair, chestnut-brown eyes, and a dimpled chin, Hod welcomes me into his cheerful office: tall windows, a work desk, a Dell computer with a triptych of screens, window boxes for homegrown tomatoes in summer, and a wall of bookshelves, atop which sits an array of student design projects. To me they look unfamiliar but strangely beautiful and compelling, like the merchandise in an extraterrestrial bazaar. A surprisingly tall white table and its chairs invite one to climb aboard and romp with ideas. At Lipsons round table, if youre under six feet tall, your feet will automatically leave the planet, which is good, I think, because even this limited levitation aids the imagination, untying gravity just enough to make magic carpet rides, wing-walkers, and spaceships humble as old rope. Theres a reason we cling to such elevating turns of phrase as I was walking on air, That was uplifting, heightened awareness, surmounting obstacles, or My feet never touched the ground. The mental mischief of creativitywhich thrives on such fare as deep play, risk, a superfluity of ideas, the useful application of obsession, and willingly backtracking or hitting dead ends without losing heartis also fueled by subtle changes in perception. So why not cast off mental moorings and hover a while each day?

Whats the next hack for a rambunctious species full of whiz kids with digital dreams? Lipson is fascinated by a different branch of the robotic evolutionary tree than the tireless servant, army of skilled hands, or savant of finicky incisions with which we have become familiar. Over ten million Roomba vacuum cleaners have already sold to homeowners (who sometimes find them being ridden as child or cat chariots). We watch with fascination as robotic sea scouts explore the deep abysses (or sunken ships), and NOAAs robots glide underwater to monitor the strength of hurricanes. Googles robotics division owns a medley of firms, including some minting life-size humanoidsbecause, in public spaces, were more likely to ask a cherub-faced robot for info than a touchscreen. Both Apple and Amazon are diving into advanced robotics as well. The military has invested heavily in robots as spies, bionic gear, drones, pack animals, and bomb disposers. Robots already work for us with dedicated precision in factory assembly lines and operating rooms. In cross-cultural studies, the elderly will happily adopt robotic pets and even babies, though they arent keen on robot caregivers at the moment.

All of that, to Lipson, is childs play. His focus is on a self-aware species, Robot sapiens. Our own lineage branched off many times from our apelike ancestors, and so will the flowering, subdividing lineage of robots, which perhaps needs its own Linnaean classification system. The first branch in robot evolution could split between AI and ALartificial intelligence and artificial life. Lipson stands right at that fork in that road, whose path hes famous for helping to divine and explore in one of the great digital adventures of our age. Its the ultimate challenge, in terms of engineering, in terms of creation.

At the end of the day, he says with a nearly illegible smile, Im trying to recreate life in a synthetic environmentnot necessarily something that will look human. Im not trying to create a person who will walk out the door and say Hello! with all sorts of anthropomorphic features, but rather features that are truly alive given the principles of lifetraits and behaviors they have evolved on their own. I dont want to build something, turn it on, and suddenly it will be alive. I dont want to program it.

A lot of robotics today, and a lot of science fiction, is about a human who schemes at a workbench in a dingy basement, digitally darning scraps, and then figuring out how to command his scarecrow to do his bidding. Or a mastermind who builds the perfect robots that eventually go haywire in barely discernible stages and start to massacre us, sometimes on Earth, often in space. It assumes an infinite power that humans have (and so can lose) over the machine.

Engineerings orphans, Lipsons brainchildren would be the first generation of truly self-reliant machines, gifted with free will by their soft, easily damaged creators. These synthetic souls would fend for themselves, learn, and growmentally, socially, physicallyin a body not designed by us or by nature, but by fellow computers.

That may sound sci-fi, but Lipson is someone who relishes not only pushing the envelope but tinkering with its dimensions, fabric, inertia, and character. For instance, bothered by a question that nags sci-fi buffs, engineers, and harried parents alikeWhere are all the robots we were told would be working for us by now?he decided to go about robotics in a new way. And also in the most ancient of ways, by summoning the mother of all designers, Evolution, and asking a primordial soup of robotic bits and pieces to zing through millions of generations of fluky mutations, goaded by natural selection. Of course, natural evolution is a slapdash and glacially slow mother, yielding countless bottlenecks for every success story. But computers can be programmed to evolve at great speed with digital finesse, and adapt to all the rigors of their environment.

Would they be able to taste and smell? I wonder, realizing at once how outmoded the very question is. Taste buds rise like flaky volcanoes on different regions of the tongue, with bitter at the back, lest we swallow poisons. How hard would it be to evolve a suite of specialized taste buds that bear no resemblance to flesh? Flavor engineers at Nestl? in Switzerland have already created an electronic taster of espresso, which analyzes the gas different pulls of ristretto give off when heated, translating each bouquet of ions into such human-friendly, visceral descriptions as roasted, flowery, woody, toffee, and acidy.

However innovative, Lipsons entities are still primitive when compared to a college sophomore or a bombardier beetle. But theyre the essential groundwork for a culture, maybe a hundred years from now, in which some robots will do our bidding, and others will share our world as a parallel species, one thats creative and curious, moody and humorous, quick-witted, multitalented, and 100 percent synthetic. Will we regard them as life, as a part of nature, if theyre not carbon-basedas are all of Earths plants and animals? Can they be hot-blooded without blood? How about worried, petulant, sly, envious, downright cussed? The future promises fleets of sovereign silicants and, ultimately, self-governing, self-reliant robotic angels and varmints, sages and stooges. To be able to ponder such possibilities is a testament to the infinite agility of matter and its great untapped potential.

Whenever Lipson talks of robots being truly alive, gently stressing the word, I dont hear Dr. Frankenstein speaking, at one in the morning, as the rain patters dismally against the panes,

when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?[26]

As in the books epigraph, lines from Miltons Paradise Lost: Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould Me man? Mary Shelley suggests that the parent of a monster is ultimately responsible for all the suffering and evil he has unleashed. From her early years of seventeen to twenty-one, Shelley was herself consumed by physical creation and literally sparking life, becoming pregnant and giving birth repeatedly, only to have three of her four children die soon after birth. She was continually pregnant, nursing, or mourningcreating and being depleted by her own creations. That complex visceral state fed her delicately horrifying tale.

In her day, scientists were doing experiments in which they animated corpses with electricity, fleetingly bringing them back to life, or so it seemed. Whatever the image of Frankensteins monster may have meant to Shelley, it has seized the imagination of people ever since, symbolizing something unnatural, Promethean, monstrous that weve created by playing God, or from evil motives or through simple neglect (Dr. Frankensteins sin wasnt in creating the monster but in abandoning it). Something weve created that, in the end, will extinguish us. And thats certainly been a key theme in science-fiction novels and films about robots, androids, golems, zombies, and homicidal puppets. Such ethical implications arent Lipsons concern; thats mainly for seminars and summits in a future he wont inhabit. But such discussions are already beginning on some campuses. Weve entered the age of such college disciplines as robo-ethics and Lipsons specialty, evolutionary robotics.

Has it come to this, I wonder, creating novel life forms to prove we can, because a restless mind, left to its own devices and given enough time, is bound to create equally restless devices, just to see what happens? Its a new threshold of creators creating creative beings.

Creating life is certainly a tall pinnacle to surmount. Is it also a bit like having children? I ask Lipson.

In a different way. Having children isnt so much an intellectual challenge, but other kinds of challenges. His eyebrows lift slightly to underline the understatement, and a memory seems to flit across his eyes.

Yes, but you set them in motion and they dont remake themselves exactly, but

You have very little control. You cant program a child

But you can shape its brain, change the wiring.

Maybe you can shape some of the childs experiences, but there are others you cant control, and a lot of the personality is in the genes: nature, not nurture. Certainly in the next couple of decades we wont be programming machines, but like children, exactly well shape their experiences a little bit, and theyll grow on their own and do what they do.

And theyll simply adjust to whatever job is required?

Exactly. Adaptation and adjustment, and with that will come other issues, and a lot of problems. He smiles the smile of someone who has seen dust-ups on a playground. Emotions will be a big part of that.

You think well get to the point where machines have deep emotions?

They will have deep emotions, Hod says, certain as the tides. But they wont necessarily be human emotions. And also machines will not always do what we want them to do. This is already happening. Programming something is the ultimate control. You get to make it do exactly what you want when you want it. This is how robots in factories are programmed to work today. But the more we give away some of our control over how the machine learns

As a cool gust of October air wafts through the screenless window, carrying a faint scent of crumbling magnolia leaves and damp earth, it trails gooseflesh across my wrist.

Let me close the window. Hod slides gingerly off the tall chair as if from a soda fountain seat and closes the gaping mouth of the window.

We were making eye contact; how did he notice my gooseflesh? Stare at something and only the center of your vision is in focus; the periphery blurs. Is his visual compass wider than most peoples, or is he just being a thoughtful host and, sensing a breeze himself, reasoning that since Im sitting closer to the window I might be feeling chillier? As we talk, his astonishingly engineered biological brainwith its flexible, self-repairing, self-assembling, regenerating components that wont leave toxic metals when they decomposeis working hard on several fronts: picturing what he wants to say in all of its complexity; rummaging through a sea of raw and thought-rinsed ideas; gauging my level of knowledgevery low in his field; choosing the best way to translate his thoughts into words for this newly met and unfamiliar listener; reading my unconscious cues; rethinking some of his words when theyre barely uttered; revising them right as theyre leaving his mouth, in barely perceptible changes to a words opening sound; choosing the ones most accurate on several levels (literally, professionally, emotionally, intellectually) whose meaning I may nonetheless give subtle signs of not really understandingsigns visible to him though unconscious to me, as they surface from a dim warehouse of my previous thoughts and experiences and a vocabulary in which each word carries its own unique emotional valencewhile at the same time hes also forming impressions of me, and gauging the impression I might be forming of him

This is called a conversation, the spoken exchange of thoughts, opinions, and feelings. Its hard to imagine robots doing the same on as many planes of meaning, layered emotions, and spring-loaded memories.

Beyond the windows with their magenta-colored accordion blinds, and the narrow Zen roof garden of rounded stones, twenty yards across the courtyard and street, behind a flimsy orange plastic fence, giant earth-diggers and men in hard hats are tearing up rock and soil with the help of machines wielding fierce toothy jaws. Such brutish dinosaurs will one day give way to rational machines that can transform themselves into whatever the specific task requiresperhaps the sudden repair of an unknown water pipewithout a boss telling them what to do. By then the din of jackhammers will also be antiquated, though Im sure our hackles will still twitch at the scrape of clawlike metal talons on rock.

When a machine learns from experience, there are few guarantees about whether or not it will learn what you want, Lipson continues as he remounts his chair. And it might learn something that you didnt want it to learn, and yet it cant forget. This is just the beginning.

I shudder at the thought of traumatized robots.

He continues, Its the unspoken Holy Grail of a lot of roboticiststo create just this kind of self-awareness, to create consciousness.

What do roboticists like Lipson mean when they speak of conscious robots? Neuroscientists and philosophers are still squabbling over how to define consciousness in humans and animals. On July 7, 2012, a group of neuroscientists met at the University of Cambridge to declare officially that nonhuman animals including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses are conscious. To formalize their position, they signed a document entitled The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals.

But beyond being conscious, humans are quintessentially self-aware. Some other animalsorangutans and other cousins of ours, dolphins and octopuses, and some birdsare also self-aware. A wily jay might choose to cache a seed more quietly because other jays are nearby and it doesnt want the treasure stolen; an octopus might take the lid off its habitat at night to go for a stroll and then replace the lid when it returns lest its keepers find out. They possess a theory of mind, and can intuit what a rival might do in a given situation and act accordingly. They exhibit deceit, compassion, the ability to see themselves through anothers eyes. Chimpanzees feel deeply, strategize, plan, think abstractly to a surprising degree, mourn, empathize some, deceive, seduce, and are all too conscious of lifes pressures, if not its chastening illusions. Theyre blessed and burdened, as we are, by strong family ties and quirky personalities, from madcap to martinet. They jubilate when happy, mope when sad.

I dont think they fret and reason endlessly about mental states, as we do. They simply dream a different dream, probably much like the one we used to dream, before we crocheted into our neural circuitry the ability to have ideas about everything. Other animals may know you know something, but they dont know you know they know. Other mammals may think, but we think about having thoughts. Linnaeus categorized us in the subspecies of Homo sapiens sapiens, adding the extra sapiens because we dont just know, we know that we know. Our infants respond to their surroundings and other people, and start evolving a sense of self during their first year. Like orangutans, elephants, and even European magpies, they can identify themselves in a mirror, and they gather that others have a personal point of view that differs from their own.

So when people talk about robots being conscious and self-aware, they mean a range of knowing. Some robots may be smarter than humans, more rational, more skillful in designing objects, and better at anything that requires memory and computational skills. I reckon they can be deeply curious (though not exactly the way we are), and will grow even more so. They can already do an equivalent of what we think of as ruminating and obsessing, though in fewer dimensions. Engineers are designing robots with the ability to attach basic feelings to sensory experience, just as we do, by interacting with the world, filing the memory, and using it later to predict the safety of a situation or the actions of others.

Lipson wants his robots to make assumptions and deductions based on past experiences, a skill underlying our much-prized autobiographical memory, and an essential component of learning. Robots will learn through experience not to burn a hand on a hot stove, and to look both ways when crossing the street. There are also subtle, interpersonal clues to decipher. For instance, Lipson uses the British learnt instead of the American learned, but the American while instead of the British whilst. So, from past experience, I deduce that he learned English as a child from a British speaker, and assume he has lived in the United States just long enough to rinse away most of the British traces.

Yet however many senses robots may come to possessand theres no reason why they shouldnt have many more than we, including sharper eyesight and the ability to see in the darktheyll never be embodied exactly like us, with a thick imperfect sediment of memories, and maybe a handful of diaphanous dreams. Who can say what unconscious obbligato prompts a composer to choose this rhythm or thatan irregular pounding heart, tinnitus in the ears, a lover who speaks a foreign language, fond memories evoked by the crackle of ice in winter, or an all too human twist of fate? There would be no Speak, Memory from Nabokov, or The Gulag Archipelago from Solzhenitsyn, without the sentimental longings of exile. I dont know if robots will be able to do the sort of elaborate thought experiments that led Einstein to discoveries and Dostoevsky to fiction.

Yet robots may well create art, from who knows what motive, and enjoy it based on their own brand of aesthetics, satire (if they enjoy satire), or humor. We might enjoy it, too, especially if its evocative of work by human artists, if it appeals to our senses. Would we judge it differently? For one of its gallery shows, Yales art museum accepted paintings inspired by Robert Motherwell, only to change its mind when it learned theyd been painted by a robot in Lipsons Creative Machines Lab. It would be fun to discover robots talents and sensibility. Futurologists like Ray Kurzweil believe, as Lipson does, that a race of conscious robots, far smarter than we, will inhabit Earths near-future days, taking over everything from industry, education, and transportation to engineering, medicine, and sales. They already have a foot in the door.

At the 2013 Living Machines Conference, in London, the European RobotCub Consortium introduced their iCub, a robot that has naturally evolved a theory of mind, an important milestone that develops in children at around the age of three or four. Standing about three feet tall, with a bulbous head and pearly white face, programmed to walk and crawl like a child, it engages the world with humanlike limbs and joints, sensitive fingertips, stereo vision, sharp ears, and an autobiographical memory thats split like ours into the episodic memory of, say, skating on a frozen pond as a child and the semantic memory of how to tilt the skate blades on edge for a skidding stop. Through countless interactions between body and world it codifies knowledge about both. None of that is new. Nor is being able to distinguish between self and other, and intuit the others mental state. Engineers like Lipson have programmed that discernment into robots before. But this was the first time a robot evolved the ability all by itself. iCub is just teething on consciousness, to be sure, but its intriguing that the bedrock of empathy, deception, and other traits that we regard as conscious can accidentally emerge during a robots self-propelled Darwinian evolution.

It happened like this. iCub was created with a double sense of self. If he wanted to lift a cup, his first self told his arm what to do, while predicting the outcome and adjusting his knowledge based on whatever happened. His secondwe can call it interiorself received exactly the same feedback, but, instead of acting on the instructions, it could only try to predict what would happen in the future. If the real outcome differed from a prediction, the interior self updated its cavernous memory. That gave iCub two versions of itself, an active one and an interior mental one. When the researchers exposed iCubs mental self to another robots actions, iCub began intuiting what the other robot might do, based on personal experience. It saw the world through anothers eyes.

As for our much-prized feats of scientific reasoning and insight, Lipsons lab has created a Eureqa machine, a computer scientist able to make a hypothesis, design an experiment, contemplate the results, and derive laws of nature from them. Plumbing the bottomless depths of chaos, it divines meaning. Assigned a problem in Newtonian physics (how a double pendulum works), the machine took only a couple of hours to come up with the basic laws of motion, Lipson says, a task that occupied Newton for years after he was inspired by an apple falling from a tree.

Eureqa takes its name from a legendary moment in the annals of science, two thousand years ago, when Archimedesalready a renowned mathematician and inventor with formidable mastery in his fieldwas soaking in his bathtub, his senses temporarily numbed by warm water and weightlessness, and the solution to a problem came to him in a flash of insight. Leaping from the tub, he supposedly ran naked through the streets of Athens yelling, Eureka! (I have found it!)

For two thousand years, thats how traditional science has run: solid learning and mastery, then the kindling of observation and a spark of insight. The Eureqa machine marks a turning point in the future of how science is done. Once upon a time, Galileo studied the movement of the heavenly bodies, Newton watched an apple fall in his garden. Today science is no longer that simple because we wade through oceans of information, generate vast amounts of additional data, and analyze it on an unprecedented scale. Virtuoso number-crunchers, our computers can extract data without bias, boredom, vanity, selfishness, or greed, quickly doing the work that used to take one human a lifetime.

In 1972, when I was writing my first book, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral, a suite of scientifically accurate poems based on the planets, I used to hang out in the Space Sciences Building at Cornell. The astronomer Carl Sagan was on my doctoral committee, and he kindly gave me access to NASA photographs and reports. At that time, it was possible in months to learn nearly everything humans knew about the other planets, and the best NASA photos of the outermost planets were only arrows pointing to balls of light. Over the decades, I attended flybys at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and watched the first exhilarating images roll in from distant worlds as Viking and Voyager reached Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and an entourage of moons. In the 1980s, it was still possible for an amateur to learn everything humans knew about the planets. Today thats no longer so. The Alps of raw data would take more than one lifetime to summit, passing countless PhD dissertations at campsites along the trail.

But all that changes with a tribe of Eureqa-like machines. A team of scientists at the University of Aberystwyth, led by Professor Ross King, has revealed the first machine able to deduce new scientific knowledge about nature on its own. Named Adam, the two-armed robot designed and performed experiments to investigate the genetics of bakers yeast. Carrying out every stage of the scientific process by itself without human intervention, it can perform a thousand experiments a day and make discoveries.

More efficient science will solve modern societys problems faster, King believes, and automation is the key. He points out that automation was the driving force behind much of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century progress. In that spirit, Kings second-generation laboratory robot, named Eve, is even faster and nimbler than Adam. Its easy to become mesmerized watching a webcam of Eve testing drugs, her automated arms and stout squarish body shuffling trays, potions, and tubes with tireless precision, as she peers through ageless nonblinking eyes, while saving the sanity of countless graduate students, spared sleepless nights in the lab tending repetitive experiments.

How extraordinary that weve created peripheral brains to discover the truths about nature that we seek. Were teaching them how to work together calmly as a society, share data at lightning speed, and cooperate so much better than we do, rubbing brains together in the invisible drawing room we sometimes call the cloud. Undaunted, despite our physical and mental limitations, we design robots to continue the quest we began long ago: making sense of nature. Some call it Science, but its so much larger than one discipline, method, or perspective.

I find it touchingly poetic to think that as our technology grows more advanced, we may grow more human. When labor, science, manufacturing, sales, transportation, and powerful new technologies are mainly handled by savvy machines, humans really wont be able to compete in those sectors of the economy. Instead we may dominate an economy of interpersonal or imaginative services, in which our human skills shine.

Smart robots are being nurtured and carefully schooled in laboratories all over the world. Thus far, Lipsons lab has programmed machines to learn things unassisted, teaching themselves the basic skills of how to walk, eat, metabolize, repair wounds, grow, and design others of their kind. At the moment, no one robot can do everything; each pursues its own special destiny. But one day, all the lab machines will merge into a single stouthearted beingwhat else would we call it?

One of Lipsons robots knows the difference between self and other, the shape of its physique, and whether it can fit into odd spaces. If it loses a limb, it revises its self-image. It senses, recollects, keeps updating its data, just as we do, so that it can predict future scenarios. Thats a simple form of self-awareness. Hes also created a machine that can picture itself in various situationsvery basic thought experimentsand plan what to do next. Its starting to think about thinking.

Can I meet it? I ask.

His eyes say: If only.

Leading me across the hall, into his lab, he stops in front of a humdrum-looking computer on a desk, one of many scattered around the lab.

All I can show you is this ordinary-looking computer, he says. I know it doesnt look exciting because the drama is unfolding in the software inside the machine. Theres another robot, he says, gesturing to a laptop, that can look at a second robot and try to infer what that other robot is thinking, what the other robot is going to do, what the other robot might do in a new situation, based on what it did in a previous situation. Its learning anothers personality. These are very simple steps, but theyre essential tools as we develop this technology. And with this will come emotions, because emotions, at the end of the day, have to do with the ability to project yourself into different situationsfear, various needsand anticipate the rewards and pain in many future dramas. I hope that, as the machines learn, eventually theyll produce the same level of emotions as in humans. They might not be the same type of emotions, but they will be as complex and rich as in humans. But it will be different, it will be alien.

Im fascinated by the notion of other types of emotions. What would a synthetic species be like without all the lavish commotion of sexual ardor, wooing, jealousy, longing, affectionate bonds, shared experiences? Just as I long to know about the inner (and outer) lives of life forms on distant planets, I long to know about the obsessions, introspections, and emotional muscles that future species of robots might wrestle with. A powerful source of existential grief comes from accepting that I wont live long enough to find out.

Emotional robots Ive got a hunch this isnt going to happen in my lifetime. Im a bit crestfallen.

Well, it will probably take a century, but thats a blip in human history, right? he says in a reassuring tone. Whats a century? Its nothing. If you look at the curve of humans on Earth, he says, curving one hand a few inches off the table, were right there. Thats a hundred years.

So much has happened in just the last two hundred years, I say, shaking my head. Its been quite an express ride.

Exactly. And the field is accelerating. But theres good and bad, right? If you say emotions, then you have depression, you have deception, you have creativity and curiositycreativity and curiosity were already seeing here in various machines.

My lab is called the Creative Machines Lab because I want to make machines which are creative, and thats a very very controversial topic in engineering, because most engineersclose the door, speak quietlyare stuck in the Intelligent Design way of thinking, where the engineer is the intelligent person and the machines are being created, they just do the menial stuff. Theres a very clear division. The idea that a machine can create thingspossibly more creatively than the engineer that designed the machinewell, its very troubling to some people, it questions a lot of fundamentals.

Will they grow attached to others, play games, feel empathy, crave mental rest, evolve an aesthetics, value fairness, seek diversion, have fickle palates and restless minds? We humans are so far beyond the Greek myth of Icarus, and its warning about overambition (father-and-son inventors and wax wings suddenly melting in the sun). Were now strangers in a strange world of our own devising, where becoming a creator, even the Creator, of other species is the ultimate intellectual challenge. Will our future robots also design new species, bionts whose form and mental outlook we cant yet imagine?

Whats this? I ask, momentarily distracted by a wad of plastic nestled on a shelf.

He hands me the strange entanglement of limbs and joints, a small robot with eight stiff black legs that end in white ball feet. The body is filamental, like a childs game of cats cradle gone terribly wrong, and it has no head or tentacles, no bulging eyes, no seedlike brain. It wasnt designed as an insect. Or designed by humans, for that matter.

Way back in our own evolution, we came from fish that left the ocean and flopped from one puddle to another. In time they evolved legs, a much better way to get around on land. When Lipsons team asked a computer to invent something that could get from point A to point Bwithout programming it how to walkat first it created robots reminiscent of that fish, with multihinged legs, flopping forward awkwardly. A video, posted on YouTube, records its first steps, with Lipson looking on like a proud parent, one who appreciates how remarkable such untutored trials really are. Bits of plastic were urged to find a way to combine, think as one, and move themselves, and they did.

In another video, a critter trembles and skitters, rocks and slides. But gradually it learns to coordinate its legs and steady its torso, inching forward like a worm, and then walking insectlikeexcept that it wasnt told to model an insect. It dreamt up that design by itself, as a more fluent way forward. Awkward, but effective. Baby steps were fine. Lipson didnt expect grace. He could make a spider robot that would run faster, look better, and be more reliable, but thats not the point. Other robots are bending, flexing, and running, using replica tendons and muscles. DARPAs cheetah was recently clocked at a tireless 30 mph sprint. But that cheetah was programmed; it would be a four-legged junkpile without a human telling it what to do. Lipson wants the robot to do everything on its own, eclipsing what any human can design, unfettered by the paltry ideas of its programmers.

Its a touching goal. Surpassing human limits is so human a quest, maybe the most ancient one of all, from an age when dreams were omens dipped in moonlight, and godlike voices raged inside ones head. A time of potent magic in the landscape. Mountains attracted rain clouds and hid sacred herbs, malevolent spirits spat earthquakes or drought, tyrants ruled certain trees or brooks, offended waterholes could ankle off in the night, and most animals parleyed with at least one god or demon. What was human agency compared to that?

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