The First Step to a Self-Aware Machine

Science and Technology
Nico can recognise itself in a mirror/Justin Hart, Yale University

Nico looks into a mirror and sees someone with something attached to their arm. On closer inspection, Nico realises he is looking at his own arm. Nico has just learned to recognize himself in the mirror. So what? We all recognize ourselves in the mirror. So do some primates and animals. So why is Nico special? Because he’s not alive.

Computer scientists at Yale University’s social robotics lab have programmed Nico, a humanoid robot, to recognize its arm’s reflection in the mirror because of a visual token attached to it. Justin Hart, a PhD student who is leading the research under the supervision of Professor Brian Scassellati, believes this to be a major step in creating a truly self aware robot.

Nico is able to learn about its own body by studying itself in the mirror. The robot is then able to use this information to learn about its surroundings, even being able to determine the positions of objects in space using their reflections. “The robot watches its arm move in its visual field, and learns about the structure of the arm, how it moves through space, and the relationship between the arm and the visual field,” says Justin Hart. Hart presented his paper “Mirror Perspective-Taking with a Humanoid Robot” in July at the Conference of Artificial Intelligence in Toronto, Canada.

In a few months time, Hart aims to use Nico to conduct a unique experiment, to see if a robot can pass the mirror test.  Developed by Gordon Gallup in 1970, the classic test of self awareness has been used many times to determine the levels of self recognition in different species. An animal is given time to get used to a mirror, then it’s anaesthetized and a small mark of paint is placed on its face.  If the animal seems to realize the paint is on itself and shows this by touching the spot on its body, then it will pass the test. So far only humans, great apes, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants and magpies have been able to pass the test. Toddlers are able to pass at around 18 months.

If people are ever going to accept robots as a part of their lives or work alongside them, then robots will need to learn to understand the world around them and the effect they have on it. Nico seems to have mastered the first step to achieving this goal.

For many, living alongside self-aware, intelligent machines is the stuff of science fiction films, but it seems it may be a possibility for the not too distant future. Although we probably shouldn’t be expecting to have a WALL-E type friend anytime soon, this is still a significant advancement in the world of artificial intelligence.