There are already 9 million robots on our planet. They are developing so rapidly, it’s like the arrival of a new species. What has taken humans millennia, robots have achieved in just decades. Now they are tackling their greatest challenge, trying to think like us. I am dr. Ben Garrett. “As an evolutionary biologist, I am more used to study humans and animals, so I am genuinely concerned by how quickly these machines are evolving.”
I am prof. Daniele George. “As an electronics engineeer, I spend a lot of my working life with robots and I think their rapid development provides an incredible opportunity for us all.”
Robots are changing our world. In this episode, we investigate whether intelligent robots will become our friends and companions, find out if we should trust them with our lives and if one day they will even become conscious. Will the rise of robots enhance our lives or threaten our survival.
The robot’s design combines artificial intelligence with a body based on human anatomy. “Whilst I impressed by their design, I am concerned about what the consequences of intelligent robots will be for us.” “I think that the development of intelligent robots could help us achieve things that we currently find impossible.
To discover the consequences of robot intelligence on humans, we are going to analyse it from a biological perspective. We will track down some of the earliest intelligent robots and meet more of their modern-day descendants to discover how robot intelligence has evolved and where it is really heading.
“I believe intelligent robots will become our companions and even our friends. I am going to meet NASA’s most advanced robot, Valkyrie who will hopefully one day work alongside us to carry out an extraoridinary mission.”
Valkyrie has not been designed for our planet. NASA has created Valkyrie to be an astronaut. For a robot, her mission is ambitious. In the 2030s, she will help set up a home for humans on Mars.
Prof. Tuscon Padilla and his team are preparing Valkyrie for her voyage to the red planet. She is designed in a human form, because she will operate in human environments. Robots are good for dangerous, distant and daring environments, like Mars. Valkyrie will be preparing an environment for humans to live in. For her to be a true ally in space, she needs to be able to operate independently. “What we are doing today is, line by line writing new software, so that Valkyrie has better capabilities for future missions, espescially to Mars.”
The team needs to write hundreds of thousands of lines of code just for her to carry out the most simple tasks. Valkyrie is equipped with sensors that map the environment all over her body to allow her to navigate. “Spending time with Valkyrie confirms my belief that intelligent robots will help us achieve our dreams. But what surprised me how much the team are already starting to bond with her. I instantly felt empathy too. I reached out to grab her when she fell.” But for intelligent robots like Valkyrie to truly build relationships, they need to engage with us on a much deeper level. And starts with being able to talk to us. Talking robots have been the dream of scientists for almost a hundred years.
In Old Sacramento lives one of the oldest robots in the world. His inventor claimed he could respond to the human voice and talk back. He could hold the key to understanding how our robots talk to us today. This mechanical man was built in Britain in 1932 by an Englishman, called Harry May. In 1934, a short film was released to showcase Alpha’s voice recognition skills. The title was “The face of things to come”. Harry May explained that Alpha’s speech was actually just 30 pre-recorded responses stored on wax cylinders like records. When Alpha was asked a quetion, an electronic device inside him would decipher the words and select a pre-recorded response to play.
Harry May’s vision for humans and robots talking to each other was well ahead of its time, but his ingenious concept for how Alpha could talk provides one of the foundations for how robots communicate with us today.
Silicon Valley is the heart of where this technological revolution is taking place. It is home to almost every tech start-up you can think of. The tech giants around here have developed their own sophisticated intelligent voice assistance and they are designed to be as charming as possible. Siri’s voice assistant is simply using pre-programmed answers from its database. It is just like a massively scaled up version of the concept Harry May described for his robot a century ago where computerised scripts have replaced the wax cylinders. But while searching a database for an answer might be useful to get factual information, it will take something much more sophisticated for us to have relationships with machines.
You have to come to Japan to appreciate the deep emotional bonds humans can form with robots. Here, you start to understand what a shared future with robots will be like. It is a country that has embraced them like nowhere else, a real love affair. Here it is not just important how a robot’s voice sounds like, but how it is expressed with body language.
I am on my way to see a typically Japanese robot. It is designed to be our friend and help prevent loneliness. In August 2013, a Japanese rocket launched, bound for the International Space Station. Japanese people were so convinced by a robot’s ability to be our friend, there was a robot astronaut on board. His name was Kirobo.
Kirobo’s mission was to give emotional support to Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. During the 18 months’ stay, they shared every experience together, even taking selfies. Kirobo was originally created by Toyota. Toyota City is home to over half a million people and roughly 80% of them owe their livelihoods to Toyota. At just 4 inches tall, Kirobo’s brothers and sisters are the domestic version of their astronaut sibling. The developer of the Kirobo family is Hisashi Kusuda.
Kirobo’s minis were designed to tackle the loneliness of modern life in a country with an aging population and falling birth rate. They look very human and they are designed like this rather than like an animal, an alien or a creature. They are a little person. They remind of babies born in the natural world. They often have big heads, large eyes and cute voices to help form emotional bonds with their parents. They also have a lot of non-verbal communication, like body language. They really have human-like gestures and reflex the way we speak. It feels like interacting with a little person and not a machine. They remember their partner’s profile.
“Watching Kirobo turn his head and follow my conversation, I can now see much more easily a future where we do have a relationship with social robots and that could be helpful to us.” But despite his clever words, Kirobo doesn’t really understand me or the world around him. If robots really are going to become our friends and crucially, if we are going to trust them, they’ll have to be able to make sense of our world like we do. The scale of that problem is staggering, even for the most simple task.
38 million people live in Tokyo and they are on the move. How people navigate this metropolis is a wonder of the human brain. The human brain is the most complex processing machine on the planet. The mind receives data through the eyes, the ears and even through the skin and it is using the central and peripheral nervous systems and a brain with over a hundred trillion connections, but what our brain sets aside from a machine is our ability to deal with the unpredictable.
It has taken million of years for the human brain to evolve its beautiful complexity, a journey robots have only just begun.
I’ve come to Bristol to meet the first robot to sense the world around it. This was the vital first step needed for robots to be able to understand it. I am told this little tortoise robot was designed with an artificial brain.
Prof. Owen Holland is the world authority on the tortoises. First built in 1948, the master mind behind these artificial animals was neurologist Grey Walter. His robots had two very basic senses: sight and touch. Walter was a physiologist who was interested in how the brain worked. He knew that he never could build a model with as many paths as the human brain. Elsie sees out of a photoelectric cell which rotates above her body. When light strikes the cell, the driving and steering mechanism sends her hurrying towards it, but if she brushes against any object in her path, contacts are operated that turn the steering away and so automatically she takes avoiding action.
Walter designed these robots basically to use only what he calls two nerve cells to actually get different types of behaviour and he largely succeeded. He made synthetic life of a sort, extremely simple and is regarded as the first pioneer of what we call real artificial life. He was designing real things and said these are behaving in a lifelike way. Owen’s robotic tortoises are exact replicas of Walter’s original design. The touch switch and photoelectric light cell or robotic eye interact with the circuits controlling the motors enabling the tortoise to drive and turn.
Grey Walter was one of the first to show that biological principles can be applied to the field of robotics.
Young, M. (2017). Meet Valkyrie, NASA’s Space Robot – Sky & Telescope. [online] Sky & Telescope. Available at: https://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/meet-valkyrie-nasa-space-robot/.
cyberneticzoo.com. (2009). 1932 – Alpha the Robot – Harry May (English) – cyberneticzoo.com. [online] Available at: http://cyberneticzoo.com/robots/1932-alpha-the-robot-harry-may-english/ [Accessed 27 Jan. 2020].
CHANG, J.M. (2013). Kirobo Robotic Astronaut Says Hello Aboard the International Space Station. [online] ABC News. Available at: https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/kirobo-robotic-astronaut-aboard-international-space-station/story?id=20164609 [Accessed 27 Jan. 2020].
Bristol.ac.uk. (2019). 2008: Grey Walter and his tortoises | News | University of Bristol. [online] Available at: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2008/212017945378.html [Accessed 27 Jan. 2020].