Science journalism is fraught with perils. Not of the Indiana Jones type, but more of the intellectual variety. A good headline, for example, is like catnip — for the writer and her perceived audience. It drives clicks and, at its best, condenses a complex story into a memorable meme.
At its worst, though, that meme may not actually reflect the content of the scientific research being reported upon. Such was the case last week when science journalists collectively tripped over themselves as they trumpeted about a study from Yale University wtih a “self-aware robot”.
To his credit, Nico’s creator, the roboticist Justin Hart, is not to blame for the misunderstanding. He explained the work as being much more about the robot, named Nico, comprehending spatial awareness — using the mirror as a tool. Hart told NBC News:
What makes this exciting, in terms of self-awareness, is that the robot is able to use this knowledge that it has learned about itself in order to reason about a thing in its environment, the mirror, in a way that robots really haven’t been able to do before.
Let me take issue with Hart’s choice of words, because this is where the problem starts. Nico did not “learn about itself” or identify “itself” in any way, because Nico is not conscious in any way — it’s a mechanical device crunching data.
Clearly, Nico did not pass any type of mirror test like, say, a chimp has. So what did it do? The robot figured out where it’s appendage was in 3D space by visually referencing its reflection in a nearby mirror.
That’s excellent, exciting research and a great result! Hart is correct in claiming that Nico has a unique ability not seen before in robots. But self-awareness? Sorry, Nico. Not even close.
True self-awareness is not just a processing of external data into recognizable forms, it’s a state of mind. At this point, only certain mammals (like apes, elephants, dolphins, and humans) have demonstrated this type of introspection. We can understand ourselves as separate individuals distinct from others and our surroundings. Nico can’t.
Again, I don’t want to take anything from this research: it’s very cool. But it’s barely a baby step on the long road to robot sentience.
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