One potential application they have tested for self-aware machines is with a model bridge, with sensors continuously monitoring vibrations across its frame to develop a self-image of its "body". "In simulations we've shown that it could identify weakened joints a lot sooner than via traditional civil engineering methods," Lipson says. "The bridge isn't going to suddenly wake up one day and say hello, but in a primitive sense you can say it has self-image, enough to turn on a red light if something's wrong."
A key question for this research concerns how far it can actually go. "These are very simple robots, maybe eight or a dozen moving parts, so it's relatively easy to construct models of everything. But if you scale it up, will it still be able to make a good model of self?" Bongard asks. "That question also extends to social robots observing a human or something else complex. The question of scalability is what research is examining at the moment."
Intriguingly, the research also revealed what mental illness robots might develop. For instance, the starfishlike robot that developed a body image "spontaneously developed 'phantom limb' syndrome, thinking it had arms and legs where it didn't," Lipson says. "As robots become more complex and evolve themselves, we could see the same kinds of disorders we [humans can] have appear in machines."
Lipson detailed his team's research February 19 at the annual meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science conference in Washington, D.C.