See Inside June 2010

Machine Self-awareness

What happens when robots start calling the shots?

Artificial-intelligence (AI) researchers have no doubt that the development of highly intelligent computers and robots that can self-replicate, teach themselves and adapt to different conditions will change the world. Exactly when it will happen, how far it will go, and what we should do about it, however, are cause for debate.

Today’s intelligent machines are for the most part designed to perform specific tasks under known conditions. Tomorrow’s machines, though, could have more autonomy. “As the kinds of tasks that we want machines to perform become more complex, the more we need them to take care of themselves,” says Hod Lipson, a mechanical and computer engineer at Cornell University. The less we can foresee issues, Lipson points out, the more we will need machines to adapt and make decisions on their own. As machines get better at learning how to learn, he says, “I think that leads down the path to consciousness and self-awareness.”

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