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Part Human: Why A Charming Synthezoid Is Coming Your Way

Part Human: Why A Charming Synthezoid Is Coming Your Way

Soft silicone skin with sensors that respond to the human touch. A perfect body with industrial-grade musculature that can run nimbly over rugged terrain, hurl a cinder block halfway across a basketball court or pick the right wine glass off the top shelf.

Add an artificial brain that can beat the best gamer, react physically to your emotions, coax you to exercise, maintain your habitat on Mars and do it all with a personality programmed to charm. The friendly ghost in the machine, as long as it doesn’t kill you.

These are sectors and subsectors of AI and robotics and even ethics as of right now. We at Benzinga mixed them all up together to ask experts to make the most perfect machine possible with unlimited financing. This is the machine that Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos might be dying to make, for all we know.

But these are the machines that let you look into their eyes and find understanding.

“The eyes are very important,” Luis Sentis, a robotics associate professor with the Cockrell School of Engineering’s center for Human Centered Robotics at the University of Texas–Austin, told Benzinga.

“The eyelids closing, the speed of the gaze, the movement of the head in relation to the eyes. We do experiments with eyes, and people’s reactions are so much different than if they (the eyes) hadn’t been there.”

Related: Would You Let A Robot Do These Jobs?

Making Robots Less Robotic

Sentis, whose projects include helping NASA’s ambitious Valkyrie humanoids, which act as stalwart astronaut companions when it comes to sweeping up around that Mars station, is among a niche of global innovators embracing the idea that robots would be more accepted in all aspects of society if they were built to look and act like empathetic humans instead of mindless drones, let alone job-killing Terminators.

Sentis is studying research done by human behavioral scientists to create equations that would direct sophisticated robots to autonomously make decisions beneficial to humans. He is studying AI and human movement to make robots move more like people.

“If you are talking to a box, you have less of a connection than if you talk to something that looks like a human,” said Sentis. “In my lab, people see a human-like head and they have a much different reaction.”

Active players in the field of human-centered robots range from the Walt Disney Co (NYSE: DIS) to the sexual companion innovator RealDoll to the groundbreakers Hiroshi Ishiguro and Juergen Schmidhuber, who are merging artificial intelligence with advanced-movement robotics to create humanoids that are, to varying degrees of intimacy, compatible with people.

We Have The Technology, Sort Of

Robotics are often stationary, non-humanoid machines that do things like stack shelves at warehouses run by, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN). Artificial intelligence often consists of sophisticated computer systems that do things such as pick stocks and or connect you to your Uber driver.

Both are in their relative infancy, though advances are occurring almost monthly. Yet hardcore engineers are reluctant to get into the more sci-fi aspects of putting all the tech together to create if not a synthetic human, a Frankensteinian facsimile.

Benzinga reached out to the top 20 robotics schools in the country, and the sound was pretty much android crickets.

Yet serious scientists are surfing the cutting edge.

Related: Kara Swisher On Jack Ma's Warnings: Even High Paying Jobs Aren't Immune To Robotics

One of the most fascinating ventures is the Swiss startup Nnaisense SA (pronounced “nascence”), where Schmidhuber’s team is building general-purpose robots to learn aspects of banking, insurance, industrial processes and lots of other things.

The theory is that learning more diverse tasks means the faster AI can exponentially expand its knowledge base and solve a wide range of disparate tasks at a human level — what is known as artificial general intelligence. Schmidhuber, who co-authored a landmark 1997 paper that laid groundwork for modern AI, has also created highly mobile robots.

Benzinga put one question to Schmidhuber’s colleague and Nnaisense co-founder Bas R. Steunebrink, whose research interests include artificial general intelligence, cognitive robotics, machine learning, bounded-optimal decision making and affective computing.

Take all the advances in AI, AGI and robotics and put it all together — how close is the real deal?

What Robots Want

“This is an interesting and very multifaceted question,” responded Steunebrink. “Consider building a human replicant as building a (large, modern) house. If you think of putting together the latest advances in the subfields of robotics and AI, it is like putting together your best masons, plumbers, electricians and carpenters.”

“Will they be able to build a decent house together? Probably not, because building a house — or any other large engineering project for that matter — requires a holistic vision (the architect!) as well as a holistic execution (the construction project manager!).”

“With access to ‘unlimited financing,’ the mason, plumber, electrician and carpenter may be able to attract a capable project manager, but where are they going to buy the vision? It's hard to exchange money for ideas.”

“This is why smaller labs and start-ups (like NNAISENSE) stand a chance against Google-sized companies that are also running AI labs with — for all practical purposes — unlimited financing.”

Robots And The Romance Paradox

Disney has long been a master of building human replicants with its animatronic constructs at its theme parks. But the new Disney patent shows that the company is after something much more: robots that can respond to the touch, voice, visuals and other human interactions.

The benefits of that may not be immediately clear. Both Sentis and Steunebrink know Japan’s Hiroshi Ishiguro, who has sent an android copy of himself to give lectures and often risks ridicule by designing robots that are oddly beautiful.

“Some time ago I asked Hiroshi Ishiguro why he's trying to build such life-like robots, and he answered it's out of the scientific interest in learning how humans work,” Sentis said. “One approach is to study biology, he said, but his approach was by trying to replicate us and learn from the challenges thus encountered.”

And the challenges indeed are steep, even though visionaries like Schmidhuber see a day when artificial humans will be colonizing the cosmos one day.

Sex And The Single ‘Droid

One incentive for creating human-like robotics is simple: Some people are desperate for companionship.

“The economic incentives for replicating human-like appearance for entertainment purposes are obvious; however, imbuing higher intellect does not necessarily increase entertainment value,” Steunebrink said

“The economic incentives for replicating purely intellectual capabilities are also obvious for industry and governments; however, what is less obvious is the incentive for combining human-like appearance and intellect in a single entity.”

Sentis knows some of the folks in the Disney robot project and has invited Ishiguro to speak at Austin (a town with the same name as Steve Austin, ironically, the cyborg of television fame).

“I think the press (about the Disney project) is going too far,” he said with a chuckle. “But Disney is a big player in robotics. The rumors are that they have robots moving their parts autonomously.”

And the work being done by Ishiguro’s team is not to be taken lightly just because his robots are loaded with sex appeal.

“I admire his work tremendously,” Sentis said. “He’s a pretty daring guy. He wants to have robot companions give you full-fledged emotions. I don’t know if you want to marry one, (but) that is part of his plan.”

Related: The European Union Wants To Tax Robots

Emotions Before Brains In Advanced Robotics

Sentis is trying to synthesize what’s known as “emotional intelligence” as a way to increase human productivity, the assumption being that people will be working with and interacting with AI and robot systems.

Sentis said we’ll see people having heart-to-heart talks with robots in our lifetimes, something called “behavior intervention.”

“Having a robot understand some of your emotions is happening today,” he said. “The robot needs to see the human and make judgments on the human. If you are upset, the robot cleaning up around you has to be able to look at you and say ‘Man, he’s having a bad day.”

“I think what humans want is to feel good,” he said. “I think you can feel good with forms that are slightly different than the human. I think we are going to have emotional replicants. The sex robots are going to be there. But people are looking for something more than sex.”

Robot Ethics And Android Feelings

Loneliness is just one of the drivers in a suite of technological challenges leading to the day when humanoids are faster, stronger and smarter than humans.

Naturally, there are counter-forces. With advances in robotics and artificial intelligence comes a whole set of ethical questions and, of course, robot ethicists.

“Surely if we were to create beings with phenomenal consciousness, this would have ethical relevance,” Vincent C. Mueller, a professor of philosophy at Leeds University in Britain and member of the Technical Committee on Robot Ethics of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

“Incidentally, why create synthetic humans? We already have many humans and there is a simple and pleasurable way to make more!”

Still, creating sentient humanoids for fun and profit; how wrong could that go?


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