11/01/2013 03:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2013

The Robotics Frontline

"In essence, if workers have begun to smash the physical machinery of
domination, so responsible intellectuals must begin to deliberately smash the
mental machinery of domination. They must strive to overcome -- in themselves
as well as others -- the collective fear of being human and free, a fear now
reified and ratified in fixed ideas and solid-state circuitry. To do this, they
must champion a new common sense that insists without compromise upon the
primacy of people's lives over the strange and estranging myths of automatic
destiny. The intellectual task is one of recovery, reclamation, and reminders:
of who and what we are and of what is being lost." -- David F. Noble, Progress
Without People

Meandering the cobblestone streets of old Bergamo on break from a recent
conference, "Synthetic Modeling of Life and Cognition," I was drawn inside a shop
displaying Pinocchio puppets of various sizes (the shopkeeper insisted the
book's author was born in Bergamo, but in fact, he was Florentine). As the
story goes, Geppetto the woodcarver, working from a piece of enchanted wood
enabled Pinocchio -- who had always dreamed of being a real boy -- to emerge.
Pinocchio 3000, the computer-animated film with Malcolm McDowell and Whoopi
Goldberg has also done it, with Pinocchio the robot "brought to life by tapping
into the city of Scamboville's power surge." But how close really are today's
scientists to enabling a Hal or Pris & Roy to materialize?

Angelo Cangelosi, a 30ish year old researcher now at Plymouth University's
Centre for Robotics and Neural Systems in the UK told me at a dinner party in
mid-September for the participants of the University of Bergamo robotics
conference that the European community has for the past seven years been funding
cognitive robotics at 100 million euros a year and that the EU will continue to
support the research but that it is now making an even bigger financial
investment in industrial robotics. As for a Hal or Pris & Roy -- says
Cangelosi, "No, not in my lifetime."

Cangelosi's young colleagues gathered around seemed to concur that robots will
still have to somehow be plugged in, although not as obviously as Craig
Ferguson's comedic sidekick Geoff Peterson.

Scientists I later spoke with at Santa Fe Institute (over gluten-free pizza)
seemed to be keen on robotics. "Yes, robots are coming," said Nobel Laureate
and SFI co-founder Murray Gell-Mann smiling.

David Orban of Dotsub, a Singularity University adviser and faculty member as
well as founder/director of Singularity's Institute for Artificial Intelligence,
who made a brief appearance at the Bergamo event, went further, insisting that
people who don't embrace robotics in the future will not be able to survive.

Singularity co-founder Ray Kurzweil, now a director of engineering at Google,
for instance, continues to say that building a human brain will happen by 2029:
"I've had a consistent date of 2029 for that vision. And that doesn't just mean
logical intelligence. It means emotional intelligence, being funny, getting the
joke, being sexy, being loving, understanding human emotion. That's actually
the most complex thing we do. That is what separates computers and humans
today. I believe that gap will close by 2029." ("How Ray Kurzweil Will Help
Make Google the Ultimate AI Brain," Wired)

But if life is nonalgorithmic, how can a robot -- an algorithmic device --
become nonalgorithmic? So, just where are we with developments?

I asked Vincent Muller, co-organizer of the Bergamo conference to weigh in. Muller divides his time between a position as research fellow at Oxford University's Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology and teaching philosophy at Anatolia College in Greece. Muller has written about the falsity of the mind -- he does not think humans have an exclusive on the mind -- and that building a robot with consciousness is possible.

Meanwhile, while there are now ways to enable brain cells to talk to one another
as they lay on top of a bed of electrodes in a petri dish by pulsing them with
an outside energy source, as cybernetics professor Slawek Nasuto et al. are
doing at the University of Reading in the UK -- building a brain is another

New York Medical College cell biologist Stuart Newman doubts that the
complexity of brain cells and their collective interactions in humans, or even
nonhumans, can be understood independently of their evolutionary histories in
concert with their respective bodies. Newman emailed the following: "Robots, like other machines, are made of parts. Neurons are not parts in this sense, and a brain is no more a machine than the Roman Empire was."

Even if we succeed in building a human brain, how can we duplicate things like
the delicate pas de deux of humans and their gut microbiome, for instance,
which the International Society for Systems Biology conference in early
September in Copenhagen made clear is crucial to human life?

Again, there is the matter of mind. We don't yet understand what a mind is or
at what level consciousness begins, although theoretical biologist Stu Kauffman, in
talks at Bergamo and in Sardinia, both of which I attended, said he thinks
consciousness begins at the level of the electron and elementary particles.

Nonsense, said biochemist Pier Luigi Luisi to Kauffman's idea that
electrons have consciousness. Luisi addressed origin of life at Bergamo and the week before
at the Scuola Autopoietica del Mediterraneo conference in Sardinia advising that
there's been nothing new on origin of life since Stanley Miller (Gell-Mann
responded to the news by saying, "And I was there in Chicago when Miller did
it."). However, Luisi and Kauffman both agree, that building a brain will not
give you a mind.

The Italians and Japanese appear to be most enthused about trying to understand the
role of "embodiment" regarding networks processing information. Osaka
University's Minoru Asada who arrived in Bergamo wearing a white Borsalino hat,
has been building a baby robot with biometric body (visual/auditory
ability/tactile sensors) that simulates a child's development. His presentation
ended with two robots flying into one another's arms like Anouk Aimee and Jean-Louis Trintignant (thanks to computer graphics).

Vincent Muller's concern for the impact on society of robotics (pro and con), also as
coordinator of the European Network for Cognitive Systems, Robotics and
Interaction, has led to his organizing various forums and online chats about it. He thinks the
robotics revolution will somehow translate into greater wealth for all, despite the fact that,
according to an Oxford University report published this September, "The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerisation," half of all jobs -- at least in the U.S. -- are expected to disappear in the next decade or two due to computerisation. The report did not mention that the cost of job retraining in the U.S. will be left to the unemployed to shoulder.