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Robot Demonstrates Self-Awareness

A recent article in New Scientist featured two cutting-edge robots: Leonardo, who could "imagine" himself in the shoes of different humans, and Nico, who is today's topic.

Nico is the brainchild of Yale University scientists Kevin Gold and Brian Scassellati, and is a so-called humanoid robot, meaning he has appendages and some facial features of a human. However, he's not nearly as cuddly looking as Leo, and rather resembles a skeleton.

Nico the robotNico the robot

Recently, Nico has become the first robot to be able to apparently recognize himself in a mirror.

Only a few other animals (e.g. dolphins, elephants, and chimps) besides humans have the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror, making the mirror test an important mark of sociability, awareness, and intelligence.

When raising an arm while looking at himself in a mirror, Nico's software system is able to identify himself as "self." The scientists programmed him to classify objects as "self," "other," or "neither" depending on information obtained from a camera behind one of his eyes.

Motion sensors in Nico's arms relay information when his arm is moving to his software system. The software compares the images received by the camera eye with the movement of the arm, and when they align, there is a good probability of the image being Nico himself. If not, the software determines a higher probability that the image is someone or something else.

While this skill won't in itself enable Nico to perform any practical functions, scientists consider it a milestone that could potentially lead to further developmental stages. As kind of a parallel, the milestone of self-awareness is considered an important stage in the development of human infants.

One possible application of robot self-awareness is the potential for teaching robots by imitation. The robots would have to be able to distinguish between themselves and their human teacher. Also, the ability to recognize their own limbs would be helpful for robots to adapt their gait to a changing terrain when walking, as well as in handling objects.

While Nico has surpassed his peers on the spectrum of self-recognition, he has also sparked a debate about what self-recognition truly is, and how exactly it can be measured.

The select few animals that recognize themselves in the mirror also use the mirror to look at themselves, inspecting their teeth and other parts of their bodies. Nico is not yet at that level, though.

So scientists-both engineers and psychologists-are asking themselves if the mirror test is still a true test of self-recognition, as well as questioning if Nico can really be said to possess self-awareness.

This is very similar to the question of the significance of Leonardo's ability to put himself in another's shoes. Namely, is the test that we'd use for measuring human abilities the same that we should be using to measure robot abilities? It seems like there's more going on in the human/animal brain when we recognize ourselves in a mirror than Nico's simple classification of "self."

The domain of robot cognitive skills is extremely new, and will undoubtedly pose more questions on the definitions of some of these common-sense concepts that we thought we knew. If Nico is confirmed to possess self-awareness, then it seems that we humans possess something far beyond that, something that maybe we have no word for.

Another domain in which science is beginning to really dig into is the brain. How can this 3-pound lump of matter do so much? Here's some irony: if we don't understand our own brains, can we even be said to be completely self-aware?

To avoid getting jumbled up in these recursive paradoxes, one last interesting part of this story is that scientists speculate that designing robots may help in understanding human cognition development in infants.

To quote Olaf Sporns, a cognitive scientist and roboticist at Indiana University in Bloomington: "[This research] shows us that complex phenomena can sometimes be explained on the basis of simple mechanisms."

If so, then finding precisely which simple mechanisms govern cognitive abilities will be scientists' greater challenge.

Lisa Zyga
Science Blogger

May 31, 2007
by Lorne (not verified)

Think ...

when A child "solve a problem" like 3+7=10, the "common sense" says that he´s thinking, but when a computer does the same thing "common sense" says he´s processing >_> , this is a prejudice against computers.

Jun 2, 2007
by Lisa Zyga

Re: Think

Lorne: Interesting, I never thought of being prejudice against a non-human object. Maybe one day we'll find that our brains are doing nothing more than simple data processing, as well ... just doing many things simultaneously gives an illusion of depth.

Jun 22, 2007
by Mike (not verified)

Correction: Robot Doesn't Necessarily Demonstrate Self-Awareness

I find it dubious that "self awareness" is defined as "can see itself in the mirror" in this context. The classic mirror test is to see whether, without any prompting and tuition on what constitutes "self", an animal knows that the thing in the mirror is itself. It defeats the object, and the validity of the test, if one teaches it (or, in this case, programs it with) the ability to recognise itself in the mirror.