August 28, 2012

The (Mechanical) Man In the Mirror

Or “I, Robot.”  In Isaac Asimov’s well-known stories, robots must obey the Three Laws of Robotics, which state that, in order of priority, a robot must protect humans from harm, it must obey the orders of humans, and it must protect itself.

In order for a robot to follow these laws, it would need to be self-aware – to know that it is an individual distinct from other individuals and to recognize that its physical parts and its thoughts are its own.

So far, self-aware robots have only existed in science fiction.

However, researchers at Yale University have built a robot that can use a mirror.

The mirror test is a classic test of self awareness that has been used on different animals.  A mark is placed on an animal’s face, and the animal is then shown its reflection in a mirror. If the animal sees the mark in the mirror and then tries to wipe it off its face – it recognizes that it is seeing its own face in the mirror – it passes the mirror test.

All great apes – humans, bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas – pass the mirror test, as do dolphins, elephants and some birds.

The robot, NICO, has not yet proven that it can pass the mirror test.  However, it can figure out where its arm is located in space by looking in a mirror. In 2007, NICO showed that it understands the connection between the movement of its limbs and movement reflected in a mirror.

Most robots today don’t realize that their own parts belong to them, so we have a long way to go before we need to start thinking about whether, legally robots should be granted rights, as some scientists today believe that we should grant legal rights to non-human great apes.

Scientists are still learning about the biological basis of self awareness in humans.

Previously, it was thought that human self awareness depended on activity in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and insular cortex.

However, a patient known as R, who has suffered extensive damage to these regions, appears, nevertheless, to be self-aware.

R developed brain damage in 1980 as the result of herpes simplex encephalitis. He has amnesia, and cannot taste or smell, but his level of intelligence is normal.

Researchers testing whether R is self-aware found that he can pass the mirror test.  He can also recognize himself in photographs in which he appears among a group of people.

R recognizes the difference between his performing an action with his own body and someone else performing an action.

He was given the task of using a computer mouse to move a blue box on a screen into a green box. Sometimes, the experimenters removed his ability to move the blue box.  R was able to report accurately how much control he had over the blue box’s movement.

When R is tickled by someone else, his reaction is stronger than when he tickles himself.

It is possible that after the parts of R’s brain that are normally needed for self-awareness were damaged, other parts of his brain took over their functions.  However, R’s caretakers claim that R appeared to be self aware within the first two weeks of his injury.

R’s example has led researchers to hypothesize that self-awareness comes from interactions among many different networks in the brain.

In other news, scientists are developing a robot that has the equivalent of an amygdala – the region of the brain that is associated with processing strong emotions, including anger and fear.  Just what we need – robots with panic attacks and anger management issues.

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