From Child to Cyborg

by Lorna Baker

The term artificial intelligence or AI, was coined at the groundbreaking Dartmouth conference in 1956. But man’s interest in the notion that a machine can be given the ability to think, can be traced back to the myths and stories of the ancient world. The Greek myth of Pygmalion, who created a living statue, and the legend of the Golem, a clay statue brought to life by a Jewish Rabbi, bear testimony to man’s curious obsession with playing creator. In keeping with this kind of idealism, French thinker Descartes, whose statement, "I think, therefore I am", identified that to be intelligent is to be alive.

The media has long had a history of a preoccupation with sci-fi movies, so it must have been plausible to imagine a world populated by big strong intelligent humanoid robots. AI, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s modern day interpretation of Pinocchio, is the most relevant to this discussion. More than the previous examples, this new movie addresses thought and technological development on artificial children in our own present day culture. It is the future, after the polar icecaps have melted and natural resources are limited. Robots called "mechas", short for mechanicals, live and work among us but in this movie we have someone who can feel real emotion. David, played by Haley Joel Osment, a cherubic young boy who, once programmed will love his owner unconditionally forever. In the movie David experiences the human qualities of jealousy, rage, romance and love.

In recent years, so many toys for our children are electronic gadgets. Sony’s extensive research into developing the world’s first intelligent companion, may have over estimated man’s need for a buddy endowed with brains. The emergence of seemingly "useless" artificial pets like Tamagotchis or Furbies confirmed that a relationship between people and robotic creatures is possible. Even pre-schoolers are being taught to press the key or click the mouse. Toys have taken on human attributes, and speak to our children with a kind of interacting intonation. This has presented our children with the question of whether these toys are conscious. Children try to use, what is basic to them, their psychological understanding to figure toys out and talk to them. We now have on the market, robotic cats and dogs that we give to our children as virtual pets. Gone are the days of the simple doll whose eyes opened when you changed her position. We now have computerized dolls that talk, cry, sing and respond to having a wet diaper. Here we see a moving away from the traditional and a moving towards becoming the perfect society, one that is able to master technology and apply it wherever it sees fit, and at the same time able to modify and reproduce existing phenomena. We are now able to manufacture the perfect pet, domestic aid, surgical aid and lastly, child. In the medical arena robotics has long proved itself as being the solution for performing tasks in the operating room that require advance neuromuscular skills.

The evident possibility of cyborgs becoming children and children becoming cyborgs, has crept into the consciousness of mankind and blurred the line between what is truly sacred and of God, such as the growth of life, conscience and psyche, and what is entirely man made, consisting of computers and sophisticated sensing machines. Researchers are close to making humanlike machines, but with the advent of robots, people must take time to contemplate and explore technology’s promise and its perils. Whether humans are in a precarious or hopeful place has been an intellectual challenge. Early research has proved that humans are a lot more complex than originally considered and that it is really hard to build one.

Western culture has always strived to be world leaders, and so we strive to be the first to create the first all computerized child. Researchers now want to manufacture a child that is the ultimate in brilliance and at the same time possess and embody a child’s personality. They have tried to make machines smart by writing elaborate computerized problem-solving programs. They assumed that a sequence of facts, physical laws, and logical relationships would add up to thinking. Gary Kasparov was humbled by IBM’s "Deep Blue" in 1997 and this opened up a new school of thought that allowed man to believe that a computer can be smarter that a human being. However, it took three rooms to house the computer’s brain, but this device is still not capable of possessing the intuition and creativity to know that it should have an umbrella because it may rain. How does a cyborg or a computer, which possesses no sense of taste, know to add salt to taste when making soup? That chess match raised profound questions because a man was beaten by a computer in a game of wits. These abilities that seem second nature to human intelligence require years more research to allow a robot to possess them.

The idea of using logic and problem solving turns out to be much easier to simulate than the perceptual and intuitive things any child can do. Artificial intelligence researches are looking to children for the answer. Children are clearly learning machines, and while we cannot yet put our finger on how they do it, there is evidently a lot of imitation, repetition and interaction, and always plenty room for trial and error. Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT roboticist, designed a head robot named Kismet in 1997. The overall goal was to develop a robotic creature which will develop and learn through human interaction. The team at MIT strived to make this robot learn like a child would, in terms of acquiring new skills and storing them for future use. Kismet, the robot’s name, has a robotic type head, possessing facial expressions, head positioning and tone of voice. Kismet is controlled by twenty computers, where as the human brain, with all its myriad of capabilities, fits into the human head. Kismet was given blue eyes, ears, lips and eyebrows to elicit a known caregiving response from human adults. The eyes are sensors that react to senses through head movement and communication of emotionlike processes e.g. fear, happiness or disgust. Professor Breazeal is teaching Kismet to use his voice to achieve results for example crying.

This research is aimed at the larger question of how to build an open ended learning system. Today, much of the learning based research in robotics is targeted at teaching a robot to learn a specific task. Often a researcher decides what task the robot is to learn and sets out to engineer the learning task accordingly. However, because the learning algorithm, as its called, is specifically tailored to a specific task, the tedious task of engineering a new algorithm is necessary for the robot to learn a different task. This is why researchers are striving to design an open ended system of learning much like how a child learns from situations presented. To this end, the research is heavily inspired by the theories and observations of child developmental psychology. It is aimed at figuring out how to design an integrated, interactive learning system that can grasp from previously acquired skills, to learn new, more diverse and more sophisticated skills. MIT researchers are trying to produce a system that can emulate the human infant and all involved in its learning processes.

The robot is built to provoke human interaction that can benefit its ability to learn. Kismet is programmed to seek sensory stimulation e.g. voices, movement and color, which it attracts with beguiling expressions and a sort of baby talk. If an expression works, and a passing human comes to play, Kismet’s social drive is satiated. If not the levels sink and Kismet seeks a new way to connect. Get too close and the robot will let you know that you have invaded its space with a look of annoyance.

On one hand we as a society are trying to find a recipe for the perfect child in the lab, one that can possess the speed and preciseness of a machine and the attributes of a real child. On the other hand, we as a society are rearing our real children, who are products of a technological generation to become and function more like a computer. This way we always have our desired result. That result is the most well rounded child in our eyes, possessing the cerebral capabilities of a computer or is it of a human.

In keeping with a Western world view, Western culture sees itself not as one with the universe, but as having some control over it. The need in our society to be the best, have the best, has urged our society to try to accomplish making a cyborg child. At the same time, we as parents are caught up in the practice of introducing and maintaining a constant level of interaction for our children, with technology. This, we think, will somehow increase our chances of having a child who is capable of interacting comfortably with technology and able to use computer technology to excel academically and socially. Professor Cynthia Breazeal is trying to manufacture the perfect child because there is a need in our society to have that. Technology is now presenting us with a solution.

What society on a whole needs to internalize, is that what makes us human and allows us to be defined as the superior specie, is that we posses something unharnessable and intangible called consciousness. Human beings possess a soul. Many theories exist about this phenomena but none describe it as programmable or able to be duplicated. A man’s soul is as personal and intimately relevant to only him, as his DNA. If learning, memory and creative intelligence are really possible, then can machine consciousness be far behind? That would depend on what consciousness is, of course, and to date there is no agreed upon definition. It is undefinable. Human consciousness is not in keeping with linear logic, such as cause and effect. It is not possible to list all probable responses to all situations, load them into a computer, press a key, and produce a child and all that that entails. All programmable stimuli would always produce the same result. What about stimuli and scenarios that are not programmable or unknown? This has more to do with lateral logic which involves how each individual reacts to a particular situation and that response would be genuine and fundamental to only that individual. Mental substance acts according to its own human free will. Relativity is not something that can be explained or predicted. It is a phenomena that epitomizes human individuality and can be seen as the theory, that conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute, but relative to persons holding them. As a society, and more personally, a parent it is important that we see the blurring of that line, between the undefinable intangible phenomenon of human consciousness, and man’s ability to resonate his behavior through technology.

It is significant for us as a society to concretize a boundary around our specie to protect us from usurpers that can never hope to be like us or more accurately, like God. The continuation of society lies in the hands of our children, and while technology is undoubtedly necessary and inevitable, we must not allow our children to become intimately dependent on it. It is not appropriate, and it presents a moral dilemma, to think of robots as being connected to human biological intelligence capabilities. We must be aware, that, while the design of robots seem to be how our culture has evolved, they must be engineered in a way that ensures that they cannot move beyond what they are programmed to do.

Early last year, Wired Magazine, published an article entitled ‘Why The Future doesn’t need us’, by co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and esteemed technologists, Bill Joy, introduced a wider audience to the possibility that recent technological advances would be a threat to the existence of man. We are probably decades away from having to worry about a new humanoid race, but it seems clear that big changes are coming, and while humans, the flesh and blood type are adaptable to technological change, the period of adjustment can get pretty uncomfortable. There will certainly be some unintended and quite possibly unpleasant consequences as robots begin to play a regular role in our everyday lives.



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Biocca, Frank. 07/24/01 The Cyborg’s Dilemma: Progressive Embodiment In Virtual Environments. Michigan State University. Http://
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Boblee, R. "Artificial Intelligence: The Death of the Human Race? – No – Consider the Death of Death." E-mail to the author. 24 June 2001
Galler, Bernard A. "Cyborg Seeks Community." E-mail to the author. 25 June 2001
Kubos, Ken. "Cyborg 1.0." E-mail to the author. 23 June 2001
Taylor, Ian P. "Cyberspace and Virtual Reality" E-mail to the author. 26 June 2001

Scholarly Journal Articles
Hayden, Thomas & Hadfield, Peter. "The Age of Robots, We’re Close To Making humanlike machines. It’s Time To Reckon With The Promises And Perils." U.S. News & World Report, Vol.: 130, Issue: 16 (2001): 44-50