Comment: They promised us robots


Fifty years ago, intelligent machines were everywhere, at least in fiction. Yet here we are decades later, still doing our own chores. What went wrong?

It is almost 2014 - well into the second decade of this century. The world is in many ways a very different place to what it was fifty years ago. We have the Internet and bionic ears and cars that tell us where we want to go. But for me the 21st century has been a disappointment. Despite all the technological progress, we are missing one crucial thing.

Where are the robots? They promised us robots.

Fifty years ago, intelligent machines were everywhere, at least in fiction – fighting wars, navigating spaceships, cracking jokes. The computer revolution was just beginning, and it seemed that there was nothing these incredibly fast electronic brains could not do. Machines had always been stronger and faster, and now they would be smarter too. In the popular imagination, it seemed certain that robots would soon be doing all our household chores.

Scientists were caught up in the enthusiasm. Early researchers in the field of artificial intelligence  were confident that ‘thinking machines’ would be an everyday reality by the turn of the century. The first computers could already do things that humans cannot, such as simulate the explosion of an atomic bomb. Soon computers were beating us at chess. And with memory and processing power growing exponentially, it seemed only a matter of time before the machines would overtake us.        

Yet here we are decades later, still doing our own chores. What went wrong?

Machines perform well in situations where there are fixed rules, which is why they do well at games. Even in a game as complicated as chess, the universe of possibilities does not change. A computer algorithm can efficiently search forward in time and find the best strategy. In a such a static world, a machine is able to use its immense speed to its best advantage.

But the real world in which we live is not static - the rules are constantly changing. Each of us is at the centre of a highly connected web of relationships that evolves over time. We modify and change our own environment. Most of all, other people change our reality in complex ways. Interactions between people are unpredictable, surprising and often illogical. Real life is nothing like chess.

Even the most sophisticated computer programs can’t deal with this complexity. All of our artificial ‘intelligences’ fail when confronted with something new or unexpected. Machines hate surprises. Despite our efforts in recent years to create systems modelled on the human brain, none of them are able to even remotely approach the intelligence of a small child.

We can teach machines anything except the one thing that is really important – the ability to adapt.

So, no intelligent robots yet. But the failures of the artificial intelligence project have been instructive. Trying to construct machines that are like us has taught us a lot about ourselves. It now seems that when we think, we are doing something much more interesting and profound than just running algorithms and manipulating symbols. We don’t yet know how our minds work, but building machines has been a wonderful way to explore what it means to be human.

Besides, who knows what the future holds? We have always insisted on measuring intelligence by our own human yardstick. But now that our world is being saturated with networked devices, maybe these devices will develop their own kind of intelligence. People already ask questions of their mobile phones and get useful answers. Perhaps the ability to  instantly search billions of websites and find relevant information is a special kind of ‘intelligence’ in itself – something that was unthinkable for the scientists of fifty years ago.

So the future is already here, and it is in our pocket. Still, I must admit that I am a bit disappointed. The Internet is amazing and smartphones are pretty smart. But they didn’t promise us the Internet or smartphones. They promised us robots.

Shourov Bhattacharya is a technologist, writer and singer-composer with The Bombay Royale. He is the co-inventor of a ball-shaped rolling robot.

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