Self-aware robots — science-fiction or reality?

Robots are making a big impact everywhere. Engineers have successfully created robots that can gather information about their environment, learn from it, and make informed decisions. Some robots can even work themselves through a simple obstacle course. Despite all these advancements, robots are still considered as machines or tools that’ll do a given job. For the most part, they are not aware of their existence and are incapable of emotions. They can only do what they’re programmed to do. But what if they can think for themselves and express their emotions? Self-aware robots could be a reality sooner than we may think, considering the many experiments going on in this area. Let’s look at a few of them.

Mirror test

Recognizing your own reflection in a mirror is an important milestone for sociability, self-awareness, and intelligence. The mirror test was first created in 1970 and has since then become a classic test for self-awareness. Interestingly, only a few nonhuman species such as primates, dolphins, and elephants have passed this test. Even human babies are not able to pass this test until they are about 18 months old.

self-aware robots
University of Minnesota, Duluth

Now, this test is also used to evaluate the self-awareness of robots.

Nico, a humanoid, gazes at the mirror kept in front of it, raises one arm, and recognizes that this is its own reflection in the mirror. Nico is the first robot to pass this spatial reasoning task. While this is not an amazing feat by human standards, it’s definitely an important step toward creating self-aware robots.

Nico was developed by scientists at the Yale University led by Justin Hart, a Ph.D. student. So far, the robot is only able to recognize its arm, but this group of scientists is working to help Nico pass the full body test soon.

This successful experiment also paves the way for creating advanced robots that can identify if some part of their body is damaged or is not functioning properly, so they can possibly even repair it themselves.

Wise-men puzzle

Scientists at The Ransselear AI and Reasoning Lab (RAIR) in New York have conducted an experiment on three Nao robots. Led by Prof. Selmer Bringsjord, this experiment gave the three robots an updated version of the “wise-men” puzzle, and one of them has passed it.

In case you’re wondering, this classic puzzle is about a king who calls the three wisest men in the country for a test. The king will put either a white or a blue hat on each person’s head. They can see the hat on others’ heads, but not their own, and they’re not allowed to talk to each other. The person who deduces the hat color on his head first wins.

In this modified version, each robot was given a tap on the head. These robots were programmed to believe that two of them had been given a “dumbing pill” that would make them mute.

The researcher asked which robot hadn’t received the dumbing pill. One of the bots got up and said: “I don’t know.” But, hearing its own voice, it was able to immediately say politely, “Sorry, I know. I was not given the dumbing pill”.

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While this is exciting, it doesn’t mean that robots have the same level of self-awareness as humans. Nevertheless, this experiment shows that it’s possible to train robots to be self-conscious in a specific situation. It’s a step toward teaching robots how to be self-conscious, though a lot more needs to be done to bridge the gap between humans and humanoids.

Difference between humans and robots

self-aware robots

Though this may sound elementary, it still good to know that there are three major aspects that make us superior to robots, and they are:

  • Self-awareness
  • Emotions
  • Motivation

When all these three aspects are present in robots, they can become our equal.

Self-aware robots

One of the aspects that’s making it difficult to create self-aware robots is the fact that these machines can’t perceive and understand as much data as the human brain. Even though sensors can capture more information than the human brain, scientists don’t know how to help robots stitch all this information into a single piece to create a cohesive picture.

In fact, this inability to create a cohesive picture is what differentiates us from robots. It represents the subtle difference between seeing something through your eyes and actually experiencing it through your senses.

That said, knowing the problem itself is a good sign as scientists can look for the right solutions.

Some cognitive scientists like Stanislas Dehaene, Hawkan Lau, and Sid Kouider from College de France, University of California, and PSL Research University, respectively, believe that consciousness is computational. They argue that empirical evidence points to the fact that consciousness comes from specific computations, so it’s possible to create self-aware robots by implementing computations to kindle consciousness.

According to these scientists, consciousness arises from two activities done by the brain:

  • Selecting information and making it available for computation
  • Self-monitoring these computations to get a subjective idea

They contend that when both these activities are coded into computers, robots can become conscious.

But this is easier said than done because we need an outline of computations that could lead to consciousness, and that’s something the team is developing.


self-aware robots
SoftBank Robotics

All living creatures, not just humans, are born with emotions, though the degree may vary depending on the intelligence and brain evolution.

So, to create human-like robots, emotions are a key aspect. Some companies already understand this need for emotions and are working toward it.

SoftBank Robotics, for example, has created a humanoid that’s capable of understanding human emotions and adapting its behavior to the mood of its interlocutor. Called Pepper, this humanoid is used across 140 stores in Japan to welcome and amuse customers as they wait for their service.

Another example is Sony’s Aibo robot dog. This adorable dog is believed to be capable of forging an emotional bond with others in the house. According to the company, it’s capable of giving love and companionship to humans by being self-aware and emotional. Sony even claims that Aibo can adapt its behavior based on its environment and the mood of its owners.


The third aspect is motivation. As humans, we have an intrinsic motivation to do many activities ranging from cooking to programming. When it comes to robots, they should be programmed to think and act in a certain way. So, to become more humanlike, these robots have to learn to act without any specific input from its instructors.

Is this really possible? Well, yes, according to Ryoto Kanai, the founder of Araya Inc. In a demonstration, he and his team simulated robots driving in a virtual landscape that included a steep hill. In general, it’s not possible for the car to climb this hill unless it had a running start.

But the robots were given no instruction at all. They examined the landscape, understood the problem, and figured out how to climb it. They did it because the team infused some intrinsic motivation to make them good at solving problems. Again, this is a baby step toward making robots independent and self-aware, but nevertheless an important one.

All these experiments bring back an important question: Do robots pose an existential threat to humans? Some prominent scientists and entrepreneurs like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk believe such robots can bring about the end of humanity.

But there’s another group of people like Murray Shanahan, professor of cognitive robots at Imperial College London, who think that this level of intelligence is necessary to nullify any threat. They argue that artificial intelligence should also be humanlike for peaceful coexistence between robots and humans. He believes that robots with ruthless optimization and no moral reasoning are a bigger threat to humans than self-aware robots.

So, how far are we from creating self-aware robots that can mimic human behavior? Scientists say it’s anywhere from 15 to 100 years!

During this time, it’s important for companies and scientists to work together to create the right kind of robots that will help humanity. Oh, yes, and not aim to wipe us out

In short, the robots we have now just machines, but that could change soon as researchers are slowly and steadily helping these robots to have finer traits like emotions and self-awareness.

One day, will they take over the world? Will the scenes from “The Matrix” movies become a reality? Let us know what you think.

Photo credit: Flickr / Yortw

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