Robotic Self-Awareness Is Here. Is Skynet Next?

Dr. Selmer Bringsjord, a researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has programmed Nao robots, simple programmable robots available to the general public, to pass a very simple “self-awareness” test. This is a major landmark in the ongoing quest to discover whether consciousness can reside in mechanical bodies: critical question that philosophers have pondered for centuries, and closely tied to the question of whether humans will some day be able to upload our own consciousness to computers.


The test is a variation of the induction puzzle known as the “wise-men puzzle.” In Bringsjord’s version, two robots were given “pills.” They were told that one robot received a “silencing pill” that would take away its voice, the other received placebo pill that would have no effect. Then they are asked, “Which pill did you receive?”

A normal human response might be “I don’t know.” But of course, anyone who can say “I don’t know” clearly has not received the silencing pill. Someone who can make that mental connection therefore stops, and says: “I did not receive the silencing pill.”

Although the task is simple, solving the puzzle requires at least a basic mental representation of “self.” It is not enough for the robot to have some kind of logical representation of the fact “the silencing pill will silence whoever takes it.” It must additionally reason: “If I have taken the pill, I will not be able to talk” and therefore “If I have just heard my own voice, then I cannot be the one who took the silencing pill.”

It may seem like a small step, but it one of the ingredients needed for a computer to eventually be “self-aware” in some sense: It has a representation of “I” that it can use in logic and reasoning.

But now that we’ve taken that first step, what comes next?

What Is Self-Awareness?

“Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.”

This classic line from the 1991 science fiction film Terminator 2: Judgment Day is an iconic representation of the way many people think about artificial intelligence and self-awareness. Since we don’t really know how self-awareness works or where it comes from,

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